It’s 10 a.m. on a Tuesday morning, and instead of settling in to my ergonomic chair behind my messy desk at the office, I’m in the passenger seat of my girlfriend’s little blue Jetta, racing down the southbound 101 under gloomy June skies. One might think I’d be elated to be playing hooky for the day, but instead I’m wondering what I’m getting myself into. We’re heading to Hollywood to prostrate ourselves at the feet of some pretentious L.A. entertainment industry types and beg to be admitted to the set of my friend’s favorite TV show: So You Think You Can Dance. Ok, it’s not quite that bad – she has tickets. Actually, she has an email printout from the On Camera Audiences website that came out a nearly illegible pale gray and which explains in eight-point font that we are not guaranteed seats, but must wait in line on the street outside the recording studio like groupies, hoping to be granted access. In other words, we have to beg. I’m not sure why I find the whole scene so off-putting, particularly since I don’t even have a TV and therefore have little idea what I’ve signed up for. All I know is that I write about dance for a living, and if I think I’m such a keen observer of the art form, I should look at it from as many angles as possible. I think I need a frappuccino.
12:00 p.m.. We just passed the Hollywood Bowl, I’ve drained my coffee, and it’s raining lightly. On the drive down, my friend filled me in on the basics. So You Think You Can Dance has been on FOX since 2005; this is the start of its fifth season. Its creators are British television producers Simon Fuller and Nigel Lythgoe, the duo responsible for the Idol reality TV phenomenon including, in this country, American Idol. Lythgoe’s also one of the show’s judges, along with Mary Murphy, the loudmouthed American ballroom dance champion who’s made herself famous on the show for her high-pitched screams and penchant for the phrase “hot tamale train.” The host is hot English babe Cat Deeley. I’m trying to keep an open mind, but I find myself saying, “You won’t be mad at me if the whole experience makes me gag, will you?”
12:35 p.m. By some stroke of Hollywood magic, the street directly across from the broadcast studio has street sweeping this morning, so when we arrive just after noon, there’s a glut of free, all-day street parking available. Sweet. As we passed the studio we check out the line that’s already forming – there seemed to be about 20 people in it. Perfect. We’ve been told to arrive no later than 3 p.m. Check. We’ve also been that we won’t be allowed to bring anything into the studio with us: food, drinks, cell phones, cameras, purses, signs (what, like one that says, “Hey guys, it’s me, Elizabeth, on national television!”)? But since the actual filming of the show isn’t rumored to start until 5 p.m., we figure we’ll have plenty of time to run our stuff back to the car. We convince a very slender, very sulky hostess at a trendy noodle bar to grant us access to the bathroom, then head across the street and fall in line behind a gaggle of fans. As I had predicted, most are young women, and amongst them I spot a couple of familiar faces from Santa Barbara. We settle in for the long wait, and while my friend strikes up a conversation with the girls in line in front of us, I kick back on the sidewalk with a paperback copy of Fahrenheit 451 and some vegetarian dolma. I might as well make my time count for something.
2:22 p.m. Suddenly, the line starts to move. The girls in front of us are halfway done with a jigsaw puzzle, and they have to scramble to sweep it back into the box. A young woman with a severe angular haircut wearing dark sunglasses and a permanent scowl comes striding up the line barking orders. “Have your paperwork ready!” she shouts. My friend is starting to panic; her friend from L.A. is supposed to be joining us at 3 p.m., but she’s at an audition for a Target commercial, and it’s running late. “Ever member of your party must be present to receive a ticket,” our paperwork states. There’s a tense moment at the front of the line: wait for her and miss our shot at seeing the show, or go in and leave her behind. “Once you’re in, there’s no coming out,” Ms. Scowly Face threatens. Of course we’re still carrying sunglasses and cell phones, novels and sweaters, and there’s no time to run any of it back to the car. We decide to go in, and she waves us through, quite obviously disgusted with our complete incompetence.
While my friend is fretting about abandoning her girlfriend and stressing about having to carry her purse around all afternoon, I’m handing my phone to the guard at the metal detector and wondering whether I’ll ever see it again. I’m also listening to my grumbling stomach and thinking about the hours stretching ahead of us. Maybe I’ll pass out on national television. That could be exciting.
3:05 p.m. We’re sitting on a long bench just outside the studio with a few hundred other people, feeling a little like cows at a slaughterhouse, when our abandoned friend saunters up grinning. “I just told them my friends were inside already and begged to be let in,” she says. Hugs and tears of relief ensue – the false intensity with which the proceedings are carried out seems to have rubbed off on us. In the meantime, I’m hatching a plan. I march over to an official looking woman in a red blazer and a headset and tell her: “Here’s the thing. I’m hungry. I messed up and didn’t eat enough before I came in. I really don’t want to faint on the set. Can I run to my car really fast? Please?” I give her my wide, pleading puppy eyes. She sighs and waves me through, and I sprint down the street, making it back with my pockets bulging with homemade PB&J sandwiches. We inhale them surreptitiously. This begging thing is really working for us.
3:30 p.m. The doors open and we’re ushered inside, down a hallway behind a black curtain, and out into a surprisingly small studio space with a raised stage that takes up most of the floor. There are some bleacher-style seats in the back, but we’re in the standing room only area. The set is vaguely nautical, flanked by high walkways with metal railings and a couple of prows jutting out the front. While my friend’s friend regales us with stories from her visit to the celebrity dermatologist (“Jessica Simpson totally took Accutane before she did those ads for ProActiv,” she reveals), I find that despite my best intentions, I’m getting strangely excited. Yes, there’s something deeply embarrassing about the ‘audience coordinator,’ young man who gets up on stage and tries to whip us into a frenzy with some ‘name that tune’ competitions and some bad beat boxing, but I’m marveling at the fact that I’m on the set of a national TV show, the very room that will be broadcast into millions of other rooms around the nation. By the time Cat Deeley struts out onto one of the ship’s prows in a glittering designer gown and five inch heels, I’m practically giddy with excitement, almost forgetting I’m probably the only one here who’s never actually seen the show.
For the next three and a half hours, we’re on our feet, dancing when they say dance, applauding when they tell us to, and shutting up whenever the judges are talking. It’s actually pretty hard work. We’re not supposed to look at the camera when it swings past us like some kind of mechanical medusa, a knot of wires trailing from its head.
I clap until my hands are sore, scream until my ears are ringing and my throat is hoarse. Every 20 minutes or so there’s a commercial break, during which makeup artists scurry out to fix Cat’s makeup, the judges let their banter swing to the lewd end of the spectrum, and the audience coordinator flings handfuls of candy at us. Presumably they’ve learned that blood sugar spikes result in better cheers. I’m too short to catch any of the flying snickers bars, however. I’m glad I ate that sandwich.
And then there’s the dancing. Tonight it’s all duets, with the 20 dancers who’ve made it this far are paired into 10 male-female partnerships. They range in age fro 18 to 29, and one of the first things I notice is how the maturity of the older dancers works to their advantage. They’re all very talented, of course, but while the younger ones are all clean lines and whip turns with no particular presence, the older dancers actually look at one another when they dance, and move as if they’re propelled by some inner force.
The dances range from a goofy, old Hollywood number by Tyce Diorio – one of the choreographers made most famous by this show – to Wade Robson‘s futuristic number in which two crash test dummies come to life. It’s not the kind of dance I tend to pay much attention to, since it’s neither part of the high art world of international contemporary dance companies (the world in which I trained and earned my degree), nor the kind of street or folk dance that has always appealed to me for its immediacy and the unselfconscious joy. But there’s no denying these dancers are throwing themselves into the work with total commitment. And all over America, even in the smallest towns, even in the midst of this recession, when arts funding is drying up faster than a puddle in the desert, people are gathering in their living rooms night after night to watch these dancers do their thing.
The judges are generally pretty complimentary, and a few of the pieces actually earn a Mary Murphy signature scream. I find I’m glad to be here for the first show of this new phase of competition, when nobody’s actually voted off and dismissed. I may not be the biggest fan in the room, but I don’t want to be part of the live audience that gets to watch two of these young dancers have their dreams dashed. I cheer like a madwoman at the end of every duet, even the cheesiest ones. I’m thinking about all the kids who are seeing this kind of dance for the first time – not just hip hop, but ballet, and Bollywood, and ballroom. Somewhere in America, a little boy just decided that when he grows up, he’s going to win a dance competition. You can’t argue with that.
The show comes to a close, we’re asked to give the cameramen a few final bursts of applause and cheering, and then we’re ushered out of the studio, mission accomplished. Back on the road, zipping north in the opposite direction of rush hour traffic, we compare notes on our favorite dances, muse about whether Deeley eats anything but celery and Diet Coke, and giggle over the whole affair. “So, you actually enjoyed it?” she asks, and I have to admit, I kind of did. But would I do it again? “I think once is enough,” I tell her. “I just got my fill of Hollywood for at least another decade.”
Oh, and it turns out I’m busy the next night, so I miss my chance to see my face on national TV, although my friend assures me we appear in a coupe of shots, grinning and clapping like we were born to party on the set of a FOX TV show. It’s slightly mortifying, but in the end, I’m glad I was there. And yes, I think I now know dance just a little bit better than I used to.