So You Think It’s Been Good for Dance?

Posted May 31, 2018 9:53 p.m. EDT

In spring 2005, television producer Jeff Thacker went to Miami to hold auditions for a new reality dance competition. He contacted schools and dance studios and handed out flyers at nightclubs and discos. Four people showed up. Two years later, he returned to Miami to audition contestants for that same show, which had become an unexpected hit. More than 1,400 people showed up.

That show was “So You Think You Can Dance,” and in the years since its debut, it has helped move dancers from backup into the spotlight, elevated the status of choreographers in the entertainment industry and led to other dance shows here and abroad, with franchises in dozens of countries, including China, Vietnam, Poland, Armenia and Mozambique. On Monday, “So You Think” begins its 15th season on Fox, to the surprise of pretty much everyone involved.

Its run has coincided with something of a dance boom in American popular culture. “Dancing With the Stars,” which pairs celebrities with professional ballroom dancers, arrived on ABC the same summer as “So You Think You Can Dance.” Other television dance competitions have followed, like “America’s Best Dance Crew,” and, more recently, Jennifer Lopez’s “World of Dance,” which began its second season this week on NBC.

Beyond these shows, dance has been popping up more frequently in film and TV — from “Glee” to “La La Land” to the “Step Up” films. Thacker, a dancer and choreographer before he became a producer, sees a correlation. “So You Think You Can Dance,” he said in a phone interview, “opened up avenues for dance across the board.”

For the dancers who appear on it, the show has been a clear boost, providing an instant fan base and industry connections. Alex Wong was a principal soloist with Miami City Ballet when he decided on a whim to audition for “So You Think.” Wong, who grew up dancing tap and jazz and had been itching “to go back to my roots,” was a standout on Season 7 until an injury sidelined him. Still, he has been able to parlay the experience into a constant string of work on stage and screen, as well as lucrative teaching opportunities.

“Without the show, it would have been a difficult transition from ballet company to the commercial world,” he said. “It’s almost like a quick boot camp.”

Yet appearing — or even winning — on “So You Think” is not a golden career ticket. Melanie Moore, the Season 8 winner who has gone on to a successful Broadway career, said the show either holds little value for theater directors or has a negative connotation because of its reality TV roots. “I’ve found both stigma and a shrug,” she said. Moore is now on Broadway in “Hello, Dolly”; Ricky Ubeda, the Season 11 winner, is performing in “Carousel.”

Winners have gone many routes: Benji Schwimmer (Season 2) choreographed Adam Rippon’s Olympic ice-skating routine; Jeanine Mason (Season 5) is on “Grey’s Anatomy”; and others created the touring dance show “Shaping Sound.”

“So You Think” is a natural springboard for dancers, but perhaps a more significant and enduring legacy is the platform it has provided for choreographers. “Unless you were in the dance world, you didn’t even know the word ‘choreography,'” said Mia Michaels, a three-time Emmy winner for her work on the show. “Choreographers became household names, which was incredible for our industry.” That visibility has led to increased clout in Hollywood, where the Television Academy recently established a Choreography Peer Group, whose members vote on the Emmy for best choreography.

“The show has really put more fighting power in our corner,” said Mandy Moore (not to be confused with the actress, and no relation to the contestant), a leader of the peer group, who started as an assistant on “So You Think,” began choreographing on Season 3 and is now a producer on the show. “There’s an ability to have a more open conversation in negotiations because people are more aware of what we do and what our needs are.”

Choreographers have just a short window to make a mark on the show each week: Routines last around 90 seconds and are often packed with virtuosic moves to arouse cheers from live audiences. Certain styles in particular have caught on, like the show’s characteristic brand of contemporary dance, an expressive fusion of styles from lyrical jazz to hip-hop, which is distinct from contemporary concert dance and which has become as recognizable in Vietnam as in Vegas.

“It made contemporary dance a commercial art form,” Michaels said of the show. And that stormy, sensual style has come to dominate dance in film, TV and in music videos, as well as on the sizable competition dance circuit, where many “So You Think” alumni teach.

It hasn’t, however, made much of a dent in the more conceptual concert dance world, where the show is sometimes dismissed as an empty-calorie snack for its flashy production and flash-in-the-pan-length numbers.

“Those bite-sized pieces of work, it’s a craft in itself,” Michaels said. “Just because it’s a commercial dance show doesn’t mean that you’re not an artist.” Others in the concert dance world applaud the show’s contribution to the broader dance ecosystem.

“Dancing is normalized through these mediums,” said Damian Woetzel, the former New York City Ballet star. Woetzel, the incoming president of Juilliard, is also the director of the Vail International Dance Festival, where he curated a “Dance TV” series for five years that featured stars from TV dance competitions, including Wong. “So You Think” has facilitated “an active conversation” about dance,” Woetzel said, and “it leads young people into the field.” Especially boys, he added.

That was clear to Sabetha Mumm, who founded a dance studio in Johnston, Iowa, in 2003. (Her son participated in “So You Think” Season 13, subtitled “The Next Generation,” in which competitors were 8-13 years old.) The show has driven demand for dance in her region, Mumm said, providing aspiring professional dancers outside of urban dance hubs “so many more people to look up to.” She frequently invites former contestants to teach workshops there.

Mumm’s studio is now populated almost entirely by a generation of dancers who grew up on “So You Think.” The show has influenced the way they think about the art form perhaps as much as what takes place in their dance classes: In the hallways, they rewatch “So You Think” routines on YouTube, debate their favorite dancers and discuss the choreographers they dream of working with. “It’s their version of the water cooler conversation,” Mumm said.