'So You Think You Can Dance' s' positive vibe
Fox's reality show is 'so reliant on the talent,' creator Nigel Lythgoe says.
By Richard Rushfield
June 3, 2009
Reporting from Las Vegas -- On its surface, "So You Think You Can Dance's" Vegas Week looks like many battle-to-the death reality TV shows.
At the gigantic Theatre for the Performing Arts, just a few yards off Planet Hollywood Hotel's casino floor, the requisite elements of the genre are clearly evident; dancers buckling under the pressure, judges sternly jotting down notes; camera crews capturing the tension as contestants fresh from the stage wonder whether they gave enough.
But stick around the show's Vegas Week (which airs on Fox tonight) a little longer and you'll be struck by what is missing from the familiar panoply of reality TV staples -- judges searching for clever ways to rub the dancers' faces in their missteps, or a host coolly reveling in the contestants' moments of despair, or catfights, bug-eating, backstabbing or name-calling. That is to say, every one of the established ingredients of a prime-time competition show.
ushfield Now entering its fifth season, "So You Think You Can Dance" feels like the cornerstone of not just a network's summer lineup, but an actual movement. This despite the fact that when the show was born in 2005, it seemed a mere side project of "American Idol" executive producer and "SYTYCD" creator Nigel Lythgoe, sowing his oats by doing a show in the field of his youth.
When the show premiered, dance on television was obscure at best, known primarily for background extras in music videos and commercials. Now, dance is seemingly everywhere thanks to the simultaneous hits of "SYTYCD," ABC's "Dancing With the Stars" and MTV's "America's Best Dance Crew" as well as the success of the "High School Musical" and "Step Up" films.
And "SYTYCD" itself has gone from "Idol's" little buddy/sidekick to the star of the summer to earning a spot on the fall schedule. In addition, the show now airs in 40 nations, with approximately 20 other countries replicating their own versions under the "SYTYCD" banner.
This not to say the show hasn't had its flashes of controversy. Last month, Lythgoe, who is also a judge, apologized for what he later termed his "insensitive, arrogant and stupid" remarks that were deemed homophobic by many. During the show's Denver auditions, Lythgoe, who began his career in the United Kingdom as a dancer, criticized a male dance couple for performing in "each other's arms," and later he sent a message via Twitter that stated, "I'm not a fan of 'Brokeback' Ballroom."
Somewhere long after noon, as the solo numbers ended, the dancers who earlier had paraded before the judges loafed and undulated across the theater lobby -- stretching against walls, moving in unison to hummed melodies, forming circles around a few overcome by inspiration to bop. Through the theater's glass doors, tourists peered in at what seemed a 170-headed writhing beast.
A crew member announced through a megaphone that the contestants had 32 minutes to rest and get changed for the hip-hop routine. Bouncing, singing, skipping, the beast cascaded out of the lobby, into the casino and back upstairs to the dancers' rooms, giving the impression of a group not in a make-or-break struggle for showbiz survival, but of young people in the company of a couple hundred newfound soul mates.
"You can never rest on your television ratings. We're so reliant on the talent," said Lythgoe, comparing his dance program to "American Idol." "I think that's been forgotten a little bit. There's been so much talk on 'Idol' about the judges, the judges; it's not about the judges. It's about the talent."
Judge Mary Murphy emphasized the importance of a dancer's listening to the panel's critiques and putting them into practice. She noted that some impressive contestants today returned after being dismissed in previous seasons.
"We do give them notes and it's really hard to take that big note," she said. "But some of them really rally to the occasion, come back fighting, and not only come back but some, one in particular to say, without a doubt, I cannot see this person not being in the top 20."
In a testament to the show's success, Murphy's personal catchphrase "ticket on the hot tamale train" is catching on at home and abroad. "It's so big in other countries, if I don't say it once somewhere I go, the kids go absolutely ballistic," she said. "I had no idea this really translated across the world."
As the dancers returned to the stage to learn their hip-hop routine, "SYTYCD" host Cat Deeley, the only non-dancer on the cast, explained the reality show didn't turn out to be the negative kind of world she originally envisioned.
"I was absolutely proved wrong," she said. "There is definitely this sense of camaraderie."
And in contrast to her "American Idol" counterpart, Ryan Seacrest, often called the Angel of Death for the apparent glee he takes in his role in each week's dismissal, Deeley sees her part as "kind of like big sister, cheerleader, everyman."
She continued, expressing a sentiment rarely heard in other reality competitions: "My whole thing is there can only be one winner on the whole show, so you either turn around and say, 'Every single one of these other people is going to have a negative experience.' Or what you do is you turn around and say, 'Let's make this the most positive experience it can be for every single one of these people.' "
richard.rushfield@ latimes.com 'So You Think You Can Dance' s' positive vibe - Los Angeles Times