NBC's "World of Dance" is officially back! Over the last two seasons, the show has exploded in popularity, and it's easy to see why: The contestants truly are in a league of their own. No matter their genre, every dancer that takes the "WOD" stage gives it their all.
But what exactly is it like to be up there, surrounded by all the bright lights and cheering fans—and watched by not only J.Lo, Ne-Yo, and Derek, but also millions of viewers? To find out, we spoke with Briar Nolet, Kayla Mak, Lauren Yakima, and Derek Piquette, all of whom are competing this season for the (very casual) $1 million grand prize. Here's what they had to say about the lessons they learned, people they met, and experiences they had on the "WOD" set.
Briar slaying at her Cover Model Search cover shoot (photo by Erin Baiano)
The DS staff let out a collective squeal upon finding out our very own 2016 Cover Model Search winner Briar Nolet was one of the Season 3 contestants. She's a powerhouse dancer who knows her way around a TV set thanks to her starring role as Richelle on "The Next Step"—but she says "WOD" was an entirely new beast.
Dance Spirit: How did you prepare for the show?
Briar Nolet: I really needed to get my mental health and dancing to a competitive level. I'd been dealing with a health issue (that's all better now!), so I started preparing months in advance. I did ballet, tumbling, and every style that wasn't contemporary. The dancing I do on "The Next Step" is very commercial, and I'm playing a character; for "WOD," it was important for me to be able to dance at a high level of intensity, all while staying true to myself.
DS: What was it like filming "WOD"? Was it like "The Next Step" at all?
BN: It was super cool, and very intense. I had no idea what to expect filming a reality show. When you're actually in the thick of it, you're experiencing so many different emotions all the time. With "The Next Step," you get as many takes as you need, and it's a whole different atmosphere. At the end of the day, "WOD" is a competition, so some people might be really excited, while others are really nervous or laser focused.
DS: Did you get nervous at all while filming?
BN: I was definitely nervous, but I dealt with the nerves in a different way than I do when I'm touring with "The Next Step" or filming for that. I tend to get really excited, which then turns into adrenaline—but that wears off, you become incredibly exhausted. So it was key for me to calm my nerves. With "WOD," every time I took the stage, I had to focus on the story I was telling, and remind myself why I was dancing.
DS: Why do you think "WOD" is such a popular show with non-dance-world audiences?
BN: I think the international aspect is what makes it so great. And the fact that it's a competition. There's so much diversity among the performers. It's not just cookie-cutter hip hop or contemporary. And we all share the stage, which is such a beautiful thing. I became friends with dancers from India and South Korea, among lots of other places, and that never would've happened otherwise.
We've been watching Westchester Dance Academy standout Kayla Mak shine as Clara in the Radio City Christmas Spectacular and dominate at events like NYCDA and YAGP for years, so her graduation to the “WOD" stage feels like a logical next step. And while repping the ballet community comes with tons of added pressure, Kayla says she took the whole experience in stride.
Dance Spirit: Tell us a little bit about the energy on set.
Kayla Mak: The energy and vibe were everything I could've dreamed of, times ten. While performing, I drew all my adrenaline from the amazing audience and beautiful stage. Every single person was so supportive and kind—I'm so grateful I was able to dance with them. Also, the production crew and producers were so caring. We all became family.
DS: Were your nerves the same as when you compete or perform as Clara? Or was it a totally different feeling?
KM: I was very nervous during the show. Dancing on pointe adds a whole other level of stress in addition to just performing for such an esteemed panel of judges! But my nerves were definitely as high as when I performed as Clara or competed. I always want to do my best and represent the ballet community and the competition community, to show that the two worlds can co-exist, and that ballet can be just as entertaining and competitive as more commercial genres of dance.
DS: Why do you think “WOD" appeals to so many people?
KM: I think the stories behind so many of the dances and dancers are incredibly relatable to audiences. Dance is such a powerful art form, and being on the show allowed me and so many others to inspire people all over the world.
DS: If you could give one piece of advice to someone auditioning for the show, what would it be?
KM: Never be afraid. When I was auditioning, I prepared two contemporary pieces—one with pointe shoes, and one without. I performed the one sans pointe shoes, and the judges then asked me if I was able to dance it again on pointe. I was afraid at first, but took a deep breath and a leap of faith, which I'm so glad I did! This was a big lesson I learned while auditioning, to take chances.
We've always admired comp-circuit queen Lauren Yakima's fierce stage presence, so we weren't surprised when her name popped up on the Season 3 roster. With her piercing facial expressions, absolutely bonkers control, and signature jump (peep the 50-second mark in the video), Lauren is undoubtedly one to watch.
Dance Spirit: What was it like to be on the "WOD" stage competing, versus at a competition like The Dance Awards?
Lauren Yakima: I was so beyond nervous, which is interesting because when I'm competing on the regular circuit, I'm never nervous. I'm just like, "Be chill, do what you practiced, and do the best you can." But with "WOD," I thought my heart was going to jump out of my chest. I had to figure out how to get everything in check the first time I stepped on the stage, because it was totally crazy.
DS: What was the energy like on set?
LY: It was all very professional, with producers, cameras, directors, and all that just everywhere you looked. It was really exciting for me, personally, because I've never experienced that before, and I loved how we had a schedule of where we needed to be and when. It gave me a lot of insight into what I hope my future career holds. I loved being part of it.
DS: What was it like meeting the judges for the first time?
LY: I was sooo starstruck! It was one of those moments where you look up at them and just go, 'Is this really happening?' They were all just so great.
DS: What's your best piece of advice for someone who wants to audition for the show?
LY: You have to be confident in what you're doing. Never second-guess yourself, and don't be timid. If you're confident and proud, it translates through your dancing. Your confidence will make others believe in you, and you can't fake that.
Derek Piquette stole our hearts during his stint on Season 12 of "So You Think You Can Dance" with his crisp technique, fluid movement quality, and grounded presence. Since wrapping up the show, he's performed as Trickster in Cirque du Soleil's KOOZA, in addition to teaching and choreographing for tons of conventions and companies. And while his experiences on the "SYT" set certainly gave him an edge, Derek says "WOD" was a very different ball game.
Dance Spirit: Were your experiences filming "SYTYCD" and "WOD" similar at all, or completely unalike?
Derek Piquette: When I was preparing for and filming "SYT," I had to train in lots of different styles. For "WOD," I only intensively trained in contemporary, and prepped my choreo—but there's added pressure there since it's my and my husband's choreo, and we're showing it off to the world. I'm also a few years older now and have gotten used to being on camera.
DS: What was your experience like on set?
DP: The production crew and judges on "WOD" sort of acted as this built-in support system. Everyone—seriously, everyone—wanted you to do well, and made sure you were taken care of. There wasn't a competitive, tense atmosphere; it was the exact opposite. When we wrapped the show, I sent a text to all the producers and assistants thanking them for everything and telling them just how much all their help meant to me.
DS: Did you get nervous at all?
DP: I didn't ever get nervous until I got on the stage, in front of the judges. Once the lights went dark, all my adrenaline kicked in.
DS: Since you're somewhat of a dance TV show veteran, what advice do you have for aspiring auditionees?
DP: As clichéd as it sounds, you have to stay true to who you are. Don't become the person everyone wants you to portray on TV. Even if people are suggesting things to say or do, just be you. Show your personality. And always keep up with your training!