“You found dance, and dance also found you.”
“I have nightmares and dreams at the same time.”
“I’m having a tough time…I want to go home now!”
The beginning hours of a big snowfall is threatening to shut down the city and it’s cold enough inside the Hammerstein Ballroom that nervous young dancers are still huddled in their parkas and scarves in their seats. But things are heating up at January’s So You Think You Can Dance auditions in New York City.
Specifically, Paula Abdul is being a hot mess.
This is not a dig at the venerable pop star turned reality TV judge, so famously of sleepy tongue and meandering thought. This is an homage to her, her brand, her—to use a word she employs a half-dozen times in two hours—“authenticity,” and, ultimately, her intelligence.
Together, these are things that could perhaps revitalize television’s best, sadly ratings-starved talent competition as it enters its 12th season.
So You Think You Can Dance airs its season premiere Monday night, eight months after co-creator, executive producer, and judge Nigel Lythgoe told me that he wasn’t certain, but was hopeful, that the series would be saved from cancellation by Fox.
Its debut is in the wake of the news that the juggernaut reality series that paved its way (and shares a creator), American Idol, will end its run after its next season. The dancing competition certainly has shared its singing sibling’s challenges in remaining relevant over the years, something that Lythgoe has been admirably candid about.
And it’s the changes—both in format and in faces—that give reason to be more thrilled than usual for Monday’s premiere and the new season.
To begin with, there’s a new panel of judges. Joining stalwart Lythgoe—always enthusiastic, both about the dancers and the platform he purports to have gifted them—at the table will be R&B star Jason Derulo and the aforementioned Abdul.
After spending several hours watching this new brood adjudicate this year’s hopeful contestants during one of the two-day New York auditions, a few things are clear.
One is that viewers will be subjected to an ungodly number of dancers auditioning to Bruno Mars’s “Uptown Funk.” (If the NYC auditions are an indication it’s every other person.) Another is that Derulo, though a talented dancer in his own right, is going to need some sharp editing to appear to have much of a presence on a judging panel that quickly becomes The Nigel and Paula Show.
Third is that The Nigel and Paula Show is spectacular.
Their chemistry crackles with the same bickering flame that Abdul burned so entertainingly with Idol’s Simon Cowell a decade ago. They needle each other. They mock each other, though it’s typically Lythgoe ribbing Abdul’s daffiness while she gamely rolls her eyes at him. But the crucial thing is that they so clearly like each other.
(To wit, at one point Lythgoe loses his glasses and Abdul instantly disappears under the judges table on her hands and knees searching for them.)
“We’ve known each other for so long now,” Lythgoe tells me during a lunch break at the auditions. “To be honest, I was an admirer of Paula back in the U.K. before I came here to the States. To be able to work with her on Idol for all those years and see how she was mistreated by Simon...”
“Oh, please,” Abdul, clad in a teeny-tiny doll-sized purple romper to hug her teeny-tiny doll-sized frame, interrupts and groans, delighting in their banter.
“So abused and mistreated,” Lythgoe goes on, as Abdul playfully scoffs. “I wanted to be the next person to abuse her.”
As far as her judging prowess, it’s easy and lazy to single out her loopier turns of phrase. (Hi, I’m guilty of that.) After all, she’s as known for that as she is for dancing with a cartoon cat in a music video. (Yes, she brings up MC Skat Kat during one of her judgings!)
Signature Paula Abdul nuttery is alive and well on So You Think You Can Dance. At one point, a 75-second monologue—an eternity in TV land—about “human transparency” is punctuated, confusingly, with the conclusion, “Just yummy.”
Another time, presumably in an attempt to be profound, she tells a dancer: “Can I ask a question? Simple: Are you good?” The dancer blinks and stares.
But Abdul—and this is important—is more often than not super smart! And even more often than not, she’s the one who gives these poor dancers the most logical, accurate, and constructive critiques.
Whether she’s going on about the intricacies of tap technique, suggesting to multiple auditioners that they change dance instructors, or marrying colorful language about a dancer’s spirit and energy with legitimate breakdowns of their technical skills, she undeniably knows her stuff. Also undeniable: how much she cares.
“I am who I am,” she tells me, with pride and also maybe as a warning. “I’ve been doing this for quite some time. I’m very grateful that my career started as a successful choreographer. This is my love. It is what it is. I’m transparent that way. And we’re seeing some amazing kids.”
It’s Lythgoe who jumps in when asked how Abdul’s tenure on SYTYCD will differ from her work on Idol.
“Because Paula was a dancer and a choreographer, she doesn’t just look at what’s in front of her in these dancers,” he says. “She looks at how they can improve and the speed that they can improve in and what she can do to help them improve.”
“If you sing and you’re tone deaf, you’re tone deaf and you’re not going to get anywhere,” he clarifies. “You’re always going to be tone deaf. Dancers can improve and that’s what she can see. And a lot of people come and judge the program and don’t actually see that because they don’t see like that. Paula does.”
And should things get too serious and laudatory, Abdul jumps back in, in glorious Abdulian fashion.
“The show is amazing at educating the public on how special dancers are and the amount of work and athleticism that goes along with it,” she says. “The intensity of training. Dancers put in the same amount of years as someone who is going and becoming a doctor. It’s no different. It’s the same level of commitment.” Sure.
(Derulo has things to say, too, about his own qualifications. “I hire a lot of dancers every single year, for my tours,” he tells me. “I’m constantly on the prowl for the best in the world.” Great.)
Aside from the judging panel, the biggest shakeup in the new SYTYCD season is the format, a change that also explains the absence of longtime judge Mary Murphy, the high-pitched hooting Hot Tamale Train conductor who is either the highlight or waking nightmare of the show, depending on whom you ask.
This year dancers will have to choose whether they will compete as a Stage dancer or a Street dancer, two teams that will ultimately compete against each other as the season trudges on. That means that ballroom—Murphy’s specialty—is less important than it’s ever been on the series.
“With Dancing With the Stars now stealing all our ballroom dancers,” Lythgoe says, alluding to the number of SYTYCD alumni now employed by the ABC competitor, “and now with Stars also doing contemporary, we’ve got to try and separate ourselves again. That’s why we’re getting away from ballroom a little this season.”
But SYTYCD fans, who are passionate loyalists, shouldn’t be concerned that too much is changing this season.
A Costco trip for truckloads of Kleenex is still required for viewing, with heart-tugging backstories and dancers overcoming obstacles still very much a part of the show’s calling card. Father-son relationships, mother-daughter relationships, and even marriage proposals all are parsed through before lunchtime.
And, most blessedly, Cat Deeley, SYTYCD’s Emmy-nominated host and the human manifestation of a ray of sunshine bred with a hug, is back.
She flits the frozen tundra of the Hammerstein, radiating her loveliness with compliments about nervous dancers’ “sparkly shoes” and kissing off cooed greetings.
A conversation with her about the new season (expectedly, she loves Abdul, and is far more enthusiastic than I about the addition of Derulo) before jetting off into the blinding snowfall fueled me with enough warmth to make it home sans frostbite, and—perhaps more important—a sense of comfort that, 12 seasons in, SYTYCD is going to be quite alright.
If Cat says it, you know it’s true.