In theaters of war large and small, combatants strive to outdo, conquer and destroy their opponents, and the victors are those with the greatest fortitude, skill or cleverness. Yet battling in the dance realm also demonstrates that success often depends on collaboration. This map reveals how connections with a partner, team members, an audience and even a cultural heritage can lead dance warriors to victory, whether in the ballroom or on the streets.
The warring contestants who battle it out on Fox’s So You Think You Can Dance are top-tier. The 18- to 30-year-old dancers are judged on their snappy performances of imaginatively conceived routines and their mastery of challenging choreography in the style of sweeping commercial entertainment. Yet an advanced level of technical training doesn’t guarantee victory. Crucially, the show emphasizes dancing as communication and places a premium on performers’ ability to connect with audiences, particularly the home viewers whose call-in votes determine the winner. But how do SYTYCD dancers connect with spectators? Is it through tricks, physical gusto, facial expression or innate star quality that a performer simply may or may not possess?
Versatility is another primary judging criterion on SYTYCD. Competitors must execute varied dance styles, from ballroom and hip-hop to Broadway and Bollywood. With its democratic sense of inclusivity, the show has introduced the latest street dance trends to mass audiences. Millions of fans first saw krumping—an aggressive hip-hop style born in 1990s Los Angeles—on SYTYCD. Though the movements are usually improvised, in 2009 krumper Russell Ferguson was crowned SYTYCD’s sixth-season winner thanks to his explosive performances of choreographed routines.
Not everyone dances for joy. In fact, it’s often oppression that leads to new dance styles. Urban youth’s refusal to surrender to crushing conditions, for example, gave rise to the many forms of hip-hop dancing, the grittiest of which is fury-driven krumping. Its jabs, chest pops, stomps and pelvic thrusts are performed in freestyle “battles” in which street kids release pent-up anger through dance competition, rather than gang violence. Yet the line between dance and combat was blurred long ago, by the Brazilian martial art capoeira.
Earthy and fluidly acrobatic, capoeira originated in the 1500s, when African slaves camouflaged their fight training by pretending to dance. But since the 1970s, performers have presented it as an art. Capoeira involves two individuals simulating battle with low, sideways rocking steps, offensive kicks, defensive dodges and rapid circular leg swoops that often just miss the head of a ducking opponent—not to mention thrilling level changes in which aerial flips flow seamlessly into rolling floor work. While its speed and choreographic fireworks captivate viewers, the essence of capoeira is the requisite communication between performers. Five hundred years after capoeira was invented, professional dancers study it to improve their partnering skills.
Two exciting competitive dance styles have gained a foothold in American pop culture since the late 1980s: capoeira and stepping. Capoeira is the intricate, graceful martial art invented by African slaves in Brazil. It gained prominence as the subject of the 1993 film Only the Strong and has become the fighting style identified with many video game and manga characters. Pioneered by African American fraternities, stepping is a precision dance form involving complex rhythms produced by foot stomps, chanting and body percussion. The practice and perfection of step teams’ synchronized routines bolster feelings of solidarity, even while the squads try to best one another in heated contests. Both the inauguration of President Bill Clinton in 1993 and the opening ceremonies of the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta featured impressive step performances.
Spurred by one-upmanship, capoeira and stepping reflect the African tradition of combative aesthetic interplay, which has fueled many African American art forms—the jam sessions of jazz musicians, tap dance challenges, B-boy battles, and the sing-offs of blues, gospel and doo-wop vocalists. In all these cases, respectful observation followed by attempts to outdo fellow performers has brought the art forms to the next level.
Spawned in the early 1920s by fraternities and sororities at America’s historically black universities, stepping is a group-identity, ritual dance form featuring tightly choreographed rhythmic displays of unison sounds and movements. The earliest written reference to stepping dates to a 1925 Howard University student newspaper, yet mainstream audiences didn’t encounter it until six decades later. Stepping was featured in Spike Lee’s 1988 film School Daze, as well as on episodes of the sitcom A Different World. In 1992 the syndicated television program S.T.O.M.P. broadcast national step championships, and the first professional step dance company, Step Afrika (formed in 1994), has brought stepping to the concert dance stage.
Stepping is highly organized and somewhat traditionalist, but the 2007 film Stomp the Yard imagines what it would look like if it incorporated the raw, ferocious moves of krumping. Set on the campus of a fictional black college in the South, Stomp follows the intense step dance contests between two rival fraternities, with victory turning on the electrifying krump moves contributed by a new student from California. Two years earlier David LaChapelle’s documentary Rize affectingly chronicled the emergence of krumping as an outgrowth of clowning, the uplifting 1990s Los Angeles street style.
Competitive street-dancing crews allow urban youths to channel their rage into self-affirming physical activity that offers escape from the horrific, often inevitable alternative—gang life. Though the extent to which dance steers kids away from gangs is difficult to measure, the notion of dance as an antidote to violence inspired a frenzied hip-hop style, krumping, as well as a celebrated Michael Jackson video.
Hoping to brighten the spirits and redirect the social trajectories of children in downtown Los Angeles, Thomas “Tommy the Clown” Johnson started a troupe of hip-hop dancers in the 1990s. Just as traditional clowns have done for years, they painted their faces and entertained at birthday parties and community events. But when two dancers, Ceasare “Tight Eyez” Willis and Jo’Artis “Big Mijo” Ratti, developed movements too rugged for clowning, the duo inaugurated a fresh and frenetic dance style that came to be called krumping.
Like Tommy the Clown, the King of Pop believed in the bonding power of dance. For his “Beat It” music video, Jackson cast actual members of L.A.’s warring Crips and Bloods, hoping that dancing together in the video’s choreographed depictions of gang warfare might constitute a first step toward peace between the gangs.
Ranked by Rolling Stone as the number-one music video, pop icon Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” employs Michael Peters’s stylish choreography to portray the rising tensions—and a spectacular knife fight—between rival street gangs. Reminiscent of the rumbling between West Side Story’s Jets and Sharks, the award-winning “Beat It” set the standard for large-ensemble choreography in music video.
Ten years later, fans applauded an equally vivid on-screen depiction of dance warriors: Strictly Ballroom. Australian director Baz Luhrmann was named Newcomer of the Year at the 1993 London Critics Circle Film Awards for his campy cinematic portrait of fiercely competitive ballroom dancers. Luhrmann’s film tells the story of a young dancer who peppers his competition routines with flashy movements of his own invention. The snarky satire’s most interesting character is the hero’s henpecked father, a former ballroom competitor, considered, like his son, to have been too enamored with his own maverick moves. Describing the father’s hilarious dancing (as performed by actor Barry Otto), The Washington Post wrote, “Picture the young Alec Guinness imitating Fred Astaire imitating Michael Jackson.”
So often the talented street- and stage-trained competitors on So You Think You Can Dance trip up when required to perform ballroom dances. Sometimes they can’t master the quirky footwork of a quickstep or a waltz’s lilting elegance. Other times they fail to embody a cha-cha’s sexiness or maintain the firm upper-body frame for a smooth fox-trot. But while the techniques of individual ballroom styles can prove daunting, the greatest challenge is getting two bodies to move as one. Ballroom dance has its roots in social dance forms; it’s less about an individual’s skills and more about a cohesive kinesthetic relationship between two dancers.
Yet despite its emphasis on harmonious, collaborative movement, the world of competitive ballroom dance, known as DanceSport, operates within a highly formalized system of competitions. The contentiousness of amateur and professional ballroom dance can feel incompatible with its cooperative aesthetic. This incongruity is perhaps best illuminated, and smartly parodied, in Baz Lurhmann’s Strictly Ballroom. The affectionate farce ultimately celebrates the triumph of individualism over conformity, petty rules and stifling traditions, and has been embraced by audiences the world over—ballroom dancers very much included.
Of the myriad dance competition reality shows that began vying for television viewers in the early 21st century, So You Think You Can Dance is the best. With its charismatic dancers and sharp choreography, the cutthroat competition show appeals to serious dance aficionados more than the celebrity-driven Dancing With the Stars, the trashy Dance Moms or the heavy-with-adolescent-blather Breaking Pointe. The only consistently objectionable aspect of SYTYCD is the consensus of opinion put forth surrounding each performance; for whatever reason, the judges echo one another’s assessments rather than demonstrate the diversity of responses that dance can elicit.
Regardless of the relative merit of the various dance programs, they all owe a debt to Michael Jackson’s music video “Beat It.” Not only did it ignite a new entertainment form, melding pop music and filmic artistry, but with its trailblazing use of large dance ensembles, “Beat It” reawakened an audience for dance on the small screen.
In the wake of the star’s untimely death, in 2009, SYTYCD announced plans for a special episode in which the competition routines would all be danced to Jackson’s songs. Unfortunately, SYTYCD was denied the music rights and the planned tribute never happened.