FOX wasted no time last week in having the season finale of "American Idol" air one night and the next night debut the season premiere of the Emmy-winning dance competition series "So You Think You Can Dance." While anything with music, dance and singing seems to generate big ratings these days, "SYTYCD" is not about to rest on its laurels and be afraid to change its playing field up a bit. As its seventh season began last week, big format changes have been implemented to make things even more interesting this summer. For example, the number of contestants has been bumped down from 20 to 10, only one dancer will go home every week and there's also the return of popular former contestants (aka "All-Stars") who will be paired with each of the new dancers. There are also changes at the judge's table in that long-time judge Mary Murphy has moved over to help with choreography and Mia Michaels has moved from choreographer to judge.
During last week's premiere, FOX hosted a premiere event in Los Angeles and Jim Halterman was there to chat with series co-creator/judge Nigel Lythgoe, returning judge Adam Shankman and choreographer Mandy Moore. The trio talked about what the aforementioned changes mean for the show, how much personality plays a part in choosing the ultimate winner on the series and why dance competition shows like "SYTYCD" and "Dancing With The Stars" - as well as a little show called "Glee" - are more popular now than ever.
First addressing the format change, Lythgoe gave credit where credit is due. "I'll be totally honest with you," he said. "Mike Darnell [President of Alternative Entertainment at FOX] suggested this idea of having a pool of dancers and I said 'Wow! If we did that we keep our format of choosing the genre out of a hat, make sure we only get rid of one kid a week and also get to know them."
Lythgoe definitely saw an opportunity with this new format to fix a fundamental problem he had not been happy with for some time. "The big thing for me was that we didn't have enough time to get to know the dancers and people would vote for the choreography and that's not what it's about."
Talking about the changes made Moore glow more than usual as she explained how she thinks audiences will react to the changes. "How could you not have a great reaction? Nigel is so smart in the way that everybody has decided to change up the show. When he originally talked about it a while ago I thought that was a win-win for everyone. The choreographers are going to be more inspired by getting the old blood mixed in with the new dancers and the audience is going to say 'I love that person from season whatever and the crazy new dancer that we have.' How could you not enjoy it?"
One of the biggest arguments of any competition show is how far does personality get you? Lythgoe bluntly stated, "This isn't knocking anyone who's won but most seasons the best technical dancer will not win and the best dancer with charisma, stage presence, the X Factor will win. That's why people vote! They like you." Lythgoe also suggested that "SYTYCD" is more than a mere dance competition but is "a personality competition just as much as a dance competition or, for that matter, a singing competition or an apprenticeship competition. It's got to be the whole package. Those are the people you want to be with and talk to."
According to Moore, the reality genre show lives and breathes by the personalities of the contestants that appear and, in her opinion, can sometimes outweigh overall skill and precision. "I'd rather take a less talented dancer that is excited about what they're doing and have that go-get-em attitude," she said, "than have someone who is more talented maybe in the coordination or in the steps but just doesn't quite want to be there. I think it's key." Moore attributes those elements to where she is today in her career. "I believe I've gotten where I am in my life because, yes, I am talented but because I love what I do, I love to talk to people and I like to share."
Shankman added that it's chemistry between the new and old dancers that is going to make things a bit more interesting this season. "That is going to become a fundamental issue in the competition because week after week the dancers are going to have to recreate new chemistry with the All-Stars and I think they're going to be intimidated by them." That said, Shankman couldn't deny that personality is going to play a huge role in deciding who goes furthest. "The contestants who are going to explode are the people who are going to really know how to perform, not just dance."
Lythgoe also commented that the new format is going to make everyone up their game immediately since the dancers will no longer compete by merely picking a style of dance. "It's not like two contemporary dancers pick hip hop and they go 'Oh, none of us are good at this.' They're now going to pick out the dancer's picture and that's the style they're going to be doing. Although that gives them the strength it also means that they have to come up to that level straight away. The choreographer has to choreograph with the All-Star. It's going to be tough."
Another thing that has made the judging tougher on "SYTYCD," said Shankman, is just how much better the dancers are nowadays from the first season of the series five years ago. "They've gotten better! It's scary! People can do things now that people literally could not do when I was dancing."
There's no question that television is embracing anything with music whether it be a scripted series like the phenomenon of "Glee" to reality competition shows like ABC's "Dancing With The Stars" and "SYTYCD." But why are these shows striking such a chord in viewers now and driving ratings skyward? Lythgoe gives credit to the audience for being smart enough to recognize the commitment that goes into these shows. "I think certainly now with 'Dancing With The Stars,'" he said, "people realize that it's hard work. You're not just mincing around the stage but you're working your butt off. Dancers can now do somersaults, dancing on their heads and people watch and say 'I want to do that!'"
Moore agreed with Lythgoe and expressed how important that connection is between the audience and the dancers. "I think everybody is a dancer inside," she said. "Everybody says 'I can't dance' or 'If you get a couple of drinks in me I can dance' but I don't believe that. I think everybody inside them really loves to move. They appreciate it when they see trained dancers moving and it's that athleticism. It's like when people are watching the Olympics. You watch someone do a ski jump and it's like 'How do I do that?' Inside you might think 'Maybe if I practice I can try that.'"
Shankman had a simpler thought about why audiences can't get enough of these shows. "People need to feel good. People need joy in our lives. We live in a very depressed time and people want their joy."
"So You Think You Can Dance" airs Wednesdays and Thursdays on FOX.