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"The essence of all art is to have pleasure in giving pleasure."

— Mikhail Baryshnikov

As reality TV shows go, So You Think You Can Dance is the unlikeliest of hits: No one’s throwing temper tantrums on the Fox show, no one’s serving up diva ‘tude or pursuing world domination through Machiavellian manipulations. There are no scandals, no promises of riches or recording contracts. There are no Susan Boyle surprises. 

This is no Dancing with the Stars, where formerly famous faces with little or no dance experience suit up on ABC for a chance at resuscitating flat-lined careers. Nor is this anything like Oxygen’s Dance Your Ass Off, where contestants get served an extra dose of humiliation with their weight loss regimen. 

This is not about the pursuit of fame—or infamy.

This is about the pursuit of love, and the old-school rewards of sweat-drenched labor. It’s about skill and technique and the virtues of trying again, and again, and again, until you get it right. Or close to right. This is about dance with a capital “D,” where the Black Eyed Peas might perform, but so will ballet great Desmond Richardson. This is where you can see SYTYCD judge Debbie Allen getting all verklempt with it, declaring, “We’re evangelizing dance.”

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SYTYCD, whose Season 5 finale is this week, is all about evangelizing for the highly trained nobodies who’ve dedicated their very short lifetimes to perfecting their craft. “Craft” is the operative word here. Unlike American IdolSYTYCD shares the same creators—there’s no fat recording contract waiting for the winner, no guarantee of fame. Sure, the winner takes home $250,000 in prize money, but SYTYCD dancers aren’t likely to be stalked by TMZ paparazzi, a la Kelly Clarkson or star in a made-for-TV docudrama a la Fantasia. 

More likely than not, once it’s all over, the SYTYCD winner who’s voted “America’s Favorite Dancer” on Thursday will slip back into anonymity. (Whatever happened to the exquisite Danny Tidwell, the former American Ballet Theater dancer and first runner-up from Season 3?) Such is a dancer’s life. Notwithstanding Baryshnikov, Gregory Hines or Fred Astaire, it’s the exceedingly rare dancer who becomes a household name. If you’re lucky, you manage to earn a living doing what you most love to do—and pray that injuries don’t cut your career short. If you’re lucky. 

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And in these uncertain economic times, a dancer’s life is even more uncertain. A coveted spot in the New York City Ballet or the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater—jobs reserved for the best of the best—no longer offers the sense of security that it once did.  

This summer, 11 members of New York City’s Corps de Ballet found themselves abruptly laid off, as were dancers at the Miami City Ballet and the San Francisco Ballet. It’s truly not for the faint of heart or limb.

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SYTYCD celebrates all of this, often in breathless, cheerleader fashion. The judges—creator Nigel Lythgoe, ballroom expert Mary Murphy and a rotating cast of industry insiders—are former dancers, acutely aware of what it takes to get there. And so they push, and they prod, and they applaud. (Murphy, she of the ear-shattering shriek, tends to scream more than applaud.) As hip-hop choreographer/SYTYCD judge Lil’ C said last week, “The nature of this competition can be savage, demanding and formidable, but it’s survival of the fittest … it’s survival of the most dedicated, survival of who’s the hungriest.”

Thousands of the hungry—dancers from around the country—show up at open auditions for a chance to be picked for the Top 20 dancers. (The audition process follows a format similar to that of Idol, with lots of footage reserved for the goofy and the talentless.) From there, each week, two dancers are cut until it’s winnowed to the finale’s final four. (This season’s final four: Brandon Bryant, Kayla Radomski, Evan Kasprzak and Jeanine Mason.) 

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The dancers compete in a variety of styles, from hip-hop to contemporary (aka modern dance), to Broadway to ballroom. In seasons past, SYTYCD could be a little cheesy: You’d have one or two trained technicians battling it out with, say, an autodidact street dancer, with spectacularly uneven results: Could the ballet dancer get down and dirty in a hip-hop routine? Could a break dancer find it within him to point his toes and stretch his lines in a grande jeté? (Most of the time, not so much.)

But as the show grew in popularity, it attracted stronger dancers, technical wizards able to switch genres with lightning speed. This season is a first, with a final-four lineup of all contemporary dancers. These are dancers at the top of their game: young, well trained and well behaved, and yes, hungry. 

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With SYTYCD, you check your attitude at the door. Witness Brandon, by all accounts a gifted technician, but who almost didn’t make it into the Top 20 because one of the judges, Emmy Award-winning choreographer Mia Michaels, thought he had an attitude problem. Any semblance of an attitude was dutifully squashed, as Brandon set out to prove that not only can he dance—beautifully—but that he could be charming, too.

Which is all part of the dancer’s game. No matter how well you dance, there’s always someone waiting in the wings to take you down a peg, or three; whether it’s the choreographer, or another dancer, or a voter who doesn’t like the way you smile. But you suck it up, and you keep going, because, as Baryshnikov says, if you love to dance, there really is no other choice. 

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Teresa Wiltz is the senior culture writer for The Root.