So You Think You Can Dance killed my lifelong love of gymnastics

May 27, 2010 at 8:39 am (watch)

The seventh season of So You Think You Can Dance premieres tonight, and man, that show makes me wish I could.

I was a gymnast when I was younger, though you’d never know from the fact that now I can barely touch my toes until after an hour of yoga. I spent only a few months in ballet class when I was four years old, until I discovered that cartwheels were way more fun than trying to crank my feet into fifth position.

Since then I’ve watched nearly every championship meet, every Olympic competition. I loved Shannon Miller and the Dominiques (Dawes and Moceanu) up through Shawn Johnson and Nastia Liukin. My first job was as a gymnastics teacher. In college, I wrote a script about an elite gymnast. But dance? In my limited exposure, I found much of it prissy or self-seriously “about” something that I didn’t get. Thanks, but no thanks.

Then one day my new roommate turned on So You Think You Can Dance.

My rule is that I only watch reality shows where the stars actually have talent—cooking or fashion designing, yes; famewhores yelling at each other or making out in a hot tub, no. (I fell off the wagon recently with a binge of The Millionaire Matchmaker… but matchmaking is a talent, right? And I’m not the only one who has succumbed to Patti’s charms.) The dancers on SYTYCD blew me away with their skill, strength, beauty, unabashed love of and dedication to the art form, and willingness to attempt the foxtrot, paso doble or lyrical jazz despite being a krumper (see: last season’s winner, Russell). Dancing in pairs, the contestants must find chemistry with their partners, but they also must connect to the audience–after all, the fans call in to vote for “America’s favorite dancer.”

The biggest difference between the show and my previous experience was being welcomed into the world of dance. For the uninformed, dance can be alienating. Ballet is ruled by complicated, often rigid conventions and specific, French-named moves, and draws from a canon of works about which I know nothing. (Uh, Balanchine?) Modern dance can be plain weird, and use a vocabulary of movement so unfamiliar that viewers don’t know how to respond. One great advantage of SYTYCD is the behind-the-scenes footage. Seeing the choreographers talk about the inspiration for a dance—anything from addiction to a hummingbird pollinating a flower—and following the rehearsal process demystifies the art, helping a general audience feel engaged. Even Christopher Wheeldon, considered the most important contemporary ballet choreographer, presented short rehearsal films during the inaugural season of his company Morphoses (from which he resigned in February). As Joan Acocella wrote in The New Yorker in 2007:

“The films… were very good: sexy, sweaty. But their purpose, I believe, was to give the audience a toehold on the ballet before the curtain went up, and also to give them the pleasure, as they watched the piece, of recognizing steps. (“Oh, that’s the passage they were working on in the film.”) No art, not even opera, is more clad in snobbery than ballet. These little movies were an attack on that, and God bless them.”

So then SYTYCD, a reality show—that crass, dumb genre—is a full-on assault on the rarified realm of dance. But the vibe isn’t violence—it’s openness. Nigel Lythgoe, the show’s executive producer, likes to pat himself on the back for bringing dance to the masses. Annoying self-congratulatory-ness aside, it’s true. Most people at home on the couch had probably never seen Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, let alone a strange contemporary piece about two crash test dummies falling in love, and now they’re being shown that dance can be for them, too. Last year I went to several dance performances, a direct result of enjoying the series.

Then a funny thing happened. In the fall, I watched the United States’ Bridget Sloan and Rebecca Bross take first and second place in the Gymnastics World Championships, and I felt nothing. Admittedly, we’re still in the post-Olympic slump, and there’s not a truly exciting talent on the scene, but where was the charisma? The emotion? Those young girls, inwardly focused, dutifully jumped and flipped, toes pointed, ticking off each routine’s required elements for the judges. But you’ll never see a gymnastics judge moved to tears by a performance, as happens surprisingly often on SYTYCD. The dancers are as passionate as they are technically accomplished, as Salon’s Heather Havrilesky summed up in this thoughtful examination of SYTYCD’s appeal:

“When you watch these kids learn a different style of dance each week, you’ll recognize how some of them struggle and fail to sell it, or they’re good little robots who lack a certain flair, while others creep and shimmy and leap and flail and sneer with the raw electricity of the possessed. These are the ones who’ll grab your eye, who’ll demand your attention and respect, these rabid little weirdoes, these odd little physical magicians, who can take a hip-hop or jazz routine and turn it into a transformative, emotional roller coaster.”

Watch season 5 winner Jeanine and Jason explore the tenderness and pain of longtime friends venturing into love, or the sinuous intensity of Jakob and Ellenore dancing a creepy, sensual Sonya Tayeh routine to Oona’s “Tore My Heart.” The karaoke schlock of American Idol doesn’t stand a chance.

My relationship with gymnastics had been physical: Look at the insane things that the body can do. Marvel at how someone can bend, flip, twist, contort, spin and somehow stick an upright landing, back arched, arms thrown skyward in triumph. But through, yes, reality television, I discovered the deeper pleasures of movement that is both physical and emotional. In the language of leaps and lifts, touches and glances, the dancers tell heartfelt stories, and I’m happy that I can watch and listen.


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The Girl Who Felt Déjà vu Reading the NY Times

May 20, 2010 at 7:38 pm (Uncategorized)

Reading Michiko Kakutani’s review of the third book of Swedish author Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, I was hit with a moment of déjà vu. There has been a lot of coverage of the now full-blown phenomenon of these books…where had I seen these lines before?

The opening sentence of today’s review:

“Lisbeth Salander, Stieg Larsson’s fierce pixie of a heroine, is one of the most original characters in a thriller to come along in a while — a gamin, Audrey Hepburn look-alike but with tattoos and piercings, the take-no-prisoners attitude of Lara Croft and the cool, unsentimental intellect of Mr. Spock.”

The opening sentence of Kakutani’s 2009 review of volume two in the series, The Girl Who Played with Fire:

“Lisbeth Salander, the angry punk hacker in Stieg Larsson’s 2008 best seller, “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” was one of the most original and memorable heroines to surface in a recent thriller: picture Angelina Jolie’s Lara Croft endowed with Mr. Spock’s intense braininess and Scarlett O’Hara’s spunky instinct for survival.”

Oh, right.

From today’s review:

“The second installment, “The Girl Who Played With Fire,” attested to the author’s improved plotting abilities, moving backward into the past even as it accelerated toward a vicious and violent conclusion.”

From last year’s review:

“Though this novel lacks the sexual and romantic tension that helped spark “Dragon Tattoo” — Salander and Blomkvist share few scenes here — it boasts an intricate, puzzlelike story line that attests to Mr. Larsson’s improved plotting abilities, a story line that simultaneously moves backward into Salander’s traumatic past, even as it accelerates toward its startling and violent conclusion.”

Kakutani wrote the sentences in the first place; she’s certainly allowed to re-use her descriptions and phrases if she wishes, and writing about a series necessitates some amount of re-hashing. The echoes just struck me as a bit odd. At least it wasn’t someone else ripping her off, or vice versa. And overall Kakutani has highly praised the series, so I guess it’s time to jump on the bandwagon and read the books.

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Can I still admire Marion Jones?

May 11, 2010 at 8:59 pm (watch)

The WNBA season opens this weekend, and when the Tulsa Shock face off against the Minnesota Lynx on Saturday, a league that has long struggled to build a fan base will find a few more eyes cast its way—because Marion Jones is on the roster for the Shock.

Most people, of course, know Jones best as a fallen track superstar, who recently spent six months in prison for lying to federal investigators about taking performance-enhancing drugs before the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. She’s also a 34-year-old who just gave birth to her third child last year. But as an article in last week’s New York Times Magazine detailed, the former college basketball star (she won a national championship with the University of North Carolina in 1994) is staging a comeback via the WNBA.

Amid all the hoopla, I’ve been struggling with the question: Is it okay to still like, and even admire, Marion Jones?

During the golden-girl media storm leading up to her five medals at the Sydney Olympics, I thought she was fantastic. That crooked-toothed smile. Those specially-designed, clear plastic Nike spikes with no heel, the lightest ever made, that cast the soon-to-be Vogue cover model as a modern-day Cinderella. That teddy bear of a shot putter husband (who, like her second husband, sprinter Tim Montgomery, ended up busted for doping). That speed.

I started running track in high school, the year after Sydney. Breathless after a race, crumpled to the ground with burning thighs, I’d picture Jones zipping across the 200-meter finish line in 21.84 seconds. She would have been charming reporters before I reached the straightaway.

Now, a decade later and roundly disgraced, Jones is back. And even after the drugs and the lying and the check fraud scheme and the jail time and the struggle of her poor Olympic relay teammates, who to this very day are fighting to regain the medals that the IOC ordered stripped from them, I find myself rooting for her.

Did Jones lose my respect? Of course: I was angry and sad when the truth came out (and some people speculate she never told the whole truth, or revealed the extent of her drug use). She is an embodiment of the problems that plague high-level sports, and part of the reason why, when people watch an astonishing race from Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt, their first instinct is to say, “He’s got to be taking something.” She deserved to crash and burn, and to suffer the harsh consequences—public, private, athletic, financial—of her lies.

But I thrill at her pure competitive fire. I’m in awe of her physical prowess–how many people can be among the best in the country, or world, in one sport, let alone two? And I think it takes no small amount of courage to get knocked down, hard, and get back up.

Jones could be accused of joining the WNBA for less-than-noble reasons: she’s trying to reclaim the spotlight and celebrity, to curry public favor, to recast her past through the filter of motivational-speaker rhetoric about lessons learned. Regardless, Jones is legitimately an athlete. An amazing athlete, who appears to be busting ass in training for a chance to get back in the game. And though she’s one of the oldest players in the WNBA and could probably use a little boost, you’ve got to think that she’s 100% clean this time around, or else she’s a damn fool.

“The word redemption is not in my vocabulary,” Jones said at a press conference in March. “This is an opportunity for me to realize a dream. This is an opportunity for me to share my message of hope, of second chances…but redemption doesn’t creep into the equation for me.”

But of course her story will be framed as a quest for redemption; it’s a narrative we all know and love. I hope she pulls it off.

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