Alex got screwed. Dancers didn't get paid. SYTYCD won't cover medical expenses. He is paying thousands of dollars in physical therapy out of his personal savings. He won't be able to dance for a year and doctors don't know if he will ever fully recover.
`So You Think You Can Dance' contestants endure grueling days for chance at glory
BY JORDAN LEVIN
A big part of the appeal of the popular TV show So You Think You Can Dance is its talented young performers, pouring their hearts out in showy routines as they strive to win the dance version of American Idol. Their ardor will be on vivid display Wednesday, when a touring version of SYTYCD hits AmericanAirlines Arena.
But the aspect of SYTYCD that has made it a cultural touchstone and its version of dancing a form of pop stardom has less to do with artistry or even virtuosity than with the ideal it presents: That anyone, if sincere and hard-working enough, can be not just a TV star but also a personal success and inspiration to others.
``I like to see where people are from and how they are real people like myself,'' says Emmet Alexander, 21, of Miami, a fan of the show who studied dance in high school and still takes classes. ``People put dancers in companies like Miami City Ballet on a pedestal where it seems impossible to get there.''
The show's chief judge, creator and producer Nigel Lythgoe says the winner is not necessarily the best dancer but the contestant who tries hardest and has the most emotional appeal.
``People know if they're true dancers. They know how hard they are gonna have to work to attain that celebrity,'' says Lythgoe, who is also a producer on Idol. ``You've got to be able to dance and open up your heart and your soul, and we've got to believe you.''
The contestant with the most soul-baring moves wins $250,000. Other top participants get to go on tour and earn a salary one South Florida contestant says is more than $1,000 a week. Some are able to parlay their brief season of fame into work on television or Broadway. For many contestants, who tend to be young participants on a dance-competition circuit or talented but untrained dancers in styles such as hip-hop, SYTYCD is a dream come true.
Their idealism is lucrative for Fox. While contestants receive a stipend during the season ($500 a week in 2009), as well as room and board, they are not paid a salary for their role in a popular TV show that averaged 7.5 million viewers a night this summer.
And their moment of glory comes at a high physical price. During the show's nine-week season, dancers rehearse up to 16 hours a day, striving to perfect routines in a new style each week. They frequently start rehearsal at 5 or 6 a.m. and go until late at night, without the daily warm-ups that professional dancers need to keep their bodies in tune. The grueling schedule can result in serious injury. Alex Wong, who left his job with Miami City Ballet to compete in SYTYCD, ruptured his Achilles tendon during rehearsal in July.
``There were days when my knee would ache -- my arms, my back, my ankle,'' says Jose Ruiz, 22, a hip-hop dancer from Pembroke Pines who earned a spot on the tour after competing this season. ``I would almost think, `If I keep dancing on this I may not be able to dance at all.' ''
IT'S THE THRILL
Jeanine Mason, a Miami dancer who won last summer's contest, says the thrill of being on the show kept her and others going.
``The main thing is the adrenaline,'' she says from Los Angeles. ``You get so excited it's nearly impossible not to go full out. It becomes almost a game. We're in so much pain, but we've been presented with this challenge.''
Winning the competition opened doors in Hollywood, says Mason, who's attending UCLA and acting and dancing on TV. ``I was able to get an agent, a manager -- get in front of all these amazing casting directors,'' she says. ``So many times I'm in a casting, and I hear, `I'm a huge fan of the show.' ''
Dr. San Giovanni, a Miami orthopedic surgeon who specializes in treating dancers and athletes, says the combination of long hours and the disorientation and stress of constantly doing new styles, likely led to Wong's injury.
``It was probably some overuse, overstrain from doing things he was not used to doing,'' Giovanni says. ``If he was doing a lot of different things, was fatigued, it probably affected his [perception] so that he didn't come down the way he usually did.''
Although he was a highly regarded leading performer with Miami City Ballet, Wong, 23, says SYTYCD appealed to his desire to try other kinds of dance and make a bigger mark in the dance world.
``Where else can you learn ballroom and hip-hop in the same week and have it seen internationally and be recognized for it and be under such pressure to do it well?'' Wong says from New York, where he is getting physical therapy.
Despite his injury, Wong says the recognition and acclaim he earned made the show a worthwhile experience. He was favored to win, and his talent and the poignancy of his story have made him a star. A video of his SYTYCD hip-hop routine on YouTube has captured more than a million hits, and he says people stop him on the street to congratulate him. He has work teaching and choreographing for dance competitions and conventions starting in October but says he won't dance fully again for a year. Whether he can return to his previous level of virtuosity remains to be seen.
``Especially now that I'm injured it's great to get recognized on the street, to hear, `You really inspire me,' '' he says. ``It's really nice to hear that at least I did it for a cause.''
Thus far, Wong has paid for his treatment. The surgery to repair his Achilles tendon was covered by health insurance he bought when he left MCB last spring, although he says there are thousands in out-of-pocket costs. He is paying for his physical therapy out of his savings, as his insurance plan doesn't cover the kind he needs.
Wong says when he asked the show's producers about medical coverage, he was told that since he had his own insurance he had to request help after the bills had gone through his company. He is optimistic the show will eventually help cover his costs.
If Wong had been hurt at Miami City Ballet, according to company officials, treatment and three-quarters of his salary while he was off would have been covered by worker's compensation, and the company would have paid the rest of his salary.
What sort of coverage the show offers to its dancers is unclear. A spokesperson for Lythgoe said the show covers those who do not have health insurance. When a Miami Herald reporter asked Ruiz and Mason about medical coverage, a publicist cut them off before they could answer. Fox declined to comment.
Wong and Vitolio Jeune, a New World School of the Arts graduate who competed in the 2009 season of SYTYCD, say insurance coverage was never discussed. ``I never read the entire contract,'' Jeune says. ``Maybe it stated that somewhere in there.''
Although he was thrilled to be on the show last year, Jeune, 27, says he's happier with his job at the Garth Fagan Dance Company in Rochester, N.Y., led by an acclaimed modern-dance choreographer, where the hours and routine meet professional norms.
Jeune thinks most contestants accept the brutal hours and pressure for the chance at fame.
``Sixteen hours a day, and you're not getting paid and don't have any real coverage. It's abusive,'' he says. ``But everybody wants to be on TV, and sometimes they do whatever it takes to be on. [The producers] think they're doing you a favor by putting you on TV, so why should I pay you. That's the attitude.''
MCB Artistic Director Edward Villella, who as a dancer broke eight toes performing on concrete television stages, called the treatment and hours on SYTYCD an ``immoral abuse of young people.''
``It's commercial television, and they'll do anything for ratings,'' Villella says. ``It's taking advantage of these very young kids who want that kind of exposure.''
Lythgoe defends his show's policies as comparable to those of other reality shows, such as Survivor. ``They've come into a competition for themselves,'' he says. ``Nobody pays you to enter a competition. If someone gets trained for the Olympic Games they're not employed by America.''
For Mason, the chance to dance for millions remains a life-changing experience.
``In airports people stop me and say, `I voted for you till my thumbs turned to nubs,' '' she says. ``It'll always be a big moment in my life. How big I don't think I'll ever exactly know.''