Elizabeth Berkley and Jerry Mitchell talk about 'Step It Up & Dance'
By Christopher Rocchio, 03/31/2008
From So You Think You Can Dance and Dancing with the Stars to Your Mama Don't Dance and Randy Jackson Presents: America's Best Dance Crew, dance-themed reality shows are currently the craze. Director and choreographer Jerry Mitchell -- a mentor on Bravo's new Step It Up & Dace series -- thinks he knows why.
"I think dance is infectious," he told reporters during a Wednesday conference call. "I say to people -- the general population -- I say dance is like a bird flying for most people. It's something everyone wants to do, but very few can."
Step It Up & Dance will premiere Thursday, April 3 at 10PM ET/PT and is being produced by Magical Elves' producers Jane Lipsitz and Dan Cutforth -- the same duo behind Bravo's Project Runway and Top Chef reality series.
It will follow a similar format to the aforementioned Bravo shows, combining elimination competitions with behind-the-scenes footage of what it takes to make it in the professional dance industry. While Mitchell acknowledged it also has similarities to the aforementioned dance-themed shows, he added it is unique.
"I've watched [So You Think You Can Dance] -- which is spectacular and the dancers are tremendous -- and it's based more on the competitions that go around the United States where dancers compete in competitions just like that, young dancers from different dance schools. It's pretty much based around one style," he explained.
"Step It Up & Dance is going to expose these dancers to choreographers who actually work at the top of their line in different styles of choreography. And on the episodes, those dancers will get a chance to really do things that they probably never would have been asked to do before. And that's going to be interesting to watch how that evolves."
Former Saved by the Bell and Showgirls actress Elizabeth Berkley will serve as Step It Up & Dance's host, and she agreed with Mitchell on how it differs from other dance-themed reality shows.
"What's really, really exciting about our show is each week -- it's the producers who do Project Runway -- what's exciting about that format that works so well is you really get involved with the dancers' personal lives because you see them at their apartment [living] together," said Berkley. "The stakes are so high on our show where you're seeing them learn choreography and the turnaround is so fast where they have to then perform for the judges and the guest judge."
In addition, Berkley said the challenges facing Step It Up & Dance's contestants each week -- from burlesque to Broadway -- allows viewers to get a sense of the "journey" they go on to become the best.
"They're so invested because it's new and different every week. So you really get invested in the dancers because you get to know them personally as well," she explained. "Anyone watching at home, it's going to definitely be entertaining for them to see these people they begin to care about, and then just have to see them and how they literally step it up."
However home viewers apparently aren't the only ones who will become attached to the show's cast.
"By the third episode of this show, I was really emotionally attached to all of them and it was surprising because like Elizabeth said, it's such a condensed shooting schedule and these kids are working so hard," explained Mitchell. "And my job as the mentor is to make sure that they come off the best that they can and to encourage them to be the best that they can. And when they're doing great, acknowledge that. And when they're not, try and get them to do better because that's what I do with my own dancers."
Because of that Mitchell said his investment in the contestants "started to grow," which "sort of surprised" him.
"I think one of the things that's been most interesting to me is watching each of them change," he said. And watching them sort of challenge themselves to do things that they never thought they could do. And I can't get specific about any one episode. I think that's against the rules for me. But I was really impressed at how they really changed throughout the series and how I saw them change. So I'm hoping that comes off."
Mitchell said when he was first approached by Magical Elves and Bravo to get involved with Step It Up & Dance, his reaction probably wasn't what they were looking for.
"I thought, 'Oh my god, a reality show.' I wasn't really that familiar with Project Runway. I had watched it a couple of times," he said. "But what I realized -- first of all -- was any way to get dance in front of the greater population, for me, is a plus."
So Mitchell said he decided to sign on for Step It Up & Dance.
"It offers the chance to make everyone who's out there, who thinks, 'I can be famous tomorrow' realize that there's a lot more that is behind being able to excel in your particular line of work or your profession," he explained.
"And for a dancer, that requires determination, drive, discipline. It requires all of those things. And this show is going to hopefully help enlighten the general population to that -- those things that are necessary in order to succeed in this business. And I thought that was a really, really interesting take in an exciting way to expose dance on television that hasn't been exposed before."
Berkley told reporters that -- as a dancer since childhood -- the work ethic is "necessary" to succeed, which also intrigued her about the project.
"The work ethic that is necessary to become great is something no one can give you. That's the hours in that studio,' she said. "And there's something really extraordinary about that, which is why I -- to tell you the truth -- really wanted to be a part of this show."
In addition, Berkley said "especially in the world of reality television right now" there's "this kind of strange democracy of fame" that she said isn't evident with Step It Up & Dance.
"What I truly love about this show -- and a few of the shows that are on Bravo -- it's really about the artistry," she explained. "Whether it's Top Chef or whether it's Project Runway, or our show where it's dancers -- these are true artists that are expressing themselves creatively. And it's not just about, 'Oh, the entitlement for wanting to be famous.' It's about working hard, going after your dreams and I think it's going to be a great, kind of reminder for people of what it really, really takes."
Berkley said that what differentiates dancers from actors is that with dancing it's "constant critique," so Step It Up & Dance contestants "have to be tough enough to take it because this is what the business is and so it's kind of a wake up call."
"You have to be comfortable going into the room and giving it your all no matter what the outcome is," added Mitchell. "That's really what the business is about."
The performances of Step It Up & Dance's participants will be judged by director and choreographer Vincent Paterson, choreographer Nancy O'Meara and a weekly guest judge. Mitchell disagreed with the assertion that he'd be playing the villainous role on the show.
"I don't think I'm a villain. I don't think anybody on Broadway would say I'm a villain. But I can be brutally honest and not in a bad way," he said. "I'm usually a very positive influence on my dancers. It's strange. Here in New York, the dancers that I work with have a tendency to stay close to me and they work on a lot of shows with me. I develop a family sort of feeling and I believe in their talent and support them. And they come back to me and come back to me. And I often use them in many, many projects."
As for her own role in the show, Berkley said she just tried to be herself in serving as host.
"I think the most important thing to me was to bring myself to it because talking about dance and that whole world is so organic and authentic to me," she explained. "So it was really just important for me to bring myself to it, but of course, within what the format of the show is."
If she is looking for inspiration, Berkley won't have to go too far -- as she's friends with fellow former Saved by the Bell actor and Dancing with the Stars third-season celebrity participant Mario Lopez, who recently finished hosting MTV's America's Best Dance Crew reality competition series.
"To me, it just kind of makes perfect sense because we both have always shared a great love for dance," she said. "And then being that in our kind of culture at this time, dance is being embraced in the way that it has which is such a great, great joy. It just makes perfect sense."
Mitchell also touched upon some of Step It Up & Dance's special quest choreographers, including Spice Girl and former Dancing with the Stars fifth-season runner-up Melanie Brown; Cirque du Soleil choreographer Jacques Heim; and the group that members of Stomp.
He added the wide variety of choreographers will help the show's contestants "to really step outside of their boundaries."
"We have amazing, amazing choreographers coming on this series that are going to test the limits of these dancers and take them in directions that a lot of them have never ever thought they'd ever get the opportunity to learn or would they be able to excel in this kind of choreography," he said. "I just think that's really going to be exciting."