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There Is So Much Love Among the So You Think You Can Dance Judges

Apr 30th, 2014

by Jessica Chandra, Pop Sugar

On Thursday night, the 2014 series of So You Think You Can Dance will come to an end, and either Lauren, Michael, Renelle or Jay will be announced as Australia's favourite dancer. Four people who have been with them all the way are the show's judges: Paula Abdul, Aaron Cash, Shannon Holtzapffel and Jason Gilkison. It's a bittersweet week for the judges because on the one hand, they get to celebrate the results of the past few months when the winner is revealed. On the other hand, they'll be going their separate ways after working together so closely. POPSUGAR Australia attended a taping of the show a few weeks ago and sat down with all of the judges for a chat, where it was immediately clear that the bond these four have with each other is deep. It was impossible not to feel the love between them, and their passion for dance, in the room. Read it below ahead of tomorrow night's grand final.

POPSUGAR Australia: How would you go as a contestant on So You Think You Can Dance?

Aaron Cash: I would've sucked! [Laughs]

Paula Abdul: I always say, "Thank God that I was born generations ago." [Laughs] I always said it to Simon [Cowell], if you had to face it yourself, you would have peed in your pants. It's not easy to do. You don't know unless you've been there and put yourself out there. Shows like these are crash courses; they're like going through the graduate program. You're jumping into the deepest part of an Olympic swimming pool, you know?

Jason Gilkison: It's an incredible opportunity for anybody who has got any talent as a dancer.

Aaron: We never had anything like this.

Jason: If something like this was around when we were younger. . . I mean I would have loved, at 17, to work with people in different genres. It's such an eye-opener. But how scary. You don't quite process what they're going through, because it's frightening. We're virtually asking some of them to learn a completely different genre that they've never done, each week. And then perform it three days later!

Shannon Holtzapffel: And now they're learning up to four routines in the one week.

PS: We're at the pointy end of this series; how has it been for you guys?

Paula: Look at our smiles.

Aaron: It's been amazing. First of all, we all love and respect each other, and enjoy each other's company. I haven't been in Australia for a long time, and I well up with tears at the depth of talent here. I can't believe the standard of these kids, and the ones in particular who have come this season. It's been a real gift to be able to work with these guys, and also nurture the next generation, because they're inspiring the next generation of dancers as well. All those kids who are watching in their homes every week. . . And dancers usually don't get that! We're back-up! Usually we're backing the star. But still, we bust our humps, we put our bodies through the ringer, in order to back somebody. And that's why I think this show is so wonderful, because it gives the dancer a chance to shine, and for people to see what it's like to be a dancer. Although it's under a competition microscope, you still appreciate how hard they work. They put their heart on the line, and you connect with them.

PS: What sets the Australian version of SYTYCD apart from international versions?

Jason: I think the difference is, with our dancers, there is a hunger to get out there and perform, because there's not the work here in Australia that they can get when they're overseas. If they're in LA, New York and London, there's so many things they can do, so this is just such a great forum for them, so when they get the opportunity to do it, you sense. . . It's heartbreaking when one of them leaves the competition, because there's not actually a huge amount of work for them to go onto in this country. A lot of our best dancers have to go overseas — look [gestures towards Aaron and Shannon]. To me, when you see them dance, the thing we're telling them all the time, and I think we've all been guilty of this, we all say, "Guys, just relax and dance in the pocket, rather than give us everything all the time, because there's a desperation, which is so brilliant to see when they dance, but it's also a double-edged sword, because—

Shannon: You don't want to be too desperate.

Aaron: It is marvellous, back to what Jason was saying, because some of the dancers in this are getting profiles now, even with other choreographers who come on the show, who have never worked with some of these dancers before. Some of these kids have been working and have had OK careers, but there are other people, like Renelle, who is an amazing dancer, but all of a sudden she's in the spotlight now, and choreographers are going, "Wow, this kid is really good." She wasn't really on the scene before this show; now she is, and she's going to have an amazing career.

Shannon: And that's part of the pleasure of this show too, just seeing these dancers grow, week by week.

PS: Do you have a particular genre of dancing you like watching the most?

Shannon: I enjoy any good dance. That's it.

Jason: It comes from the most surprising place each week, doesn't it?

Paula: And when that happens, it's like a breath of fresh air. It's magic when everything hits that stride for the choreographer and for the dancers, and everything just happens to fall into place. It's a magical moment; it's like we're living everyone's triumph. We're excited, they're excited, the choreographer's excited; everything just happens to work brilliantly. And there's a sense of pride that we all have, that we get to witness that special moment, and share in that excitement.

PS: Which genre of dance do you think is the hardest to pick up?

Paula: Bollywood.

Aaron: It's so intricate. It's so syncopated.

Paula: It's because it's a different language. Besides steps, there's the respect and homage that needs to be paid to every little intricate movement. That's like learning three routines, whereas others have to learn one. It's like a whole level of strategy and commitment that you have to do for that. But then again, not to say that ballroom isn't hard! Not to say that urban isn't hard! Tap's very hard, too. It's interesting — the spirit and psyche of dancers are unlike any other professional performer. They work twice as hard, they put their bodies in harm's way, to make everything look great, but they are not as appreciated. They don't get the hoopla and the glory as most, or the salary. So it's not something that's just a passion, because everyone can be passionate about dancing. But dancers have to dance, or else they feel like they don't live.

PS: You can definitely tell that from the show, especially in the early stages when you saw the devastation if someone didn't get through. Like in those group challenges.

Jason: Especially someone like Jay, when you think, he didn't back the top 60. At first.

Aaron: He got cut twice; he got cut by his peers as well.

Shannon: For the reason that we put him in a tap battle, and the other guy came across a little stronger. But in the end, he's been the most versatile, and one of the most deserving guys in this competition.

Paula: Between Jay and [eliminated dancer] Blond. They're two underdogs, in a sense, that have risen to the challenge every single week, and keep getting better. It becomes shocking to us, the breadth of who they've become.

Jason: We see clips of the dancers in top 100 week, and they're completely different dancers.

Paula: I have to mention, though: I can honestly say that there are dancers here, in this competition, like Blond and Michael, that go into my top 10 most brilliant dancers I've seen in the past decade. And they're here in Australia. I'm gonna say that!

Shannon: You just did [laughs].

Jason: I'd support that.

Aaron: And it's overwhelming, emotionally for me, that you say that. You see these people dance, and I'm so proud. Maybe it's too nationalistic, but you see this talent here, and I'm so proud of these kids. They're on the stage dancing in front of you, and it's like this wave of emotion that hits you. And I'm a blubberer anyway!

Paula: It's fun for me to witness them [Jason, Aaron and Shannon] experiencing what I went through for a decade, of getting emotional, getting attached, feeling like, 'Why am I so emotional?', not wanting to say goodbye and letting go. At least you don't have a Simon going, "Oh, get over yourself, Paula." You don't have someone saying, "Oh grow up." I get it! We all feel like proud family members.

Shannon: We're all very invested in this talent.

Jason: I think from the get-go we said, "We don't want to do this unless we're going to be mentors as well as judges." I've really enjoyed that experience this time, because that's been different from the past.

Paula: After being on panels for American Idol, American So You Think You Can Dance and American Dancing With the Stars, I've never had a more magical panel of people to work with, and it's such a unique, very special and authentic feeling that. . . We all love what we do, but sometimes we don't love going to work. I can honestly say I can't wait to see these guys. If I don't get to socialise with them at least twice a week, I miss them like crazy. Because we have so much to talk about, and so much to recall, so many amazing memories, and the training — we speak the same language. Sometimes, when we're around other people, we feel odd, because no one can understand the passion that we have for what we do. And it's been very special to be honoured to work with people that you absolutely adore. And the entire production — a lot of heart goes into this. For us, it's not about ratings, or things like that. This show is so special that everyone who does see this show feels just as special and protective about it as we do. There are no regrets; we come here and we do the very best, and we care so much that it's a blessing to have that in your life.

PS: When you give your critiques, because you come from a dancer/choreographer background, do you have to consider what you say so that it doesn't get too caught up in the dance world bubble and translates for a national audience?

Jason: The first thought is that we want to give them [the dancers] information that they can process and do something about straight away. If we see Blond in a situation where we think, 'Oh gosh, he's letting himself down by doing this,' we want to be able to say, "Look, if you get this style again. . ." So that's first and foremost, we want to give them information. But I guess it's also creating a dance language that people at home can understand when they hear us critique.

Aaron: It's like: I love watching the cricket, and I love when they explain a certain delivery of a ball, and they'll use some technical term, but then they'll break it down so everyone understands it. It's like the audience is getting some inside information on what we do. We might say something technical, but then we'll break it down so everyone can understand it. A more educated audience knows more about dance; they understand, 'Oh that guy doesn't have the correct line,' 'He should have his foot pointed.' I think dance becomes more enjoyable, because they're educated. And if you've got a more educated audience, then hopefully more people will watch it, more people will go see live dance, feel a part of it. . . It's like when you learn to speak a new language, and you start to pick up words and go, 'Ooh, I understand that.' It's exciting. Learning is exciting.

PS: What is your off-screen relationship like with the contestants? Do you avoid trying to get too close?

Aaron: We try to keep the girls away from Shannon, because that's always not a very good situation [laughs].

Paula: It's not an easy task, but we do our best.

Aaron: They break the walls down anyway.

Paula: It becomes better when we're not in charge of the deciding who goes home. It becomes a much more comfortable place for us for them to know that regardless of our opinion, we are unanimously in their corner wanting them to do their best. Please understand that, we're not just talking heads. We all — which is incredible — know exactly what it's like. We've all experienced amazing triumphs and really disappointing failures, which are critical in anyone's career. They're not alone, and sometimes they don't understand that, but the truth is we really do care, tremendously, about their wellbeing, and the legacy that they're hopefully going to one day leave behind. I think it becomes easier for us, without ego, without agenda, without anything, to be able to say, "You might want to watch your rehearsal." They know it comes from a place where we want them to do well. It's different that how it was for me in America. Completely different. [On the American Idol panel] I was the only one who was an artist! I know what it's like! Simon didn't know; Randy [Jackson] didn't know. And it's easy to knock someone down for the sake of a good punch line that goes in the press. But I can't stomach that, because that's not a constructive way of telling that singer or performer. . . How do they get to improve if you just say, "That's dreadful," or [puts on Simon's accent], "That was the equivalent of musical wallpaper," whatever that means. But it's different, for the sake of 'This is showbiz' as opposed to 'This is authentic.' This is very real, and I believe it's like Inside the Actors Studio — I think this show allows for a very wonderful platform to learn about the spirit of dancers.

Jason: It's been nice that they've let us go to the contestants off-camera, the four of us, if we feel that the week hasn't been good, or they've themselves down, we can speak to the groups. We've never been able to do that.

Paula: We've been able to say, "Look, we're being stringent because you need it. We understand being pliable, but right now you need some stringency."

PS: Who do you think deserves to win?

Jason: "Deserves" is a different question.

Paula: "Deserves" is different from popular and favourite. We all collectively know, in their own right, why they're so special, and we'd be fine if they won. But with competitions like this, it becomes popular. And that is something that is the business of the country. We're here to just remind everybody: use this magical experience, that's the chance of a lifetime, to better yourselves. It doesn't matter who wins. You can dust off any trophy, but you can never put a price on that experience, and how you handle it. It's anyone's game on a level issue, but I don't know if it's anyone's game on a popularity issue.

Jason: The one thing I do think has happened every time in Australia, for the first three seasons, is we've always had the right winner. The public always put the right winner. It might not have always been that way going into the top 10, or the top four even, but the top dancer, the best dancer, has always won.

The So You Think You Can Dance Grand Final airs on Thursday night at 7:30 p.m. on Network Ten.

Click Here to learn more about the show.

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