Watching this season of "So You Think You Can Dance" has been a more personal experience for me. I know two of the contestants—one who is in the finals tonight, and another who was eliminated weeks ago.
The dance community is pretty tight, so many of you will understand what I mean by this: It’s different, and even a little surreal, to watch people you know dancing on a grand stage, in front of millions, and blossoming into celebrities before your eyes.
Take Kayla Radomski. One year ago right now, I was eating breakfast with Kayla in Los Angeles before The Pulse summer convention. At the time, she had big dreams. That hasn’t changed, but pretty much everything else about her life has. Last summer, we could sit in relative peace and talk about her incredible life story. (I’ll save the details of that for another time, but it’s a testament to how a strong, loving family and incredible talent can help a person overcome the most daunting circumstances.)
If we were doing that same interview in that same hotel-lobby restaurant now, I guarantee Kayla would have a big group of fans lining up as she ate her egg whites. In fact, she recently hit the 5,000-friend limit on her personal Facebook page and had to create a fan page to accommodate all the friend requests she could no longer grant.
Whether or not she wins the top title tonight, Kayla and the rest of the Top 12 dancers will feel their fans’ love when they hit the road for the "SYTYCD" tour later this summer and fall. I’m thrilled for all of them, but especially for her—because it’s nice to see someone you know reach those big dreams with the world watching.
I felt the same for another contestant, Tony Bellissimo. I’ve known Tony for 12 years—since he was in third grade. That happens to be when he started dancing, but I didn’t know him as a dancer. I knew him as a student: I was a college intern working in his school.
Tony was a tall, skinny, ultra-nice kid who started taking lessons at The Future Dance Center outside Buffalo, NY, where we both live. The owners of Future are Gino and Denise Vaccaro, longtime veterans of the Tremaine convention circuit who are deeply connected in the L.A. dance world.
Gino and Denise taught Tony well. So well that he made the Top 20 of "SYTYCD" this year, on his second try. Tony, whose specialty was hip hop, was cut in the first week and came back home. We chatted recently about the "SYTYCD" experience. He told me he was amazed by the amount of planning that goes into the show: There are cameras for the girls, cameras for the guys, multiple stage marks, and even a precise plan for where and how host Cat Deeley will walk.
“I was blown away by the whole process,” Tony said.
Tony has kept watching the show, texting and Facebook messaging some of the contestants, whom he considers to be “like family.” He became particularly close with Top 10 finalist Jason Glover; the two have talked about moving to L.A., where they want to split the cost of an apartment and pursue dance full-time.
Tony admitted that sometimes it’s hard to watch the show—he gets frustrated that he was eliminated so early and replays in his mind everything he could have done differently. But then he remembers a question that the show’s co-executive producer, Jeff Thacker, once posed to the group: If you had been told before the initial auditions that you would make the Top 20 but be the first one eliminated, would you do it?
“I would have killed to do that,” Tony said.
In case you’re wondering (like I was), it’s crushing—but not devastating—to be eliminated early. Generally you don’t make it that far under so much pressure unless you’re got a strong enough head to keep perspective: Making the top 20 on SYTYCD is a major career booster for any dancer. Advancing further, or even winning, is just a very sweet bonus.
“This is my Super Bowl, right now in my life,” Tony said. “I’m going to keep going and find my next Super Bowl.”