The Sum of It All

Something I saw on Dancing with the Stars this week has struck me deeper than usual and I have given some thought to why.  I regularly watch DWTS for three reasons:

Dancing with the Stars is a TV show I can watch with my children. I hate that most family-based entertainment is antiseptic and pandering. While DTWS has mild racy moments—I remember when my then two-year-old pointed to the TV and said, “Why does that boy have no shirt on?”—we are entertained. The judges are dynamic and real.  Week to week, together we see what it means to be a good sport, how despite knowing your routine you can still have a bad day (and how to recover), and how a group can accomplish more than any one individual working with each other.

Its premise does not bank on the inspirational ‘hope for a better life’ formula like American Idol, the Voice, or America’s Got Talent.  Competitors come to the show for many reasons including an increased notoriety a national audience brings. I admit would not know of Amy Purdy if she had not been on DWTS, however I doubt any of them expected to become professional ballroom dancers at the completion of their season.

Dancing is fun. It has skill, nuance, excitement, feeling, and sentiment. I enjoy seeing the range from superficial to athletic to metaphorical. My children are often dancing along during the show or asking about different dance styles and how they evoke different feelings. After long Mondays, fun is just what I need.

This week author, broadcaster, and talk show host Tavis Smiley danced a Motown-themed Foxtrot with professional Sharna Burgess. After receiving feedback from the judges, they continued to the interview area to await their numerical scores. In typical DWTS format, this is when co-host Erin Andrews will ask the pair about how they are feeling about the dance or the show in general. This is never my favorite part of the show. Once I watched DWTS with my aunt where she would fast-forward through anything then-host Samantha Harris would say at these moments because she felt it was superficial and annoying. I never gave this exchange much thought until Tavis Smiley. See video below.

For context, I highly respect Tavis Smiley for the range and depth of his interviews. His ability to build a portfolio in both radio and television tackling controversial topics with fairness and accessibility is rare.  So when Erin Andrews said to Tavis Smiley, “this is a different side of you”, I agreed—I had never seen him dance before.

I loved Tavis Smiley’s response: “I’ve always said that people know the some of us, not the sum of us… and all of us have some more some that needs to be shown.” What a simple, sophisticated answer. It was direct and smart without trying too hard. However, I found Erin Andrews’s casual response of “I’m still trying to figure this out” devastating because I saw her playing up the stereotype of an airhead, bubbly female interviewer not wanting to let the conversation get too heavy. I felt like she was dismissing the interview by playing down her intelligence. This type of exchange bugs me to no end.

[pullright]“I’ve always said that people know the some of us, not the sum of us… and all of us have some more some that needs to be shown.”[/pullright]

Here’s what got me.  Instead of Tavis Smiley playing into Erin Andrew’s performance like many others would to keep the conversational banter light and chummy, he took the time to calmly say the same statement again just like a second grade teacher would explain a line in a poem. Tavis Smiley wanted to make sure the message was clear without prejudice. It was classic Tavis, and I was out there in TV Land shouting “bravo”!

Just for fun, I was thinking of three things Erin Andrews could have said that would have gone more smoothly:

  • “I love that answer. Great job, Tavis!”
  • “You have given me something to think about.”
  • “And now that you are interested in ‘s-u-m’ sums, here are your scores!”

Eventually she ended with “let’s give you something right now!” Perhaps I am being too hard on Erin Andrews; live television is tough.

I take two things away from these 30 seconds of network television. First, I am sick of seeing one-dimensional interviews on national television. This is one of big reasons I stopped watching morning network news. I find it especially troubling when a female interviewer says ‘something is over her head’ or dismisses a nuanced statement because it plays into the stereotype that women neither ask tough questions nor can respond to complicated answers. Second, current t television formats are run at such a frantic pace that an exchange like this—deep, accessible, and effective—gets my attention.

Maybe my aunt was onto something and I should start fast forwarding through DWTS more. I will have to make an exception for Tavis Smiley.


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Emily is an Architect, Mother of 2, and Somerville, MA resident.

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