Dancer to Dancer

So You Wanna Dance on TV? How Comp Kids Are Making the Leap

Diana Pombo on "World of Dance" (photo by Justin Jubin, courtesy NBC)

In February 2016, "So You Think You Can Dance: The Next Generation" released a casting call for dancers ages 8 to 12. Determined to make it onto the show, then–10-year-old Emma Hellenkamp prepared a jazz solo for the L.A. audition. The next part of her story may come as a surprise to fans of the series: She didn't make the cut. But Emma's competition background meant she was well-versed in several dance styles, so she opted to audition again in Chicago—this time with a tap solo. And the rest is history: Emma not only made it onto the show, but also progressed all the way to the final four.

"SYTYCD: The Next Generation" is part of a larger trend of dance-competition TV embracing younger dancers, with shows including "World of Dance" and the upcoming "Dancing with the Stars Junior" following suit. And like Emma, many of the dance kids trying out their skills on these shows come from the competition-and-convention circuit. What is it about these two worlds that smooths the transition from one to the other?


Building a Competitive Mindset

On the surface, the connection between reality TV competitions and dance competitions is obvious: "They're both competitions," says 12-year-old Diana Pombo, who competed on "World of Dance" in 2017. But what that commonality means on a practical level is a bit more nuanced.

For one, comp kids already have experience performing in front of judges. "That consistent pressure helps them develop a level of professionalism from a young age," says Victor Smalley of Stars Dance Studio in Miami, FL. They know how to handle the emotions that come with being judged—nerves, shyness, excitement—without letting it compromise their performance.

Pombo competing at The Dance Awards (courtesy Break the Floor)

Involvement in the competition-and-convention circuit also tends to offer exposure to big-name choreographers from the industry. "After winning Mini Female Best Dancer at the Dance Awards in 2016, I got the opportunity to assist at NUVO, Jump, and 24Seven for a year," Diana says. "I took so many classes from different choreographers each week." Many of those same choreographers work on TV dance shows, giving comp kids the advantage of familiarity.

Even if a young competition dancer never comes in contact with a choreographer from the show, she has another secret weapon in her back pocket: versatility. "Competitive dancers tend to be trained in a variety of styles," says Sasha Altukhov of Center Stage Performing Arts Studio in Orem, UT. "They're physically prepared to adapt to different choreography," and to pick up that choreography quickly—two top requirements for most TV dance shows.

Forming Valuable Connections

While Emma decided to audition for "SYTYCD: The Next Generation" without any prior scouting, more often than not producers reach out to top competition studios to recruit for their shows. That's how Diana's journey on "World of Dance" all began. "A producer scouted a group of dancers from Stars Dance Studio, and once they saw my dance videos, they invited me to audition in person in Atlanta," she says. However, the studio connection only got her foot in the door. She had to make it through several rounds of in-person auditions before actually making it onto the show.

Emma Hellenkamp (left) and Gaby Diaz on "So You Think You Can Dance" (photo by Patrick Wymore, courtesy Fox)

Often, studios that are competition mainstays become regular scouting grounds for TV shows. Kim DelGrosso, co-owner of Center Stage Performing Arts Studio in Orem, UT, which boasts several TV dance show alums, keeps her dancers' headshots and resumés on file for booking agents. "We get calls at the studio for almost every show, so I make sure all of my dancers are prepared to move forward with the audition process," she says. She's also had scouts discover her dancers at competitions.

Anticipating Challenges

While competitive dancers come to the television stage with a bit of familiarity, it's still ultimately a foreign world for them. "It's just a different atmosphere," Emma says. "You have interviews mixed into rehearsals, there's hair and makeup and wardrobe, and you're learning up to five pieces a week."

Fortunately, many of these dancers have the support of their studio owners and teachers, who often have a good idea of what these TV shows will require of their young dancers. "Knowing how to act in an interview is going to be a big deal-breaker for who they choose," says Cheyenne Murillo of Center Stage. "If they aren't comfortable speaking on camera, the show can't use them." Dancers at Center Stage prepare for TV competition shows with acting lessons and interview coaching. "We bring in pageant people to give them private instruction," DelGrosso says. "We don't tell them what to say. We just give them the confidence to be themselves." Smalley also works on his dancers' interview skills, giving them on-camera interview experience with the pressure of an audience. "I remind them that they're no longer representing a studio brand. They're becoming their own brand, and they need to trust their intuition to be a true artist," he says.

Dancing on camera can also be a bit of a learning curve for these dancers, as it affects things like angles and focus. Some conventions offer specific classes for dance on camera. At Dancerpalooza, for example, "SYTYCD" regular Mandy Moore works with students to help them learn about angles and cues.

Returning to Earth

When Emma attended her first competition after "SYT," she admits that it was a bit of an adjustment. "People kept coming up to me and asking if I was Emma from 'SYTYCD,' " she says. "I'm so not used to that." But as a whole, she feels the experience has helped her be a better competitive dancer. "It's really broadened my vocabulary, and I get much less nervous before going onstage," she says. She's thankful to be back on a definite schedule, taking regular technique classes and bonding with her team.

Hellenkamp competing at Celebrity Dance (courtesy Celebrity Dance)

Not all dancers transition out of reality TV competitions quite so smoothly. "These shows can either make or destroy you," Smalley says. Sometimes, a small dose of fame is enough to convince young dancers that they no longer need to train. "They feel like they've moved beyond studio life, because they're a celebrity now. I tell my students, once you stop training, it's only a matter of time before someone passes you up."

DelGrosso agrees. "When these kids come back feeling like big stars, it can be difficult for them to insert themselves back into the studio." She helps her dancers get in the right mindset by reminding them that these TV shows are "just another job."

For young dancers who manage to stay humble, the
experience can be a springboard for even more opportunities to learn and grow. Diana decided not to return to the competition scene after "World of Dance," but that doesn't mean she's stopped training. "I competed in order to get stage practice, but 'World of Dance' has opened up so many performance opportunities for me," she says. That said, she still attends regular conventions and master classes. "I have so much to learn," she says. "This is just the beginning for me."


A version of this story appeared in the May/June 2018 issue of Dance Spirit with the title "From The Comp Stage to the Small Screen."

Show Comments ()
Popular

Summer dance camp season will be here before you know it and you might be starting to wonder what you need to pack in your bag. Don't stress, we have 5 of the top must haves for camp this summer!

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Videos
Safe to say that flexibility is still not an issue for the talented Ms. Igo. (screenshot via YouTube)

Because winning the Junior Division on last summer's inaugural season of "World of Dance" (suuuuuuuuuuper casual) just wasn't enough.

Keep reading... Show less

Where to begin?! We're still picking our jaw up off the floor after last night's insanely impressive "World of Dance" episode, one that was so jam-packed with standout performances and familiar faces, we don't even know how to recap it in all its glory! (!!!) Without further ado, here's what went down last night:

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored

We caught up with former Rockette Trina Simon at Showstopper's Myrtle Beach dance convention to get her expert advice on how to work as a professional dancer. Trina's work on Broadway has given her insight into the key things to focus on as a professional dancer looking for jobs and making a name for yourself, whether you are new to the world of professional dance or you have been making your way from one audition to the next for a while.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance News
Including SpongeBob SquarePants! (Joan Marcus, courtesy Boneau/Bryan-Brown)

Every good trip to NYC should include a Broadway show (or three!), and there are a TON of brilliantly dancy musicals to see right now. But Bway tix can be expensive, especially on a dancer's budget. Which is why we are allll about Broadway in Bryant Park, the annual event that brings some of the greatest stuff happening on the Great White Way to the great outdoors—for free.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance News

Christopher Wheeldon is going to be giving Michael Jackson some new moves: The Royal Ballet artistic associate is bringing the King of Pop to Broadway.

The unlikely pairing was announced today by Jackson's estate. Wheeldon will serve as both director and choreographer for the new musical inspired by Michael Jackson's life, which is aiming for a 2020 Broadway opening. This will be Wheeldon's second time directing and choreographing, following 2015's Tony Award-winning An American in Paris.

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer to Dancer
Via Instagram

Ballerina Sara Michelle Murawski and her looooooong legs have taken to the streets. And the grocery store. And the subway. And the Brooklyn Bridge. The reason for her epic journey: A new Insta account, @danceinthebigapple, featuring Murawski and her "ballet twin," Saverio Pescucci, as they dance their way through NYC.

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer to Dancer
Photo by Jayme Thornton

Ballerina Whitney Jensen's incredible lines and extraordinary grace have captivated audiences around the world. At 10, Jensen won the silver medal at the Youth America Grand Prix NYC finals, and at age 16, she was the first American to win the highest possible distinction at the Varna International Ballet Competition. Jensen started dancing in Salt Lake City, UT, at The Dance Club, followed by The Jacqueline College School of Classical Ballet and Ballet West Academy. When she was 11 and 12, she performed as Clara in the Radio City Christmas Spectacular in NYC, and, after, moved to the Big Apple to train full-time at Valentina Kozlova's Dance Conservatory of New York. She joined Boston Ballet in 2009 and became one of the company's youngest principals in 2014. In 2015, Jensen took a short break from ballet before accepting an offer with the Norwegian National Ballet, where she's currently a soloist. —Courtney Bowers

Keep reading... Show less

Sponsored

Want to Be on Our Cover?

covermodelsearch-image

Video

Sponsored

mailbox

Get Dance Spirit in your inbox

Sponsored