It would not be something I would normally choose to watch--I surrender willingly to my received ideas and prejudices about TV reality shows and contests. But at the urging of friends, Ellie and I have tuned in recently to a couple of episodes of So You Think You Can Dance, and have been amazed by the passion, the energy, the commitment of these young people to their art. Aged mostly in their late teens or early twenties, they must surely devote much of their lives to practice, honing their skills to an extraordinary refinement.
There is, be it said, something rather unsettling about this kind of show: under the guise of offering opportunity, it exploits the talents of these youngsters for the network's own commercial purposes. And the glittering promise it holds out for many will be fulfilled for only a very few. Given the huge numbers of excited contestants who line up for auditions, it's a lottery that most will lose. "Many are called,"(Matthew 22:14) "but few are chosen." I have always been uncomfortable with the exclusivity of this description of those who will be admitted "into the kingdom of heaven." I do understand the nature of competition, especially in the field of creative endeavor. What I find unsettling is the exploitation of the competitive spirit, the dangling of the dazzling prize that is all too soon, for most contestants, to be snatched away.
Acknowledging that discomfort, however, I'd not wish to detract from the enthusiasm and the skill the contestants bring to their sometimes astonishing performances. Such body control demands enormous discipline--the discipline of hard work and endless persistence. And what has struck me, watching not only the performances but also the brief exchanges between the dancers and the panel of judges is how very nice they are: their discipline has taught them something beyond the muscular strength and flexibility, beyond the agility and physical control. It has taught them also a set of social skills, an ability to recognize the joys and sufferings of others, a spirit of compassion. It has taught them to move through their lives with the energy, the grace and dignity they bring to their performance. They are a pleasure to listen to, as well as to watch.
I judge that we do not set much store by discipline, as a society. We do not require very much of it from our children, whether at home or in our schools. The results are evident in every aspect of our social and political lives, where me-first demands predominate over generosity, conversation and compromise. It takes discipline, after all, to sacrifice something that I think I need right now to a greater eventual benefit of myself and others. The creative spirit, properly expressed, is the spirit of generosity that comes from sacrifice and unsparing dedication. There's much of this to be learned from the young contestants in this television show.