Like so many young dancers, Canadian-born Blake McGrath grew up idolizing Britney Spears and Janet Jackson. Unlike many dancers, he had absolutely zero doubt he would one day share the stage with these and other pop superstars. “I’d seen Brian Friedman in Britney’s ‘I’m a Slave 4 U’ video, and thought, ‘I want to be just like him,’” McGrath says. “I knew I had to go out to L.A. and make it happen.” So, in 2001, the day after he graduated from high school, McGrath packed up his car, threw a radio in the backseat, and drove for 41 hours straight to L.A.
For McGrath, who’d spent almost his entire life training in the Toronto suburb of Mississauga, Ontario, arriving in Tinseltown was a culture shock. A seasoned competition kid (he was Mr. Dance of America 1999), McGrath’s slick jazz style desperately needed an infusion of hip-hop presence and street credibility in order for him to be taken seriously and to become commercially viable.
He immersed himself in the local Hollywood dance scene, taking as many as four dance classes a day and focusing especially on hip hop. McGrath’s frequent attendance at Friedman’s EDGE and Millennium classes paid off when Friedman recruited him to be his in-class assistant after six months. Though McGrath was a quick study, the gigs didn’t pour in. Despite booking a Skechers industrial and an awards show performance within his first few months of moving to L.A., McGrath’s money—and, essentially, his time in the U.S.—was running out.
“I remember crying on the phone with my parents and saying, ‘I can’t eat Mr. Noodles anymore,’” McGrath says. “I was thinking about going home, but I would’ve died before actually doing that. The next day [nearly a year after arriving in the city], my agent called and said I got direct-booked for Britney’s world tour.”
Accompanying Britney on her “Onyx Hotel Tour” ended up being just the beginning for McGrath, who has since danced alongside notables like Michael Jackson, in the movies Rent and Chicago, and in commercial campaigns for Gap and H&M. For dancers looking to follow in McGrath’s gilded footsteps, he suggests taking a well-rounded dance curriculum rather than focusing on one genre. “Moving to L.A. was a big shock that really opened up my eyes,” he says. “[Studio] technique and training are amazing, but you need to find a happy medium. You need to switch that out, and find the groove and find the funk.”
Life on Reality TV
McGrath made a name for himself in Hollywood circles, but America didn’t meet him until his July 2005 debut on Fox’s surprise hit show, “So You Think You Can Dance.” As one of the top 16 dancers competing to win $100,000 and a swank NYC apartment for a year, McGrath played the “bad boy” and exuded an amount of confidence that bordered on arrogance.
The backstage drama first got heated when the other contestants complained about Blake’s professional past (and his previous coverage in DS November 2004), saying that they were up against unfair odds. Then, in televised rehearsals, McGrath butted heads with choreographer and judge Dan Karaty, and made no secret that he thought he could one-up Karaty at his own job. Although McGrath had the talent to back up his attitude, some of the judges took issue with his behavior. Friedman chided McGrath for alienating a possible employer. McGrath was forced to face how small the L.A. dance world can be, and his eventual dismissal made it seem that his behavior had been his downfall. He ended up in the top 6.
“I’ve had to learn through my mistakes, and I’ve grown up a lot,” says McGrath of the experience. “They had a role prepared for me, and they were looking to villainize me. I’m very passionate, and I wear [emotions] on my sleeve sometimes. [Karaty] had gotten me heated, and they didn’t air the stuff he’d said to me. That’s not the type of guy I am. I have a lot of heart, I love to laugh, and I love to love.”
While McGrath denies any diva-like tendencies, he firmly stands behind what he believes people perceive as cockiness. “If I want something bad enough, there is absolutely nothing that can stand in my way,” he says. “I think people look at that as being cocky or overconfident. It’s nothing personal. I don’t have all the time in the world to worry about what other people are thinking. I’ll make my goals happen no matter what anybody says.”
Bold Moves, Bright Future
Life since “SYTYCD” has been a whirlwind of activity, with McGrath branching out professionally. In May, he released an instructional dance DVD, Dance Driven. With performances and routines in lyrical, jazz, hip hop and Latin dance, McGrath imparts many of the diverse dance styles he showed off on “SYTYCD.”
“There were many people who were inspired throughout the show, and I wanted to be able to teach them something,” says McGrath. “The instructional video was a way to stay in touch with my fans.” In that same vein, McGrath is working with his older sister, also a dancer, to spearhead a national convention they’ve dubbed “Coast 2 Coast Dance Convention.” Because his schedule has been jam-packed, the convention hasn’t had a chance to take flight. “We’re just waiting until I have a second to breathe,” he says.
Because McGrath is the first to say that reality TV offers a somewhat distorted perspective, some may be surprised to learn he’ll grace the small screen again in a reality TV show that, at press time, was scheduled to premiere on MTV in January. Unlike shows such as “SYTYCD” or “Dancing with the Stars,” this show (untitled as of press time) isn’t a competition, but rather a documentary-style look at the life of six L.A.-based dancers pursuing their dreams. Executive produced by Jennifer Lopez, the show documents the daily trials and triumphs of dancers at all levels of the industry.
McGrath is especially excited, however, at being handpicked for Janet Jackson’s latest world tour—a gig that will last through 2009. When McGrath booked the job, he was shocked. “I wasn’t asked to a callback, and I thought I was out,” he says. When choreographer Gil Duldulao called to notify McGrath that there was one more male spot, McGrath jumped at the chance to come in for another audition. “Gil had me dance off against another guy, and then Janet came in and picked me. It was insane; it was one of the most surreal moments ever.”
McGrath considers the Janet gig “the ultimate,” so he’s setting his sights outside the dance world for the future. “After I do Janet, where can I go from there as a dancer?” he asks. “I want to do musicals. I can see myself getting further into singing and acting. I want to be able to do all three, and when that movie role comes around, I’ll be able to come in and kill it.”
Not surprisingly, McGrath cops to cultivating his “bad boy” image onscreen and off. He admits that he created a character of sorts both for “SYTYCD” and the upcoming MTV reality show, while his website (blakemcgrath.com) features pictures of him smoking and carousing with attractive women. “You definitely need an image, because you need people to connect with you,” says McGrath. “I would like to be that hot, sexy, funny guy that is all over the map, and you have no idea what he’ll do from one minute to the next. But you know he has a lot of talent—and you want to stick with him and see his next move.”