Photo credit: ABC/Eric McCandless.
With the recent news that "So You Think You Can Dance" won't be back for a summer run, it's time to take a hard look at the state of reality dance competition shows. Honestly, it's not looking great at the moment. What used to be a robust schedule of shows like "Dancing with the Stars," "America's Best Dance Crew" and "Live To Dance," has become a sparse landscape in network television. It looks like the trend is going in another direction.
To see what is happening, you have to go back to the 1980s to see what happened in that decade that got us all the way here in 2021. In an era that was filled with Michael Jackson leading the way with his dance-inspired music videos, it was hard not to see the dancers everywhere — from TV to film. Whether it was Sarah Jessica Parker in "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun" or Kevin Bacon kicking it up in "Footloose," or Jennifer Grey nailing that lift in "Dirty Dancing," it was a decade of dance. What most people don't realize is that the industry shifted as the AIDS epidemic took the lives of many of the dancers and choreographers in the community. Those who were supposed to lead the way into the 1990s were no longer here.
A new era
Dance didn't have the same focus as the sounds of a new decade didn't necessitate as many dance opportunities and the MTV generation became the reality TV generation. (It's only fitting "The Real World" is back with the original cast on Paramount + this month.) It took over 10 years for dance to see a resurgence in Hollywood — thanks to the rise of boy bands and Britney Spears, dance was cool again — but the reality dance competition show would be a thing until 2005 in the U.S.
The success of "Dancing with the Stars" was all due to the "Strictly Come Dancing" success in the U.K. While audiences most likely tuned in to see a train wreck, most were pleasantly surprised to see a show that had a lot of heart. Celebrities waltzing in sequins had a unique allure in the television landscape and ABC had a monster hit on its hands. Only a month later, "So You Think You Can Dance" premiered and the thirst for dance shows was born again.
In those early years, dancers and choreographers became household names: Travis Wall, Sonya Tayeh, Maks Chmerkovskiy, Cheryl Burke, Karina Smirnoff and Mia Michaels' names rolled off the tongues of mainstream America — and it was amazing. "Dancing with the Stars" became so popular that it warranted two seasons a year, "So You Think You Can Dance" added a tour after each season and the contestants performed at major venues and were complete rock stars at 18 and 19 years of age.
Photo credit: Adam Rose/FOX.
TV trends are changing
Did dance fans realize how good they had it in those heyday years? Probably not because we took it for granted that the "Dancing with the Stars" cruise and Las Vegas residency would last for a long time. The result shows that brought in extra performances for pop singers and the dancers themselves are also long gone. It was sweet while it lasted.
For "So You Think You Can Dance," there was no 15th-anniversary celebration because season 17 was swept to the side, thanks to the pandemic. "Dancing with the Stars" is looking for a second life with new host Tyra Banks — and that strategy worked in season 29, but will that luck continue in its milestone 30th season this fall? For "World of Dance," there is no show until the pandemic is over because the contestants come from all over the globe to compete. Will NBC still with it or move on because so much time has passed?
CBS is trying its hand at a family dance show with "Come Dance With Me," but it doesn't seem like other networks are rushing to order new dance competition shows. Instead, they are focusing on scripted and docuseries shows that feature dance. From the upcoming Amazon biopic "Fred & Ginger" with Jamie Bell and Margaret Qualley to Ryan Murphy's Netflix take on "A Chorus Line," there are tons of dance stories to be told — or reimagined. Scripted series like "Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist" and "High School Musical: The Musical: The Series" also feature top-notch choreography through storytelling, and that seems to be where the next trend is headed.
The good news is that dance isn't going anywhere, it's still a major part of the television and film landscape, but we are going to see it presented differently than we did over the last 15 years. It's a shift in pop-culture tastes and trends that could carry us into the next decade.