Turn on the TV: There’s Comfort, lunging backward like it’s the forward thing to do, and Gev twirling on his head, b-boy style. Kourtni pirouettes bare foot as smooth as a turntable.
Switch channels: Football star Jason Taylor and his partner square off against figure skating champion Kristi Yamaguchi and her partner in a fast-break cha cha.
And if you graze again, you might find Mario Lopez introducing the kinetic moves of MTV’s dance crew competition.
Take your pick — there’s no shortage of dance on TV. Inspired viewers maybe even try out a move or two on the living room floor, or sign up for classes, secretly hoping that they, too, could hack it as a professional.
Dancing days are here again, and the ratings are soaring. Last week, for example, Fox’s “So You Think You Can Dance” lured 7.9 million viewers Wednesday night and 8.4 million viewers Thursday night, competing with opening night ceremonies for the Olympics on NBC, according to Nielsen Media Research. And for the two-night finale of “Dancing With the Stars” in May, 19 million people tuned in one night and 20 million the other.
Not since “American Bandstand” changed the after-school habits of teenagers in the 1960s, “Soul Train” kept kids in the house in the 1970s and “Dance Fever” dragged disco into the 1980s have so many hoofers had the chance to strut across the television screen. At least five different networks have been broadcasting dance competition shows in the past three years for both professionals and amateurs.
And Hollywood has jumped in with such movies as “Step Up,” “Stomp the Yard,” “Step Up 2 the Streets,” “Shall We Dance” and “How She Move.” Many of the latest films, such as “How She Move,” are set in downtrodden urban settings where characters dance their way to a better life.
The craze has even seeped into local studios where beginners are going in droves to learn everything from Martha Graham’s modern dance techniques to tango to hip-hop to fox-trot to tap.
‘Right now the trend is competitive reality’
Dance TV has been around for years, but why has America suddenly gone toe-tapping crazy?
Some say it’s the fascination with urban styles. Hip-hop and step is today’s version of break-dancing in the early 1980s, when movies, TV and music videos — not to mention city sidewalks — were flooded with dancers spinning on their backs and heads or doing the worm. Others say it’s just the latest reality TV craze, full of contestants and celebrities competing for something, whether a trophy or a husband.
Network executives and pop culture experts say it’s a combination of those forces, plus America’s obsession with being fit, that is making it the right time for dance.
“Dance shows always do well, but it has to be adapted for trends working on TV,” says Andy Cohen, a programming executive at Bravo. “Right now, the trend is competitive reality.” And they tend to follow the same reality TV formula: participants compete and someone is voted off the show each week until a winner (or winning couple or group) is crowned.
Without that trend, it’s not likely dance shows would have returned to vogue, pop culture experts say.
Originally, dance shows offered tips as well as entertainment. “Arthur Murray Dance Party,” taught by the famous dance couple Arthur and Kathryn Murray, offered full-on instruction in the latest dances so that people of all ages were prepared for a night on the town in the 1950s and 1960s.
During the days of “American Bandstand,” teenagers watched the show to learn the latest steps and pick up hip clothing trends. The program, hosted by Dick Clark, went off the air in 1987 after nearly 25 years. “Soul Train,” which has been around since 1970, still features the hottest in hip-hop and R&B.
‘It’s quite a positive show’
The reincarnated dance show first appeared in 2005 with ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars,” where B-list celebrities learn how to ballroom dance with a professional partner. The show, where teams are eliminated each week and the winners get a trophy, caught fire and is the second-highest rated program with 20 million weekly viewers, behind only Fox’s “American Idol.”
“It’s quite a positive show. There’s not a lot meanness that may exist in other reality programming,” said “Stars” executive producer Conrad Green. “For a lot of people, it reminds them of the time when TV wasn’t so hostile.”
The seventh season premieres Sept. 22. Other networks have since jumped on the dance bandwagon. “So You Think You Can Dance,” on Fox, is in its fourth season, and is the “American Idol” for dancers. “America’s Best Dance Crew” is in its second season and is produced by Randy Jackson of “Idol” fame. “Dance Crew” is sort of like the Jets and the Sharks of “West Side Story.”
“Your Mama Don’t Dance,” on Lifetime, showcased 10 professional dancers who faced off for $100,000 but had to dance with parents. And Bravo premiered “Step It Up & Dance,” where dancers learn all sorts of styles, judged by professional choreographers. The show just finished its first season.
Except for “Dancing With the Stars,” the programs are all geared toward younger viewers.
Bravo’s Cohen said the shows are so popular because dance is just plain fun to watch.
“Our show was really more about watching the creativity happen and contestants learning the choreography in a different sub-genre each week,” he said. “Dancers are dramatic and emotional and I think it’s really compelling to watch.”
TV dance taking the place of live dance?
The downside is that people are sitting around watching dance on TV instead of attending shows live in the theater, where it’s meant to be performed, says Dyane Harvey Salaam, a dance professor at Princeton University who runs her own company.
For her, the TV shows fill a void that is disappearing in the dance world: They offer new dancers a taste of what life is like in a company, something many new dancers won’t experience as smaller companies with financial troubles fold around the country.
“What these shows have replaced is what we no longer have — a large support for the arts,” she says. “The government no longer supports the arts, they’re not fed like they were.”
But the trend has been positive for studios and schools around the country, because TV reality dance shows have forced many an American off the sofa and into dance classes.
“We’ve seen a big increase in interest since the shows went on air,” says Diane King, director of Broadway Dance Center in New York. Classes for hip-hop are packed, and the studio in the heart of New York’s Theater District has opened later classes in the evenings to accommodate the increased interest in dance during the past few years. “It’s really been great for business.”
Dance Center teacher Shane Sparx appeared on “So You Think You Can Dance,” and has toured the country with the center’s Pulse Tour, a workshop offering four days of intense dance training. King said the tour is selling out in every city.
“Our dancers are becoming almost like celebrities themselves,” she says.
Kate Carol, who runs Kate Carol Dance in Iowa City, Iowa, says the craze is hot in the Midwest, too.
“There’s been a big difference,” she says. “We’ve done a lot of ballroom classes, and choreographed dances for weddings. Dance is on the brain.”
Even dance pros appreciate TV's spotlight
While professional dancers may snub some of the performances on television, the networks are also trying to get the word out about watching live dance.
“Of course, some of these shows are not for the dance purist,” King says. “But it has such a domino effect on dance and getting people to think about dance — it’s really just fantastic.”
Just ask The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. The New York-based company performed live on “Dancing With The Stars” and “So You Think You Can Dance,” and director Yvette Campbell said the dancers were treated with the utmost respect. Twenty million viewers watched the performance, about as much as has seen the respected company perform in its 50 years in existence. And when the company did its normal tour, seats were packed.
“It’s just incredible for exposure,” she says. Ailey’s touring company has traveled to new cities and sold out shows thanks in part to popularity of the dance shows.
Campbell says the shows also highlight how difficult it is to dance well.
“People know the difference. They see how hard these dancers work and realize that it’s a skill,” she says. “At the same time, it may inspire them to learn something new.”
Even Princeton’s Salaam says that one of her dancers was briefly on “So You Think You Can Dance.” He didn’t make it to the end, but he got an agent shortly after and a gig on Broadway with “Hairspray.”
“A happy ending for him, and hopeful for us,” she says.