Teachers Behind the “So You Think You Can Dance” Stars
Dancer talk about the training that got them to the show.
On the air for nine seasons, FOX’s “So You Think You Can Dance” is collectively controversial, educational and entertaining. The show is a springboard for versatile young artists vying to become “America’s Favorite Dancer.” Bestowed instant household-name recognition, they go on to perform on television, in films and on Broadway, or tour with top recording artists and dance companies. The show has also provided a platform for emerging and established choreographers, and guest artists of all genres shine in the spotlight of reality celebrity. These are all good things.
Yet there is at least one thing missing. There is little mention of the training that helped the young artists get to this point in their careers. While “SYTYCD” is structured to highlight the individual, the reality is that natural talent is only a seedling that must be nurtured. It is the coaches and mentors along the way who inspire, educate, motivate and mold the futures of these young artists.
Who are these unsung heroes who set the stage for future stardom? DT sought out several contestants to learn where they got their start.
Teachers: Becca Moore and Dani Rosenberg
Rhythm Dance Center
Every studio has a star student. But that label can put dancers at a standstill when teachers allow them to settle for less than their utmost potential. “Often, once you get to that place in a studio, the tendency is to relax a bit,” says Season 8 winner Melanie Moore, whose smarts and tenacity constantly surprised her teachers at Rhythm Dance Center. She started dancing at the studio at age 15 after seeing their dancers at competitions. “At my old studio I felt my talent had hit a plateau. No matter how technically good I got, Becca and Dani taught me to never stop working. They never put me on some pedestal or let me rest on my laurels. They taught me that this was a bigger journey and that I had to keep growing.”
Moore’s teachers pushed her to audition for “SYTYCD.” “They would have bought me a plane ticket if I had let them,” she says. Even after her win, Moore, now working in L.A., has continued to train and work on her technique, despite her demanding schedule. “Dancers here seem to settle into work mode and just go from rehearsal to rehearsal. I still want to take class; I still need to take class. There is so much to learn.”
Teacher: Marcelo Pacleb
Before “SYTYCD,” Cole Horibe nearly gave up dance for good. After a five-year break, his teacher Marcelo Pacleb ushered him back into class and encouraged him to grow through his unique martial arts background—the ninja style voters responded to on the show. “I have always been my own worst critic, never satisfied. I always thought I looked and danced differently. Then I finally decided to go with it and have fun,” he says. “It was Marcelo who encouraged me to come back to dance. His talent is helping people find their individuality as an artist.”
Pacleb has had three students appear on “SYTYCD,” each with a unique style. Mark Kanemura (Season 4) and Kúpono Aweau (Season 5) have gone on to perform with Lady Gaga and Madonna. Both encouraged and inspired by his peers, Horibe waited three years before he followed their lead and auditioned for “SYTYCD.” His mixed training, along with his charisma, is what led him to his place in the Top 6. Quiet and humble, Horibe, according to Pacleb, is the hardest working and most dedicated student he can remember, a thought often echoed by Horibe’s fellow “SYTYCD” contestants. Horibe often skipped group dinners and movie outings to practice week after week.
Teachers: Pam Houston, Tabitha Dickson, Michelle Wolke, Kirsten Walters
The Dance Centre
Season 7 taught dancers to never underestimate the value of small-town dance studios. Judges talked about all-American farm boy Kent Boyd as if he had sprung up straight from a cornfield with impeccable technique. His home studio in Wapakoneta was never mentioned on air, nor was the group of teachers who had been molding him—even though most of them were in his living room when Nigel Lythgoe told him he’d been selected for the show.
Boyd’s mom enrolled him at The Dance Centre when he was 4 to keep him from tearing apart her living room. There, Tabitha Dickson showed him how to channel his energy into dance. Boyd soon fell in love with movement—a quality so evident that judges on the show often commented negatively. “Tabitha taught me to always perform at 100 percent. She made everything fun. We danced and sang and dressed up!” says Boyd. “At competitions I was often criticized by the judges for having too much fun. That happened when I was on “SYTYCD” as well.”
But this instilled outlook is what books him gigs today. “If you are a good person who works hard, choreographers often hire you again and again. I am finding that in L.A., work ethic and personality get you jobs,” he says. “[My teachers] were life coaches, not just dance coaches.”
Teacher: David Wilcox
Long Beach Ballet School
Long Beach, California
“SYTYCD” didn’t see a ballerina in the Top 20 until Season 5, when Long Beach Ballet dancer Melissa Sandvig stunned with her pure technique. Though the show had seen several well-trained ballet dancers audition before, Sandvig had something that set her apart from the others. She says, “The most memorable thing David Wilcox told me was—at the age of 15—that my technique was great, but at some point I needed to let go and ‘just dance.’ That’s when I really started to enjoy the process of my training and was able to show who I was through my artistry. He helped me with my quality of movement and how to connect to an audience through acting and character.”
In a world where contemporary rules, Sandvig paved the way for others of her genre, including both 2012 winners. But she owes her accomplishments on the show to Wilcox. “It was David’s love for me as a dancer and person that encouraged me—and still encourages me—to be successful,” she says. DT
Rachel Berman is a former dancer with the Paul Taylore Dance Company and an educator, fundraiser and freelance writer.
Photo: All-star Melanie Moore performs with Cyrus Spencer in a piece by Mandy Moore, courtesy of FOX Broadcasting