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Moves and a mission

Times Staff Writer

On an unseasonably hot day recently, the sidewalk outside the Orpheum Theatre is filled with an unusual sight for this stretch of unreclaimed downtown -- several scores of young dancers clad in tights, sweats, tutus and belly dancing outfits sprawl across the shaded ground under the marquee. But being dancers, they don’t sprawl quietly; instead the mass of them constantly undulates and seethes like some many-tentacled sea creature.

The theater’s front door flies open and a young man races out to the sidewalk, where he does a series of cartwheels, back flips and winged summersaults, all the while clutching in his hand a magical sheet of paper -- a ticket past the auditions to the next round of TV’s freewheeling dance competition, “So You Think You Can Dance,” which kicked off its fourth season on Fox last week (8 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays).

Dance is enjoying something of a mini-renaissance, with the success of both “So You Think You Can Dance” and ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars,” along with the cable shows “America’s Best Dance Crew” (MTV) and “Step It Up and Dance” (Bravo), as well as the “High School Musical” franchise. But we are also living in a culture that has not created a household-name dance superstar in two decades, so their shot on stage here today may be these young dancers’ best (or only) shot at making their dreams of a dancing career with monetary rewards come true. (The winner will receive $250,000.)

Inside the vast, ancient movie palace, 20 or so dancers sit nervously in the rows of seats, while on stage, one by one, their comrades give it their all before the show’s judges, Nigel Lythgoe, Mary Murphy and judge/choreographer Mia Michaels. Although “Dance” is the little brother of entertainment goliath “American Idol” -- run by the same production company and overseen by Lythgoe, who is “Idol’s” executive producer -- the tone at these auditions is markedly different from the “Idol” audition episodes, which are dominated by freakish appearances from misguided wannabes, each of whom is unceremoniously informed of the bitter truth about their negligible talents and dispatched under a curtain of invective.

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At the Orpheum, the tone of the auditions, while rigorous and pitiless in its decisions, is dramatically more paternal, with even the most misguided finding a ray of helpful advice to take away. As Arabian belly dancers, urban breakers, krumpers, swingers and Scottish step-dancers, each stands in suspended tension, panting from their just-completed routines. Lythgoe, Murphy and Michaels conduct a short therapy session with each of them, pointedly noting their shortcomings but also talking over how they might improve.

To one Lythgoe offers: “The good news is you’re tremendous. The bad news is you have no personality whatsoever. . . . And this is what happens on our show. People want to know you.” Another very young auditioner breaks down while talking about having left home, bent on becoming a dancer. The judges talk her through her story before Lythgoe pleads with her, “You need to talk to your mom.” To another on the verge of being rejected, Lythgoe soothes, “You bring yourself down and you shouldn’t, because not everyone is going to be in the show.”

Speaking after the auditions, Lythgoe elaborates. “We’ve had some scientists here say: ‘I want to give up science. I want to be a dancer.’ Doctors, nurses: ‘I want to it give up. I-I want to be a dancer.’ And you go, this is crazy. You know, you can dance and still do what you do. Why have you got to give everything up?”

This may seem a slightly nonchalant attitude toward the dancing life until one realizes how, for the British Lythgoe, “Dance” is part of an almost spiritual mission to raise the profile of dance in American culture, to raise the prospects for professional dancers and to make dance an accepted and prized part of daily life. Lythgoe, who trained as a dancer and choreographer before coming to America to serve as the “Idol” overlord, stresses the show’s importance in encouraging dancers rather than the emphasis placed on finding the best, which drives “Idol.” He says: “I think it’s really important on the dance show, unlike ‘Idol,’ where we can just dismiss people, we really try on the dance show to somehow have an impact on their careers, their lives in dance. We don’t just dismiss contestants and say, ‘Give up dancing.’ Even the bad ones we say, keep dancing, just not in competition. Just enjoy yourself.”

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Lythgoe acknowledges that at season’s end, the contestants on “Dance” will launch into a workplace much more challenging than the one for their singing brethren on “Idol.” “I think it’s really difficult,” he says of the dance show. “There’s no sort of ‘Idol’ contract at the end of it. They work very, very hard. They work through their injuries. They are underrated. They are underpaid and definitely undervalued. And they are not generally given the spotlight. They’re normally background.”

That is why, he believes, the motivation for the dance show contestants is still, simply, passion. Asked what drives them, Lythgoe says, “Love of dance, without question love of dance, love of movement and love of music. . . . And it gives them an outlet to be looked at, which is what the big thing at the moment is -- celebrity. And it shouldn’t just be about getting out of a car without panties on. It should be about your talent.”

Lythgoe sees hope for a changing climate. “The fact is that people are accepting dance again into their homes. And the biggest thing for me would be to see fathers acknowledging that their sons can be dancers and be proud of them for that. It saddens me a great deal that, you know, so many kids turn around and say, ‘My dad doesn’t want me doing this.’ It’s this terrible image that some people have got of ‘My son’s going to dance’ and ‘Oh, my God, is he gay?’ No. 1, if he is gay, then still be proud of him. What’s wrong with being gay in this day and age? But No. 2, don’t just associate dance with being gay. It’s just so wrong, you know?”

As for what’s ahead this season, Lythgoe notes that a hip-hop dancer may finally have done his or her homework and be ready to take the throne. Urban dancers in past years have been eye-catching at the early stages but have faltered when confronted with the more formal styles contestants must master. That might change, Lythgoe says.

“What’s happening now is we’ve got, without question, some of our best hip-hop poppers and breakers that we’ve ever had. And some of them will actually get through to our top 10 . . . they are stunning in what they can do.

“What’s happening is they’re starting to go to class; they’re actually starting to get some professional lessons. And that, for me, is very exciting because we’ve always discussed fusing the different styles. And to see them take it on board now and to do different things, even ballroom, is terrific, because nobody can do what they can do. So, if they then start doing what other people can do, wow. They’re going to be very dangerous contestants.”

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richard.rushfield@latimes.com

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