I came across the following statement on Apollinaire Scherr’s blog, written by one Christopher Pelham. (It’s not really relevant to this post, but the context of the comment was an ongoing discussion on “who is the next Pavarotti of dance,” which then somehow degenerated into a discussion of dance for concert vs tv vs entertainment vs art, etc etc):

“Not to disparage social dance (there can be a lot going on sometimes I know), but sometimes those forms may well truly astound and excite us with what they can do with the body only to deaden our mind with their intention to titillate, to arouse, to one-up, to show off — not to open up the mind to a new way of knowing, if you will. Sometimes that kind of dance is fun and sometimes it’s oppressive.”

While I hate to take someone’s words out of context, I think this speaks to a much broader discussion. Mr. Pelham touches on some valid points but also makes some broad generalizations.

On one hand, I agree that sometimes social dance can indeed do all those things– titillate, arouse, one-up, and show off. But deaden the brain? Well, some things (like Dancing With the Stars or a sub-par salsa congress performance) might have that effect on me, but social dance in general? Au contraire.

Salsa has indeed, to paraphrase the comment, opened my mind to a new way of knowing– knowing myself, knowing my body, knowing beautiful and intense connections with other human beings in this otherwise sometimes cold and unfriendly world. As I improvise complicated rhythms in a shine, I can just feel the synapses in my brain connecting and strengthening. Sometimes,when I get in “the zone” I catch a glimpse of the meaning of life. My brain is very much alive. It’s not just “fun,” it can be a very profound experience as well.

Most of us that get hooked on social dancing do it because we love the way it makes us feel, rather than because we want to watch others doing it. I’ll admit to skipping out on my share of the performances at congress (and yes, often for the reasons stated by the comment I’m arguing with). However, when you watch dancers that truly have a connection, or have beauty and artistry in their choreography and movements, that dance with a real passion or fire that comes from deep inside them, how can that not touch you?

I also dance modern dance, which is considered by many to be one of the fine arts, while social dancing is not by some folks’ definition. Art is not art because someone has deemed it so–it is art because it touches you, makes you think, stirs something inside you, makes a statement, whatever…because you think it’s art. I’ve seen modern dance that would not rise to my definition of art just as many times as I’ve seen social dance performances that would not meet that standard. Modern dance and social dance equally have the power to stir incredible emotions in me, to make me think, and to make me think, “wow, that’s art.”

What is wrong with social dancing on TV is not the nature of social dancing itself. Rather, TV shows need to hire choreographers that appreciate the dance’s heritage and meaning, and that teach about musicality and basic skills. Get rid of Alex da Silva and hire someone like Ismael Otero to chreograph the salsa. How about showcasing dancers that have been doing these things for years, and not just ballroom dancers. Benji Schwimmer, last season’s SYTYCD winner, was a bona fide west coast swing dancer, but unfortunately I think he sold out to the TV audiences with going overboard on the tricks and cheese.

This is the same problem we could have with any other form of dance being showcased on TV– let’s not criticize the nature of the dance itself, but take a step back to see what the choreographers and dancers are actually doing.