Of all of the dance shows that have cropped up over the past few years, "So You Think You Can Dance" is arguably the most grueling and showcases the best dancing.
When the Fox hit returns for its eighth season Thursday, May 26, it will again celebrate dancers from ballerinas to breakers. Celebrate them, then mandate that they use their talent to learn completely new genres, then require that they perform with different partners whose names are picked out of a hat. It's such a tall task that it's akin to asking a drummer from a jazz quartet to play a Beethoven sonata -- on piano in an orchestra.
This season brings a return to the old format and the return of a popular judge, Mary Murphy. The two-hour performance shows will be on Wednesdays and the results shows on Thursdays. Murphy, who missed almost all of last season because of illness, is excited about the upcoming season.
"I'm on the road doing auditions," says Murphy, who will team this season with Nigel Lythgoe and a guest judge. "I just finished Las Vegas week, and we're having an amazing season. I don't know how to describe it. I don't know if it is me with a newfound appreciation, because I am over my cancer. I feel like we have a special connection to this group. We all felt it in Las Vegas. We are all bawling our eyes out. It's never been that way.
"I felt such a connection to this group of kids," Murphy continues. "There were 160 brought to Las Vegas, and we had four days to pick our top 20."
Host Cat Deeley attends every audition. This season that meant five cities and roughly 5,000 dancers.
"I actually think it is a really vital part of the journey," Deeley says of the auditions. "It is very interesting for me to see how they come in and watch their growth. I want to be there every step of the way. I want to develop as natural a relationship as I can and not have them say, 'Who is this English chick trying to be my friend?' It is good to know you have someone there every step of the way."
Though the dance world can be intensely competitive, Deeley says the show fosters an esprit de corps among the hopefuls.
"We want them to feel they can always come back and ask questions, about personal matters, family matters, contracts," Deeley says. "We often see people from past seasons. They pop in and grab lunch and have a gossip."
Reflecting on the evolution of the show, Murphy acknowledges that she initially was unsure this would work.
"In the very beginning I don't think we knew that anybody would be able to do what we asked of them," she says. "I thought it would be a train wreck and not like a comedy show."
She recalls, "I was so blown away. There was some dancing that was not that good the first season. Then some extraordinary dancing that was the start of it all. There are extraordinary dancers out there. Over the eight seasons, people cross-train, of course. There are still plenty of kids who can't afford to do that. We do get these superheroes who have trained across the board."
Both women are boosters of other dance contests and are proud that "So You Think You Can Dance" alumni -- Dmitry Chaplin, Lacey Schwimmer, Chelsie Hightower -- are on "Dancing With the Stars."
Though Murphy comes to the show as a ballroom dancer, choreographer and dance teacher, Deeley's dance background was limited to an annual viewing of "The Nutcracker." Where Murphy focuses on a dancer's precise foot placement, Deeley, like so much of the audience, keys into individuals' stories.
"The narrative that runs through the show is dance," Deeley says, "but essentially what you are doing is connecting with human beings and their stories and trials and tribulations."
Of the dance shows, this one rivets dancers, but Deeley recognizes, "there are fans of dance, and people who come from the dance world, and they would watch the show, of course. It's not typical for them to be so populist. What happens is because it is a reality show, but not mean-spirited, and fun, with the best intentions, that people come to watch it who would not normally watch a dance show. And they stay with it and realize how talented the kids are.
"The audience has to become attached to them and are looking for people with that certain star quality," Deeley continues. "And that's not just talented dancing."
If it were just a matter of the fastest, cleanest taps or a series of perfect pirouettes, the best technician would automatically win.
"You can make it so far with amazing technique," Murphy says. "And there are extraordinary technicians out there, but if they don't have the personality," viewers don't call in for them.
"They have to have that personality, and look into the camera and have an organic honesty and that makes them come alive and not (be) shy," Murphy says. "That's where a lot of dancers will fall down. It will always be the better performer. Luckily for this show, they're usually wrapped up in one."