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Why You Should Be Watching SYTYCD

August 10, 2011

For everyone not in the know, SYTYCD stands for “So You Think You Can Dance” and is a reality/competition show that airs during the summer on Fox (it usually starts right when American Idol ends). Please, oh please, do not get this confused with another dance show that pairs professional dancers with people who don’t know what they’re doing and who are referred to as “stars,” often for unapparent reasons. This is NOT that show.

I have been a fan of the show since Season 2, when I fell in love with Benjelle (sometimes referred to as Donji) aka Benji and Donyelle. They had chemistry that oozed out of the screen and were fantastic dancers. The show has an arduous audition process after which 20 dancers are chosen for the actual competition. From there, the 20 dancers are paired with one another and the audience votes by couple until the top 10 are reached. From there the audience votes for each individual dancer. The judges always pick who to oust from the bottom three voted until the final four when it is completely up to the votes.   Benji went on to win Season 2 and Donyelle was third place.

Donyelle and Benji’s routine, “Too Much Booty”

From there, I was pretty much hooked; I even went to two shows of their tour that includes the top 10 dancers and some of the viewers’ favorite shows from the season (season 3 and 4). The show has been unstoppable since…except for that one time they tried to make it a Fall show. Fail.

This season, season 8 counting the failed fall show, is by far the best I’ve ever seen. The dancers are all fantastic and humble to boot. Which is what brings me to why this show is one that I think everyone should be watching, but especially children and adolescents.

While the dancers are masters of their craft they are put on a show in which they are being asked to become masters of one another’s crafts. Just a quick rundown of some of the styles that are danced on the show: ballroom, latin ballroom, contemporary, jazz, hip hop, lyrical hip hop, Bollywood, and a few random ones here and there (this season there was “whacking”). This means that even though an individual dancer may be especially good at contemporary, at some point they’re gonna have to break it down with some hip hop. What ends up happening is that every dancer, save for one, has gotten feedback on how to get even better. Why is this so great? Let me break it down…academically of course.

Imagine that you are a five-year old and a very nice young woman comes into your kindergarten classroom with puzzles (bear with me, I promise it will come back around). You get rather excited because puzzles are pretty fun. As you work on them you’re told “Wow you’re really good at puzzles!” You feel good right? Then you get a new puzzle that seems really hard, practically unsolvable. (Probably because it is.) What goes through your mind? Probably something like, “Oh, I guess I’m not good at puzzles after all.” 😦

Now imagine that instead you had been told, “Wow you solved that puzzle quickly, you must have tried really hard.” This is a real study carried out in various settings with various ages and various tasks.  The crucial test is what happens when these children are given the chance to work on puzzles later on that are described as challenging. The kids who were praised for how good they were don’t want to go near them. What if they get more evidence they’re not really good at puzzles? The children who are told they put in a lot of effort are all about it, even asking the nice young woman (a researcher) if there are any they can take home.

These two situations influence a person’s mindset or self-theory: what they believe about ability. Is it that “puzzle ability” (or dance ability) is simply natural or can it be fostered with effort and focus? The dancers on SYTYCD are already phenomenal at what they do, but they are always told what they have failed at and what they can improve on. This teaches viewers that abilities can be honed. And people with mindsets about abilities that can be fostered (termed an incremental mindset) tend to do a lot better when it comes to failure. They embrace it as a challenge to be learned from, and not evidence that they just don’t have the right stuff.

Now granted the show does tell some dancers they’ve “reached their peak” but at the end of the day the show is about being able to learn from grueling experiences. Even the dancer who has yet to get a negative comment, Melanie Moore, seems disappointed in the unanimity of the positive feedback. It’s like she’s hungry to learn but people don’t know what else to tell her to do. While people might take her as evidence that some are born with talent, I bet my money that when she was in her dance classes as a tiny little girl and she was told she did something wrong, her eyes lit up and she tried harder and harder. Until she got to where she is now. And damn if she isn’t something.

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