So You Think You Can Dance

July 26, 2007

“So You Think You Can Dance,” the reality TV show from Fox this summer, has brought dance into America’s living rooms as never before. Young people from all over the country compete in jazz, modern, hip hop, ballroom, Broadway, salsa, and more. Borrowing from the American Idol format, the early auditions include dewy-eyed amateurs who are told by the judges to find another career—or worse. Only the best and most versatile dancers from each of four cities are invited to the semi-finals in Las Vegas. The next round eliminates all but 10 guys and 10 girls, who are paired off to pas de deux in randomly selected styles. The judges, who include Nigel Lythgoe (also a producer), Mia Michaels, and Shane Sparks, Mary Murphy, and Dan Karaty, can make perceptive comments but can also rip a hard-working dancer apart with terms like “pitiful” and “without soul.”

Viewers vote by phone for their favorites, and each week the bottom three couples have to “dance for their life” with a 30-second solo. Then the judges pick one guy and girl to leave the show. The winner takes home $100,000 and a contract with the Las Vegas spectacular A Brand New Day, choreographed by Mia Michaels and starring Celine Dion.

Who are the brave young souls who pack up their hopes and dreams and head for the show? Dance Magazine interviewed five dancers who held on for many weeks.

Donyelle Jones, 26

Studio City, CA

Hip hop and jazz, some ballet, modern, tap, and musical theater.  

Hardest genre:
When I was learning the cha-cha, Dmitry [Chaplin] was helping me practice and he’d be like, “No, no, you’re doing salsa arms!  It’s different for cha-cha.”  

I start freaking out when they call my name, and then for the first 10 seconds I feel like I’m going to throw up.  

How do you deal with the pressure?
I pray a lot, like 20-30 times a day.   

Toughest moment:
Mia wanted to send me home after Vegas.

Rough spot:
I lost five to seven jobs last year because of my weight, and I lost my motivation. I hadn’t danced for five months before I auditioned for the show. The Vegas audition gave me the push I needed to get back in class.  

If you’re going to do it, don’t do it halfway.

Ryan Rankine, 20

Brooklyn, New York

Comfort zone:
Modern and contemporary ballet

How did you get to So You Think?
I had to empty my bank account to buy a $400 plane ticket. The callback for So You Think in Vegas conflicted with the second week of the spring concert at SUNY Purchase, so I got kicked out of school.

Hardest genre:
The Viennese waltz. It’s very regal, like you’re dancing with your queen and your court. You have to go out like you’re ice skating, like you’re dancing in the clouds.

Handling the judges’ criticism:
I take it in and I reevaluate myself. I still haven’t really let go in this competition yet. Back home, everyone knows me as an animal onstage; I totally eat the stage up.

Have you bonded with the other contestants?
They are absolutely amazingly beautiful. Everyone’s like family here now.  

Advice to young dancers:
You should always go with your heart. Don’t let anything stop you.

Who is your dance hero?
Desmond Richardson. When he was on the cover of Dance Magazine, I had it on my wall. Just because you’re a black man doesn’t mean you can’t have your ballet lines and dance with ballet companies and go to Europe and do Chicago and keep on pushing it forward, no matter what the stereotype is.

What are your hopes about being on SYT?
If I could just touch one person out there, one little African American boy that’s like “Wow, that could be me!” That’s what Desmond was for me. Hopefully the message will get out there.

Ashlee Nino, 21

Dallas, TX

Comfort zone:
Funk-style: popping and locking.  

Hardest genre:
The ’80s disco because it is full of lifts, turns, and leaps, which I’m not used to.

I want to put popping more into the mainstream, get it the respect it deserves. People have this image of it as a mild street dance, but it actually takes years of training to master.

Biggest stress:
You only have a couple of days to learn the steps, so whether you’re sick, tired, or in a bad mood, you have to keep dancing. It’s hard when cameras are on you 24-7 and you know that you’re being judged. You have to be yourself no matter what.  

Ben, my partner, is the comedian of the group, he’s a riot.  He always makes me laugh, even on the most stressful days.

They really kick in right before we go out, when that horrible music comes on.  I say a quick prayer and tell myself what an honor it is to have made it into the top 20.

Coolest dance experience:
I recently went to Tahiti and taught hip hop to kids there.

Ultimate dream:
I’d love to dance with Janet Jackson or Missy Elliott, but I also want to travel the world and use hip hop to bring kids away from drugs, alcohol, and violence.  

Allison Holker, 18

Orem, Utah

Comfort Zone:
Jazz, lyrical, contemporary

Dream job:
I want to reach every area of dance! I want to be in the Celine Dion show, a Broadway show, go on tour with a singer, and open my own studio.

What’s it like to perform on TV?
You have to know where the cameras are at all times, and you have to reach the whole TV audience.

What makes you nervous?
Working with a partner because this is the first time I ever have. You have to have a connection with that person with your personalities, and in dance.

What have you learned about yourself?
I learned that I really enjoy ballroom! After the show, I want to start training in ballroom. I enjoy working with a partner and I think it’s fun to have someone leading you.

Strategy for handling nerves:
I don’t let myself talk myself down before I go onstage. I’m just happy to be here. I can’t think about the pressure.

Advice for this competition:
You have to absolutely work hard and at least take a couple classes of everything.

Travis Wall, 18

Home base:
Virginia Beach, VI

Fun fact:
Travis’ brother is Danny Tidwell (see 25 to Watch, January, 2005).

Who coached you to get to where you are now?
My mom, Denise Wall. Plus, I won the New York City Dance Alliance Teen Outstanding Dancer of the Year award two years ago and toured with them for a year.

Do you have a “company class” in the morning with all the competitors?
  We warm up ourselves. When we first got here we had a whole day off so I got a studio, and gave a contemporary class for anyone who wanted to take it.

What do you hope to do after this?
I am starting my own clothing and costume line. I am obsessed with rhinestones! I would love to do my own thing in dance, do another TV show or even have my own reality show.

What have you learned about yourself through this?
That I am vulnerable. I get shy and start to close up when the cameras are around.

Best tip:
If you have ballet and hip hop under your belt you can fake just about anything.