"Dancing with the Stars" Revives a Part of the Culture We've Been Missing
by Robert Tracinski
I frequently warn about the tendency to focus so much effort on complaining about everything that goes wrong in our culture that we don't take the time to recognize the things that go right. In that spirit, I wanted to single out one positive cultural indicator that is overdue for praise: the television show "Dancing with the Stars."
This is a bit late, I know, since the show is in the middle of its fourth year, and tonight is the finale of the seventh season. (The show airs two "seasons" per year, in the fall and in the spring.) The finale of the current season is on ABC from 8:00-10:00 pm Eastern time tonight, though they usually air a one-hour recap at 8:00 on Tuesday night.
Like I said, this is overdue. I don't think I will be introducing anyone to the show, which has been an enormous hit, but I do want to provide some context on why it is important.
I find that television as a medium is generally in a relatively healthy state—particularly compared to high-brow "serious" culture—and there are many good shows out there, which I will write about some time in the future. But "Dancing with the Stars" is particularly interesting because it resurrects a whole style of music and dance that had been, if not totally dead, at least sequestered in a nursing home, waiting to die out as its elderly audience passed away.
For those who have been living under a rock (or, like me, who don't get much time to watch TV), the show is essentially a pro-am ballroom dancing competition. "Stars" from various fields—singers, athletes, models, actors—are paired with professional ballroom dancers who teach them various styles of dance (foxtrot, tango, mambo, cha-cha, etc.). Every week the couples perform their routines on a live broadcast and get feedback from professional ballroom judges. The viewers then call in to vote for their favorite couple. A combination of the judges' scores and the viewers' votes determines who stays in the competition each week. This is why, if you haven't seen the show, the finale isn't a bad place to start. The stars have had a chance to learn a lot about dancing—and all of the incorrigible "two left feet" types have been voted off.
This format fits into a wider trend I've seen in the past decade: the revival of an old genre, the musical-variety show, but in a variation that is currently fashionable: a "reality TV" competition. See, for example, "America Idol" or "So You Think You Can Dance."
What makes this show different from the other versions of reality-TV-competition-cum-musical-variety-show is that it focuses on a style of music and dance that had largely been lost in the culture. The hippie "counter-culture" revolution of the 1960s was an usually sharp break in the culture; the products of the new counter-culture rapidly took over popular culture, and the leftovers of the old culture were simply expunged. One of the things that was expunged was big band music and its counterpart: ballroom dancing. The music was too melodic, the style of dance was too formal; it involved elegance and romance and dressing in a suit and tie; the whole thing was just too darned civilized for barefoot hippies and stringy-haired counter-culture types to coexist with.
Yes, I am old enough to remember the 1970s, and no, I do not have fond memories of the style and sense of life of that miserable era.
So big band was replaced by rock and roll and ballroom was replaced by the new modern "dance" style of jumping around wildly to a loud beat. (Rock and roll music has its merits, and I have my favorite songs and groups, but as far as I'm concerned, most contemporary rock has a beat and you can't dance to it.) Once it was fully embraced by the nihilistic counter-culture, whose goal was to overthrow and destroy every civilized value from the previous era, rock and roll was quickly pushed, by the late 1980s and early 1990s, to its dead ends: "hip-hop" and "gangster rap" (for urban blacks) and "grunge" music (for suburban whites).
Meanwhile, despite these trends—or perhaps in reaction against them—big band and ballroom have been making a slow revival. Dancing with the Stars is a culmination of that trend.
Two television shows constitute the bookends of the death and re-birth of this part of the culture. I am just old enough to remember "The Lawrence Welk Show" when it was still on the air—again, this was during the 1970s. Lawrence Welk was the last, poor leftover of big band and ballroom on their way out. A bandleader of no great artistic repute, Welk played enervated "easy listening" versions of familiar old songs. It was billed as "champagne music," because the arrangements were "light and bubbly"—hence the famous bubble machine—but it was more accurately described as "the squarest music this side of Euclid." Lawrence Welk became a synonym for making big band and ballroom seem cheesy, tired, and dull.
The whole effect is summed up by a clip of the show that I happened to see recently, in which the camera panned across the studio audience—and there wasn't a single person there under the age of 50. My grandparents and Sherri's grandparents were both regular viewers, and they were the target audience. The show was only able to stir viewers by providing them a nostalgic reminder of the music of their youths. There wasn't enough of value to spark the interest of anyone too young to associate it with old times.
No, Lawrence Welk did not kill big band and ballroom by associating them with something tired and imitative. Rather, this part of the culture was already dead, and Welk set out to preserve the remains by embalming them in a thick layer of schmaltz.
That's why I find "Dancing with the Stars" so refreshing. It has the style, not of a nostalgic preservation, but of an invigorating re-discovery. It is based on another television show from an earlier era: a British series called "Come Dancing," a pro-am ballroom competition show which had a long run on British television from 1949 to 1998. It was revived in 2004, under the title "Strictly Come Dancing," with the idea of having celebrities as the amateur competitors. The show was promptly exported to America as "Dancing with the Stars," which became an overnight sensation. And if you count its various international incarnations, it is now apparently the most popular show in the word, with local versions ranking in the top ten television shows in 17 countries.
The value that is restored by the revival of ballroom dance is a greater sense of romance and elegance, rooted in a sense of self-respect that had been wiped out by the whole counter-culture revolution. The message of the "hippie" style (and its many lingering after-effects) is that you are a slob—slouching, unshaven, and incapable of taking the effort to comb your hair or iron your shirts—and it's wrong to ever aspire to be anything but a slob. Ballroom's rejection of this mentality begins with the one thing that the "Dancing with the Stars" contestants usually find hardest: posture. Ballroom dance requires a straight, elegant, self-confident posture, and it goes on to require a self-conscious control of the feet, the arms and hands, the rise and fall of the knees, and so on. It is a refutation of the idea that training, technique, and self-control are the opposite of emotional expression—fierce pride in the paso doble, sensuality in the rumba, exuberant joy in the jive, and so on. But this is a style of dance that is incapable of expressing the self-loathing angst of the "grunge" types or the thuggish menace of the gangster rappers.
In watching the show—I came in somewhere in the third or fourth season, I think—I have noticed an inchoate sense among many of the competitors that it captures something powerfully good that has been missing. When he was voted off, actor Steve Gutenberg (who was, alas, a terrible dancer) said that the show "makes the world a better place," and participation in the contest even seems to have touched those whose whole careers are based on cynicism, people like Jerry Springer and Adam Corolla.
Having names the values that I think this show brings back into the culture, I should also mention that it is not always fully true to those values. There are occasionally lapses in taste and unwelcome intrusions from the modern counter-culture (even, briefly and forgettably this season, from the "hip-hop" culture). But this merely adds to what makes the show important: big band and ballroom are now a living part of the culture, which means that they are interacting with the other parts of the culture, good and bad.
It is not often that a part of the culture that had been lost is restored to us, at least partially. It offers hope that the same can be done with other values and ideas that have also been lost and are also desperately needed.
To subscribe to TIA Daily go to: http://www.intellectualactivist.com/