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.

 

Melanie Moore

Teachers: Becca Moore and Dani Rosenberg

Rhythm Dance Center

Marietta, Georgia

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.”

 

Cole Horibe

Teacher: Marcelo Pacleb

24-VII Danceforce

Kaneohe, Hawaii

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.

 

Kent Boyd

Teachers: Pam Houston, Tabitha Dickson, Michelle Wolke, Kirsten Walters

The Dance Centre

Wapakoneta, Ohio

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.”

 

Melissa Sandvig

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

Dance Teachers Trending
"Music is magical," says Black. "It just transforms kids." Photo courtesy of Black

After 31 years of teaching, Kim Black has mastered how to reach young dancers. Between a studio and private school, she teaches 34 classes per week in Burlington, North Carolina: That's 238 kids from ages 2 to 6 years old. "You have to make them fall in love with dance," says Black. The music, she says, cues this engagement.

Keep reading...
Site Network

2019's movies featured some truly fantastic dancing, thanks to the hard work of many talented choreographers. But you won't see any of those brilliant artists recognized at the Academy Awards. And we're (still) not OK with that.

So we're taking matters into our own jazz hands.

On February 7—just before the Oscars ceremony—we'll present a Dance Spirit award for the best movie choreography of 2019. With your help, we've narrowed the field to seven choreographers, artists whose moves electrified some of the most critically-acclaimed films of the year.

Keep reading...
Dance Teachers Trending
Kathryn Alter (left). Photo by Alexis Ziemski

In every class Kathryn Alter teaches, two things are immediately evident: how thoughtfully she chooses her words, and how much glee she gets from dancing the movement and style of modern choreographer José Limón. At the 2019 Limón summer workshop at Kent State University, Alter demonstrated a turning triplet with her arms fully outstretched, a smile stretching easily across her face. "It should be as if…" She paused to think of the perfect analogy that would help the dancers find the necessary circularity of the movement. "As if you live in a doughnut!" she finished, grinning broadly. The dancers gathered around her laughed—her smile and love for something as foundational as a triplet was contagious.

Keep reading...
Dance Teacher Tips
Melanie George (right). Photo by Grace Corapi, courtesy of George

Teachers from coast to coast are pushing students to move outside the constraints of popular music. There is a consensus that the earlier you introduce varied musical forms, the more adept and adaptable a dancer's musicality will be.

New York–based jazz scholar and teacher Melanie George notices that many students' relationships to music can be reductive: They may think exclusively about lyrics or accents. But jazz, for example, is about swinging: an embodied comprehension of instrumentation that only comes with musical acuity. "Students are ready for this specificity, even if we aren't giving it to them," she says. When her students understand that there is a technique to listening, it becomes less about going forward, and more about going deeper into the sound and into their bodies.

Keep reading...
Site Network
Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron in a scene from An American in Paris. Courtesy Fathom Events.

If you loved Christopher Wheeldon's An American in Paris on Broadway, you can now see the 1951 Oscar-winning movie it's based on in all its Technicolor glory. Fathom Events will present MGM's An American in Paris, starring Gene Kelly and French ballerina Leslie Caron, and with music by George and Ira Gershwin, in select theaters nationwide January 19 and 22.

Keep reading...
Instagram
Photo by Rachel Papo

Alicia Graf Mack's journey to become director of The Juilliard School's Dance Division—the youngest person to hold the position, and the first woman of color—was anything but a straight line. Yes, she's danced with prestigious companies: Dance Theatre of Harlem, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Complexions Contemporary Ballet and Alonzo King LINES Ballet. But Mack also has a BA in history from Columbia University and an MA in nonprofit management from Washington University in St. Louis; she pursued both degrees during breaks in her performing career, taken to recover from injuries and autoimmune disease flare-ups.

As an undergrad, she briefly interned at JPMorgan Chase in marketing and philanthropic giving, and she later made arts administration central to her graduate work, assuming that she'd eventually take an administrative role with a dance organization.

Keep reading...
Dance Teachers Trending
Morrissey (left). Photo courtesy of Interlochen Center for the Arts

When Joseph Morrissey first took the helm of the dance division at Interlochen Center for the Arts, a boarding high school in Interlochen, Michigan, he found a fully established pre-professional program with space to grow. And his vision was big, with plans to stage the kind of ambitious repertory he'd experienced during his dance career. But the realities quickly set in. During his first year in 2015, the department was denied by the George Balanchine Trust to license any Balanchine ballets—the dancers were not quite ready.

This early disappointment didn't derail Morrissey. In just four years, he has not only raised Interlochen's training standards, he's staged ambitious full-length ballets and been granted the rights to works by Merce Cunningham, Agnes de Mille and, yes, Balanchine. Guest artists regularly visit, and he's initiated major plans to expand the dance department building. Morrissey is only 37, but it should come as no surprise that he's done so much so fast—his entire life's journey has prepared him to be an artistic leader.

Keep reading...
Dance Teacher Tips
Valerie Amiss with students. Photo by Tracie Van Auken, courtesy of Pennsylvania Ballet

Jared Nelson, artistic director of California Ballet, demonstrates a tight fifth position as he talks to his class about the importance of rotating from the hips. "Having a visual image helped me as a dancer, so I try to demonstrate as much as possible," he says. "But I am also very conscious of word choice. Every dancer is different, and you have to phrase things in a language they will understand."

Teachers should always be aware of how they communicate with their students, including how they choose language for different individuals, classes or situations. Using the right terminology in early stages of training will ensure that students learn the proper names of steps. This foundation is crucial, particularly when so much of the classical vocabulary has been substituted by nicknames and phrases. (Think "lame duck" or "step-up turn" in place of piqué en dehors.) But good use of language also means using imagery and positive reinforcement to ensure the right kind of messaging. What teachers say in the studio could make the difference between dancers who listen—and ones who really hear.

Keep reading...
Site Network
Dance Theatre of Harlem's Derek Brockington and Da'Von Doane in Claudia Schreier's Passage. Photo by Brian Callan, courtesy of DTH

Back to your routine after the holidays, but still looking for something to watch? Then this new PBS documentary titled Dancing on the Shoulders of Giants is for you. The hour-long film tracks the creation of two dance pieces: Claudia Schreier's Passage for Dance Theatre of Harlem, and Sir Richard Alston's Arrived featuring students of Norfolk's Governor's School for the Arts. Both works were co-commissioned by the American Evolution 2019 Commemoration and the Virginia Arts Festival last May, in recognition of the 400th anniversary of the first arrival of Africans to English North America and the history of slavery that followed.

Keep reading...
Instagram
Getty Images

Q: My tween is begging me to go to a faraway summer intensive, claiming "all my friends are going." How do I know if she's ready?

A: It can feel like a rite of passage for serious dancers to attend an intensive at a major ballet school. They dance all day and often explore the area's surroundings or attend performances on weekends. But living away from home, having a roommate and living the "dorm life" can be a challenge.

Keep reading...
Site Network
Kensington Macmillen in class at CPYB. Photo by Joel Thomas Photography, courtesy of CPYB

Last year, Kensington MacMillen auditioned for summer programs away from home for the first time. A longtime Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet student, MacMillen had spent previous summers at her home studio, but now she was ready to branch out. After auditioning for three programs, her first response was a rejection from Miami City Ballet.

"A bunch of people from here had gotten in, and I didn't," she says. "So then you just kind of panic." She was still waiting to hear from the other programs and worried that she'd have nowhere to go.

Keep reading...
Dancer Health
Physical therapist Meredith Butulis in action. Photo courtesy of Twin Cities Orthopedics

After a long tennis match or a basketball game, elite athletes often head straight to the locker room and hit the exercise bike. On first thought, this might seem to be overtraining, but in fact, they are pedaling as a way to cool down properly.

"All of our blood vessels get dilated and blood goes out to muscles when we are doing cardiovascular work," says Meredith Butulis, a physical therapist specializing in dance medicine. "The blood goes mostly to the leg muscles, and blood pooling there is a real phenomenon. If your blood doesn't get back to the heart and brain, you can pass out."

She goes on to explain there are two ways to recover from an intense workout: actively, using a low-intensity movement to gradually bring the heart rate down, or passively, with no activity at all. The latter requires little explanation—how many times have you seen a dancer do a run-through and follow it up by sitting down on the side of the studio in a static stretch? But for many reasons, including the real possibility of blood pooling that Butulis describes, a passive recovery is not the best choice for dancers.

Keep reading...

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox