I Don’t Know How to Love Him

Picture this: Summer of 2006, I’m hanging outside the local sushi joint with my friend Terra after just another regular day of musical theater camp. She asks me if I saw Benji Schwimmer on So You Think You Can Dance last night. I respond, “You mean, ‘So You Know You Can Dance?’” And then I start laughing at my own joke. I was, it should be obvious, a pretty cool high schooler. The musical we were working on that summer was Hot Mikado, but during lunch breaks my friends and I would choreograph dances to “Get’cha Head In The Game.” I guess High School Musical was pretty hot that summer too.

But back to Benji.

Benji Benji Benjjiiiiiiiii. Winner of SYTYCD Season Two and back-up dancer shortly thereafter in Christina Aguilera’s “Candyman.” Season Two, my first and favorite season, is probably most important to our cultural imaginary for its runner-up, Travis Wall. Travis Wall! The boy the show won’t let us forget, bringing him back season after season as guest choreographer and sometimes dancer. But whether the genius of Travis not winning was planned or produced or manipulated or foreseen actually matters less than the significance of the Benji/Travis nexus to my own fandom and also to dance’s place in contemporary culture. SYTYCD, that summer, offered deep confirmation of a Truth I had already learned on Broadway: precious white boys still ruled the word, and I didn’t want to make out with Benji or Travis; I wanted to be them. Benji, Travis and I–we all grew up wanting to be stars. But when I watch them on stage, it always feels to me like they have the inside track.

What does it mean for me to want to be young, white, male, and “gay”(ish)? You could say that I “identified” with Benji and Travis, dancing their hearts out for America every week. But “identification” is a troubled concept probably because it hardly comes close to encompassing the complex forms of attachment and attention we have toward the objects of our desire, envy, and sometimes even both. I am desirous of how well the Benjis and Travises of SYTYCD, by virtue of the gay pose that might in other contexts limit them, fit into that world. In the world of classic Broadway stage performance, the leading straight man has always been a little off center. It’s a complicated role for these men to play. SYTYCD creator and judge Nigel Lythgoe has a bizarre, ongoing, and well-documented obsession with criticizing any overt performance of male gayness on the show, but one way to understand such criticism is as a part of the always active cultural rewriting of the narrative of Broadway dance as a space for (fey) white men to perform masculinity through dance.

I think part of this movement in and even through roles—momentarily assumed or momentarily projected—is what compels me back to continue watching, and then rewatching, these men. Sure, when a white man dances beautifully on stage, the world makes a kind of queer self-reinforcing sense. But maybe I’m also looking for pockets of surprise, where the affect of the dancer’s performance cuts through so sharply that I’m no longer sure whether we’re in the narrative of the dance, the individual, or somewhere in between. Rewatching videos of SYTYCD becomes a kind of repeated viewing where the more one looks, the less one seems to understand. In a way, more looking always calls for more looking. So You Think You Can Dance is one of my favorite texts to close read, but not, like, that kind of close reading.

When I obsess over Benji Schwimmer, over Travis Wall — when my obsession reinforces my own idea that the white gay man is the ultimate star — am I endorsing some kind of white patriarchy? As I sit in the library writing my thesis, I feel compelled to think those stakes through.

But when I’m running on the treadmill at my local Y, taking a break from thesis writing, this shows up on the screen, and I just waaaannnnnt. To be, to have, to whatever. Look at that guy.

Um, it’s like Benji but maybe younger, at least relative to myself?

JK! Zack Everhart is not like Benji at all obviooously. But for those who haven’t spent approximately one million hours watching this show, maybe there’s a similar vibe there. I don’t know. Zack is a genius performer. He consistently makes me forget about his partner; when he’s there, that’s all I see.

And tonight, Zack, the genius who erases all partners, will be dancing with THE GENIUS PARTNER. I cannot get my shit together enough to describe how happy I am, how ETERNALLY GRATEFUL I will always be, that tonight Zack will be paired with: Amy Yakima. I can’t wrap my head around what this partnership means. The fey lovely “tapper,” together with the miniature jazz powerhouse! Who will we watch? Whose meaning will mean more?

yakima tweet

 

I’m 25, have no more illusions of making it on Broadway, and still, I have never ever been more invested in a white boy tap-but-also-basically-contemporary dancer’s future. Maybe I never will be again. There are many things to think through about my fandom, my feelings of desire and identification, the long history of dance and dancers in popular culture. But for now, my theoretical intervention is this:

America, listen to me: I want Zack to winnnn. America, NEVER to put him in the bottom six ever, ever again. Please. I think he can still surprise us.

 

 

Jane Hu: Theater kid.