Paula Abdul – So You Think You Can Dance
Q) Paula, because there’s a lot of talk of street dancing and stage dancing and so forth, tell us a little bit about your own background and you did a lot of studio training as a kid. What got you interested in studio training as a kid, how young were you, and kind of tell us a little bit more about your passion for learning dancing?
A) Well, it all started when I was four years old when I first watched Singing in the Rain with my family. I fell in love with Gene Kelly, and my parents said that I stood up and proclaimed that I’m going to be an entertainer, and honestly, I never stopped. I never looked back, and I started which is considered kind of late because kids today when we’re auditioning them, when I say how old were you when you first started, they say like two and a half, three years old, and my response is why did you start so late, but for me, I started when I was seven and a half. So, I fell in love with dancing, and I did training in some ballet and tap and jazz and modern and musical theatre, fell in love with it, and I just knew from an early age that I would be a choreographer, and I didn’t ever look back. My first audition as a Laker girl, that was my first job, and I took that seriously and transformed the Laker girls into a legitimate dance team. That’s where I got my break, and I was discovered by The Jacksons and that was my first tour I went on when I was a teenager, still choreographed my very first film, which was with Mr. McDreamy from Grey’s Anatomy, Patrick Dempsey, and I did Can’t Buy me Love and went on to do Bull Durham and Coming to America, I did the big African dance scene, and Jerry Maguire, The Doors, so on and so forth and did tours from The Jacksons to Janet Jackson, and ZZ Top, George Michael, on and on and on. So, I’ve had a wonderful experience and went on to choreograph the Academy Awards while I was doing my pop music as well.
Q) How different are the skillsets for judging singing as to judging dancing? Is it the same, or do you have to use different kind of techniques and can you be more aggressive or more critical with certain ones than others? How does that work?
A) Well, I’ve been very fortunate to have an extremely successful career as a choreographer, and the spirit and psyche of dancers are unlike any other performer I’ve ever witnessed, and because of my success as a choreographer, my perspective looking at this show and judging the talent on this show comes from a background that actually started my whole career as an entertainer, and I see the finished product of the raw, untapped talent that we get, and I can see what their experience through the show will be, but I was always considered a ball buster as a choreographer. I’m a stickler for cleanliness and people really stretching their boundaries and getting outside their comfort zone.
Q) I’m curious that you previously knew Nigel Lythgoe and Jason Derulo, and if not, what was it like to meet them, how did you feel?
A) Well, I feel like Nigel is part of like my family. Nigel is one of the executive producers of American Idol, so I’ve been working with FOX and with Nigel Lythgoe for well over a decade, and I’m part of that family there. So, I’ve known him for quite some time and I’m enjoying immensely working with him and loving the fact that Jason Derulo is part of the panel. Jason, I’m a huge fan of. He’s an incredible added judge. He has a background that totally exemplifies as a young kid wanting to be a performer. He went to performing arts school. He has a lot to offer. He’s an incredible songwriter. He has the element of currently being out there performing as an artist, and it’s just a great chemistry. We all get along extremely well and are having maybe a little bit too much fun at times.
Q) Do you have any plans to perform yourself on stage during the show?
A) Nothing planned and concreted, but you never know what happens especially when it comes to dancing. I can’t contain myself. Sometimes I just have to dance with them.
Q) You’ve had a couple years off from a judging panel. What made you excited to get back into it and take this judging opportunity with So You Think You Can Dance?
A) Well, I actually spent the last year and four months in Sydney, Australia helping head up the panel for So You Think You Can Dance over there. So, I didn’t really take a break and I loved it so much. I loved being part of the show that when I came back to the states, I was approached by Nigel to do the US version. So, for me it was a perfect fit, hand to glove, it’s what I do, and really happy to be a part of it. I love this show.
Q) So, this season with the stage versus street competition, you have so much practice in professional dancing, do you think that one is more advantageous than the other this season?
A) I’m really excited about the new twist of format because we have team captains. Twitch the team captain of the street side, and Travis is the team captain of the stage side. And this time, it’s not about okay, the top twenty. It’s the ten best on the street side, ten best on stage, and it’s not necessarily about equal female to male, it’s whoever the best is, and I think with the two team captains, there’s going to be a competitive edge that we haven’t seen on this show in addition to the contestants competing. So, I don’t think one is more advantageous. I think you’re going to see a tremendous amount of competition on both sides. So, it’s going to be fun.
Q) I was just wondering what are some of the biggest challenges you face when you’re judging?
A) For me, it’s always wanting to give insight on how to become better at auditioning. There’s some amazing talent that we see that just have that natural gift, but they may not be as used to auditioning so they have a certain perception of what we, the judges, are looking for, and I always try to say don’t come in with any preconceived ideas because you just don’t know. Just be present in the moment and don’t have an attachment to the outcome and enjoy being on that stage showing your bright light, and I think the hardest thing is that when they get to caught up in their head and then they’re not enjoying the moment and they’re not showing their best light and their best raw talent. I always want them to do well. So, if I see that they’re making it through to the next round but I’m noticing something that is a habit that they need to break, I will leave my seat oftentimes and go over to the side and touch them and let them know you need to tweak this because you’re now aware that you’re pulling faces that are a little offputting or that you’re keeping your shoulders raised or just little tweaks that I want them to kind of— if someone tells them, I feel like if I tell them to be aware of it or mindful of it, then they won’t get the same feedback when they go to the next level.
Q) So You Think You Can Dance has sort of continued on with a very strong core audience that is very, very loyal to the show. It may be because it takes dancing very seriously is one of the theories. I’m just curious what do you think it is. There have been a lot of high profile reality competition shows, some of which you have been on that have come and gone, had big highs and big lows, they’re not around anymore, but So You Think You Can Dance is still here. Why do you think that is?
A) I think that what gets people about this show and why there’s such a fierce strong niche audience for it is that they’re seeing these young dancers and the tremendous athleticism and the amount of tenacity and drive that these young kids have. Unlike other art forms, dancers have such a unique spirit and psyche; they don’t go into this because it’s a hobby. They do it because they have to; it’s like the oxygen for him, it’s the air that we breathe, and it’s not because it’s for the faint hearted. It’s these people who are so über talented they go in and they put as many hours in as kids who go to law school or want to become a doctor. There’s really not a big difference. It’s the same level of athleticism as professional athletes that are famous football players and basketball players. It’s not where they are guaranteed to make a tremendous amount of money so it’s an art form that requires extreme dedication and focus and tenacity, and I think that people, not only because dance is so much at the forefront. And from me being in the dance field for as long as I have, I have waited for the day like how it’s been in the past decade where dance is so much at the forefront, and what I think people realize is that this show, So You Think You Can Dance, legitimizes real careers for these young dancers. It’s very difficult to make it as a dancer working in the business successfully, and this show actually highlights that these kids can go on and become background dancers for Beyoncé or Gaga or dance for award shows, or as you’ve seen, which I love, is seeing these young dancers turn into choreographers, and these choreographers turn into Emmy Award winning choreographers. So, I think that there’s such an immense respect for So You Think You Can Dance and that’s why the fan base is so fierce and loyal.
Q) Is there anything in particular about a dancer that really stands out to you or sets them apart from other dancers auditioning?
A) Absolutely, and it’s that inner confidence and just that belief that if I go out there and I just do my best. One of the things that I really, really thrive on is telling these dancers to be bold, be daring and show your unique ability, and because of the show doing so well, you see all these dance conventions and all these kids who come into audition, they’re merely imitating the standards of what So You Think You Can Dance has set as the bar. So, unless you’re going to approach these steps that have been already shown and exemplified on this show, unless you’re going to do it better or a different twist, don’t do it because we’ve seen it all. Show us something that makes you stand out completely as a unique ability that we’re going to be able to remember, do you remember that move that that so and so did, can’t wait to see it again because that’s what’s going to set you apart, and that’s what I thrive. It’s the same thing as a judge when I was on American Idol. I wanted to see unique ability because again, we already have the superstars like Gaga or Mariah or anyone who can achieve those amazing vocal licks and things like that. It’s the same thing with dancing. If you have the ability, technical ability to whip up the 12 pirouettes or the grand jetes or the bat mas and the extension, what are you going to do that just flips everything on its side or shifts the paradigm to make us go wow, you have got to come back to the next round and you have to be part of the top ten or what have you. That’s what I look for.
Q) Do you have some gays auditioning?
A) We absolutely do. We have tremendous diversity and very colorful, wonderful, extremely talented dancers. It’s been an amazing showing of just all different culture and backgrounds, diversity, styles, everything. It’s a wonderful season.
Q) I was just wondering are there any things that you would have said to Simon that you wouldn’t say to this panel?
A) I’m not discounting the panel that I loved so much on American Idol, it’s just completely different, a different set of skillsets and backgrounds as we have on So You Think You Can Dance. It’s a different experience and that’s what I love about this business is that I don’t try to find or recreate an experience I had. I always welcome the new experience, and the chemistry is fantastic on this panel, just as it was on American Idol, but it’s just completely different.
Q) I’m curious as you do more and more of these types of shows, is there anything that you find that you’re surprised to learn about yourself even with different judging styles
A) For me, this is part of my DNA. I’ve been searching, scouting and finding and mentoring raw talent for decades, and I’ve been very fortunate to have an astounding career as a choreographer in the dance industry. For me, I just let things happen the way they happen and I’m always pleasantly surprised to see amazing talent emerge and start setting new bars for excellence, and as far as finding out more about myself as a judge, I find myself to be more patient I suppose with the process. I look at it differently. My perspective is I can see it as an award-winning choreographer how these kids will do with the astounding choreographers that the show has, and I just can see that maybe they’re not catching on immediately at this moment, but remember, this is them at an audition, quick, quick, quick. When it gets into the show, not that it’s not quick because it certainly is, but there’s not as many people so there’s a much cleaner focus, and I think that it becomes different when they get on the show. So, I fight for what I can tell and see on the other side of their journey. I hope that— that’s how I always look at it. I can see clearly what they’re going to end up being shaped and molded as.
Q) So, is there a part that you’re most looking forward to of the live part of the show?
A) I always look forward to the live part of the show because the energy is incredible. There’s nothing like performing in front of a live audience because it’s instant gratification and it’s instant reconciliation as to how you’re doing as a performer, and when you’re put in that position as a performer, it’s like you give it your all, it’s all or nothing, and that’s the exciting part and those who were meant to be on the show, which they rise to the occasion and they do great. I’m looking forward to it. I’m looking forward to the fierce competitive aspect of the stage versus street. You’re going to see intensity with both Twitch and Travis as team captains.
Q) I want to ask you a little bit about the Emmys for choreography because you won early on; you won an Emmy for choreography, and now, this show has really dominated and gotten all kinds of nominations and some of the awards for Emmys. Have you watched some of the choreography on So You Think You Can Dance over the years? I know some of it— Travis Wall is going to be on the show this year, has gotten several of the nominations. What have you thought of the evolving choreography on TV?
A) Well, I’ve won multiple Emmys as a choreographer. I was the youngest choreographer to ever receive an Emmy as a choreographer, and as far as watching the show, I’m a huge fan of the show; I’ve been watching it since season one and been a fan and have talked to these kids, even Travis Wall when he was a contestant, I remember going up to him and sitting him down and talking to him and telling him how brilliant of a talent he has and to be patient with the process, not to get down on himself because it’s all part of the entire show is growing. I’m very invested into this show and I always have been.
Q) You’ve had experience judging in the past, and so, you’ve watched people with enormous dreams go from no experience at all in front of a group to honing your skills over a period of time toward winning something fantastic that’s going to advance them in a way nothing else has been able to in the past. As you watch these people and especially in the dance show completion where, like you’ve said, the dance is in your DNA so it’s a fully body thing or if it’s a full motion thing for you, how do you manage— you, I’m assuming, fall in love with these dancers. How can you not? How do you ground yourself while dealing with the tremendous emotionality of what you’re going to be doing?
A) Well, I’m so well versed in this area. I have been a working choreographer for well over three decades now and I’m a teacher at heart. So, when I work with these amazing talented beings, it’s just, for me, it’s a gift. It’s a gift that always keeps on giving. I always see someone new that just inspires me and I try to impart my wisdom and my experience to them as well. I’ve had a long really beautiful career as a choreographer, and I think that that aspect of it still—that’s why it works for me doing this, and I’ve been able to start so many people’s careers that a lot of the careers of some of the choreographers that are on this show started as dancers that I picked out and sought out and brought into my world and started making them my tour dancers and then teaching them to become choreographers so that they can be successful. So, this is just so part of what I do that I know how to do this very well.