If you’ve never seen So You Think You Can Dance, you probably imagine it’s like any other competitive performance reality show—lots of glittery costume changes and snappy one-liners from judges. In fact, there’s a lot more to this series than that.
Last week, the show made headlines for opening their performance finale with a routine that celebrates same-sex love. Besides being breathtakingly beautiful, the dance earned a special place in history as the first same-sex romantic routine on a reality show dance floor. The number was choreographed by Travis Wall, who simply tweeted “#equality” when the routine aired live. Seriously, just watch and be amazed.
This is the most recent, but by no means the first, SYTYCD routine to make a social statement. Now in its eleventh season—the season finale airs tonight—the show has become a platform for challenging social stigmas and tackling serious subjects through dance. Here’s a look back at some of the weightiest topics they’ve tackled through performance:
The Class Divide: Back in season 7, Stacey Tookey choreographed a contemporary number to “Mad World” danced by Billy as a homeless man and Ade as a businessman. The performance spotlighted the problems that arise with such a stark division between classes by separating the men physically on the dance the floor. When the two men finally look at each other in the face—and that alone takes half the song—they realize they were old friends, and the dance really starts to hit home.
Bullying: In season 10, Bonnie Story choreographed another incredibly moving group number about bullying. Inspired by her friend, who had suffered from violent bullying, she made this routine (set to “Tears of an Angel”) to demonstrate that if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.
Addiction: In season 5, Mia Michaels choreographed a moving routine to Sara Bareilles‘ “Gravity.” Taking the song in a unique direction, she explored through movement the all-consuming hold of drug addiction, and the difficult struggle to break free.
Battling Illness: Another piece from season 5 that captures the raw emotion of fighting against your body, was Tyce Diorio’s “This Woman’s Work.” The dance interprets the struggles of facing breast cancer, and the importance of being able to rely on loved ones when you need them most.
Caring for a sick family member: Travis Wall also did a moving routine with a similar theme in season 7, choreographing the story of his mother’s struggle with breast cancer and how he tried to help her. He earned an Emmy nomination for his performance, which he dedicated to his mom.
These are just a handful of amazingly thought-provoking dances on SYTYCD, but there are so many more. From issues like suicide to LGBT equality, the program (which over 4 million people watched last week) has never shied away from using performance as a tool for social change. In the process, SYTYCD has proven that a competitive reality TV show can actually make a positive impact. Who would have thought?