Dance Well, Get Votes

(Or Why It’s Much More Complicated Than That)

One of the big constants in modern media is the public vote. Whether we’re voting to save, voting to evict or voting to win, we are constantly asked to get involved in an ongoing narrative by making a choice.

But how do we choose how to vote? In Strictly Come Dancing, we’re supposed to be voting for some combination of ‘the best dancer’ and ‘our favourite’. We know from our brushes with John Sargeant & Anne Widdicombe that the ‘best dancer’ part of that isn’t always reflected in the result.

So we’re voting for our favourites. Who is our favourite? Why? What influences us? We know that the array of celebrities we’re shown reflects a broad swath of modern entertainment media, but we also know that not all the celebs enter Strictly with equal shares of the viewers’ attention. Attention is the most valuable currency in TV programming — you can generate it with spectacle, controversy, compelling storylines and through the craft of excellent TV production, and if you’re lucky the attention is converted into engagement, positive word of mouth and great audience metrics.

A spectacular group number from Strictly Come Dancing 2016

What does the public vote mean?

If we want to try and examine the public vote, we could make a model of the factors which generate votes and those which discourage votes (I am a scientist, and I like to try to make models of processes in the world). Every week, each celebrity is mixing their inherent factors (size of fanbase, attractiveness, crossover with other media properties) with the factors that come from the production that week (Is the song popular? Is the costuming not distracting? Does the dance actually fit the song? Where were you in the running order?) and ongoing factors that come from their storyline within the show (the noted phenomenon of Bottom Two Bounce and Jay’s endless momentum post Movie week in 2015) and this produces your end result. The results are also ranked, so it’s possible to improve on all of your own metrics but still get no further up the ranking if everyone else around you also has a good week.

Here’s a list of the vote-affecting factors that I know of. They fall into three main categories: the size of your existing fanbase (both celeb and pro dancer), the memorability of your performance and public reactions. I’ll break it down in a hierarchical list:

Existing fanbase size

  • Of the celeb (and how much does it cross over with the Strictly audience?)
  • Of the dancer

Memorability:

  • Very good dance skills
  • Impressive choreography
  • Impressive visuals (incorporating production values, supportive lighting, appropriate and flattering costuming, and work with props, gimmicks, aerial entrances and pyro)
  • Song resonates with audience
  • Visual contrast (the performance ‘pops’ from the screen)
  • Storytelling & camera angles
  • Running order (at high ‘attention point’ in show)
  • High jinks surrounding your routine
  • Good recap selection
  • Routine alludes to something memorable
  • Are you part of an ongoing storyline in the show?

Voter reactions:

  • Sympathy for misfortune
  • Sympathy for perceived slight
  • External news story
  • Perception of personality
  • In trouble on leaderboard
  • ‘Safe’ on leaderboard
  • Perception of being a ringer
  • Perception of being an entertainer
  • Praise from the judges

Obviously not all the factors have the same weighting, and there are probably additional factors (which I’d love to hear about!) but this is a reasonable cross-section.

It’s A Popularity Contest

A thing that I’d like you to notice is how few of those factors are things that the celeb actually has control over — probably only ‘very good dance skills’, ‘High jinks surrounding routine’ and ‘sympathy for misfortune’ if they choose to reveal their misfortune. The rest of them are things that the production team arrange (all of ‘impressive visuals’, ‘running order’ and ‘good recap selection’ are the uncontroversial ones) or things that exist only in the minds of the audience (‘perception of personality’, ‘sympathy for perceived slight’, etc)

If a lot of your public vote is based on how you, your partner and your routine come across to the public then one of the factors that can affect your public vote is the unconscious biases present in the minds of voters. I’ll start off with a gentle example. Daisy Lowe is really pretty. She’s very beautiful indeed. A common unconscious bias is that very beautiful women are assumed not to be interesting or smart. There is obviously no way of telling if Daisy or anyone is smart or not just by looking at them, but part of the background noise of our culture is a set of associations and stories that say ‘go ahead and make the assumption anyway’. There are other unconscious biases associated with beauty — advantages in job interviews, assumptions of morality and the toxic idea that a beautiful person only has their position in life because of their looks. This kind of thing is unhelpful, to say the least.

Next we’ll move onto an example of unconscious bias that was blowing up the papers and forums this week. Tameka was the second person to leave Strictly this year and also the second person of colour to leave Strictly in as many weeks. We don’t know the full results breakdown, but we can make deductions that suggest that both Laura & Tameka were outside the top 10 of the public vote this week. It’s reasonable to try and work out why this happened.

Tameka’s Voting Factors

Tameka is from Eastenders, a show whose 6 million strong audience can usually be counted on to get a half-decent dancer like Tameka to the second half of the series. Some notable failures have been Sid Owen (2012), Gillian Taylforth & Jessie Wallace (2008) so it’s been a long while since we had an early Eastenders departure. We only have a single data point to work out how POC from Eastenders perform; Goldie, who was first out in 2010, but a similar sort of audience to the Eastenders audience watches Casualty, whose star Patrick Robinson just missed out on the final in 2013, so I don’t think it’s fair to say that this voting bloc is explicitly racist, although the fact we have this little data to look at might say something about soap casting. We might also infer that many of the ‘floating voters’ who arrive at Strictly without a firm allegiance aren’t explicitly racist because we’ve had wins and great results for Alesha Dixon, Natalie Gumede, Louis Smith and Ricky Whittle. I don’t think you can say that Strictly voters are, as a bloc, consciously casting racist votes. It’s much more complicated than that.

Let’s look at the other factors in the list — Tameka was dancing with Gorka, a new pro who doesn’t yet have a passionate voting fanbase (as cute and earnest as he undoubtedly is) and the dance that got her into the dance-off was another one of Strictly’s inexplicable pop tangos, crammed into The Heat Is On, from Beverly Hills Cop. Now, Movie Week is always an odd one for song choices, and Strictly always tries to cover all the demographics, but Beverly Hills Cop struck me as being neither a big dance movie (Easter Parade, Singing In The Rain, Flashdance, Bugsy Malone, Moulin Rouge, Flashdance) nor a film with an iconic musical cue (Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Mission Impossible, The Flintstones). If you were definitely going to go with the somewhat dated Beverly Hills Cop (is it maybe Gorka’s favourite movie ever?) then arguably you’d have a much easier time doing a tango to the more recognisable and tempo-appropriate Axel F. Perhaps they cleared the wrong track?

The visual appearance of a routine is also important in converting viewer attention into votes — Strictly can create televisual magic when all the elements of a performance work in harmony to support one another, and the extremely talented staff perform miracles on a weekly basis. However, across a week you see variations in the way that the performances are staged, which can affect the way that the audience perceives the routine. Tameka and Gorka were lumbered with a big MDF police car that probably looked better on paper, and a slightly confusing dance story about an internal LAPD investigation which doesn’t really echo the story of Beverly Hills Cop (which was about Axel Foley using vacation time to extrajudicially investigate the murder of his friend).

There were also props of the non-oversized and non-comedy nature: doughnuts, coffee, a newspaper and a digital camera, which looked fiddly and didn’t add to the routine. There were two big things here which I think cost Team Tamorka votes. Crucially, their mirrored shades didn’t come off until 25 seconds into the routine, so Tameka and Gorka both missed out on making a connection with the viewer for nearly a third of the routine! Eye contact with the camera leads to connection with the audience, which leads to votes. Another problem was that Tameka didn’t actually feature in the final shot of the performance, it was just Gorka’s mugshot. Finishing in a memorable couple pose is important to leaving the performance on a high, and they missed out on creating an emotional moment here.

Then there was the costuming — they were trying to echo the dark, formal uniform of the LAPD rather than the significantly more sports-casual look that Eddie Murphy rocks throughout the film. The costume department also made the rare mis-step of giving Tameka palazzo pants. I would rather they had given her a pencil skirt with thigh high slits, which is just as appropriate for tango but looks slightly more plausible as a police uniform. There’s no need to worry that costume were specifically struggling to dress Tameka — only the week before they’d made her an extremely cute playsuit for dancing the Charleston, which my fellow podcasters garlanded with praise. Sometimes the costume department take risks and sometimes they don’t pay off.

But dressing your celeb entirely in black, with a confusing silhouette that obfuscates her legs isn’t a great way to highlight her dance skill. I wonder how early on in the week the meeting between costume, lighting and camera teams happens? In that meeting they might realise how putting a contestant with dark skin in a black costume against a sparsely lit background doesn’t produce a visual that really pops off the screen. It would be awful to think that they don’t consider how to dress/light/film our lovely contestants in a way that flatters them all, because I really want Strictly to be a fair show that treats all the contestants with respect.

I think the thing that really hurt Tameka’s chances though were largely in the ‘audience perceptions’ part of the list. When I looked through the various social media channels and Strictly threads on a couple of generic TV discussion groups, I saw the same adjectives describing Tameka over and over again: Loud, irritating, attention-seeking, unfunny. It’s the kind of language that you very frequently see used to try and keep down confident, funny women, and especially women of colour. These posters have made harsh judgements of the personality of a woman who is working incredibly hard and having the time of her life, based on seeing her performing and larking about for about twenty minutes a week. One larky moment in particular seems to have caused a lot of harrumphing — initiating the group hug after Ore’s dance that resulted in the lovely moment pictured below. The larking about of other cast members (let’s start with Ed Balls, Robert Rinder and Anton) doesn’t seem to bother the forum in the same way. Looking at this, we have to consider the possibility those people are using those specific negative adjectives about Tameka because she is woman of colour, who uses a verbal register that is coded working-class and because she’s visibly and audibly enjoying herself.

The Strictly 2016 Cast, having a moment

The people who have come to these judgements probably don’t realise that they’re seeing Tameka this way because of their unconscious biases. Talking to my fellow Strictly fan podcasters, we felt like Tameka was behaving exactly as we would if we had got on the show — with excitement, humour and joy.

Rounding up the other factors known to influence the public vote, Tameka was mid-table in the judges scores, which gave the impression that people like Naga and Ed were in more serious trouble than her, she wasn’t in receipt of the official ‘sympathy vote’ from the judges for her knee injury (which would have been pretty pivotal in her ability to perform a tango properly) and in the running order she was sandwiched between Claudia’s impressive Charleston and the full spectrum mind-boggle that was Ed Ball’s samba. Between those two startling numbers, both of which got very effusive judges comments, the memorability of Tameka’s dance would suffer. If the producers put the running order together after they’ve seen the first dress rehearsals, then they knew they were doing this and they likely knew Tameka’s vote would suffer.

The future: Ed Balls, dancing the samba, forever.

Combining all these factors, we start to see why Tameka didn’t gather enough votes to avoid the dance off. Some of them are a combination of bad luck and slightly uneven production in the show. Factors involving the reaction of the public are ones where we can’t rule out unconscious bias. Is the Strictly public vote racist? As always, it’s considerably more complicated than that.

[Note: Edited on 17th October to reflect that Patrick Robinson starred in Casualty, not Holby City as originally stated]