TV dance show proves a springboard for Broadway careers
Boot camp reality show has opened many doors for aspiring performers
There are plenty of places that get young people ready for Broadway - Juilliard, Carnegie Mellon, Yale and New York University. But don't forget So You Think You Can Dance.
The Fox TV show, which just concluded its 12th season, has turned into a reliable springboard for scores of Broadway dancers, helping performers land in everything from The King and I to Hamilton.
"I can't say enough about how much I learned on the show, how many connections I made on the show and how I needed it as a performer and as an artist," says Melanie Moore, the Season 8 winner who went on be Peter Pan in Finding Neverland and next has a featured part in Fiddler on the Roof.
Alumni who have made a mark on Broadway include Ricky Ubeda in On the Town, Virgil Gadson in After Midnight, Cole Horibe and Alex Wong in The King and I, and Thayne Jasperson and Neil Haskell in Hamilton. The recent ensemble of Newsies was studded with former So You Think dancers.
Contestants who endure the 10-week TV boot camp on the show must learn to adapt to new partners and unfamiliar dance styles, all under the gaze of live cameras and judges. It's no wonder that Broadway comes knocking.
"I hire So You Think alum whenever I can," says Broadway choreographer Spencer Liff, whose credits include the new Spring Awakening on Broadway and Neil Patrick Harris' TV show Best Time Ever.
"A huge reason why is they are in the most high-pressure situation you can ever be in. The ones that can cut it and survive in that world, I know I can trust them on a stage."
Moore, so strong on the TV show that she was nicknamed the "Beast", was 19 when she competed. It was the Georgia native's first big performing experience, and she mastered everything from Latin jazz to hip hop. "I developed this love of performing in front of a live, completely juiced-up audience," she says.
After moving to LA and working on Glee, she craved a new challenge. "With a live audience, the stakes are always so high."
But it's not just the dancers who are making the leap - choreographers on So You Think are also enjoying higher recognition and a fan base.
Some prominent choreographers who straddle both worlds include Liff, Warren Carlyle, Joshua Bergasse and Mia Michaels, who made her Broadway debut last season creating Finding Neverland.
When it came time to replace Moore as Peter Pan, Michaels had a special dancer in mind. Naturally, it was someone from So You Think - Amy Yakima.
Yakima, 21, the Season 10 winner from Michigan, dreamed of one day being on Broadway but not so early in her career. She was a natural choice to replace Moore since both women share a muscular style, an eagerness to learn and an ability to sing.
"She's one of my idols so it's kind of crazy to fill her shoes," Yakima says of Moore, who helped her learn the role. "As scared as I was, she made it a little bit better."
Hiring So You Think graduates also helps the box office of Broadway shows since fans of the TV show will check out their dancing heroes onstage.
"That's why Broadway is hiring them now. Melanie Moore and Amy Yakima - they have their own fan bases. They're selling tickets," says Liff. "So what normally [would] be just an ensemble dancer in a Broadway show is actually somebody that can bring people into the house. That's a new phenomenon."
Show alumni who end up in New York say they all keep in touch, bonded by what Moore calls a "crazy, harrowing" experience. "No matter what season you're on, you all understand the other person has been through this thing," she says.
Michaels understands more than most. She challenges the TV contestants with tricky choreography set on park benches or about addiction and now reaps the reward by hiring them for the stage.
"It's not for the weak, that's for sure. It's a bit of a boot camp, in a sense," she says.
"They really have to have that warrior spirit and they have to have that work ethic and they have to have the drive and passion in order to survive that show. It really does help to train these young, aspiring artists."