Friday, August 17, 2007 Backstage at the So You Think You Can Dance Finale!
by Deborah Starr Seibel
Sabra Johnson by Kelsey McNeal FoxSo You Think You Can Dance champ Sabra Johnson
Benji Schwimmer, who moonlights as a correspondent for Fox Reality TV, has just wrapped his interview with So You Think You Can Dance's new champion, Sabra Johnson. He lowers his microphone and puts his arms around her, talking quietly into her ear. Dazed and confused from her big win and all the backstage hubbub surrounding her, Sabra nods and closes her eyes, listening to words of wisdom from someone who's been there.
"He just said to keep having fun and be grateful for it," says Sabra moments later. "This puts me exactly where I need to be — almost ahead of the game. I haven't had the chance to work with a lot of choreographers. Now I can pay the rent. Now I can pay for dance classes. Now I don't have to work three jobs just to try to do that. It's more than I could've asked for."
The judges agree: Any one of the final four could've taken home that $250,000 prize. Johnson beat the electrifying Lacey Schwimmer. She beat the cutie-pie gymnast who chose to become a dancer, Neil Haskell. And she beat the guy everyone agrees is the most talented dancer ever to grace this show's stage, the classically trained Danny Tidwell. "I know very well that I'm not the dancer that Danny is," says Sabra. "He's on a completely different level. For the last four years, I've known who he is, and I just wanted to talk to him. So standing there with him tonight (as the final two) was the craziest thing."
Not so crazy to Hairspray director Adam Shankman, the colorful and opinionated former dancer who sat in twice this season as a judge. Shankman predicted on Monday night that the final two would be Danny and Sabra. "I think I saw it through the audience's eyes," says Shankman. And what, exactly, did he see in Sabra? "Accessibility," says Shankman. "A magnificent dancer. Giant smile. And always super there. Danny evolved. But Sabra was like a giant sparkle."
Even Danny's proud adoptive mother (and first dance coach), Denise Wall, agrees with the outcome. "I think Sabra should have won," says Wall. "When they had a week off [over the Fourth of July], Danny brought Sabra to New York and we got to know her. People said, ‘There's no way she's only been dancing four years.' But I said, ‘She's been touched by God. God gave her the ability to understand her body.'" Wall invited Sabra to join them in dance class during the time off. "I walked by her when we were doing some bar work and I was saying some technical things to her and boom, boom, boom, the muscles just engaged. I said to myself, ‘She's a natural.'"
"Sabra winning, for me, is brilliant for America," says executive producer and judge Nigel Lythgoe. "Because it shows that you don't have to begin dancing at 3 or 4 years of age. She's got to be an inspiration for anyone who's even contemplated dancing. But Sabra also has that magic that you can't teach: charisma."
The show was dripping in charisma this season. The dancers' engaging personalities and overall improved technique inspired the choreographers, who in turn started competing to create ever more dazzling routines. Shane Sparks says there was an unspoken competition amongst the choreographers. And, he says, unlike last season, the producers had a hands-off policy that allowed the choreographers to make the dancing more experimental and provocative. "Last season," says Sparks, "I couldn't do anything that had anything to do with the hips, or touching, or getting close. I could shake the butt, but I couldn't go any further. But this season, they believed in me and took their chances."
Lythgoe, who isn't planning any major tweaks or changes to the show, says he may be rethinking that hands-off approach. His problem isn't with the sexuality but with some of the more bizarre concepts. "I'd like to discuss [the routines] with the choreographers a little more next season," he says. "They have to remember that these dancers are in a competition and not experiment as much as we have done."
But he's thrilled, overall, with the way America has accepted dancing on television. "I really think we are the ‘Little Engine That Could,'" says Lythgoe. "We have risen out of the shadows of the big, giant Death Star that is American Idol — that sweeps everything out of its way. We're dealing with people here (dancers) who are always in the background. They're never going to be stars. They're never going to sell a million albums. You can't name me five dancers who are stars in the world at this moment. So to take them out of the background and put them into the spotlight, have them be as brilliant as they have been, and show off some of these choreographers' work? It has felt wonderful."
Host Cat Deeley teased all night that she and Lythgoe were going to take a spin around the floor. But it was a good-natured rip-off: not a dance at all but a video cartoon. Deeley is the first to admit that not only can she not dance, she can barely walk across the length of the stage in her 5-inch heels. "I'm always terrified wearing them, to be honest," says Deeley, "because I'm the klutziest person in the world. So for me to get from the back of that stage to the front, every time they'd announce me? I'd pray. And then the dancers are all jumping around me and I'm thinking: I've just got to make my way to the front."
Lythgoe makes no apologies for not showing off his footwork with his statuesque host. "Look, I'll do the deal right now," says Lythgoe. "I will physically dance with anybody you want to name, the moment Simon Cowell sings a song on American Idol."
Never gonna happen.
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