Competing is not just about showing the right moves

Watching the summer season’s top show five years running — “So You Think You Can Dance” — paradoxically pumps you up and makes you really self-conscious at the same time.

Competing in “Dance,” not to mention winning, requires a constellation of factors few of us possess but most of us could work on improving.

The list of qualities displayed by those amazing dancers is long (and hard to measure). If you take dancing ability, stage presence, confidence, work ethic, passion and luck, you have the makings of a winner of a quarter-million dollar prize.

But here’s the rub: Contestants need all those factors and more to survive and triumph.

Creativity on this show consists of emotional stability as well as twitch-muscles from Zeus. You need to stay focused and calm, be poised to graciously accept criticism, and then explode like crazy while you hit the stage with your carriage hard and tight.

Psychologists studying creativity have found that the more you produce, the more likely you’ll create something great — but that formulation is challenged by “Dance,” because what the judges ask the performers to do often goes against their own style. A ballet dancer doing disco can be paired with a hip-hop dancer.

And mere greatness is no guarantee of success. Melissa and Ade, with their muscular and taut performances wowing the crowd, could have won the whole competition hands down; instead they wound up in the bottom three. The X-Factor seems to elude rational, predictive power.

Another dimension of the show challenges the psyche as well. Risking loss of status may be more threatening to the average person than a truly brave act like saving your cat from a burning building. Baring your soul and your midriff for America to see and judge can be terrifying if you’re not mentally prepared to sanely counsel yourself throughout the ordeal.

And yet, in spite of all that swirling chaos, loss of control, threat to status and potential embarrassment for those cut, the eliminated contestants swear that it was one of their most rewarding experiences ever.

So here’s the psychological kernel embedded in “Dance”: The more you commit to something passionately and larger than yourself, even if you don’t have that much control over the outcome, the more you’re rewarded whatever the outcome.

That kind of commitment takes bravery. Would you audition for a show that all but promises you that you’re going to be eliminated? “Dance” is not just about entertainment. It’s about sharing a story and demonstrating a philosophy that says, “With enough talent, work and luck, and especially risk-taking, you could have the glory your grandchildren will cherish.”

Dr. Nando Pelusi is a licensed clinical psychologist who maintains a private practice in New York City and serves on the board of advisers of the National Assn. of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapists. He also serves as a contributing editor to Psychology Today.

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