A tornado of rhinestones and tan legs is headed right for me. She spins, spins, spins and snaps to the floor in a pose a superhero might strike right before knocking your lights out. If I had lights, trust me, they would be toast.
It’s So You Think You Can Dance callbacks for Season 9 at Planet Hollywood, and I’m not even inside the auditorium yet. Dancers are everywhere, doing last-ditch leaps, pirouettes and head-spins before they march under the hot lights to perform for judges Nigel Lythgoe, Mary Murphy, Lil’ C, Tyce Diorio, Debbie Allen and Adam Shankman.
In the first group, the ballroom couple kills it (my toasted lights are now vaporized). From the whip of her blonde curls to the absolute perfection of his frame (it’s a dance term, people), they are already on the Hot Tamale Train, though Mary Murphy manages to control herself.
The contemporary dancers range from a girl in satin ballet slippers with spiked pink hair to a sweet-faced young man busting it to “One Moment in Time.” When the tap dancer hits the stage, the sound gives me chills. TV just doesn’t do that sound justice. A belly dancer with gold wings shakes and twists and pops her body in ways I’ve never seen, leaving us breathless. Shankman and I both throw some wild fists in the air.
There are street dancers aplenty. All crazy good. A guy with electric red sneakers stands out not only for the hard-hitting precision of his moves but also for his sense of humor. Several dancers use their hair as props, though a contemporary hopeful with jeweled decals stuck to his face wins the prize for ... originality. Diorio later warns him that the dancing is more important than the freaky bling.
A dead ringer for Rihanna gets the most support from her fellow dancers. Maybe it's because when she extends her leg, she brings it right to the edge of impossibility, where she should crumple to the floor, but some unseen magic keeps her solid. She, and many others, make me realize the surprising beauty of the human ribcage.
But the most arresting performance comes from a pop-and-lock dynamo called “Exorcist.” He explains that he’s going to draw out our pain and negativity with his dance and that we’ll get the energy back, transformed into joy and warmth and gratitude. You’ll have to see it to believe it, but the kid means what he says.
Lythgoe lets us know that a very big change is coming for Season 9 that will have us all asking why it didn’t happen years ago, but he won’t reveal it. "I'm not prepared to tell you what it is, but I am prepared to tease you," he says. What we know is that the show's original two-night format is shifting to one, with a lot more action packed in. And from what I’ve seen, it’s going to be hot, cool and as sparkling as Lythgoe’s chompers. Here are a few more nuggets from him and some other favorite judges:
I have to ask you about Danny. I’ve never stopped thinking he should have won Season 3. Sabra was brilliant, but—
Nowhere near as good a dancer as Danny Tidwell. It’s about the public. It’s never been America’s best dancer; it’s always been America’s favorite dancer. … Bring your personality. Martha Graham, last century, turned 'round and said, a great dancer isn’t just about great technique, it’s about great passion. Sometimes you don’t have to worry about pointing your toes or singing the right note. Mick Jagger never sang the right note in his life.
A lot of the dancers I saw today had amazing technique. Only a few had amazing charisma. Can you teach it or somehow coax it out of people who are naturally wooden?
It’s just saying, look, where was your smile? What were you thinking? You’re not in a studio. Don’t look in the mirror and check your arms and your legs. You’ve got a whole pile of people here deciding your fate, why wouldn’t you connect with that?
Speaking of connection, I also have to ask you about Sex.
I’m sorry? (Laughs) It’s a terrible name. It’s a joke every time you say it.
He might be America's least favorite dancer.
I loved it when we did the dance-off between him and the other kid. It’s just entertainment at that point. I don’t mind throwing entertainment in. We get terrible letters sometimes saying, “That’s not dancing.” Well, we’re an entertainment show. If we were just a dance show we wouldn’t be on the air. … We always have tried to keep the integrity of dance, without question. Try to be honest as well as being entertaining. Try to educate a nation in dance.
Today, a belly dancer and a tap dancer were my favorites. People with such specialized styles are often cast, but can they actually win?
I don’t know what’s lying underneath that … We’ve had b-boys who are suddenly unbelievable at ballroom. You have no idea. You just can hope.
Was she the first belly dancer you’ve had on the show?
No. I mean, she’s the first one that did THAT to us.
A lot of people dream of being dancers, but this show isn’t about starting from scratch.
We’re really aiming towards kids who are going to go on to become professionals. A lot of the kids from the shows I’ve cast in the Step Up movies; they’re in Rock of Ages; I’ve used them on Glee. It’s really about that next level.
Do you ever know at the beginning of a season who’s going to win?
I’m kind of formulating for myself. Every judge is individual. We get in the back and we argue. We fight up there. Just today they were saying something about one girl and I said, you can’t mess with that; don’t even think about it. ... As I’m plowing through, I’m putting down who I think could be the winner. By the time I finish I’ll have at least 10 people that could be the winner and then I’ll have another 20 that could be in second place. And then I fight with myself.
The partnerships are huge. If the chemistry is off it can be the end of both dancers’ chances. How do you decide on those matchups?
Those decisions get made, but sometimes they’re not right. It’s like saying, you guys are going to get married. We’re in America. The arranged marriage ain’t workin’ over here. (Laughs) But sometimes it works out perfectly.
Given how attached you must get to the cast throughout the competition, is it just heartbreaking when they get sent home? Is it as emotional as it seems?
It is very emotional, but at the same time I always feel so good about everybody who gets to be on this show, because you’re a winner the minute you step up there. You already have visibility. I mean, when did dancers since Cyd Charisse and Gene Kelly and the Nicholas Brothers, when were they really featured in the industry the way they are now on So You Think You Can Dance? … They all end up mountains ahead of where they were, however they finish.