America loves a surprise, and “So You Think You Can Dance” viewers found one in Russell Ferguson. The Boston krumper, who had far less technical training than his competitors, could have been considered an underdog in the competition. But with his charming, ever-present grin and bold, grounded dancing, he beat out the rest of the Top 20 to become America’s Favorite Dancer on “So You Think You Can Dance” Season 6. Like a lightning bolt, Russell’s sharp attack brought a fresh form of dancing to the “SYTYCD” stage. Every week, he surprised the judges and audience by displaying strength in a new area.
So when it came down to Jakob Karr, a technically powerful “diamond,” and Russell, an “unpolished diamond” (according to Nigel Lythgoe), America went with the man who brought the “buckness.” Plus, Russell miraculously never looked out of his element. “I never wanted to be a krumper trying to be a contemporary dancer,” says 20-year-old Russell. “I had to be what they were asking me to be. If it was a paso doble, I was a Spaniard. If it was a fox-trot, I was a ballroom dancer.” Whether it was his positive attitude projecting unwavering confidence or the fact that he seemed to improve with every single performance, Russell won America’s heart.
Russell may not have had the advantage of an early start in technique classes, but he was just about born onstage. At age 6, he joined Boston City Lights, a free recreational singing, acting and dance training program that allowed him to perform all over Boston, MA. Russell identifies Boston City Lights founder and director Duggan Hill as his key mentor. “He’s like another father to me,” Russell says. Hill wasn’t remotely surprised when his former student succeeded on the show. “Russell uses all the direction given; he’s incredibly musical and he can learn anything that’s thrown at him quicker than anyone else can,” Hill says. “He developed good work habits early on.”
Russell honed his ability to learn choreography quickly at Boston City Lights, but he wanted to train formally and truly learn the craft of dance. So he enrolled as a dance major at Boston Arts Academy, a local performing arts high school. It was a turning point in his dance life. “Once I was enrolled at the Boston Arts Academy, I knew I was on to something because I was exposed to a new world of dance,” he says.
But, Russell didn’t immediately adore all of that new world. He remembers his first ballet class at Boston Arts Academy: “It was boring. It seemed so one-dimensional and wasn’t free enough for me,” he says. Modern dance provided the creative outlet he craved. “You get to move, and they use all kinds of music,” he says. During his time at Boston Arts Academy, Russell took classes and performed a piece by Ronald K. Brown, the founder of the African-inspired dance company Evidence, an experience he treasures. Today, Russell has an altogether different attitude about technique classes and plans to get more under his belt soon. “I know what technique is used for now—to get better at whatever style of dance you do,” he says. “Doing ballet is for a good cause.”
The Krumping Kid
It wasn’t until he was 16 that Russell turned to YouTube and found his dance calling: krumping. This style developed in south central L.A. during the 1990s and was popularized by the 2005 movie Rize. Krumping differs from B-boy movement in that it’s more improvisational, less acrobatic and more internally generated. The rhythms are strong, abrupt and seem to shatter and vibrate through the body. Powerful syncopations come out of nowhere and the movement appears rough and almost angry. When Russell krumps, it looks as if there is something inside of him trying to get out. “There was no doubt in my mind: Krump was what I was meant to dance,” he says. “There was something about the look of it that told me that this belongs on my body.”
In addition to the support he received from fellow krumpers, Russell was also strongly backed by his parents. “They weren’t dancers but they love dance,” he says. “They were supportive of me every step of the way and made sure I stayed on the path.” Early on, his mother noticed his ability to learn choreography quickly and never questioned his career choice. “She was always pushing me and was my inspiration,” he says. “My mom thought I could be the next Michael Jackson.”
Lil’ C, who predicted Russell’s victory during Vegas Week, believes Russell’s success means a lot to the krumping community. “As a choreographer, judge and krumper, it brought me insurmountable pleasure to see Russell win,” he says. “I felt like a proud father. Russell’s victory serves as a rite of passage for the art form of krump. It amplifies not only the validity of the style, but the potential as well.”
The Road to “SYTYCD”
The decision to audition for “SYTYCD” was not a spur-of-the-moment one for Russell. He knew he wanted to be on a reality competition program to showcase his talents for America. “I wanted a show that would let me be me,” he says. “I found that at ‘SYTYCD.’ ” He spent a year training at University of the Arts in Philadelphia, PA, where he continued his studies in modern dance, ballet and jazz. Russell credits that time with helping prepare him for the show. “It was an intense year of getting myself together,” he says. “By the time I showed up for auditions in Boston, I was ready.” Russell’s raw approach put judges Nigel Lythgoe, Mary Murphy and Tyce Diorio under a spell as they each grooved with krumping’s earthy rhythms. Lythgoe mentioned that krumping seemed too one-dimensional to him and that he wanted to see what else Russell could do. So, Russell harnessed his competitive nature and spent the entire season showing Lythgoe—and the rest of America—his versatile dance skills. “If I feel it, I know you feel it—it’s a transfer of my energy to you,” he says. “I made eye contact and drew the audience and judges into what I was doing.”
“SYTYCD” looks grueling—and it is, especially at the end of each season when the contestants need to learn and perform two routines with just five hours of rehearsal time for each. “The producers give us everything we need, but we are the people who need to be smart about it,” Russell says. “If you’re a quitter, it’s not a show for you; if you love dance, you can get through it.”
Russell drew strength from something that Jeff Thacker, one of the show’s producers, said to him. “God gave you the strength, but you are the one who has to use it,” he told Russell. “That stayed with me,” Russell says.
The relationships forged backstage on “SYTYCD” help contestants power through the trying competition. Russell found a lifelong friend in fellow street dancer Kevin Hunt. “The other contestants called us ‘The Twins’ because we were always hanging out,” Russell says. “It was an honor to dance with him.” When Kevin was voted off the show it took a toll on Russell. “I had to be more focused,” he says. “I needed to win for both of us.” Russell kept his promise, and during the final moments of the finale, he called Kevin onstage to share the limelight. “Get up here, son,” Russell shouted over a crowd of adoring fans.
Over the course of the show, Russell partnered frequently with Noelle Marsh and Ashleigh Di Lello, as well as a few last-minute replacements when Di Lello was injured. But it wasn’t until he danced with his final partner, contemporary dancer Kathryn McCormick, that he found that deep connection the judges and audience love to see. “We had a special bond; we have the same zodiac sign, and maybe that’s why we get along so well,” Russell says. The two were paired only once, in a hip-hop routine choreographed by Tabitha and Napoleon D’umo. “In this piece, Kathryn was as far from contemporary as she could get, so I needed to help her look the part,” Russell says. “She’s unbelievable, and such a hard worker and good listener. She never lets anything discourage her. We made each other shine.” Kathryn also danced the role of Alice alongside Russell as the White Rabbit in Tabitha and Napoleon’s “What’s a Girl to Do” Top 12 routine. “We worked off each other’s energy,” Kathryn says. “He’s so generous, nice to everyone and has a huge heart. I felt so free and comfortable dancing with him.”
In a tender moment before their first performance together, Russell shared a prayer with Kathryn that he says every time he goes onstage. In return, she shared the inspirational lyrics to a song—“With Everything” by Hillsong—that gives her strength, and together they went onstage with their collective talent and resolve.
Pushing toward Perfection
Russell reveled in routines tailor-made for him by Shane Sparks and Tabitha and Napoleon. “They choreographed exactly for my skills,” he says. “Everything was perfect and nothing could go wrong.” But it was Sonya Tayeh’s lyrical jazz piece to Jewel’s “Angel Standing By” that defined the krumper as someone who could do just about anything with extraordinary finesse. Nigel said he could not take his eyes off Russell and Mary Murphy was brought to tears.
While Russell triumphed more often than not, he did have his own set of challenges, particularly when faced with Nakul Dev Mahajan’s Bollywood choreography. “There were so many complicated hand positions, and I wanted to get it all just right,” he says. “I worked so hard to make it look good.” He succeeded and the judges raved. “I live for challenges,” he asserts. “I work harder because I have something to prove.”
Facing the judges’ comments is a difficult moment for any contestant. It can be humbling and sometimes downright hard to hear serious criticism of your dancing. Russell had a particular strategy for managing the stress: “I would think of each dance as something I was going to show and share with the judges,” he says. He regularly took their advice to heart and brought it to his next routine. “The judges inspired me and encouraged me,” he says. “So whether they said to keep my shoulders back or my hips forward, it stuck with me and I tried to remember it for the next routine.”
Over the course of the show’s 16 weeks, Lythgoe called Russell a star and “bloody amazing.” Mary Murphy, a Russell supporter from the start, choked back tears during the last judging session of the season. “From the second I saw Russell, there was a sense of joy that came from within,” she recalls. “Out of six seasons, Russell’s journey was the most inspirational. I always advise aspiring dancers to watch the movie Rudy. Russell epitomizes the ‘never give up heart and spirit’ mentality. Even if his performance wasn’t perfect, he made up for it with passion.”
In the show’s final moments, Russell’s destiny was sealed as he took the title of America’s Favorite Dancer, falling to his knees after thanking his teachers, family and God. “This is what I have been waiting for—everything I have dreamed of,” he told the audience.
A Bright Future
Despite his new title and $250,000 prize, Russell doesn’t plan to make any major moves just yet—but he does have a few long-term goals. With the cash, he plans to buy his first car. “My car doesn’t need to be fancy—something with wheels on it will do.” As for winning, Russell believes it has increased the opportunities he’ll have in the future. “I have only learned more from the experience, not changed who I am,” he says proudly.
For his dance future, the krumper has a big vision: “I’ve had this dream to form an empire. I want to bring all forms of dance together and create something huge. I have wanted to start an organization since way before the show. I see it as a group of educators and performers who tour to different cities spreading all kinds of dance. It’s going to be like a congregation.” And of course, it will be based in Boston. As for right now, Russell is drawn to film and performing. “I’m not a one-hit wonder. Winning the show is just the beginning. You are going to be seeing a lot more of me.”