Shall we dance, ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars” asked viewers.
The mildly astonishing answer was: Heck, yes.
Pairing professional hoofers with celebrities of varying degrees of talent or klutziness (former boxing champ Evander Holyfield was game but no Astaire or even Ali) the show challenged them to dance styles not seen in most clubs.
Maestro, a quick step, please.
“Dancing with the Stars” caught the audience’s imagination and drew up to 16 million weekly viewers — the most-watched summer series in five years (since “Survivor” debuted in 2000).
The ABC program, which ended this week, may even qualify as part of a trendlet. Dance is on display in movie theaters, with the charming documentary “Mad Hot Ballroom,” about a competition for fifth-graders in New York, and “Rize,” detailing the culture of the athletic, urban-born dance called krumping.
Another TV entry, “So You Think You Can Dance,” is poised to show it has the right moves.
From the producers of “American Idol” and Dick Clark, the Fox series debuting July 20 (8-10 p.m. ET) follows roughly the pattern of the network’s hit singing competition. Viewers pick the winner of a potentially career-building prize.
For singers, it’s a record deal. For dancers, it’s $100,000 and an apartment in New York for a year, putting them within a high-kick of Broadway.
But a single champ doesn’t mean the performances are always solo. The 16 finalists will be randomly teamed up each week and told to strut their stuff on old and new dances ranging from ballroom to salsa to hip-hop.
Bringing romance back to dance
It’s time to bring couples dancing back, said series producer Nigel Lythgoe, who started as a dancer and choreographer in his native England and worked with such stellar talents as Gene Kelly and the Muppets on TV specials.
“I wanted to go back to, ‘Hey, you can take somebody in your arms and dance.’ What happened to the great American proms we see so much in movies?” he said. “Now it’s all turning into dance battles.”
So the series embraces the romanticism of dance?
“Yes,” Lythgoe says, then offers a qualifier: “It’s still competition, but it’s not combative.”
Today’s talent contests echo “Dance Fever,” on which couples were judged by celebrities including Tina Turner, Sammy Davis Jr. and actor-dancer Donald O’Connor.
Terrio, who has a six-day-a-week disco music program on Sirius Satellite Radio, thinks pairs dancing has an inevitable appeal and is pitching his own project to TV networks.
“I think romance will never die. People like dancers who can do the gymnastics and other moves but there’s nothing like a couple — how am I going to say this — making love on the dance floor,” Terrio said.
“American Idol” creator Simon Fuller and Dick Clark Productions had initially teamed to revisit Clark’s “American Bandstand.” But they decided an updated format was in order and called on Lythgoe to create a contest.
(Clark has been recovering from a stroke he suffered last December.)
“So You Think You Can Dance” opens with 50 contestants, amateurs and pros between jobs, who were chosen at open auditions in Chicago, Los Angeles and New York.
Asked what he observed at the tryouts, Lythgoe cited a startling number of belly dancers: “I’ve been to the Middle East and never seen so many belly dancers as in this country. Maybe it’s something they do to keep fit.”
More importantly, the experience reinforced for Lythgoe the importance of training and the general lack of it in contemporary dancing.
“Once you pirouette on your head, you’ve got to remember that dancing’s also done on your feet. And they weren’t very good when you took their tricks away from them,” he said. “Once we put them with a choreographer, there were very few people who could pick up (steps).”
Top choreographers will help whip them into winning shape. They include Mia Michaels, Brian Friedman, Dan Karaty, Alex Da Silva and Mary Murphy, who count such pop stars as Celine Dion and Britney Spears in their collective credits.
The choreographers also will serve as judges, whittling the dancers down to four finalists. Viewers will choose the winner.
Terrio offers a word of advice for viewers, based on experience.
“Look out, guys. Women will be watching the dance show and saying, “Why don’t you dance like that?”’