Disability as Entertainment: So You Think I Can't Dance?

By Julie Clawson 10-05-2009

091005-so-you-think-you-can-danceSo I'm a fan of So You Think You Can Dance. I enjoy watching dance and I used to dance, so I like the show even though it is a mostly scripted reality TV program. At this point in the season they are just showing the try-outs -- which predictably have the fools trying to get on TV alongside the good dancers and the poor folks who think they can dance but obviously can't. But I've been bothered the past couple of seasons during the try-outs with how they deal with the handicapped dancers who come to give it a shot. It really hit home this week when they showed a girl who had come to try out who was missing her left hand just like me.

Unfortunately, these handicapped dancers make it on the TV broadcast because they make for good dramatic television. They get to tell their story and the judges get to do a teary-eyed moment before they tell them some version of "you really wouldn't work for our program, but we are so proud of your courage." Basically, "you look too weird and awkward to appeal to a wide audience but we will boost our ratings by using you to elicit pity and then move on." It is never an affirmation of the person embracing his or her handicap and working with it, but always a pat on the back for choosing to live life out among regular people despite having a handicap. Like with the one-armed girl this week -- granted, she had just lost her hand in the past couple of years, and so had to relearn how to do life, but even as the show commended her courage it couldn't get past her handicap. As I watched her dance, I kept wondering why she wasn't really using her half arm. It stayed close to her side and it seemed like she was hiding it. The judges then praised her for hiding her handicap while she danced so that the viewers didn't have to deal with seeing an imbalanced form.

I've been there. I recall during try-out week for drill team in high school, I was reminded over and over again that my arm might prevent me from doing the dances well -- I would never look perfect alongside the rest of the team. I got the message and dropped out of try-outs. I stayed in the dance classes though as a teacher's assistant and I took over teaching the special education students that had been mainstreamed into the class. The teacher wanted nothing to do with them or me and shuffled us off to the side. And I've mentioned here before about visiting children's homes in Latvia where children born missing limbs are sent to live where the public won't have to be confronted with them. I was appalled then, but I wonder how different that is from TV shows that parade us out there to show us pity but then still won't accept us in their world as we are. (And how is that different from people who won't support universal health care so that we handicapped folks won't continue to be denied coverage for being born like this? But that's a whole different issue

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