Choreography on DWTS – What’s the Problem Here?

So, as may of our long time readers know, Courtney and I have been quite critical of the choreography done by Mandy Moore on DWTS. With the exception of a few numbers last year it seemed like it consisted of some combination of bumping and grinding – male and female. We even heard a rumor of a comment Derek made regarding a male pro dance last season…one that he was subsequently not a part of. While Derek is in his own league and may not be required to take part in pro dances any more (can you think of one where he was there the whole way through??), I think our source was solid at the time.

We’ve also been uber critical of some of the male pros choreography, namely…well all of them except Derek and Mark, really. Now, the childish reader likes to claim that’s just because we like Derek and Mark more. Well, yes, I do…but that’s not necessarily true of either Vogue or Courtney, and it doesn’t automatically mean that the choreography by those men is better than I claim. And if one of the men does something I like – I say so. But I think that much of it has been objectively less than stellar. The women fare much better…and I’m not sure why, except perhaps they get some outside help. Like WAY outside. Away from DWTS.

So you probably wonder what I’m getting at here. Well, I was watching the video that Vogue posted the other day – choreography for the TV Academy by Mandy Moore. It was FANTASTIC. She’s getting raves for La La Land (although I’ve seen a very few “derivative” comments – haven’t seen it yet myself) and she’s done some great stuff on SYTYCD. She’s more regularly great (with a few less great, but every pro has those) on SYTYCD than she has ever been on DWTS.

So what’s the problem on DWTS? What is the formula of that show that’s creating a hang up – for Mandy, in particular. I think the men besides Derek and Mark (and maybe Sasha and Gleb – although I was disappointed in both last season) may just not be great choreographers. They’re decent…not great. No shame in that – it’s rather rare that someone is both. Is it the dancers’ style that’s at issue? The one main difference between DWTS and those other shows is the style – DWTS is predominantly ballroom while the others are some combination of Jazz/Contemporary/hiphop/etc. Or is production dictating too much of what happens on the dance floor, to everyone’s detriment?

Side note: there is a rumor going around that the dancers in the Christmas show last season ( Morgan Larson, Fik-Shun, Kayla Kalbfleisch and Kayla Radomski) could get elevated to troupe. Keep in mind that this is from Just Jared, who doesn’t have much of a track record on breaking DWTS news. I call BS on that one. Besides, that’s yet another site that is ripping off the “pro watch” idea that we’ve been doing for YEARS now. You know what they say: imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Anyway, IF this were true, it would sort of play to the idea that the dance style is at issue.

Vogue: It’s so true, Heidi. Mandy seems to be much better on SYTYCD. Maybe her La La Land work was exceptional too from everything we hear, but, with a couple of exceptions, I haven’t been impressed with her choreography on Dancing With The Stars. I will say I thought the La La Land Pro performance on Dancing With The Stars last season was stunning, but, that’s just it for her work on a higher level. I have just never been a fan to bump and grind since that’s mainly her thing on Dancing With The Stars for the most part. She also seems so repetitive. I like theatrical, creative, and well thought out choreography and production. I like it when a choreographer does new things. It’s also an “it” factor that is unexplainable when a dancer and choreographer can take you to a higher place. My favorite choreographers on Dancing With The Stars have been Derek, Mark, Lindsay, Peta, and Sharna. I also loved Gleb’s choreography on Dancing With The Stars Russia. He was exceptional and on a level I’ve never seen before. Last season, we saw a glimpse of what he can do, but, I don’t think Jana could handle anything too complicated. I also thought Sasha was really creative at choreography with Terra last season, but, like Gleb, there were things he couldn’t do. Anyway, great commentary. I love it.

Courtney: I tend to find myself best summing up Mandy’s choreography on DWTS like this: every female dance looks like something Beyonce might do, and every male dance looks like something out of Chippendales/Thunder from Down Under.  And while that type of choreography suits Beyonce (she is singing at the same time, so it stands to reason that she is not going to be able to do a whole lot more than gyrating in place or flipping her hair) and it suits Chippendales/Thunder from Down Under (they’re selling sex, so it makes sense to have sexy, chest-baring choreography), we have at our disposal on DWTS some highly trained, highly athletic, ready-to-put-in-112% dancers that don’t have to worry about getting out of breath from singing or are only able to rip their shirts off.  The cheapness of the choreography does their talent a HUGE disservice.  And I honestly think that Mandy’s lack of background in ballroom and its nuances is likely at the root of the problem – she doesn’t really know how to utilize these dancers, so she reverts to something cheap and foolproof.  Why they opted to go the Mandy route and not hire a ballroom choreographer (Shirley, Corky, take your pick) to do these numbers is beyond me, unless they thought Mandy would draw some of the SYTYCD viewership over to DWTS (and I don’t know that Mandy was popular enough on that show to really have that kinda pull – NappyTabs, yes; Mandy – ehhhh).

As for the disparity between the quality of choreography we see from the female pros vs. the quality we see from the male pros – I think we’ve got two things in play here: type of training, and ego.  One thing that set Derek and Mark apart from the rest of the male pros was the fact that they were cross-trained – they did competitive ballroom, but they had also received instruction in jazz, tap, gymnastics, hip-hop, etc. Looking at the current line-up of male pros, I think the only one besides Mark that has received a good amount of cross-training in a style other than ballroom is Sasha – possibly by virtue of his gymnastics background. The rest seem to be a bit more “strictly ballroom” – and I find that to be a pattern among ballroom dancers from eastern Europe: they tend to focus very, very, VERY hard on one discipline, and don’t pay a whole lot of attention to anything outside of their specialty.  Seems to be a bit of a cultural thing – American dancers tend to dabble a bit more in multiple styles, while the Russians/Ukrainians/Lithuanians/etc. tend to specialize. And it works for the eastern Europeans – there is a reason why International Latin & Standard competitions tend to be dominated by dancers from former Soviet republics. But within the context of DWTS, which is about as much of a “serious ballroom competition” as The Bachelor franchise is a “serious dating show”, the format tends to favor the dabblers more – the ones able to churn out a routine that is eye-catching and entertaining to an untrained viewer, while still being somewhat pleasing to a staunch ballroom judge like Len. And I think that’s one part of the big picture of DWTS that Val (and to a lesser degree, Maks) consistently misses: he loves to tout his choreography as being “real ballroom” or “something you’d see in a real ballroom competition”, but that’s just the issue – this isn’t a real competition. And when he does try to step out of the ballroom box (without training, mind you), it’s usually with mixed results – Ginger’s tap-heavy freestyle comes to mind.  I would say that “specializers” like Val, Artem, Gleb, Tony, Keo, etc. could seriously benefit from seeking some more diverse instruction in the off-season – take a page out of Cheryl’s book and go immerse yourself in Argentine tango, or follow Derek’s example of diving headfirst into tap. Maybe if the show stopped jamming tours down everyone’s throats twice a year, the pros would actually have time to do it.

Aside from the obvious cross-training issue, I think the choreographic failures of some of the male pros also have their roots in a bit of ego – part of me thinks it may just be as simple as some of the male pros being too proud to admit they need help or seek out further instruction, while female pros are a bit more open to seeking help.  The old “I refuse to follow the instruction manual/stop and ask for directions/admit I don’t know everything” act that so many men still seem to ascribe to 😛 But again, it could also stem a bit from the “dabblers vs. specializers” divide – more of the current female pros have been brought up with more diverse training, and fewer seem to come from the “I am an expert in this and ONLY THIS” side of the tracks.  I will say I found it interesting when they cast three male dancers in the troupe a couple seasons back that seemed to be less ballroom and more hip hop/jazz/contemporary – as if they’re trying to affect a bit of a shift over time.  But honestly, if they want well-rounded pros that still able to keep up with the vigors of ballroom, I’d say their best bet is to start looking for male pros from VIBE (where they’re taught all different types of dance), rather than trying to find jazz/hip-hop/contemporary/whatever dancers that they can give a crash course in ballroom to – same goes for the females.  It’s a delicate balance.

Heidi: I agree with what you both said, and I would add that knowing a style doesn’t mean you can choreograph it. I don’t think the men are particularly strong ballroom choreographers, although they are certainly great dancers. Witney, for example, is a cross trained pro and I don’t think she can hold a candle to what Lindsay and Sharna (and I keep thinking of Peta with Tommy – great) have done. And Alfonso doesn’t really count because…he was Alfonso. Witney does better than many of the men do, but I think a lot of what we’re seeing is the women not being afraid to go to a variety of places for help. Witney, I think, may have stopped doing that as much after the Emmy brouhaha. Which is a shame, because there is no shame in doing that, yet some fans make it shameful.

As for the ego thing – absolutely agree. I do think that the eastern Europeans definitely take great pride in strictly ballroom. Or they are stressing that because they don’t know how to do other things. It’s also possible that they can choreograph great ballroom for ballroom competitions – but it’s just not exciting to many of us in the audience. We don’t care about what works in Blackpool – we want to see the next Super Mario freestyle, or Futuristic Paso, or Tommy and Peta’s Cha Cha or the Buble Foxtrot. Now, those dances may not have had exceptional ballroom choreography but they made the viewer feel joyful or amazed or…SOMETHING. That’s the key – they make you FEEL. I think that some of the men…and maybe Mandy on DWTS…lose track of that. The men are trying to teach and choreograph proper ballroom and lose the feeling. Mandy is trying to fill a bumper spot with dancers that aren’t cross trained AND when she uses pros to help her with the choreo, she uses those who aren’t name choreographers in their own right.

Vogue: Exactly!! If you can’t “feel” it in some way, the dance isn’t going to make an impact or have a message to send. It’s those dances you can feel in your heart and soul that are Emmy worthy and unforgettable. Well said, Angels!

So…what do our readers think??