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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 repetitive.

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 week.

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 choreography.

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 SYTYCD.

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 dance.

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, their names.

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 emergence.

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.


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