Feature: Reality Bytes

Mary Murphy Talks Tours, Tamales, and Her Thoughts Going Into the Season Finale of So You Think You Can Dance

By , Contributor

This season of Fox's So You Think You Can Dance may be coming to a close, but judge Mary Murphy is as fired up as ever, and looking forward to all the action in the show's two-night finale. Murphy recently chatted with reporters about everything from viewer complaints of Melanie Moore’s easy journey to the finale, to the elimination of the All Stars from the SYTYCD tour. And of course, Mary doesn’t hold anything back. All aboard the hot tamale train!

What struck you about Melanie?

Well, it’s just such a weird thing because the very first second that we saw her in the audition, of course, I think we’d never seen her audition before, is she just took our breath away. It was a visceral and cellular experience, I think, for all three of us that sat there in the auditions and watched this and immediately thought that we hadn’t quite seen that quality at an audition before.

Every week she brought it. She’s so fascinating to watch and sometimes you don’t even know exactly what that is, but it is part of the fact that she has such tremendous power and she has amazing technique so that she can make things look effortless and just seemingless.

She can also take on the characters, as well. Usually, we find technicians and they can’t do the other or they’re a great actor and they don’t have the danceability or the technique to fulfill what the choreographers want to do.

She is definitely somebody that’s had it all and was probably a front runner from the beginning, but we had other front runners before that we were shocked at the end that did not take it because there is not this level of growth over the show. Sometimes when that happens it really pulls on America’s heartstrings to go that route.

I don’t see anything wrong with her. I adore her. It’s been amazing to watch her. I sit there and I’ve said it before on air that some of her numbers, especially the statue, that I felt privileged sitting there. It’s just so great to be able to witness magic when you see it.

Melanie’s never been on the bottom, Sasha’s been in the bottom a lot, but she keeps surviving it. What do you find interesting about her?

Well, Sasha is definitely that fighter. She is the underdog in the show. I can honestly say when we put her into the top 20 through Las Vegas she got our attention. Did we think that she’d possibly go this far?

What we did start to see emerge was this magnificent dancer and her growth during the season, like you said, was so tremendous. Her stage presence, the fearlessness that she had, even though she doesn’t have the technique that Melanie has, she overcame that on the journey. Her technique did improve tremendously and she has memorable pieces. You can’t underestimate her.

6_15_iveta_nick_large.jpgDo you regret sending Iveta home so early, and were there any other dancers this season that you’ve really struggled to send home?

Iveta was really fantastic and all the ballroom dancers. I think she would have been a great asset to keep around a little longer because also part of the bonus is, and she was so darn nice too, she would have helped the rest of the kids out too when they got ballroom.

You see how a go to person because you only get such a short period of time with the choreographer, and a lot of the kids can’t afford to go and take ballroom lessons during the show or anything like that. It’s nice to have somebody that’s still onboard that they can go to and say, “Hey, you know, they taught me how to do this twinkle thing and I don’t understand it,” and she could break it down in two seconds because she’s the world champion.

Anyone else that you really struggled to send home? You said Alexander, but looking back now—

Looking back on Alexander and I talked to him. I told him he’s going to have to break through. He was a fabulous technician that just seemed to have a major wall up, and there was such great potential in him. If he didn’t break that down and really get uninhibited and fearless that he’s probably going to be taken off the show.

We were probably all four keeping Alexander until he did a solo so technically incorrect that we had to take him off the show. We didn’t want to, but we always deal with what is really happening and what is the best dancing. We let America vote for what is the favorite situation.

As far as judges, I feel like we’re there to maintain the integrity at a high level of dance performance and let America take their favorites and vote, and whoever falls down out of the bottom of that is what we have to deal with.

What was it about Tadd’s growth throughout the season as compared to Ricky’s that you feel won out in the end?

Well, again, someone like Ricky comes in at a high level of technique and a very good level of performance, I felt. I’m not really sure why America voted him down. The thing with Tadd is he came out of the gate and actually shocked us the first week with an American jazz. When you get a b-boy that can transform that quickly, it definitely gets all of our attention.

We all sat up and our chairs and went, “Whoa.” Then week after week, I think it was about mid-season, I finally said after surprise after surprise, I’m like, “I’m not surprised anymore because you keep bringing it and you keep giving fantastic performances and your technique is getting better and your toes are pointed,” and we’re just like, “This is unbelievable.”

There is also something very special about Tadd, and I think Marko and Tadd really seem to possess this.There is this spiritual quality that just kind of radiates from them, this love of dance. I mean you feel it. When you’re sitting their live in the studio audience, you feel that and it’s very special because you don’t always get that. Tadd and Marko definitely possess that. I think they’re both very genuine and sincere young men and just love so much what they’re doing and love this show.

You have realize being on 8 seasons that they’ve been working toward this for 8 years from the time they were 10 years old to be here, so they’re very grateful, very humble, which makes them adorable.

Are you surprised by anyone in the finale, or is there anyone that you thought would be in the finale that isn’t?

No, I don’t think I’m surprised. I have to say I did guess a little bit because I thought Ricky might go in, but when you think about Tadd’s journey, I’d have to sit here and say I’m not surprised because I think Tadd’s had the bigger road, of course, every single week that kid is outside his style. He never gets to be inside his style.

Could you imagine the other contestants if they ever pulled it out of the hat that they had to be doing b-boy tricks? I mean they’d all have a heart attack. That’s what Tadd has to deal with every single week. He is always outside his style.

For Ricky, you know, he got quite a few contemporary numbers, some lyrical jazz, some lyrical hip hop, which is very close to what he does and he did it well. But when you consider what Tadd has had to do out of all the contestants, actually, he’s been tremendous, but he’s been down in that bottom several times. I never really did understand it, but he’s a fighter. He kept on coming. He kept on coming at us.

Do you have a favorite moment from this season so far?

Definitely my favorite moment was Melanie and Marko dancing the statue number. I think it will go into my top numbers when I reflect back on all the seasons. I remember that just from the very first 10 seconds when he just picked her up and turned her around the hair went up on my arms. That doesn’t usually happen when I watch dancing that often.

I’ll be honest with you, it usually only happens with singers and someone like Barbara Streisand or Celine Dion, Pavarotti, Pacelli. It happens with people like that, so I knew something magical was happening from the first 10 seconds of that piece.


What do you say to the viewers who feel that Melanie, and some of them also mentioned Sasha in the same regard, saying that they’ve had a pretty easy road to the finale and haven’t exactly been challenged as much as others in the competition?

Well, you know, that’s part of the competition. Maybe that’s true. I haven’t looked back on seeing all of the different numbers, but that is absolutely luck of the draw. There is no conspiracy or anything going on that’s like trying to help any certain person go up there.

Just as in the finale, it will be the luck of what type of music the choreographer picks. It will be the luck of what choreographer. Is the choreographer having an amazing time creating something for this person? That’s kind of destiny and all out of people’s control, I think.

Some viewers agreed with you in one of your blogs where you said that it was the wrong time for Ricky and Sasha to be introduced to Waacking. Others, on the other hand, say that that’s what the show is about. It’s called So You Think You Can Dance for a reason. Do you think that testing the dancers to see what their capabilities are at any point in the competition is ultimately what the show is about?

Well, I think a good part of the show is taking people outside of their comfort zone because we know that the entire top 20 are extraordinary at what they do. Waacking isn’t a mainstream type of dance or major dance style. It’s very miniscule. I hate to say it, but it is.

To me, I just didn’t think it was the right time to introduce something when you have other people over here doing maybe quadruple pirouettes and all this really seriously strong dancing and you introduce waacking. I didn’t feel like it was strong enough.

That has happened before on the show. We’ve ended up with really unbelievably strong numbers in the finale and then they’ll be a number that was more cotton candy. It’s not the time for cotton candy. This is the time to show somebody at their strength. Ricky, I didn’t feel like he was even used enough in that, as well. He could have been doing triple pirouettes in the Waacking, as well, and Waacked at the same time. I just didn’t think the piece was strong.

Has there been any trend or any one thing that has struck you the most about this season?

I can tell you the one main trend was it was certainly hard to send anybody home this time. I think in the beginning of the season that all of us just gave a great big breath of relief when we decided that quickly with the heads of the network down on our table and everybody running around that we couldn’t make a decision and okay, we’re not sending anybody home. Oh, God, we were relieved. Everybody was happy. The fans were happy. We were happy.

It certainly has been an amazing season in that respect. I can honestly say in past seasons that there have been judges fighting behind the scenes and stuff, arguing. We’d have more heated arguments behind that when we’d walk away to discuss who’s going home; heated arguments about somebody needing to go off the show. I think this year we found it hard to want to send anybody home, and we realized we didn’t want to.

It looked like Nigel and Neil Patrick Harris were having a very animated conversation at one point on the show, and that brings me to all of the guest judges you guys have had. What’s it been like bringing Lady Gaga in and Neil Patrick Harris and Jesse Tyler Ferguson?

Well, I can only speak for myself, but I must say I had a great time. It was so surreal to me to be sitting next to people that you so admire, icons, and even with Debbie Reynolds, it was so surreal. I’ve seen so many of her movies as a kid and everything like that and all of a sudden I’m sitting next to her. I’m like what in the world is happening here?

People like Jesse and Kristin Chenoweth who are just so genuinely funny, it just kind of lifts the spirits. It’s great, too, that I felt that every single guest this time were such huge fans of the show, would sit in between the commercial breaks and chat with me about their favorites over the eight seasons, never missed a show. You know, it’s so endearing to me. I loved it and I hope we keep that up, and I think the kids really loved it too.

The show’s been around for a while now; how’s your criteria for judging the dancers changed each season?

Well, yes, I think it has. I think with every season that the talent, like we said, it does seem to improve, and just when you think you’ve seen everything or every possible dance move because they do more than one version in the world, you don’t. These kids push themselves to new limits. The dancing continues to grow as far as the dance level, the quality. Some of the moves that are creative, I’ll sit there and say, “Well, I’ve never seen that before. Oh, I love that move.” I’m sitting there being inspired myself.

It does have a lot more meaning now, like you said, after this many seasons. I get four and five-year-olds walking up to me and saying, “I’m going to see you one day on So You Think You Can Dance. "I’m starting. I’m doing this. I’m doing tap. I’m doing ballroom.”

It’s just so much fun to live in a time where dance is being celebrated because eight short seasons ago I can honestly say that this wasn’t the case. And the fact that people know the names of the different dances now all over the world and can pick out their favorite. “Oh, I love the Paso Doble.” It’s just exciting times for a dancer, I must say.

Can you give us an update or more details on why the All Stars won’t be joining the tour this year?

I have no idea. I wish the All Stars were joining the tour. Because they usually have alternates because of injuries and things like that, I do hope it means that they’ll bring on at least four of the current top 20 to support this tour because I know the fans really want it bad.

This year, more than ever, you’ve talked a lot about the rehearsals and the rehearsal process. You guys have mentioned that a lot in your judging panel. As a viewer we always kind of like to think that the judges are experiencing this dance for the first time with us; how do you kind of reconcile that? Do you bring that previous knowledge with you?Do you try and view it as if for the first-time?

Honestly, we don’t get to see all of the rehearsals. We just see one dress rehearsal about an hour before they get ready to go on stage, so we don’t get to spend a lot of time really studying the piece.

Almost every single time, from the time I’ve been doing this for eight seasons, none of the dancers dance like they do in the dress rehearsal as they do on the live show. I could make notes, but the notes all go out the window for the most part because usually I’m getting ready to clobber somebody for this and that and the other.

I think this year we just had to bring it up because Marko and Melanie did a tango that was so bad, probably the worst I’ve seen in eight seasons, during dress rehearsal and I don’t know what the choreographer did with them between dress rehearsal in that one hour before they came back out, but I can honestly tell you it was like night and day.

We normally don’t mention the rehearsal, but there have been a few things this year that we were just like, all of us, that was like the worst dancing we’ve ever seen and then all of a sudden they seem to be able pull it out for the live show. It’s nice to refresh yourself with the dress rehearsal, but the fact is that they all bring it to some place that we haven’t seen it for sure.

Can you tell us what the origin of the hot tamale train is? We haven’t really seen it this season, but is that something that you came up with live on the show?

Well, I have used it this season for sure, but I don’t want to overuse it. I want to keep it really super special. I will tell you probably one of the things I will regret when I look back over the years of So You Think You Can Dance, and I’ve told her this, is that when Sasha and tWitch did their table number, that number was so hot I think she deserved to be on the hot tamale train. I’m so sorry. I said, “You absolutely deserve to be on it,” and I said, “I absolutely regret that,” and mentioned that in my blog. I just got carried away.

Sometimes I get carried away and I go down another track and I even had that in my notes that I was going to put her on the hot tamale train, but I felt at that time I just wanted her to know so badly that I felt that she was just as good as our All Star, which is amazing, because I think tWitch is one of most all-time All Stars, one of my favorite dancers over all seasons. She was just as good as him or better in that number.

So, unlike the prior seasons you participated in, I think the judges controlled the eliminations all the way up until the top six this season. Do you think that’s left the season with a stronger finale group than usual or do you think there have been any advantages?

Like I’ve said, the top 20 is so strong anyway, but I was surprised when we got to the top 10. I had no idea that we were going to keep being in control of taking the contestants off. But you know America is still pretty much in complete control because they are the ones that are putting the couples down into danger. It seemed like a lot of people forgot about that. They felt that the judges were in complete control the entire season. Well, no, we have no control, actually. We only have this small, little, teeny bit of it that we’re in control of it. You’re in control of the votes.

You didn’t participate in last year’s season, so this was your first experience with the All Stars partner format. What were your thoughts about it? Do you think there were pluses and minuses to it, or both, and if so, what are they?

I was really happy that they went to giving us everything that I liked. I did like having All Stars, but I felt like last season when the All Stars went the entire season that we lost some of the kids’ journey along the way. This time, we got to know the contestants this season. We had 20 contestants like we did before, which I love that format. We got to know them really well and then the All Stars were introduced later, which can produce a higher level of dancing, so I’m really thrilled with the way that this format. I hope this will be the format that stays because I think this is the best of both worlds.

Just to kind of wrap everything up, what advice or words would you have to offer to the dancers who are looking to maybe try out for next season because you have mentioned there has been a lot of developing and progress that’s taken place over these last few seasons?

Yes. I think for sure they have to develop one style. If they’re going to come and try out for the show, really make sure that they are working on their one style and being extraordinary in that. But if they can get a variety of different dances, especially the major ones that we use on the show, which are contemporary and ballroom and hip hop, if they can go down those three roads, it will help them get through Las Vegas Week. But if you don’t work on one style and become extraordinary in it, it’s not going to help you because we’re not going to notice you to put you into Las Vegas Week, and that’s where you’ve got to get to.

The Season 8 finale of So You Think You Can Dance airs Wednesday, August 10 and Thursday, August 11 at 8|7c on Fox.

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Shayla C. Perry is a freelance journalist based in New York. In addition to interviewing some of the biggest names in the entertainment industry, and covering the latest in celebrity news & gossip, her forte (read: obsession) is examining the sensationalism, gall, and sheer genius of reality TV.

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