What “So You Think You Can Dance” Taught Me About Being an Auteur

There are only two times you may ever find me watching a TV show. 1) When it’s a quality show I find on DVD or Netflix streaming, or 2) when So You Think You Can Dance (SYTYCD) is back on the air.

Dancing has been a love of mine every since I was in junior high (that is what they used to call “middle school” for you younger folks out there). And even though I don’t get to watch it as much as I’d like, SYTYCD is the only show that gets me to hook the cable cord back to the TV. (Yes, in our house, we physically detach the cable from the TV to reduce our temptation to watch it).

Over the years there have been a number of  choreographers on the show. But there are three of them that to me are paragons of what it means to be an auteur—a creative who has such a distinct look or style to their work, you know it when you see it. They are the married team of Tabitha and Napoleon D’uomo (aka NappyTabs), and the unique Sonya Tayeh.

If you’re a fan of the show, you know what I mean when I say that you can always point out a NappyTabs routine or a routine by Sonya. Tabitha and Napolean practically created a whole new genre of dance called “lyrical hip hop.” And Sonya? Well, I can’t say her style always connects with me, but I can definitely say, you know it when you see it. And it’s always a visceral experience. What I particularly love about both sets of choreographers is that they always endeavor to tell a story. In fact, if I’m honest, their 90 second dance routines typically have more “story” than a lot of videos I see. (Just sayin’).

These amazing artists made me think about my own craft as a filmmaker and thoughts about what it takes to make work that is truly distinct. There are three key things I learned about creating a distinctive style.

  1. Pick a genre. For Tabitha and Napoleon it’s hip-hop. For Sonya it’s contemporary jazz. By specializing in a specific genre, these auteurs are able to become specialists in that field. I have no doubt they any of these guys could do another form of dance, but when placed in their niche, they excel. When I think about stylistic directors who really worked a genre, I can’t help but think about auteurs like Hitchcock, Scorcese, or Woody Allen. What is YOUR niche?
  2. Favor a theme. Tabitha and Napoleon frequently tell stories about relationships. Sonya’s routines tend to be about deep and emotional pain and struggle. If I may use a filmmaking analogy, Tabitha and Napoleon are like the Pixar of SYTYCD. Every routine is amazing and wildly popular (for purposes of this analogy, we’ll just pretend “Cars 2” never existed.) If Tabitha and Napoleon are the Pixar of SYTYCD, Sonya is without a doubt the Tim Burton. One set of filmmakers that have crafted a style their own is the Coen Brothers. A lot of their films explore the theme of the quest for riches and the consequences of those quests. What themes do you tend to most-often explore in your work?
  3. The music matters. It goes without saying that music goes hand in hand with choreography. But these choreographers never just pick the popular fare. They pick songs that are often off the beaten path. When I think of filmmaking auteurs (artists with distinctive styles) that use music to help drive the story, I can’t help but think of Tarantino and Cameron Crowe. How do you use music to set your style apart?

Naturally there are many more elements that go into creating a distinctive stye. As I’ve discussed before, creating a signature style can be difficult. It takes time to discover your style. But, if you can start with these three, you’ll be on your way. I challenge you to Google some of the routines of Tabitha and Napoleon and Sonya. Watch them. Study them. Then see what you can pick up that can be applied to your own craft. I’ve given you two videos below to start.

One of the most memorable routines in the show’s history by Tabitha and Napoleon. So much so that Ellen Degneres came on the show to repeat it with SYTYCD favorite Twitch. (One of the main reasons it was so well received is that the Asian dude is a ballet dancer.)

You can always spot a Sonya Tayeh routine. Within the first few seconds I can recognize here distinctive touch.

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