Arts & Entertainment

Dancing for the Masses

Ryan RankineAmerican TV Competitions Traverse Styles and Inspire Audiences

Dancing has become the hottest thing on American television, and lives are being changed. From previously unknown dancers becoming stars to little kids learning to mambo, dance is enjoying an unprecedented surge. The new season of the Fox phenomenon “So You Think You Can Dance” premieres on May 24 with a look at the audition process. Those who have made it can certainly describe the experience.


One afternoon, while a student at State University of New York Purchase (known for its arts programs), Ryan Rankine went to pick up a friend at the train station. The fellow dancer was returning from New York City, where he had just auditioned for “So You Think You Can Dance.” Rankine, 21, had not previously heard about the show, but was fascinated by the premise. Dancers from diverse backgrounds perform multiple genres — hip hop, ballroom, lyrical — while judges give their opinions and the viewing audience phones in their votes.

A couple of weeks later, Rankine, a classically trained dancer, was in Chicago to audition for the Hubbard Street Ballet. Even though he still didn’t know what the full scope of the show was, he decided to attend the “So You Think You Can Dance” auditions that were also in town.

“I’m very open-minded,” says Rankine, who graduated from LaGuardia High School of the Performing Arts in New York (depicted in the film and TV show Fame) and also studied at Dance Theatre of Harlem, San Francisco Ballet and Miami City Ballet. He was accepted to be one of the 20 dancers — 10 male, 10 female — on season two that aired last summer. Each week two contestants are eliminated until the finale where a grand champion is named. Rankine made it to the top 10.

“I was eager to learn hip hop and ballroom. Ballet partnering is different, but it’s still working with another individual with the same laws that apply in ballet. You always have to present the female before you. You always want to make sure she doesn’t drop. You always want to have a nice energy between you, so that it comes off as a great partnership — regardless of whether you’ve known the individual for five minutes or five years,” says Rankine.

Judge Mary Murphy, who comes from the ballroom world, says when she was first approached to be on the show she couldn’t imagine dancers learning and performing new styles so quickly and under such great pressure. “I couldn’t imagine myself dancing another style — even modern which I studied — because you get used to a specific type of technique,” she says. “I really didn’t know what was going to happen, but I knew even if the show flopped, which it most certainly didn’t, it would still be a great thing for dance — to bring all the dance genres together. What did happen is we all found a new level of respect for each other’s dance genre.”

Murphy retired from performing and ballroom competition in 1996 and now runs a dance studio in San Diego, but she found herself so inspired by the show that she started taking classes in hip hop and flamenco. “The show got my own juices going about dancing,” she says.

Ballroom dancer Snow Urbin appeared on season one in 2005, making it into the top 10. Originally from Russia, she studied all forms of dance as a child, but devoted herself to ballroom in her teens. Although used to performing waltzes and tangos, she says nothing scared her.

“When you come from a very strict training background where it takes a lot of discipline, you can do any kind of dancing,” Urbin, 26, says. “Elements of ballroom dancing and ballet are very similar, it’s just a different routine when it comes to performing.”

Both Rankine and Urbin admit hip hop was challenging, but neither held back in performing. “I don’t like to be stereotyped, especially if I dance and I love my craft,” he says. “You’re on TV, so you can’t mess up. You’re in a competition, so you don’t want to get eliminated.”

The top 10 went on a national tour following season two. They performed for sell-out crowds who gave them standing ovations every night. Although classical dance remains his passion, Rankine says he sees limitless horizons in terms of his career — from experimental dance forms to acting.

In addition to dancing and teaching, Urbin is starting a musical career. “This show gives you such great exposure,” she says. “It’s given me the chance to achieve goals and share my talent.” She recently toured with a show called “Floor Play.”

Murphy is happily dealing with a surge in enrollment at her dance school. The success of the show has also allowed her to push forward a project for the San Diego public school system called Mary Murphy’s Chance to Dance, which she hopes to ultimately introduce throughout the state of California. “I can get through the door and get even more people dancing,” she says. “Since this show and Dancing with the Stars, there isn’t a single person that I meet who doesn’t understand what I do and they come back at me with such enthusiasm. Times definitely have changed, and I’m just so fortunate and happy that I’m getting to see this.”