It would appear that Simon Cowell now wants to be the Lord of the Dance. Having seen X Factor lose to Strictly over the years, he has decided that if you can’t beat them, join them. The Greatest Dancer is the BBC’s latest talent show up against The Voice, but it is produced by Cowell’s SyCo production company. As the title suggests, it’s a dance competition with a first prize of £50,000 and a slot on Strictly. Interestingly enough (well I think it’s interesting), the BBC used to have a dance competition on BBC Four. It was very sedate, but scrupulously fair. There were separate categories for different types of dancing and the competition was judged by professionals who knew what they were talking about. On the other hand, The Greatest Dancer allows a theatre load of members of the public decide, but more about that format point in a moment.
The Greatest Dancer has moved the considered format of the BBC Four show into the glitzy shiny-floor world of Light Entertainment (although the dance floor was still wooden at least). The format is like The Voice in reverse; instead of the judges only seeing the performers when they have heard enough to justify flinging their Thunderbirds’ seat around, on The Greatest Dancer the contestants only see the judges when the audience have deemed them sufficiently entertaining to allow the entire wall of the dance studio to part like the Red Sea. It’s the audience that decide who goes through, not the judges. Keep that in mind.
So who are the judges? We have Strictly’s Oti Mabuse who has obviously been taking decorum lessons from Bruno Tornioli as she spent half of the show stood on her chair dancing; Mr Shuester from Glee and Cheryl….Twee-ole-fernandez? Oh, sorry, just plain Cheryl now. At first I did wonder how one member of Girls Aloud was a contestant on Strictly (Kimberley Walsh) and another was a judge on a dance show. (Mind you Alesha Dixon was a Judge on Strictly and is now the presenter on this show, so I think it’s a fine line and they are all interchangeable.) Then Cheryl cleared this up by saying she had been to the Royal Ballet. Not to a matinée of Swan Lake, but to their Summer school at the age of nine. I didn’t realise that she was bona fide dancer, so shame on me. The other presenter is a Banjo brother as it is now written in TV law that if there is a dance show. there must be at least one member of the dance group Diversity on the panel or as a presenter.
Back to the format. Once 75% of the audience have voted the dancer through, the wall opens, and they are told they are through to “Tap Shoe Camp” or “Judge’s Dance Studio” or whatever the next round will be. Up until that point, the judges are really pretty impotent.
It was oft repeated by the audience “we have the power”…and we all saw what happened the last time we let the public decide on matters they only learned the details of moments before they had to vote. This did lead to one awkward moment when a “Classical” (i.e. not a street) dancer got 73% and was ejected from the competition. The panel was visibly annoyed that the ignorant oafs sat around them didn’t appreciate the finer points of the dance. On the BBC Four show he would have smashed it; on the BBC 1 show he was given short shrift. Well, if you will trust the public with a matter they barely understand, you will get this. Funnily enough, there were a few comments about Brexit and I do wonder if this whole show has been created a mini analogy of what happened at the referendum (as if we didn’t have enough of Brexit already) .
Another format feature is that the dancers all book into a reception where the receptionist alternately humours and grills them. The show is filmed in Birmingham and the whole thing felt slightly reminiscent of a scene from Crossroads (Google it kids).
The venue is the International Conference Centre in Birmingham, and only a couple of months after this series was filmed there, Theresa May treated the Conservative Party Conference to “that dance” on the very stage where these amazing dancers performed. Perhaps she was trying to channel the energy from the previous months’ performances…or perhaps the location has used up all its dance energy over the summer and now no one can dance well on that stage.
The show ran pretty much as any other Simon Cowell production did; heart wrenching back stories; Gogglebox style comments from the audience; an appearance from Cheryl’s stalker and a performance at the end that made even a hardened hack like me cry (but nowhere near as much as Cheryl cried. The poor girl must have lost half her body weight in tears the way she was blubbing. And there really isn’t that much of her to start with).
It’s a cliché when people talk about this being “a lifelong dream”, but a sobering thought occurred to me when they were chatting to a 14-year-old dancer who uttered this line about wanting to appear on Strictly. Strictly has been running now for 15 years, so there is a generation for whom appearing on the show is actually “a lifelong dream”. How old does that make you feel?
Even with all the X Factor/BGT touches, the show is a good watch. The reason why dance is so mesmerising is because in singing competitions, most of us think we can hold a tune in the shower and so will happily mutter “I could do better than that”; but with dance the vast majority of the audience can never expect to achieve the level of performance they see on screen.
The Greatest Dancer is on BBC 1 on Saturday nights and can also be found on iPlayer.