So You Think You Can Dance kicked off its live concert tour on September 20 in Tacoma, Washington. The Top 10 finalists from season four, plus three special guests (also from season four), are hitting over 40 cities across America. The tour concludes November 17 in Tampa, Florida.
In addition to attending the opening performance of the tour, I also had the opportunity to meet with five of the thirteen dancers. Season four winner Joshua Allen, as well as Katee Shean, Mark Kanemura, Chelsea Traille, and Jessica King (who dropped out of the competition mid-season due to broken ribs) chatted with me about the show and the tour. Only a few hours later they would take the stage in front of a sold-out Tacoma Dome audience.
As a neophyte to So You Think You Can Dance, I was more than a little unsure about how to conduct the interview. My worries dissolved quickly because of the disarming, easy-going nature of these talented performers. I welcomed the chance to get to know some of them prior to watching them in action.
Joshua admitted he had never been to the Seattle area before, nor to "over half of the places" he would visit during the tour. All of the dancers, who had flown in to Seattle that day, were excited to perform in front of the large – and hopefully enthusiastic – crowd that night. I asked what had drawn them to audition for So You Think You Can Dance. All of them stated that they were fans of the show and saw it as an opportunity to further their careers in dance. Chelsea considered the show to be like "watching training." She recorded each episode to watch many times over, learning from what she saw. She said, "If I could just get a second of that [training], or even just a glimpse of it – that would be amazing and so I tried out." Mark, who was teaching dance in Hawaii, saw the show as an opportunity to "break out of his comfort zone and do something different."
Joshua, who began his dance career as a street performer, had been trying to save up enough money to get out to Los Angeles for the audition. Then, much to his surprise, he learned that auditions were to be held right where he lived: Dallas, Texas. He made this discovery a mere week before the audition date. He tried out on the "coldest day in Dallas ever," waiting in long lines, and eventually won his ticket to Las Vegas.
While on the show, the dancers all had to claim a specific style of dance, but all were quick to point out that a dancer must be versed in several styles to be successful. Chelsea told me, “The thing about dancers is we don't discriminate [against] any kind of dance. I'm just as intrigued watching hip-hop as I am ballet or contemporary. I feel like we're so different, as different as a fingerprint. [Dance] is an expression of yourself. I'm 23, and ten years ago there was no dancing on TV. To turn on the TV and see crews, contemporary dancers – it's just insane."
Jessica pointed out that there was added pressure to go beyond expectations when performing in your declared style. "When we all got ballroom or something, it was like 'OK, we're not ballroom dancers,' but we understand we still had to [do it]. But when we got contemporary – and you call yourself contemporary – but you don't step up to the plate…there's a lot of pressure on you." Joshua agreed, adding, "I think the same thing with hip-hop too, there are so many different styles of hip-hop: lyrical hip-hop, krump, and others. Whatever we do, our main thing is: if we didn't hit it right – perfectly almost – we got creamed. Because that's what you're supposed to be good at."
I wanted to know how they approached styles that weren't as familiar to them. "With an open mind!" Jessica laughed. Chelsea added that the viewer's perception was: “Katee can do anything." Even so, there were times Katee was unsure. "Oh, I would cry even," Katee said, and then pointed out that disco was a hard style for her. From week to week the dancers did not have control over costumes, choreography, partners, or music. As Katee made clear, they "only had control of themselves on the stage."
One common goal among all the contestants was moving to New York or Los Angeles to pursue a career in dance. They all agreed that while other cities had some opportunities, they were limited in what they could achieve. Mark, who was inspired to take up dance after seeing a stage production of The Phantom of the Opera as a youngster, said the only opportunities in Hawaii were to either continue teaching or do community theater. Chelsea, who spent a year dancing for the Dallas Mavericks, felt she had done just about everything there was to do in Dallas. Even though moving to a bigger city would be intimidating, she was willing to take her chances as "the small fish in the big pond."
Season four champ Joshua cited Michael Jackson as an early inspiration. As much as he loved dancing, he could not afford to take classes growing up. He had to rely on scholarships – and even did chores around dance studios – in exchange for lessons. He felt it was hard to be taken seriously as a male dancer in Dallas because of his schoolmates' preconceived notions. The conflicts and constant fighting once led to a change of schools mid-year. Having always been athletic in school, playing sports and running track, in tenth grade he decided to focus on dance. "People that don't know it are dumbfounded by what dance is for boys, you have to go through a lot of teasing," he said.
All the training and hard work led them to the point they were at now – a cross-country U.S. tour performing in front of their most devoted fans. As I've already mentioned, my awareness of So You Think You Can Dance didn’t extend very far beyond seeing Joel McHale poking fun at boisterous judge, Mary Murphy, on The Soup.
But after only a brief time with some of the dancers, and learning about all their hard work, I was excited to see the stage show. They did not disappoint.
The show is structured perfectly for those who are newcomers to So You Think You Can Dance, or are only casual fans. Show creator and judge Nigel Lythgoe introduced the show in a special prerecorded video. Lythgoe showcased his five favorite auditions, along with a montage of the “delusional auditions.” Show host Cat Deeley had a similar video message. Throughout the show, in between routines, there were video segments from the television program and behind-the-scenes footage of the dancers.
The live show itself was spectacular. It began with a group number introducing all the dancers, and then alternated between pairs and solo performances. Group performances were scattered throughout, including a delightful interpretation of the classic "Money, Money" from Cabaret. The show was designed to highlight each dancer’s strengths, recreating favorite dance routines from the television program. One of my personal favorites was the hip-hop "escaped convict" routine with Kherington and Twitch dancing to Busta Rhymes' "Don't Touch Me (Throw Da Water On 'Em)." Another highlight was the somewhat comedic Broadway routine with Joshua and Katee dancing to "All For The Best" from Godspell.
The show's winner, Joshua, who was featured in the most dances, showed enormous versatility. He moved effortlessly between styles without missing a beat. His samba with Katee (to Angela Via's "Baila, Baila") was one of several quite sexy routines that displayed what great shape the dancers are in. Everyone seemed at the top of their game and more than prepared to be performing in front of thousands of spectators. The names of the choreographers of each routine were studiously mentioned, giving credit to the tremendous work they contributed.
In addition to dancing, each finalist performed comedic bits to introduce the next act. While it was obviously written dialogue, the bits seemed spontaneous and the audience loved it. This was a reminder that more is required of this type of performer than just being a good dancer. Particularly amusing was the running theme of the beleaguered Gev trying to woo the resistant Courtney. It was nice to see each performer involved with multiple aspects of the staging. It allowed the audience to really get to know each dancer, assuming they weren't already familiar with them. By the end of the show, I knew each of their names and what kinds of things they excelled at – without having followed the television program.
Despite the occasionally corny banter and interplay, dancing was always at the forefront of the show. As part of the wide range of styles on display, types of dance from other cultures were even included. Especially impressive was the Russian Trepak (from The Nutcracker), performed by Twitch and Joshua. Joshua achieved mind-boggling height in his leaps, essentially doing the splits in mid-air several feet off the ground. Twitch displayed a mastery of prisyatki, which is traditional Russian squat work. This routine, perhaps more than any other, brought the crowd to its feet in wild applause.
One of the most exceptional aspects of the show was seeing everyone excel in one way or another. It is amazing to watch what the dancers can achieve in fairly short routines, none lasting more than a few minutes. The skill and technique that went into their work was breathtaking.
I was easily able to pick up on which routines were fan favorites from the television program. The very mention of key props that would appear in certain segments brought waves of giddy anticipation from the crowd. One of these was a doorway, which featured prominently in a contemporary routine with Twitch and Katee. To the sounds of Duffy's "Mercy," they portrayed an obviously troubled – but passionate – couple. I was impressed by the amount of acting that goes into these performances; these dancers go further than mere choreographed movement. Their high level of emotional expression electrified the Tacoma Dome and elevated the show to a new level. Chelsie Hightower and Mark Kanemura provided another example of this with their "briefcase" hip-hop routine, set to Leona Lewis' "Bleeding Love." This was another noteworthy example of the storytelling within the choreography, this time depicting a doomed romance between a girl and "a jerk" (according to Kherington in her introduction to the piece).
Speaking of the emotionally charged work on display throughout this live extravaganza, a very special mention must be made of the one performance that actually brought me to tears. Choreographed by Jean-Marc Genereux, Twitch and Kherington performed a Viennese Waltz to the strains of "A New Day Has Come" by Celine Dion. What made this one especially great was a taped segment from the television program in which Genereux explained that he has a severely disabled daughter afflicted by Rett Syndrome. This disorder robs its sufferers of nearly all motor skills. In the case of Genereux's daughter, the one thing that elicits an animated reaction from her is watching movement such as dance. He choreographed this piece for her, with the hopes he would see a physical reaction from her.
The elegant beauty of the dancing, when given this heartrending context, resulted in more than a few visibly moved spectators. It wasn't the closing performance of the show, nor the flashiest, but definitely a true showstopper. It was a prime example of how effective and worthwhile So You Think You Can Dance is.
After hearing about all the hard work and dedication the dancers put into their skill, I wondered what the next step would be for each of them. While the similarly-styled television show American Idol is searching for the next music superstar, fame (outside of the dance world) is not generally the outcome for even the most successful dancers.
Jessica wants to use the show as “a springboard” and hopes to keep getting better. Chelsea agreed that improving one's art is the key to longevity as a dancer. “The minute you think that training is over is the minute that people start flying past you like a race,” she said. Chelsea also plans to keep training and auditioning, in hopes of landing "that one big contract.” Mark, the most low-key of those I spoke with, plans to keep teaching and would like to work with different companies such as Cirque Du Soleil. The show’s winner, Joshua, aspires to become an R&B recording artist. But, as much as he loves to sing, he assured me, “I never want to give up the dance.”