Elise M. Edwards is a Ph.D. candidate in Theology, Ethics, and Culture at Claremont Graduate University and registered architect in the State of Florida. She does interdisciplinary work in the fields of theology, ethics, and aesthetics, examining how they inform and shape each other and express the commitments of their communities.
“You should watch this. It’s inspiring,” my sister said to me about Born to Dance: Laurieann Gibson, the dance competition show on BET. So I watched. And I loved it. I can’t remember watching any other reality show–especially a competition-based one- that left me with such a sense of the spirituality of its star.
Laurieann Gibson fulfills many roles on Born to Dance: host, mentor, judge, and executive producer. Laurieann is a respected dancer and choreographer. TV viewers may remember her from MTV’s Making the Band franchise, in which she trained members of Dannity Kane in dance and sometimes clashed with P. Diddy, the star and producer of that show. In this show that features her name, we learn more about her approach to dance and to life. On Born to Dance, we see the same drive and demanding ethic that she displayed in other shows, but we also see her spirituality. She says grace before eating dinner with the contestants. She speaks of God and gifts. And most surprisingly, she prays in Jesus’ name before very elimination. These prayers are for the contestants that will be eliminated, that they may continue to grow in confidence and belief in their dreams to become dancers, and that they may have many opportunities and paths in the future to do so.
In this show her role as mentor is also more evident, and it’s encouraging to watch. In each episode, Laurieann and her assistant choreographers teach young women skills and techniques that they will need to become professional dancers. One of the twenty finalists will win $50,000 to support her in starting a dance career. The winner will likely get opportunities to dance with Laurieann’s professional dance company. As such, she seems really invested in using the competition challenges to prepare the dancers for their future. Obviously, she instructs them in dance, giving them choreography in diverse styles and teaching them to respect unique features of each. When she speaks about respecting the traditions and techniques of ballet, she also thanks God for Alvin Ailey and Dance Theater of Harlem for demonstrating that black people, whose body types did not conform to the dominant standards in ballet can perform this type of dance masterfully. It’s one example of what makes her a great motivator. While encouraging her protégés to adopt the discipline and craft of her field, she also encourages them to be individuals and to adopt confidence live and dance as each was uniquely created to do.
I came into this show a couple episodes into the season, but I watched two episodes I had on TiVo and then the current one that aired on Tuesday night. The great thing about watching multiple episodes of a reality show back-to-back (besides moving quickly from one elimination to the next week’s challenges) is that the patterns of the show and its tone become evident more clearly. I marveled that the show attempts to nurture the artistry of its contestants, affirming their passion and skill for dance as a gift. After all, these women were born to dance. The show seems more about exposing the discipline, fortitude, risk, hope and belief that it takes to become a professional dancer than exposing the drama that comes from competition. All reality competitions seem to have at least one participant who claims, “I’m not here to make friends. I’m here to win.” There are those characters on this show, too. Well, there were. They got eliminated. How refreshing!
Lexi, one of the first finalists to get cut – or “to move on [to other opportunities]” as Laurieann phrases it – was very experienced in the competitive dance world. This does not give Lexi the edge she expects, but instead, it hinders her expressiveness. Laurieann tells her that the artificial veneer of perfection that her coaches instilled in her is holding her back. She wants each dancer to dance her dream, to dance her journey. Another contestant, Kaleila, does not make friends with the other dancers, and her attitude of superiority (which likely covers insecurity) prevents her from giving her all in a television performance. Being one’s authentic self – and being confident, not arrogant in that – is an ethic that is affirmed repeatedly. If the show is more about artistry than competition, this makes sense. I believe that becoming a good artist requires a willingness to know who you are and to expose that to other people. Good art invites a connection between the artist and the audience through whatever medium is employed. My own background in the arts, my participation in a church and supportive community for artists, and instruction in Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way leads me to discern a connection between spirituality and artistry that the show’s producers may not have intended. Born to Dance shows us an ethic of authenticity derived from the belief that artists have a specific, divine calling and that pursuing this calling is just as important as other paths to which people are called.
Before Born to Dance, Laurieann hosted a similar competition (The Dance Scene) on another network. I didn’t watch the show, so don’t know if that show expressed the same spirituality, but I suspect it didn’t. Born to Dance airs on BET, Black Entertainment Television, which has another successful show in which spirituality and competition take center stage – Sunday Best, a competition to find the next gospel music star. I think the network’s willingness to show Laurieann’s prayers and other aspects of her spirituality comes from an assumption that its primary audience (black viewers) will appreciate her Christian sensibilities, or at the very least be familiar enough with them to stay on the channel. This assumption of normative Christianity is problematic, and I readily admit that her prayers will raise most feminist scholars’ critical sensibilities with its exclusive use of masculine imagery for God and exclusion of other faith perspectives. Yet as a black feminist, a religion scholar, a confessed Christian and reality-TV consumer, I enjoy having an image before me of a black woman who takes her art seriously, pursues it as a calling and gift from the divine, and mentors younger women with both confidence and humility. My sister was right. It does inspire me.