Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
September 17, 2015
First appeared in print in The Rhino Times
, Greensboro, NC.
So You Think, Nyjer Seeds
So You Think You Can Dance looks like a contest, and it's true that the
audience votes and the producers give out prizes. But above all, it's a show. If
it isn't entertaining, people don't watch.
The gamble the producers took was that there was a good-sized audience that
would, week after week, tune in to watch first-rate dancing. At first, they tried
to follow the American Idol formula, in which appallingly bad dancers would get
reprimanded by a crusty British judge.
But they realized very quickly that the audience knew perfectly well that if we
wanted to see people with untrained bodies making fools of themselves, we
could buy a hi-res mirror.
So now the audition formula is to show us some really excellent dancing of
many different types, a few heart-warming stories: children who audition with
their parents; people with various handicaps who dance pretty well,
considering; dancers who recently lost loved ones or overcame injuries.
Even though So You Think You Can Dance and Dancing with the Stars are not
really in competition -- no, not even when they schedule the SYTYCD finale on
the same night as the season premiere of DWTS, as they did this week -- you'll
notice that former contestants on SYTYCD sometimes get hired by DWTS, but
never the other way around.
Dancing with the Stars is, in a way, a train-wreck show. They bring in non-dancing celebrities, along with a few ringers (ice-skaters train to develop most
of the same skills as ballroom dancers), and we enjoy watching to see just how
awful the celebrities will be. If we like them, we give them credit for trying; if
they're obnoxious, we want them to lose quickly and get off the show.
Rarely is the dancing actually good.
By contrast, on So You Think You Can Dance, the worst dancers are always
better than the best contestants on Dancing with the Stars.
The problem is that a train-wreck show is so much easier to make entertaining.
If the aging or untalented or one-legged celebrity gets through a dance without
falling over, it's a triumph. But once we've seen each of the So You Think You
Can Dance competitors show us their chops, the show can quickly get
That's why So You Think You Can Dance is so utterly dependent on its
choreographers. If a dancer is lucky enough to perform a Travis Wall, Stacey
Tookey, Mandy Moore, Sonya Tayeh -- or, in the early days, a Mia Michaels
-- routine, then they're going to look terrific that week.
Other choreographers are also good, but they're working in genres that it's
hard to make "terrific": no matter what you do with a Bollywood or salsa or
waltz, it just doesn't speak to most of the contemporary American audience.
In fact, in our family it's kind of a joke: If a contestant has been barely scraping
by, and then has to do a Bollywood number, we can wave bye-bye, because
hardly anybody will love their dance number enough to vote for them that
The standard of dance skills had risen so high on SYTYCD that it was
killing the show. We simply expected the dancers to do a superb job. So then
it came down to personality. Whom did we like most? Since everybody in the
top ten or later was excellent, voting on likeability always gave us a first-rate
dancer as winner of the contest. But it wasn't enough to keep up interest.
What the producers noticed was that the dance movies that were successful in
recent years had shifted from retro ballroom dances (Strictly Ballroom) to
street dancing. Sort of a cross between the Jets and Sharks choreographed
by Jerome Robbins in West Side Story and whatever the break dancers,
krumpers, animators, hip-hoppers, waackers, et al., were doing.
These street dances were "cool" in a way that ballet, contemporary, tap, and
ballroom couldn't be. That's because the street dances had no rules. You can
dance in front of the mirror and think you're doing pretty well because there
are very few standards.
So while there are some absolutely brilliant street dancers, whose feats look
more like something you'd see on American Ninja Warrior than at the American
Ballet Theatre, it generally comes down to building up the strength and skill to
do some amazing stunts -- but not the overall skill set that allows you to learn
any kind of dance.
The result in recent years has been that street dancers wow the judges in the
auditions, but then drop out or get dropped during the weeding-out rounds in
Las Vegas. A few make it through -- and some of them have won the contest
(Joshua Allen, Fik-Shun). Others, like Twitch, didn't win but are so popular
that they remain a constant presence on the show.
So in order to make SYTYCD more relevant, for the 2015 season they changed
the format radically. From the start, contestants were vying for positions in
Team Street or Team Stage.
The fabulously skilled and adaptable ballet and contemporary dancers were
grouped with ballroom and tap dancers, because all of them were used to
learning choreography and expressing dance moves devised by someone else.
While the street dancers, who were used to choreographing their own routines,
basing them entirely on the tricks they knew how to do, had a chance to make
it onto the show by measuring up to a different set of standards.
Once we got out of Vegas Week, however, all the dancers had to do
choreography -- but there was a fairly even division between street dances and
stage dances, and they were pretty gentle about moving the street dancers
into stage dancing, which was so far outside their skill set and experience.
I think they expected that the street dancers would be more popular with a
younger audience and help improve the demographics of the audience (i.e., get
some of those coveted younger viewers who haven't been "branded" yet and so
are worth advertising for).
Each week, the one or two lowest-scoring dancers were dropped from each
team, so that right up to the four-dancer finale this past Monday night, the
numbers of street and stage dancers remained even.
Here's what I learned from this experiment:
1. Paula Abdul is almost as tedious and incoherent judging a dance contest as
she was on American Idol. Fast-forward!
2. Contemporary and ballet dancers have a much easier time learning
street-dance moves and attitude than street dancers have learning stage
3. The music used for the street dances was often so unmusical that if I had
not been watching the dancers, I would have run screaming from the house.
4. There is a limit to how interesting a choreographer can make street
dances, for the simple reason that the breakers and animators are generally
limited to the tricks they already know how to do, and after a couple of weeks,
we've seen them all. So hip-hop routines are usually fairly simple and
repetitive, and the stage dancers often do them better than the street dancers.
5. Bad or desperate choreographers resort to gimmicks, like dressing their
dancers as robots or aliens or monsters. This usually involves so much
makeup and costuming that the dancer's face is invisible, so we can't even tell
half the time whom we're watching.
6. When stage and street dancers perform routines together, we usually might
as well be watching Dancing with the Stars, because the choreography is
designed to make it look as if they're both doing the dance, but really it's
mostly being carried by the stage dancer.
7. The street dancers who emerged at the top were exactly the kind of street
dancer that had already been in contention in previous years before they got
their own team. Knowing they were trying out for SYTYCD, such dancers
actually trained in other modes of dance and were able to perform well in
serious contemporary and lyrical routines.
8. We ended up watching many if not most of the street-dance numbers with
the TiVo on the lowest fast-forward setting. We still saw every step, but
we didn't have to listen to the "music" and it was over in half the time. If a
dance turned out to look better than we expected after the first twenty seconds,
we'd go back and watch it in real time.
(We also watch American Ninja Warrior in low fast-forward, because it shuts up
the nattering commentary and lets us watch every move but get to the point of
failure or success much sooner.)
9. Hip-hop might as well be 1940s boogie-woogie. Lots of fun to do, or to
imagine doing; but after a minute or so, pretty much the same moves over and
over, plus a few tricks. Boring to watch.
10. Because half the time was spent on the far more limited and boring street
choreography, we had fewer of the brilliant routines that had provided the
greatest pleasure in watching the show. Travis Wall and a handful of others
are always exciting, but Sonya Tayeh was hardly there this year and oh, man,
do we miss Mia Michaels.
What about the outcome? The most highly-skilled and accomplished
dancer in the competition -- Jim Nowakowski -- was eliminated just
before the top four. But this has happened in previous seasons -- it's why the
winner is called, not "America's Best Dancer," but "America's Favorite Dancer."
The final four were credible choices. Stage dancer Hailee Payne was the one
who showed the most growth. Street dancer Virgil Gadson, despite being really
small, showed that he was actually a better all-around dancer than Fik-Shun
was in the year he won. Street dancer Jaja (pronounced "ya-ya") Vankova had
clearly prepared herself to be very good in stage dance, and she was an
excellent actress when the dances called for personality and mood.
But the winner, Gaby Diaz, truly deserved to win. Yes, she got some of the
best routines during the season -- but she also got some of the worst, and still
managed to be excellent.
And, most remarkably, she was not a contemporary or ballet dancer. She was
a tapper. So she was just as unlikely to be able to do the contemporary
routines as any street dancer -- except that, like Jaja, she had prepared herself
to be good at every style. And she was.
So what's my verdict on this season of So You Think You Can Dance? If the
ratings show that this Team Street, Team Stage approach beefed up the
ratings, I can stand it.
As long as they keep Nigel Lythgoe as the main judge, we can continue fast-forwarding through the comments of Paula Abdul and Jason Derulo, who never
said anything particularly useful or interesting when we were listening.
The best dancers -- stage and street -- were versatile and did well at every kind
of dance. Those who could not do this were soon weeded out.
The best choreographers rewarded us for watching by providing a level of
dance that has never been regularly available on television before this
series. In the past, to see beautiful, moving dance I had to go to live
performances of some of the great dance companies; now I can see similar
creativity and skill and intelligence in at least one or two routines each week on
Because I don't watch it for the contest, or the tear-jerker stories, and even
though I come to like and sometimes admire many of the contestants, the
reason I'm there, watching, week after week, is for fine choreography, well
performed. And SYTYCD delivers enough of it to be one of my must-record,
must-watch shows, year after year.
Somebody else in my house also enjoys Dancing with the Stars and will
probably be unhappy with my having called it a "train-wreck" show; but in all
fairness, I usually watch the last few episodes with her each season, and I
catch a dance routine or two through the year. (And the DWTS judges are all
better and more entertaining that Abdul and Derulo.)
I grew up watching, and sometimes doing, ballroom dance (at the social, not
the performance, level), and so I do enjoy DWTS, even when the celebrity
contestant is kind of awful. I don't begrudge it its place on the schedule.
The fact is that all contest shows run their course. Face Off, for instance, is
great fun, but after watching several seaons of reruns, I've come to see that the
show is devoted, essentially, to monster makeups -- lots of prosthetics, with
results that are mostly unbelievable. Better than the original Star Trek, but
that's a low bar.
So while I was fascinated to watch the Face Off process in the early seasons,
and the challenges each week are often quite bold, I haven't seen more than a
handful of really wonderful makeups -- and even fewer that were believable
as living creatures. So I expect that it won't be long before I lose interest.
I've spent this summer obsessed with Kitchen Nightmares reruns and with live
episodes of MasterChef -- but the Nightmares formula is becoming quite
repetitive. The only thing that makes it fresh is that people find so many ways
to be delusional, incompetent, defensive, and oblivious about the reasons why
nobody is eating at their restaurant.
But as for Gordon Ramsay's kitchen and freezer inspections, come on. How
stupid are the people he visits? If you know Gordon Ramsay is coming, clean
your kitchen and your freezer. Stop microwaving anything and don't serve him
anything that was ever frozen. This is not hard to figure out.
Instead, in episode after episode of Kitchen Nightmares, we get to watch Ramsay
stick his finger into rotten vegetables and vomit at the smell of rotten meat.
This eventually loses its entertainment value. Even Tosh.0 doesn't have people
puke in every episode.
James Corden's Late Late Show did a hilarious job, with Gordon Ramsay's
participation, of exaggerating the repetitive elements in Hell's Kitchen and
Kitchen Nightmares in the sketch "Hell's Cafeteria".
The astonishing thing is that when you watch the uncensored f-word-filled
"highlight reel" from Gordon Ramsay's Hell's Kitchen cooking competition show,
you realize how sweet, patient, and kind Gordon Ramsay is in Kitchen
Nightmares and MasterChef.
My point is that reality shows, even the best of them, can't go on forever
because, even though they have a different set of contestants every season, in
some ways they're also the same.
That's why even though American Idol is still one of the higher-rated shows on
Fox, the network and the producers are wise to pull the plug after this coming
season. It's ironic, because in the most recent season, American Idol had
developed its best format ever, with its best judges. But season thirteen,
even if it's the best ever, is still the thirteenth time through the contest.
Has So You Think You Can Dance also run its course? Or will this new format
give it more years of life? I hope it lasts, because once it leaves, I have little
hope of television ever having another show that provides such outstanding
And either because of or in spite of the format changes, this was a good year.
I started feeding wild birds only a few years ago, and that was the first time I
ran across the word "nyjer." It's a tiny, black, somewhat oily birdseed that
supposedly makes finches ecstatic, and since goldfinches are some of my
favorite birds, I bought some and put it in a regular feeder and realized that
this was a very bad idea.
Because nyjer seed is so small, it pours out the normal apertures in
birdfeeders. You might as well just dump it on the ground.
Then I tried various nyjer-specific feeders and the finches ignored them. The
only time the seeds were eaten was back before I learned out to squirrel-proof
my birdfeeding stations. Squirrels like nyjer seed just fine -- but as far as I
was concerned, the idea that finches liked nyjer was a lie.
Recently, though, I bought a tube feeder with tiny holes, and a bag of nyjer
seed from Wild Birds Unlimited. I hung it up to replace a failed feeder that
constantly got wet and moldy, and to my surprise, after a couple of days the
finches discovered it and practically vacuumed the nyjer out of the feeder. I
have to refill it every three or four days.
I asked the folks at Wild Birds Unlimited why, after ignoring nyjer for so long,
the finches finally liked it. The answer was simple: "Finches only like nyjer
when it's fresh. If the oil dries out, it might as well be sawdust." Remembering
the non-specialty stores where I had bought my previous batches of nyjer seed,
I realized that this was a complete and logical explanation.
I was also curious about how a seed could get such an unlikely name as nyjer.
This is not a spelling that looks or feels natural in English. And here's
why: It isn't the original spelling.
Do you remember back in 1998, when an aide to DC Mayor Anthony Williams
was forced out of his job because he dared to use the word "niggardly" in
reference to a skimpy budget? The word "niggardly" is far older than the n-word -- it has been in the language since Middle English, long before there was
a pejorative word for Africans.
The word means "stingy" or "miserly." A person who is grossly ungenerous is a
"niggard," and his actions are described as "niggardly." (It comes from Middle
English "nigon" [excessively parsimonious] and Old Norse "nigla," meaning "to
fuss about small matters.")
But despite this word's long history and its complete unrelatedness to the
origin of the n-word, this poor aide was heard to say this by a linguistically
uneducated person who considered it to be racist. Even after it was explained
-- the point at which the complainer should have felt humiliated at being
proven ignorant -- the Inquisition does not back down. The aide should have
refrained from using the English word because it was "too close" to the n-word.
And because of his "insensitivity," he was not allowed to keep his job. Because
once the Inquisition goes after you, you are no longer entitled to earn a living in
our "free" country.
Outrageous as this incident was, the birdseed industry noticed it and took
action. Because it was marketing a kind of thistle seed called "niger."
Originally a French-origin word pronounced "nee-ZHAIR," it simply meant
"black." It's the word that gave the river and nation of Niger, as well as Nigeria,
But on a package of birdseed, a label saying "Niger Seed" was even more likely
to be misunderstood (not to mention mispronounced) than "niggard," which
might lead to birdseed dealers being put out of business.
So in a clever defensive move, the birdseed sellers re-spelled the word
phonetically, as "nyjer," pronounced "NY-jer." The word "nyjer" cannot be
pronounced like the n-word. It doesn't even make people think of the n-word
-- no more than words like "nightgown" and "neighbor."
They could have gone with "thistle," of course. But "thistle" sounds like a weed
(because it is a weed), which is why they started calling it "niger seed" instead
of "thistle seed" in the first place.
But, to be honest, I can't help but speculate that the n-word itself might have
become a common way of referring disparagingly to Africans because of the
word "niggard," which was already a pejorative. Likewise, the name of the
Niger River might also have influenced the development of the n-word. Word
origins are hard to trace, and there's never just one cause of a word's
Suffice it to say that the goldfinches don't care what it's called, as long as the
nyjer feeder is full of fresh seeds. And since male goldfinches change color
twice every year, racism means nothing to them.
And changing "niger seed" to "nyjer seed" in 1998 was a smart move, in
the nick of time.
Lesson learned. Mischief managed.