Let’s Dance

Dance formats are being taken to new heights as producers and distributors innovate this popular genre.

Dance is often referred to as a universal language. Its ability to convey thoughts, emotions and sensations transcends cultural and linguistic boundaries, and as a visual art form, it can be appreciated by pretty much anyone—whether you can pirouette, foxtrot or pop and lock, or if you just enjoy watching those who can.

It’s no wonder, then, that formats featuring dance at their core have been waltzing their way across the globe. None have done so more successfully than BBC Worldwide’s Strictly Come Dancing, known globally as Dancing with the Stars. The dance competition has now been licensed into more than 50 countries, with 3,500-plus episodes and 300 seasons recorded to date. Just a few years back, Guinness World Records declared it the world’s most successful reality TV format.

The show hit the air in the U.K. in 2004, when there weren’t any other dance formats on prime-time television, according to Sumi Connock, the creative director of formats at BBC Worldwide. “It was the first of its kind and has pioneered the dance genre,” she says, adding that the series was an instant success.

The format has its origins in Come Dancing, which ran from 1949 to 1998 on the BBC. The sequin-filled show featured amateur ballroom events held around the country, with professional dancers teaching viewers the moves, and the competition element was introduced later. The idea with Strictly was to build on the heritage of that long-running hit but update it with a glamorous twist: star power.

“Celebrities gave it a brand-new USP, which was a point of difference,” says Connock. “We were launching it as an aspirational Saturday night prime-time show, so the use of celebrities helped it feel much more like event TV.”

Indeed, the allure of seeing stars out of their element is a powerful one. Add to that glitzy costumes, opulent studio sets and pulse-pounding music and it’s a recipe for family entertainment at its best.

Talpa Media, which turned the singing genre on its head with The Voice, has shaken up the dancing arena with Dance Dance Dance, a competition that sees celebrities reenact some of the world’s most iconic choreographed routines. The show has aired in a number of major markets, including the Netherlands, Germany, the U.K. and Italy. Having celebs at the center is a “key driver” of its success, says Annelies Noest, the director of formats and global network at Talpa Global. “It’s part of the amazement and fun. You are seeing people who are well known for being actors or TV personalities very much out of their comfort zone. You see them as real people—sweating, training, struggling.”

Dance Dance Dance has taken the idea of a celebrity-led dance competition one step further as well, incorporating the latest visual effects. The show uses a giant LED wall and augmented reality to elevate the routines.

Talpa has also rolled out Battle on the Dance Floor, which is “less mainstream” than Dance Dance Dance “and requires a very different budget,” says Noest. The format features talented dance crews who not only compete against each other but also against the dance floor, which changes in size depending on the opinion of the jury. “You don’t have the celebrity aspect, but here the shrinking floor is an important element. It has never been seen before!”

One of the buzziest new entrants to the TV dance space, World of Dance debuted this summer on NBC in the U.S. with global superstar Jennifer Lopez as a judge and executive producer. The show, which was one of the first projects to come from the newly launched Universal Television Alternative Studio, aims to up the ante for the dance genre, not just with its celeb-packed judging panel but by assembling a caliber of talent that truly represents the best of the best from every corner of the globe and covers all dance styles.

“The absolute game-changer is the scoring system,” says Meredith Ahr, the president of Universal Television Alternative Studio, referencing how dancers are given points in five distinct categories—performance, technique, choreography, creativity and presentation—and must achieve a certain combined average from the three judges in order to move on. “It’s comparable to the Xs on Got Talent or to the spinning chairs on The Voice. It’s one of those once-in-a-decade moments in TV. It’s clear, it’s simple, it’s fair, and it helps the dancers. The competitors understand what they need to work on and what they need to focus on more. Even the judges were blown away by how [the scoring] instantly alleviated any concerns that they had about how they were going to judge, for example, a solo ballerina against a massive b-boy crew. It levels the playing field in a way that was exhilarating to watch as it came to life and we were shooting.”

Ahr believes that a fresh spin like the scoring mechanism on World of Dance is what can invigorate the format genre. “In this business, you can be lulled into thinking everything has been done before or that a genre of programming is well-worn and has exhausted its potential,” she says. But launching World of Dance has been “thrilling; it’s like digging for gold and then finding it!”

Keshet International is hoping to strike gold with its new launch Masters of Dance, which aired this summer in Israel to ratings success. “We can never get tired of seeing exceptional talent on television,” says Keren Shahar, the company’s COO and president of distribution. “The singing space is extremely popular, but it’s also extremely crowded. Dance brings something new to the audience.”

In addition to showcasing competitive performances, Masters of Dance focuses on four company directors, the “dance masters,” who form their groups and then go to battle.

“There is fierce competition between the egos of these very talented dance masters, in addition to the natural competition between the dancers,” says Shahar. “It’s an all-access pass to go behind the scenes of the cutthroat world of dancing, which is very primal.”

Whether it’s the incorporation of celebrities, augmented reality, an innovative scoring method or an added layer of competition, dance formats nowadays have got to come with a strong USP in order to get time in the spotlight. CJ E&M, for example, has Dancing 9, which was the first original Korean format to feature a dance competition. “The uniqueness of this format is that the show starts with a competition of individual dancers from various fields—street, K-pop, dance sports, modern dance, ballet, b-boy, etc.—but proceeds and ends with a team competition of nine dancers in each group,” explains Jin Woo Hwang, the head of formats and global content development at CJ E&M.

Hit the Stage, from the creators and producers of Dancing 9, features professional dance crews, led by popular K-pop idols, competing against each other. “Each episode has a central theme, and the idols and the professional dancers are responsible for directing—from the choreography to the makeup to the stage designs,” says Hwang. He adds that Hit the Stage was introduced in an effort to appeal more to the general public.

Mass-audience appeal is precisely what Zee Entertainment Enterprises has found with Dance India Dance, according to Sunita Uchil, the company’s chief business officer for international ad sales, global syndication and production. “Dance India Dance has been a cultural revolution in India,” she says. “It has really brought dance to the forefront. The charm of the format is that the common person gets a platform to be seen, and for his or her talent to be appreciated. It is about the middle-class household, the average audience out there.”

Uchil says that Dance India Dance is all about giving hope to everyday people around the country. “It has made dance a real profession for many of them. The winners of Dance India Dance are now either choreographers or have parts in movies; they are all doing very well! Having celebrities is important; it gives you that spike and tentpole effect that you want from a particular TV-programming point of view. But ultimately, the success of any competition show depends on the talent. If you have the right talent, the stickiness will be there for the program.”

Part of the appeal of Dance India Dance resides in its local flavor. With NBCUniversal’s World of Dance, though, the core of the show is global by design. “We wanted to create an environment for the best dancers from around the world to come together and push themselves beyond what they thought was even possible, grow in ways that they couldn’t imagine and have an experience that will last them a lifetime,” says Ahr, likening the series to “the Olympics of dance.” By assembling the top-tier talent from a range of countries and dance styles, everybody is driven to up their game. After all, it’s a competition, not a showcase.

But does a dance format have to be competition-based to be successful in today’s TV landscape? Not necessarily, says BBC Worldwide’s Connock. “If it’s prime-time, shiny-floor entertainment, they do tend to be. That competition element encourages the audience to vote for their favorite, and that means they’re going to be invested in the show and return week after week. But it’s not exclusive. There are plenty of other genres that have featured dance, like reality, factual entertainment, transformation and wish-fulfillment types of series.”

In the case of Keshet International’s Masters of Dance, however, it is the parallel competitions between the dancers and the dance masters that drive the format. The show also features a range of different disciplines, which Shahar says helps to give it wide generational appeal. “From hip-hop to classical, modern to ballroom dancing, Masters of Dance gives you a real variety; there is truly something for everyone in every age group.”

World of Dance is also open to all styles and the show’s audition process is designed to ensure diversity. In season one, contestants were divided into three different divisions: Junior, for 8- to 17-year-olds; Upper, for ages 18-plus; and Team, for groups of 5 or more dancers aged 18 and older. Ahr explains that everyone was so blown away by how competitive and strong the junior dancers performed that for season two the show is adding a “team” division for the younger set.

Getting the audition process right is perhaps one of the most crucial elements for any dance competition on TV today. With regard to Dance India Dance, it is an essential format pillar that Zee asks international producers to respect when localizing the show. “We have some very strict rules about what kind of sample size has to be taken and how the selection has to be representative of the nation,” says Uchil. “There is a complete science to it! We have a dedicated team that does the scouting and they’re supposed to go to certain regions and select talent from those regions. That’s what the format asks you to do; it’s about getting the right talent from these regions that is reflective of the home country at large.”

“When we roll out formats to other territories, there are always little things to bear in mind for the cultural differences and tastes,” acknowledges Talpa’s Noest. “Sometimes that means adding a different color or tweaking the set, but in the case of Battle on the Dance Floor, the shrinking floor is the core of the format so we would never allow that to be changed.”

BBC Worldwide is continuously making tweaks to Dancing with the Stars, and learning from what’s been successful in local versions is a key part of the process, says Connock. “Every year we hold a big event in London and invite the Dancing with the Stars producers from around the globe to share their knowledge and experience of making the show for their territory. They’ll talk through format innovations and twists. We also have a Dancing with the Stars microsite as an online tool that a producer can access to find out about every aspect of the show. There is constant evolution and creative investment from around the world.” Some of the international versions have included same-sex couples, partner switch-ups and a variety of different themed weeks.

Another talking point when sharing expertise is the composition of the judging panel. “You need someone who has dance credibility; that’s key to the editorial and the enjoyment,” says Connock. “The audience needs to trust their judgment. They might not agree with what that judge is saying, but they want to know that it’s coming from a place of experience. You also want them to have a big on-screen presence.”

And there must be good chemistry between the judges, she adds. “Their dynamic is going to add another layer to the show, bringing in humor and drama. You need to balance the personalities; you want light and shade. It’s an important casting job.”

CJ E&M’s Hwang echoes the idea that while it’s important for judges to have charisma, they must also have the credibility to back it up. He adds that getting a big name attached, like Jennifer Lopez, makes it even sweeter. But can we find a J-Lo in every country? It’s a dilemma.”

Another quandary, according to Hwang, is how to manage the costs that come with this type of format. “Dance shows require bigger stages and sets and more high-tech equipment than singing shows. They also need mountains of practice and rehearsal time. That is why production costs are always a huge issue on dance shows. I have seen lots of cost-effective singing shows, but haven’t witnessed cost-effective dance shows.” He does point out that live tours can be a good added revenue stream, and taking some of the top dancers out on the road to perform for fans is another way to strengthen the brand.

While Hwang and others emphatically agree that dance competitions are a hot commodity these days, there’s also an impetus to innovate. The shows that are making the most noise are the ones that are pushing the boundaries.

“A really strong format with great production values and a team that’s keeping it fresh is going to have a long life,” says Connock. “When you’ve got amazing performances, plus journeys of transformation, it’s always going to find an audience. I don’t think dance as a genre is overcrowded; there’s room for everyone.”

Pictured: Talpa’s Dance Dance Dance.