Learning to Appreciate Dancing with the Stars

May 26, 2010 at 11:38 am (Analysis, Review) (, )

For the past five years, I’ve mocked my parents relentlessly for their love of Dancing with the Stars. I’ve rolled my eyes fondly when my mom has called me at 9:00 on a Monday night with an exhortation to dial a certain toll-free number and give more votes to her favorite contestant. I’ve laughed derisively at the antics of the judges and hosts as I’ve passed through my living room on the way to my own preferred entertainment options. You could say, quite fairly, that I didn’t see the appeal of a cheesy dancing competition filled with D-list celebrities — for myself, or for the millions of viewers who apparently watched it every season.

Then, this winter, a few things happened in quick succession: I watched the Winter Olympics, I got sucked into the world of figure skating fandom, and gold medalist figure skater Evan Lysacek was announced as a contestant on season 10 of Dancing with the Stars. And suddenly I had a dilemma — would I watch this thing I’d always mocked, just for a celebrity I enjoyed?

The answer, as it turned out, was a resounding yes. Oh, sure, I tried to justify it at first, to mitigate the shame. “Oh, me? I’m just watching this to mock it. “For the lulz,” as they say on the internets. I’m watching it ironically. I just want to see how goofy Evan is, with his long, awkward limbs. And Buzz Aldrin! How can you not watch an octogenarian former moon-walker attempt to dance? Besides, it’s nice to have a reason to sit down with my parents twice a week. I’m doing it for the sake of family bonding!” I started voting for Evan — first with my phone, then with increasingly numerous e-mail addresses — and claimed I was only doing so because I worried his ultra-competitive personality would lead him to have a nervous breakdown if he got kicked off too early. As a final defense, I swore I’d only watch until Evan left — which, since he just earned second place on the finale last night, turned out to be a moot declaration. But about halfway through the season, I began to realize that I probably wouldn’t stop watching even if Evan was kicked off — because I’d begun to truly enjoy the show.

It’s pretty common for geeky people to react like I initially did to something like Dancing with the Stars. In a world where our geeky hobbies (comics, sci-fi, video games, etc.) are regularly derided as the childish trash entertainment of socially-stunted individuals, we frequently become defensive to the point of elitism, declaring our hobbies to be worthwhile and the entertainment of the masses to be worthless drivel. When you combine this geeky tendency with the tendency of high-minded academics (with whom I was surrounded for four years) to dismiss low and popular culture entirely, you can see how, despite all my best efforts, I found myself falling into the trap of dismissing entertainment with mainstream appeal without ever giving it a second thought. American Idol? Bleh. Two and a Half Men? Oy. And Dancing with the Stars? Oh, whatever.

I’m not going to claim that ten weeks spent with Dancing with the Stars completely cured me of this tendency toward elitism. I’m also not going to pretend it’s suddenly become my favorite show. But it did make me appreciate the value of entertainment that isn’t necessarily thoughtful or competitively rigorous. Is the game fixed from the start? Of course it is. Is it unfair to put people with absolutely no dance or athletic experience, like actress Niecy Nash, up against people who are, essentially, professional dancers, like Pussycat Doll and winner Nicole Scherzinger? Of course it is. But that’s not the point. The point is to enjoy the goofy, low-budget, good-natured fun of it. Since they’re all celebrities who are getting paid to be there and act as caricatures of themselves, it’s hard to really feel bad for any of the contestants, and the show does an amazing job of framing them to be likeable. I came into the show for Evan, but through the dances and pre-taped “packages” I found myself loving Niecy and Buzz and Pamela Anderson and football player Chad Ochocinco and sportscaster Erin Andrews and even Bachelor Jake Pavelka. (Reality star Kate Gosselin still managed to come off as consistently unlikable, but DWTS’s editors can’t exactly perform miracles.)

The show has its flaws, of course. The singers who perform covers of hit songs for the celebrities to dance to are frequently terrible, and not in a fun way like the bad celebrity dancers — I found myself covering my ears on the high notes of their shrieking cover of Adam Lambert’s “For Your Entertainment.” The results shows are padded far past endurable levels with commercial breaks and fluff, and in the two-week college dance team competition held toward the end of the season, the show made the unforgivable decision to pit the ballroom dance majors of Utah Valley University against the Rutgers University dance team that had formed on a whim four months ago. Mismatched celebrities competing against each other is one thing, but it’s quite another to embarrass normal, earnest college kids like the Rutgers students, and I found myself feeling distinctly uncomfortable.

But when some of the most-lauded dramatic television is full of unlikeable characters doing awful things (The Sopranos, Mad Men, half the characters on Glee), sometimes it’s nice to just watch a bunch of people who don’t take themselves too seriously acting silly and learning to dance — or, in the case of the judges and hosts, reacting to those dances. And while the dancing from the celebrities is rarely good, the show does make a conscious effort to showcase the art of dance, with the professional dances performed during the weekly results shows. (They also make an effort to showcase professional singers during those shows — Melissa Etheridge’s appearance was a highlight of the season.) Dance competitions, as a recent Entertainment Weekly article pointed out, are as old as the medium of television itself, and they tap into a cultural well that runs deep. There’s something about watching pretty people in glitzy, glittery costumes moving across a dance floor to music that charms even my jaded, geeky soul. And that’s not even taking into account the social aspect of the show — discussing the dances and contestants with friends and family, yelling at the judges and/or voters for making “bad” calls, and voting your heart out for the contestant you hope will take home the tacky, over-the-top Mirrorball Trophy.

I’m not sure if I’ll watch DWTS next season. It’ll depend, I’m sure, on the cast, and if there’s someone I can root for as enthusiastically as I rooted for Evan this season. But I’ve finally come to understand and appreciate the show’s popularity, and I hope to carry that lesson with me the next time I encounter a piece of entertainment it seems so easy to dismiss.

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