Flirty Dancing Is a Hybrid Reality Show with a Dark Twist

Back in November, video footage from a U.K. show called Flirty Dancing went viral a couple times over. In the two-minute clip, a pair of men perform a romantic modern dance routine in a sun-drenched greenhouse to “Lullaby” by Sigala and Paloma Faith. Their grins are wide, their falls are trusting, their spins are ecstatic. It has all the makings of one of those engagement videos that were popular five years ago or so, in which a couple would celebrate their intimate and personal bond by performing a public dance in front of one-to-three hi-def cameras and, usually, a phalanx of their friends and relatives. If I’m remembering correctly, sometimes this happened in a Home Depot. It was very cute, and for a while I couldn’t imagine how anyone celebrated their love without professional choreography and three weeks of intensive rehearsals.

The thing about the Flirty Dancing video, however, is that it ends not with a ring or a flash mob of befuddled aunts and uncles, or even with “Save the Date” in a cursive font written across the screen. Instead, the two dancers stare into each other’s eyes, catch their breath, and then wordlessly part. Of course, we now know that’s the whole conceit of the show: Two people are set up on a blind date in which they perform a dance routine they learned individually, then separate to decide alone whether they want to go on a second date (with dialogue). But out of context, the clip is striking in its emotional intensity and lack of resolution. “Kiss! Kiss! Kiss!” I screamed at my computer screen (a fairly regular occurrence, to be honest). “Fall in love! Also, explain why you’re not drenched in sweat!” But the clip left me on read, abruptly ending with the same mystery with which it had suddenly appeared in my feed.

The cynic in me now wonders how mysterious the clip’s appearance really was, considering that a U.S. version of Flirty Dancing had already been filmed and was set to premiere on Fox. But for all its very convenient social media fanfare, the new iteration of the reality show, which aired its first episode on January 1, is actually not interested in my cynicism. Hosted by Jenna Dewan, who notes early on that she knows firsthand what it’s like to fall in love on the dance floor (“I understand that reference!” I shouted to my computer), the U.S. Flirty Dancing is just as hopeful, strange, and sweatless as the U.K. clip. This time around, the producers have added a wrinkle which, in description, sounds a bit mercenary. Now one blind dater learns two different routines for two different blind dates and then has to decide which dancer they want to go on a second date with. Yes, it ups the ante (needlessly, I think), but again, I remind you that there are no higher stakes than figuring out how these people are doing all of this intense dancing without completely sweating through their clothes.

The conspicuous absence of sweat isn’t the only mysterious aspect, however. When I first tuned in to the U.S. version. I was shocked, shocked I tell you, to find that it wasn’t just a show about same-sex dance partners, as the clip had suggested. There are seemingly hetero pairings all over the place. Hm. I’m not judging; love is love. But did I tune in expecting Jenna Dewan presiding over a queer La La Land? I did. I did indeed. (According to the New York Post, none of the couples in the initial six-episode run will be same-sex couples, which is a disappointing, if still unsurprising, failure of imagination.)

But the big idea is that dance, like love, is a language anyone can speak. I’ll buy that. Well, I’ll put that on layaway at least. The daters—none of whom are professional dancers—are shown in L.A.’s most gorgeously lit dance studios spending a scant two days learning routines from So You Think You Can Dance faves Tyce Diorio and Travis Wall and already I have questions. One time, I spent an afternoon watching roller dancing videos and then impulse-bought a pair of roller skates and a Groupon for a roller dancing class. I went to three whole classes and yet I am still unable to zip around Central Park like the cool guy in the middle of the video for “Never Too Much” (a very common ambition), so what’s really the truth?

The first episode pairs teacher Octavius with hair stylist Megan and fashion stylist Marymarie. All three separately express anxiety about dancing and about the prospects for romance, but when they finally meet—each time encountering each other in a public park and then breaking into dance, which must be jarring for passersby—the sparks are undeniable. It has the theatrical artifice of a first dance at a wedding (wait, why wasn’t this show called First Dance?!), but somehow seems more genuine and thrilling than the sometimes-stilted first married dance of a couple who spent every Tuesday for the last two months leaving work early to learn their steps and who actually know each other and have the joint wedding savings account to prove it. It certainly doesn’t hurt that the show’s daters, for all their anxiety, sell the hell out of their dance numbers, even when said dance numbers involve going up and down stairs, navigating pedestrians, and splashing in fountains. All of the aforementioned would have been dealbreakers for me. You want me to go on a date, and remember choreography, and successfully descend stairs? Guess I’ll die alone.

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Octavius and Megan on Flirty Dancing.

Fox

The strings are a little more evident in the episode’s second pairings: Erin is the primary partner, who complains of being underestimated because she has a high-pitched, squeaky voice. The show frames dance as a way for her to make a sultry first impression, though I can’t help but think a reality show that leans into helping her use her voice might work better—like a Karamo session on Queer Eye but for the vocal cords. She’s paired with Alec, a composer, and Brandon, whose profession I forget because he is tall. Both Alec and Brandon show up to the dance studio in full workout gear like they’re going to be doing box jumps and not learning body rolls from Travis Wall. It’s a gift.

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Brandon and Erin on Flirty Dancing.

Fox

Neither man in the second pairing is as strong a dancer as Octavius was in the first, which leaves Erin doing a lot more work as she flits around the Hollywood Bowl. To wit, for most of the first dance, Brandon’s choreography consists of leaping gallantly over seats in the audience. But, to their credit, they are tasked with even more staircases, and no one falls.

As in the original clip, all the dancers separate without exchanging a word and then the primary dater deliberates for three days before making a choice. In one of the strangest aspects of the show, both potential partners arrive for a date at different restaurants but the primary partner only shows up for the date with the chosen one. You do all this work, learn this choreo, don’t fall down the stairs, and then get stood up for a date on national television. Guess I’ll die alone, happily!

Actually, I’ve left something out: with Octavius, Megan and Marymarie are sitting at restaurants, waiting to be abandoned, but with Erin, she’s the one sitting at the restaurant and Alec and Brandon are both sent to restaurants to meet her. Only one of the men is given the right location. The other one just keeps walking. Forever? This is truly bizarre. Also, are women not allowed to arrive second to a date? (Forgive my ignorance: I only go on queer dates and I’m currently pirouetting madly in a sunlit gazebo.)

There are no moments in the new series that match the intensity of the original viral clip, which raise questions about performance intimacy on reality television and the conspicuous absence of queer couples. And the competitive aspect means the show ends on a bit of a sour note, including the final mystery: when the person who wasn’t picked will get to eat. (Like, if you get stood up for a lunch date, you definitely still order lunch. And a glass of champagne. That’s the rule.) Yes, Flirty Dancing is a delightful trifle, a diversion that doesn’t ask much. But I still can’t get over how much work—behind and in front of the camera—goes into a first date that will end in disappointment. To paraphrase Missy Elliott, is it worth it? Putting your thing down? Flipping it? Reversing it? All those stairs?! It’s a more effortful dating strategy than spending an hour swiping on Bumble, but as the U.K. clip showed, when it pays off, it’s something close to magic.

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