Choreographers explain how they help people who think they "Can Dance."
Each week, performers on the Fox reality competition show "So You Think You Can Dance" have to learn new dance routines. Those steps come courtesy of a small army of eight choreographers for the current season, including the Emmy-nominated Spencer Liff, Christopher Scott and Stacey Tookey.
The work of the choreographers is becoming even more important as the contestant pool shrinks from the original 20 to six survivors as season nine moves toward the semifinals on Sept. 11 and the finals on Sept. 18. The top six finalists are: Witney Carson, Eliana Girard, Cole Horibe, Tiffany Maher, Cyrus Spencer and Chehon Wespi-Tschopp.
Each week's preparation is a mad dash to make sure the contestants are ready to go in front of the judges. And it doesn't always go smoothly.
One problem that pops up has to do with music rights. Choreographers submit a song list at the beginning of the season. Clearance to use a song can come the day before a telecast or be denied completely. Then it's up to choreographer and contestant to adjust to what music is available.
Even if they get an early OK to use the music, there can be problems.
"Something I had planned maybe isn't the best for those dancers, so you'll change that. And once you get with the competitors, it's total five, six hours of studio time. That's with cameras and then some without cameras and then you're on set in front of everybody and it all happens like that," Tookey says with a snap of her fingers.
Contestants don't have a lot of time to work with the choreographers because they have to work with the hair, makeup and costume departments. The choreographers will often stay up all night helping contestants prepare.
The process is also complicated by contestants having to perform a dance genre with which they aren't familiar. It's not unusual for the choreographers to feel as much pride as the contestant when a new genre is mastered.
Liff, a New York-based choreographer and performer, describes the amount of work the competitors go through each week as "mind blowing." He loves working on the show because of the energy of the young dancers.
"I always wanted to choreograph, and I guess it was why I wanted to do it before my expiration date hit as a dancer," Liff says. "I think the first time that I choreographed, and especially the first time I saw a piece of mine on the show, it was the joy that I felt as a performer, it became something new watching somebody else perform something that came out of your head. It was just like it was a new way to enjoy the art."
Choreographers also feel the pain when a contestant gets negative feedback from the judges. Tookey has felt more nervous watching the contestants than with some of the big shows she's worked. Part of that feeling comes from knowing she no longer has control over how well the performance will go.
Scott feels a great responsibility when working with the contestants because he knows one bad number can get them booted.
"We don't want to ever do that," Scott says. "At the end of the day, it's like we're part of the criticism. We're a part of the success of a dancer. You can set up a dance couple from day one with a beautiful routine, and then they'll be loved for the rest of the show. It's really important, what we do."