During the Dallas auditions for Season 9 of So You Think You Can Dance in Dallas, I had the pleasure of talking with judges Nigel Lythgoe, Mary Murphy, Lil' C and executive producer Jeff Thacker. In addition to tidbits about this season's show, a couple of themes kept popping up, specifically about the impact of SYTYCD on the art form and on dance education.
First, let's see what they have to say about this year's show.
One of the biggest changes in recent seasons has been the partnering format for the competition. In Seasons 1-6, the judges selected a Top 20 pool of dancers who would then partner with each other as they went through each week of the competition, with a male and a female eliminated each week. Season 7 saw a drastic change. A Top 10 was chosen, and instead of partnering with each other, the contestants would dance with a set group of "All-Stars," which were popular dancers from previous seasons. Complaints and praises abounded, so the judges decided to combine the two formats for Season 8. The Top 20 would partner with each other until the group was reduced to ten, then the All-Stars would come in. (Questions are in bold, and additional commentary by me is in italics.)
TheaterJones: Nigel, what changes are coming to the competition? Are you sticking with the same partnering format?
Lythgoe: We are, we're bringing back the All-Stars hopefully but now we've lost our results show, so we're going to have to build the results into the following week's show. Once America's voted, we'll have the let the performers know after they've danced another routine, so now at least they get to dance two routines and we'll get to judge them on that. The judges will decide who goes home based on America's vote. America of course never votes for anyone to leave the program, they only vote for people they want to stay. The judges will get that honor of losing one boy and one girl, as ever. I want to keep the group routines, keep exponents of really good dance, group or individual. We have a very packed show. It's two hours, so once it goes, don't close your eyes or you'll miss a lot.
Metroplex audiences definitely won't want to miss a show, especially if one of our own makes it as a finalist or even wins the whole shebang! Is America's Favorite Dancer here? Executive Producer Jeff Thacker chimes in.
Since you've had many finalists, including Season 4 winner Joshua Allen, who were discovered in or came from Dallas, what are you expecting from Dallas this year?
Thacker: What we are expecting from Dallas this year: stars. You mentioned Season 4 Joshua Allen, there was Comfort and Chelsea Traille, and in fact in Season 7 Robert Roldan auditioned here and got in the Top 3. There's a great program here in Dallas, SMU [Southern Methodist University] has a great facility, and you can see the amount of people behind me, so maybe the winner is here.
Even those finalists who don't win, though, really don't lose. Joshua Allen is teaching master classes around the world, many other finalists are on Broadway or in touring shows, and some have grabbed movie roles as well. Becoming a finalist really does change your dance life.
How do you think the experience has been for the contestants who have worked with the diverse range of choreographers that have been on the show?
Thacker: If you are a dancer and that's your ambition and goal to work with as many of the best choreographers America has, our show gives them that opportunity, but you have to earn that position to get there. But I actually think the choreographers that work on the show too have been able to showcase their talent and themselves, hence the amount of Emmys that we have won over the years for Mia, Wade and Tyce, and Nappy Tabs this year. We must have an impact in the choreographic world also to be recognized, so that's really cool.
Not only has the show had an impact on the dancers and choreographers' lives, but it has had a tremendous effect on popular culture.
When the show first started, did you and the crew ever think it would get this big?
Thacker: No, I don't think we knew what was going to happen with the show, we were kind of like an undiscovered secret, people found us and stuck with us ever since. If you think that we're now in Season 9, for a dance show that suddenly gave dance a spotlight that it was missing for a few years, and I think we were helped by Dancing with the Stars, which was the only other dance show that was around in 2005.
Since you mention DWTS and there are other dance shows, such as America's Best Dance Crew, how do you think SYTYCD has had an effect on pop culture and dance on television?
Thacker: I honestly believe that we've have an enormous effect on TV as far as dance is concerned. One of the good things about our show is it's diverse and not necessary based around one specific genre of dance. DWTS has taken the ballroom world and really put that back on the map. We have ballroom on our show but we have every other type genre we can get in, so I think it's like a box of chocolates, with something for everyone in it.
And the ripple effect continues. The art form of dance in general is affected by SYTYCD. Which brings me back to the dialogue between Nigel and one of the contestants on what contemporary dance is or isn't. A similar incident during last season's show started a flurry of tweets and blog posts on just what exactly contemporary dance is. Travis Wall had choreographed a jazz dance, which Nigel said looked more like contemporary. The term is also used to describe many other variations of dance, which may or may not look similar to each other. So, I wanted it straight from the horse's mouth.
How would you describe what contemporary dance is?
Lythgoe: I think contemporary dance has a basis in classical dance, for a start. I don't really think you should be classified as a contemporary dancer if you haven't had classical training, so we'll use that as a base. It's really difficult to differentiate lyrical and contemporary, and a kid today calls it concert [dance]. It's really a fine line. For me contemporary tells a story, gives a lot of emotion, and is based in the classical world.
On another dance style, Lil' C gives us his thoughts on an issue close to his heart.
What do you think this show has done for the evolution of krumping?
Lil' C: Oh, I think this show has had an effect, not just on the evolution of krumping but the evolution of dance. It has put all styles on a platform to be appreciated and adored by people whose dance intelligence and familiarity was very miniscule and now it's major. It has taught people about technique, it's taught people about different styles, it's taught people about new styles. It has educated them; it's dance education. And it has put certain dances like krump on the radar of America and rest of continent. That right there has pumped life and put more gasoline in tank for the style so it can continue its journey through the realm of dance, so it's definitely a good thing.
Not only does the show put certain dance styles on the radar of America, but on the radar of the global community. After the success of the first season of SYTYCD, other countries got on board. The show has 20 international adaptations, from Europe to the Middle East to Africa. The effect has multiplied exponentially to a point where it's almost mind-boggling. So what does that mean for the local dance scene? Mary Murphy got on this topic when I asked her about the impact of the economy.
The economy has negatively affected many live dance groups. Do you feel the economy has positively or negatively impacted this show?
Murphy: No, I don't think it's impacted this show, because I know the tours are beaming with thousands and thousands of people coming to watch them. I can just go by what I'm experiencing, in my dance studio there are more younger people, more children dancing that I've ever had. I've had my dance studio for 22 years, and I can't believe the number of children that are coming in to dance, and how many young adults too are saying, "I can't wait to be on SYTYCD," so in that respect I do know that there are studios hurting, but I think there is a wider base of people dancing because of SYTYCD and DWTS.
A wider base of people dancing is a great thing for health, expression, and well-being. Nigel also affirms this, but makes certain distinctions. Here's what he had to say.
I appreciate how you encourage many of the less talented dancers who aren't right for this show to continue dancing and many dance educators would agree with how you do that. Why do you encourage people to dance?
Lythgoe: Depends on what you call dancing. This show demands competitive dancers and brilliant dancers in all its forms. We give opportunities to a lot of people on this show who have no formal training that have got that passion and the ability to pick up. Twitch never had any formal training, and now that he's gotten it, the improvement in him has been sensational. He came back for about three years and didn't get on the program.
But I want everyone dancing. It isn't just about dancing professionally; it's about dancing for fun. That's why we danced in the first place, it's to have fun and get rid of some of our energy. Looking at some many problems in this country with child obesity, I want everyone dancing. We formed the Dizzy Feet Foundation to help that. We've just taken 200 pairs of tap shoes to a school in New Orleans to get them all tapping. If one kid starts tap dancing from there, that's terrific. It's two things, one dancing for the show and two, dancing for dancing's sake.
As you can see, many of these conversations circle back to dance education, which is another huge aspect of this show. Not only did Lil' C mention it when talking about krumping, but other judges obviously make it a priority as well. Considering all the Metroplex community college and many other colleges and universities in the area offer Dance Appreciation (and the new semester is starting), I thought it was appropriate to ask a couple of the judges about the subject. Are you paying attention students? This will be on the next quiz…
This show has helped many in educating non-dancers on what dance is. What message would you give those students about how to appreciate dance?
Murphy: When you see anything that is genius—and you might not understand one thing about dance— it will draw you in, and you know when you've seen magic. You might not even know what a developpé or an arabesque or a cha cha is, and it won't matter because when you see something extraordinary, it touches you. When dancers dance with a soul it moves you. I've talked to plenty of people all over the world and they say the same thing. "Well, I cried during that dancers' dance, but I don't know anything about contemporary." It makes you feel something, and anytime a dancer can get that across and of course over television as well, it's amazing.
Lil' C: There's so much advice you could give to somebody. I think that people should appreciate the ability to be the mediator between music and movement. A lot of times you take it for granted, but it's so amazing to be the intercessor between what you hear and how you move and creating that relationship. It's like you're Chuck Woolery almost, you're making that love connection and some of those bonds last forever. And they change the way people live their lives and change the way they feel about things, and it opens up new portal of emotion. Just don't take it for granted. You have to appreciate the appreciation and appreciate the ability to appreciate.
◊ Season 9 of So You Think You Can Dance will begin this summer on FOX.