Yes, they think they can dance

Dancer Xavier Townsend, 20, of Media, warms up before auditioning for "So You Think You Can Dance," on Jan. 21 at the Merriam Theater.
Dancer Xavier Townsend, 20, of Media, warms up before auditioning for "So You Think You Can Dance," on Jan. 21 at the Merriam Theater. (CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer)
Posted: February 12, 2014

It was cold, polar vortex cold. Schools were closed and heavy snow was on the way. But for nearly 600 dancers, plus supporters bundled up in puffy coats, hats, and blankets outside the Merriam Theater as much as 11 hours ahead of call time, it was worth it.

Worth it for the possibility of dancing on TV, working with great choreographers, and maybe a place on the "hot-tamale train" to stardom.

That is judge Mary Murphy's signature phrase, and she utters it when a dancer blows her away on So You Think You Can Dance. Murphy, along with Nigel Lythgoe, host Cat Deeley, and Tony-winner guest judge Billy Porter ( Kinky Boots) were in Philadelphia for three days in January to audition dancers for the popular show.

By lunchtime the second day, the train had not left the station, but the judges had seen some impressive dancers, including a University of the Arts student whom Murphy told, "Your performance will keep me going for the next few hours. That's how great it was." Later she confided, "I see transportation in his future."

First in line that morning was 8-year-old Ronald Johnson of Grays Ferry. He and his mother, Sarah McCluskey, arrived at 9 the night before, for an 8 a.m. call, five hours before anyone else appeared.

A self-trained hip-hop dancer, Ronald is far younger than the show's 18-30 age requirement, but he begged and mom caved. After urging her to take him home, producers relented and said he could perform for the judges.

"We were all aware he wouldn't make it past the first round," McCluskey said. (Identities of those who did progress are hush-hush.)

A number of University of the Arts students who had walked the few blocks to the Merriam said they would put school on hold if they won tickets to the next round. The judges were impressed.

"We are quickly learning the name of the school," Lythgoe said of UArts. "They're doing a very big job for us," providing a steady stream of polished dancers. Executive producer Jeff Thacker said Philadelphia's turnout was stronger than expected in both numbers and talent, particularly among contemporary dancers.

In the last decade, dance on TV has become popular, sometimes wildly so. Dancing With the Stars launched in 2004 and is one of Nielsen's highest-rated primetime programs. So You Think You Can Dance (2005) has had rating ups and downs but its contestants are generally exceptional and it has a strong fan base. Dance Moms, which viewers love to hate, made a name for abrasive - maybe even verbally abusive - Pittsburgh dance teacher Abby Lee Miller starting in 2011.

Other shows have come and gone. Bunheads, a dramedy starring Sutton Foster, and Breaking Pointe, which went behind the scenes at Ballet West and featured former Rock School student Beckanne Sisk, had small but loyal followings. Both have been canceled. Starz recently announced that it had picked up a new ballet drama, Flesh and Bone, starring Sarah Hay, who danced with Pennsylvania Ballet from 2007 to 2010.

Lythgoe, a former tap dancer, was working on American Idol, when he was picked to create a dance version of that show. "I thought it would never work," he said. Still, he spent months forming a plan and is now an executive producer for both Idol and SYTYCD.

"We based this show around the premise of A Chorus Line," fellow executive producer Thacker said. "And I think we've stayed true to that initial concept." Indeed, just like the long-running musical, over the course of SYTYCD audiences get to know each dancer as a person as well as a performer, and fall in love.

"We're looking for stars, people that sparkle, make an instant impression every week, not divas," Thacker said. That's why a good dancer might not make it, while a quiet one can still shine through.

"I fought for Jasmine [Harper] to be in the Top 20 last season, and she wound up making it into the finale," said host Cat Deeley. "I thought she was beautiful, interesting, and different from everybody else. We never know what we're looking for, but you just spot it."

Lythgoe stressed that je ne sais quoi over and over in the auditions. "I wish there was a drink called Charisma that you could just take and come alive on stage," he told a proficient but less-than-magnetic dancer. "All you need to do is add that extra layer of performance."

As popular as dance is on TV, professional dance companies are not always feeling the same love.

"I think it probably does create more chatter, more buzz, more interest in the general public," said Lois Welk, director of the service organization Dance USA/Philadelphia. "But I think it takes a lot to move somebody from sitting at home and watching TV to providing enough motivation for leaving home, buying a ticket, possibly finding child care . . .."

Dance schools may be reaping more benefits than companies, Welk speculated: "Certainly the young dancers who are competing are getting a boost in their careers." Past SYTYCD winners have been awarded as much as $250,000, and valuable exposure.

SYTYCD's 11th season does not yet have an airdate, but the dancers at the Merriam were excited.

"I am 100 percent confident that I will make it," says Carlos "CJ" Fuentes Jr., 22, who teaches dance in Bethlehem and was auditioning with a piece that blended hip-hop and salsa. "I didn't want to audition until I thought I was ready."

Emily Reed, 19, of Tioga, Pa., a UArts student, looked fresh and warm in line on the first morning of auditions. Her mother, Holly, and dance teacher, Heather Cavanaugh, showed up at 4 a.m. to secure her spot in line, so Reed could sleep. She had a jazz number planned, "playful and a little sultry."

"This is the biggest audition I've ever done," Reed said, noting that she wanted to work with the show's choreographers and "boost my dance career."

She felt confident. Before UArts, she studied at Cavanaugh's tiny dance school in Horseheads, N.Y., where most of its 27 students compete five or six times a year. Reed won a national title at 15.

Just like Dance Moms?

"It's actually very much like Dance Moms," Cavanaugh said.

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