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Skilled dancer Paula Abdul fills TV judge role well

Jun 14th, 2015

By Mike Hughes, For the Lansing State Journal

Let's forget any talk about aptitude tests and vocational guidance. Paula Abdul made her decision early.

“I was 4 years old,” she said, “when I ... stood up and proclaimed that I'm going to be an entertainer.”

Then she became one, with a slight hitch.

Many people know Abdul strictly from music. She was “a true MTV-era success story,” the Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Fireside, 2005) said, with six No. 1 singles; later, she was an “American Idol” judge during its eight peak years.

Still, that was a detour from her main goal. “I fell in love with dancing,” she said; now she's back in that world, as a “So You Think You Can Dance” judge.

That first career decision, at age 4, came after she saw Gene Kelly in “Singing in the Rain,” she said. Her parents went along. (It was a Jewish family in California; her mom was a Canadian-born pianist, her dad was a Syrian-born owner of a sand-and-gravel business.) At 7, her lessons started.

“I did training in some ballet and tap and jazz and modern and musical theater,” Abdul said. “(I) fell in love with it and I just knew from an early age that I would be a choreographer.”

She soon got her chance. A former high school cheerleader captain, she became a Laker Girl at 18, was in charge at 19 and was hired to choreograph the Jacksons at 20.

Then she became “the youngest to ever receive an Emmy for choreography,” she said. That was at 27 (for “The Tracey Ullman show”) and 28 (for the American Music Awards).

By then, however, she had branched out. Urged by Janet Jackson, Abdul started doing her own music. “I may not be the best dancer and I'm not the best singer,” she admitted in “I Want My MTV” (Dutton, 2011), “but I do know how to be a brilliant performer.”

And she was working with the best. Her early videos were directed by David Fincher, who would later get Oscar nominations for “Benjamin Button” and “Social Network.”

The package worked, the Rolling Stone encyclopedia says. There were “catchy hooks, perky bubblegum-fun arrangements and glossy videos that displayed Abdul's true strengths – her stylish, high-energy dance technique and plucky girl-next-door charm.”

The first album sold seven million copies and had four No. 1 singles; the second had the other two. Abdul's career declined by the time she turned 30 ... then was revived by “Idol” a decade later.

At first, Abdul seemed all wrong for a show that included Simon Cowell's harsh comments. In “I Don't Mean to be Rude, But ...” (Broadway Books, 2003), he describes her almost quitting several times. Once, he says, “I found her backstage, crying her eyes out.”

But she adjusted to her role as the nice one and viewers became fond of her, even during moments when her comments seemed spacy. It was only after the “Idol” years that she returned to dance.

Abdul had her own short-run CBS show (“Live to Dance”) in 2011, guested a few times on “So You Think You Can Dance” and then did a season of its Australian show.

Now she's a regular in the American version, just as it tries a new format: After auditions, dancers will be split into “street” and “stage” teams, led by tWitch and Travis Wall.

“There's going to be a competitive edge that we haven't seen,” Abdul said, with viewers “seeing these young dancer and the tremendous athleticism and ... tenacity and drive.”

And yes, she might occasionally try some moves. “When it comes to dancing, I can't contain myself.”

Worth watching

•“So You Think You Can Dance,” 8-10 p.m. Mondays, Fox

•Auditions – with Nigel Lythgoe, Paula Abdul and Jason Derulo judging – continue through June 22. Then a Las Vegas round will select teams — “Street” (coached by tWitch) and “Stage” (Travis Wall)

Filed under: TV


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