San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

TV Dance Contests Reveal Cultural Surprise

I can’t believe it, and I’ve lived in Costa Rica for 17 years. I don’t know how I’m going to make you believe it.
Some months ago, I found myself in the United States just in time to catch the last month of “So You Think You Can Dance” on television – a special treat for a dance fanatic like me.
With a couple of small exceptions, what I saw was an inspiring level of professionalism on all sides: dancers, choreographers, presenters, judges, pace, etc. There was a great deal of laughter, tears, hard sweat, triumph and failure. There was never conflict, negativity, gloom or bad health. Of course not. It was national television.
Well, we know that all kinds of stuff went on behind the scenes, where, needless to say, it was kept quiet.
Then I came back to Costa Rica to the finale of “Bailando por un sueño” (“Dancing for a Dream”) to find the whole country crazy about it.
The format for this program, coming from Mexico, was different. Instead of individuals, the contestants were couples, one of whom was a “famoso/a” (celebrity) and the other the “soñador/a” (dreamer). The couple was not trying to win money, but rather to achieve a benevolent dream, which might have been anything from an operation for a sick child to the building of a new school in an impoverished area.
Good, I thought, I get to do it again. Well, not exactly.
There were some notable differences, and a surprise – a cultural one.
First of all, the finale, when it came, lasted some four hours. Now, I have no problem watching four hours of dancing, but this ended up being an hour and a half of dancing and two and a half hours of talking and other, rather puzzling activities. As for sticking to the schedule, ¡ni hablarlo!
But this was not the surprise.
Second, the quality of the dancing was nowhere near the quality I had seen in the States.All right, this is understandable. Costa Rica is a tiny country where parents generally  don’t have the money to send their children to expensive dance lessons.
But this was not the surprise.
Winners were decided by a combination of judges and public input. In the end, there remained only two couples dancing, one of which was Ricardo (the soñador) and Shirley (the famosa). The other couple won with the public by a narrow margin.
But it didn’t end there.
It turns out that “Bailando por un sueño” leads to one of the couples, for some reason not necessarily the winning one, participating in the first international competition, “Bailando por el mundo” (“Dancing for the World”), to take place in Mexico. Before the final program, the Costa Rican judges decided that the couple to enter the international show would be Ricardo and Shirley.
Though it was called an “international” dance competition, it was a new program, so only nine countries showed up. Seven were from Latin America: Mexico, Argentina, Colombia, Paraguay, Ecuador, Panama and Costa Rica. Astonishingly, two were from small European countries: Romania and Slovakia. But this was not the surprise.
The principal presenter was diminutive and dynamic, and his counterpart, a great horse of a woman, created a comic contrast.
The presenter would call a couple from a particular country on stage, command them to position themselves and then, with a dramatic gesture, call out “¡Música, Maestro!” The audience would bellow it with him, and away the dancers went. When they finished, the presenter inevitably roared, “¡Qué bárbaros!” But this was not the surprise.
Latinos make fun of Gringos for the way they dance Latin numbers because they move their shoulders and arms about, wiggle their bottoms (it’s in the legs and sometimes in the hips, not the rump) and take big steps.
Be that as it may, it is pure anguish to watch Latinos, their upper bodies rigid, trying to dance disco and rock and roll. This aside, the quality of dance and choreography was not what I expected to see on an “international” level.
At times, in fact, it was so bad that I was embarrassed to watch.
But this was not the surprise.
The winner of the competition was determined by a panel of nine judges, one from each country. The scoring went from one to 10. If any country scored the lowest points three times, not necessarily in a row, that country was out of the competition.
But this was not the surprise.
The surprise was… Let’s just say it was like Jerry Springer meets “American Bandstand.” I’m out of room here. You’ll just have to wait until next time to find out what the surprise was.

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