"I'm a dancer!" insists Elizabeth Berkley's character whenever someone calls her a stripper in "Showgirls." No, really. Berkley isn't just a "Saved by the Bell" alum and cult movie punchline. It's her real-life training as a dancer coupled with her recognition as an actress that makes her the ideal host for "Step It Up & Dance."
The latest Bravo reality competition show gives a dozen dancers a showcase for their skill and versatility with a $100,000 prize at stake. Their experience ranges from performing with ballet companies to competitive cheerleading to Broadway musicals, but they all share a drive to succeed and perfect their art.
Berkley identifies with having a similar dream even at age four when she started dance class.
"My grandfather and I would dance all the time," Berkley reveals. "I would watch Shirley Temple and just mimic her. My mom said I was basically dancing out of the womb. I had a propensity for it, as well as a desire to do it almost on a daily basis."
On the "Step It Up" premiere episode, the dancers must quickly learn a rigorous hip-hop routine and perform it the same day in front of a panel of judges, including the choreographer. And while some make the process look effortless, a few dancers with a ballet background find it difficult to adjust. Berkley, who parlayed her ballet training to tap and jazz, sympathizes.
"I think when dancers are a little bit lower to the ground, with hip-hop it just looks better or maybe that's just my feeling," she explains. "I'm better with the kind of longer lines, a little more sensual. That's a little bit more my style, but only because I feel like it suits my body better."
The dancers don't get to choose which dance suits them, however. In fact, they're challenged to learn a new genre or type of performance each week.
"One week it's Latin. One week it's burlesque. One week it's Broadway," says Berkley. "So it's really exciting the kind of the journey [the audience] gets to go on with the dancers. You get invested in the dancers because you get to know them personally as well."
But throwing out ever-changing dance styles isn't just to entertain the audience with the image of fumbling dancers. Tony-winning director and choreographer Jerry Mitchell, who acts as the contestants' mentor, insists there's a practical aspect as well.
"I may be auditioning for Vince Paterson or I may be auditioning for Kenny Ortega or I may be auditioning for Susan Stroman," says Mitchell. "Well guess what? All three of those choreographers are going to throw a completely different bag of tricks at me in completely different challenges as a dancer.
So my job is to be prepared to meet all of those challenges or otherwise I'm not going to get hired again. This show is going to give that sort of exposure to the rest of the population to see what it's like to be a professional dancer."
After all this hard work, the rewards aren't just a gig or fame or even a fit body, but something less tangible.
"There's a certain self-esteem that comes from when you're in touch with yourself and that feeling in your body," explains Berkley, who adds that she won't dance on the show, but act as a facilitator, similar to what she does with her self-esteem workshops for girls through Ask-Elizabeth.com.
"What I do get to do is interface with the dancers in the spirit of their dreams and what made them even do this in the first place. It's a crazy decision to commit yourself to the life of being a dancer. You better love it and live it and breathe it."
But it's not all strang and durm. Like Bravo's other reality shows "Project Runway" and "Top Chef," there are moments of levity thanks to the more colorful contestants. In the series premiere, a couple of the gay dancers dub themselves the Plastics after the snippy "Mean Girls" clique and are ecstatic upon first meeting Berkley, whom they immediately identify from her "Showgirls" fame.
"I was so excited that they appreciate [the movie] so much," she says. "I love the [gay] following. What's so wild is it just really has been embraced, and I just think it's fun that people have had fun with it. That was the whole intention, you know. So it's fabulous to me."
"Step It Up & Dance" premieres on Thursday, April 3 at 11 p.m. ET/PT before moving to its regular Thursday 10 p.m. timeslot the following week.
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Elizabeth Berkley, host of 'Step It Up & Dance'
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