Dance has long been the underdog of American culture, often disrespected and mostly disregarded.
Not anymore. From the hit TV shows Dancing with the Stars and So You Think You Can Dance? to movies like Black Swan and even video games and advertising, dance is hot, and it’s everywhere.
The latest entries are The CW’s Breaking Pointe, a reality show set at Ballet West in Salt Lake City, and ABC Family’s Bunheads, in which a frustrated Las Vegas showgirl (Broadway star Sutton Foster) lands in a small town and bonds with a retired ballet diva and her teenage students.
When Bunheads creator and writer Amy Sherman Palladino, ( Gilmore Girls) suggested a show set at a ballet studio to an ABC Family executive, she says she had an easy sell.
“It is so in the air now,” says Palladino, who once aspired to be a ballerina. “There’s an energy and a different feel to things that incorporate music and dance, and everyone seems to want to do that or watch other people do that.”
Dance has become a dynamic part of popular culture, even hotter than the ’70s dance boom fueled by ballet superstar Mikhail Baryshnikov, the hit movies Saturday Night Fever and The Turning Point and the Broadway smash A Chorus Line.
The current dance explosion is even more widespread. In addition to Stars and SYTYCD, TV has Glee with its teen misfits seeking stardom through music and dance and Smash with its let’s-put-on-a-Broadway-musical plot. Films from 2010’s psycho-sexual thriller Black Swan to this year’s ballet documentary First Position have put dance in the multiplex. Eye-popping dance numbers are de rigueur at pop concerts, and the video game Dance Dance Revolution is an enduring hit. During the NBA Finals, a Red Bull TV commercial used dancers along with athletes and DJs as emblems of hipster achievement.
This time around, says Robert Thompson, professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University, television simultaneously tapped into and inspired new enthusiasm for dance.
“In cable TV every idea has been strip mined,” he says. “When these shows started they were fresh.”
Dance has emerged as a new vehicle for the overcoming-adversity, follow-your-dream narrative familiar from sports-themed movies like A League of Their Own and Rocky. On Fox’s Glee, that idea has been tweaked so that dance and music are also empowering expressions of the characters’ individuality.
Breaking Pointe executive producer Izzie Pick Ashcroft played a key role in the current dance boom as an executive producer of Britain’s Strictly Come Dancing, the ballroom dance show that became Dancing with the Stars when she helped bring it to the U.S. in 2005.
A fan of the movie Strictly Ballroom, Ashcroft had long been fascinated by the elaborate, insular — some would say kitschy — world of ballroom dance.
“It was a world that had its own dedication, passion, athleticism and competitiveness, with this very emotional and driven physical language – all wrapped up in sequins and big hair,” she says.
Ballet, with its elitist aura, seems an even more unlikely bet than ballroom. But Ashcroft, who was riveted by Royal Ballet rehearsals early in her career as a staffer at London’s Royal Opera House, saw another insular world of talented, driven people in intense competition – tailor-made for reality TV.