Dance Competitions Rev Up Reality TV

It's why "Fame" remains a pop culture point of reference 28 years after it left theaters. It's why you stop and stare when a street performer starts doing head-spins on a concrete sidewalk. It's why ridiculous crazes like the Macarena catch on.

People love to dance. Or more accurately, people love to watch people who love to dance.

That may explain the recent boom of TV dancing competitions. Sure, ABC's "Dancing With the Stars" has been cha-cha-ing strong for six seasons, and Fox's "So You Think You Can Dance" kicks off its fourth go-around in May.

But a new crop of shows -- the hip-hop driven "America's Best Dance Crew," which last week wrapped its first season on MTV, and pro-competition "Step It Up & Dance," premiering tonight on Bravo -- is reviving the genre of reality TV and scoring younger fans.

"I've always loved dance and I felt like nothing really spoke to the youth of America," said Randy Jackson. The "American Idol" judge created "America's Next Best Dance Crew," the first dance competition to put groups head-to-head rather than individual performers.

"Every time they're in a club, they see people dancing," Jackson said. "Every time they see a video, every time they see a commercial, they see people dancing. But there was nothing that spoke to that group.

"This show ... it harkens back to the Michael Jackson video of him getting out of the sewer with his crew, getting ready to battle another crew. It harkens back to 'West Side Story,'" he said. "The passion of these dancers, it just shines through and shows on the screen."

It's true -- far from coiffed "America's Next Top Model" contestants or nervous "American Idol" hopefuls, the kids on "America's Best Dance Crew" pop-and-locked their hearts out and looked as if they were having a good time.

Viewers responded -- the show's season finale drew 7.9 million viewers. More than 38 million votes were cast -- a record number for a single event on a cable reality series -- to crown San Diego masked marvels JabbaWockeeZ the winners of the show, which brought them a $100,000 prize.

More mainstream dance shows aren't doing too badly either. The Monday and Tuesday editions of "Dancing With the Stars" scored the third and fourth slots in the ratings race last week, with more than 38 million viewers combined.

"What's really interesting here is that dancing is arguably the oldest form of human entertainment, and here in 2008, when our entertainment options are so tech driven, simply watching people dance is enjoying a resurrection," said James Hibberd, senior reporter for The Hollywood Reporter.

"'Dancing With the Stars' continues to work because it appeals to an older demographic," Hibberd said. "With 'America's Best Dance Crew,' in addition to having the 'Idol' brand of Randy Jackson, it was very hip-hop focused and obviously very different than watching Mark Cuban do a waltz."

So far, most of the dance competition shows on TV have put the spotlight on amateurs. On "Dancing With the Stars," famous people attempt to fox trot. On "So You Think You Can Dance," nobodies try to shake their stuff. On "America's Best Dance Crew," groups battle to see whose moves are sicker.

Now, on "Step It Up & Dance," pros vie to win the praise of award-winning choreographers and directors. The show has the potential to do for professional dance what "Project Runway" did for fashion design. (Both share the same network and production team.)

But can any of these dance shows dethrone the ultimate reality TV king, "American Idol"?

If anyone's qualified to answer that question, it's Nigel Lythgoe, creator of "So You Think You Can Dance" and a producer of "Idol." To him, dancing makes for better TV.

"People realize that dance is a far tougher world to be involved in. The rewards are nowhere near as good and the work is twice as hard," he said. "Everyone thinks they can sing in the shower. You can't really dance in the shower."

But when it comes to surpassing "Idol," arguably the most successful show of all time, a triple-pirouette can't hold a candle to a Kelly Clarkson/Justin Guarini duet.

Which show stole the No. 1 and 2 spots from "DWS" last week? "American Idol."

"With 'American Idol' it's very easy to spot when someone is singing badly or is tone deaf," Lythgoe said. "But it isn't as funny when people dance badly."