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So You Think You Can Dance: A Look Behind The Emmy-Nomination Generating Live Broadcast

By: Marjorie Galas

Sean Cheesman takes the role he has instructing young dancers on “So You Think You Can Dance” very seriously.  After watching Season 14 contestant Koine and her all-star partner Marko perform his choreography – a mixture of African dance and jazz – during the show’s live telecast on Monday, August 14th, Cheesman smiled like a proud father.

“In addition to teaching them the routine, you give them guidance and support and you nurture them.  They are like your children, and you give them everything you can to help them grow,” said Cheesman.  “And, like children, the time comes to let them go.  Every little thing they take from the experience helps them not only with the show, but as they move on with their futures.”

Cheesman’s attention to the dancers and their experience exemplifies the entirety of the crew who make “So You Think You Can Dance” (SYTYCD) a success.  Now in its fourteenth season, SYTYCD has won fourteen Emmys, and has three nominations in the 2017 Emmy race: two Outstanding Choreography nods: one each for Travis Wall and Mandy Moore,  and an Outstanding Lighting Design/Lighting Direction for a Variety Series for the lighting team of Robert Barnhart, Matt Firestone, Patrick Boozer and Pete Radice.  At the live taping, I wasn’t able to speak with any of the 2017 nominees, but I did witness the intensity of the live scenario they work in.

Filmed at the CBS lot, audience members are ushered into a sound stage that has been converted into a replica of a starlight sky.  Tiny lights fill a velvety black background behind the curved stadium-styled folding chairs. On either side of the room two large “So You Think You Can Dance” signs mirroring each other, ablaze with gold lights.  Encouraged to quickly find one’s seat, the ushers occasionally stood in as body guards when past performers, such as Twitch, entered the room, tharting of the swarm of adoring fans anxious for a quick selfie with the star.

The lighting crew quickly ran through cues and made adjustments while the audiences was distracted by a floor director encouraging their loud cheers.  A web of LEDs lay just beyond the stage, able to change color and patterns dependent on the needs of the performance.  During the show, different structural elements were moved into both the backdrop and different angles of the stage to help create affects such as a gentle breeze or blazing fire.  Most surprising was the perfectly calm stage hands who deftly moved props: a street lamp, a pallet of money, a couch, even a large, light “Hotel” sign, on and off the stage in seconds, never missing their markers or affecting the layout of the choreography.  At times this adapt crew also added fog, helping enhance specific lighting effects, such as a dramatic spotlight, or a magical period scene for a Broadway routine.

Throughout each dance number, two teams of Steadicam operators: the camera man and a guide/cable puller, sprint around the performances.  They expertly maintain a safe distance while capturing the most nuance and dramatic aspects of the numbers.   These floor crew sync with two additional cameras on jibs circling above the audience as well as two stationary cameras at the front of house.

Halfway through the show, SYTYCD co-creator and judge Nigel Lythgoe applauds the fine work of the costume design and hair and makeup teams who’ve magically transformed the evening’s performers from 70s disco dancers to silver robots and beyond. I feel kudos must also go out to the stylist behind host Cat Deeley’s tremendously sparkly sequined pants – a favorite among the audience members.

The mechanics of the live show were seamless.  From the floor director calling out regular time markers until the live feed returned to the stage hand who swept the floor surface, ensuring as much safety as possible for the dancers, no detail was left unattended.   As the show came to an end, I was particularly struck by how intimidating the environment must be for the young dancers: especially those with limited performance experience.  Not only do they have to remember challenging routines, they have to ignore the countless distractions around them, from circling camera operators to the roar of the crowd. When I asked Cheesman how he readies them for the space, he simply stated,

“You do what you can to prepare them, but at a certain point, they are on their own.”