One of the most successful reality dance series in modern history, the 2005 premiere of So You Think You Can Dance, marked a buzzy new chapter for dance’s place in popular culture. The show raked in 10 million viewers and quickly became the number one show on television at the time. Once relegated to the background and shadowed by other more prominent types of performers, dancers had finally been given their own stage to dazzle. The judge’s table was enlivened by the “Hot Tamale train”-screaming Mary Murphy and pop icon Paula Abdul, and the show made celebrities out of couple Stephen “tWitch” Boss and Allison Holker, Travis Wall (who later won an Emmy for his reprisal on the show), and 2022 Oscar winner Ariana DeBose.
However, in the last several years, the show had faded to irrelevancy. The industry has changed. The face of dance—both onstage and in leadership positions—has become more diverse, with Black artists getting overdue mainstream recognition for their choreography all while the show continued to spotlight a majority of white choreographers. And just when it seemed the show had hammered the final nail in its own coffin, Fox announced a new trio of judges, infusing life into a corpse of a franchise.
In April, JoJo Siwa, tWitch, and former Glee star Matthew Morrison were named as the show’s new mainstays. Less than two months later, and not even two weeks into the new season, Morrison had been fired for crossing a line with a contestant. Earlier this week People reported that the 43-year-old married father of two had been removed from the show after he had an inappropriate direct messaging relationship with a female contestant. “They didn’t have sex, but he reached out to her through flirty direct messages on social media,” the source added. “She felt uncomfortable with his line of comments and went to producers, who then got Fox involved. He was fired after they did their own investigation.”
I do not care that Morrison and the contestant “never met up off-set.” As a judge with the ability to lord dancers’ fates on the show over their heads or send them scampering back to obscurity with a single “no” vote, Morrison’s abuse of power is both egregious and not at all surprising. That he took advantage of his proximity to a female contestant—as if young women aren’t stalked, harassed, or assaulted enough, let alone believed—is even worse.
The dancers auditioning for this show are not only as young as 18 years old, but are often in precarious positions financially or professionally. We’ve long known that dance on the whole does not pay well, and herds of dancers line up for industry auditions like cattle to fight for limited spots and gigs (which are then often awarded based on superficial markers like hair color or the need to fill a token diversity slot). Because the entire ecosystem makes notoriety in the field near impossible to achieve, many young contestants see So You Think as their ticket to stardom—a front of the line pass—which gives way to an expected amount of desperation and vulnerability, which is later exploited throughout the filming process with tearful close-up shots and sob stories. So, you can imagine the horror a contestant might feel if one of the judges who could make or break their future in their industry of choice slid into their DMs.
The dance industry, including both commercial and artistic ballet companies, has been crumbling around relentless allegations of abuses. First, it was famous choreographers propositioning underaged dancers for sex and inappropriately touching Break the Floor event attendees (notably, Travis Wall of So You Think fame was accused of grooming, and the company was accused of “widespread sexual harassment”). Then, teenaged dancers came forward about a popular instructor and his wife, a former Boston Ballet dancer, who groomed them for sex. At the University of North Carolina, former School of the Arts students filed a lawsuit claiming rampant sexual abuse and harassment. The abuse of power in dance is unfortunately the rule, not the exception.
The new season of So You Think was supposed to mark the start of a new, more inclusive, and safer era of dance. The dancers were supposed to be able to practice their craft in peace. Instead, the same shitty white man archetype abused that power as he is wont to do.