Emmys: On the 'So You Think You Can Dance' Set, Where Dreams Are Fulfilled (and Crushed)

10:00 AM PST 08/08/2014 by Bryn Elise Sandberg
Jessica Chou

Talk about a happy feat. After nearly a decade of hoofing, the Fox competition is still kicking up decent ratings — and Emmy nominations.

This story first appeared in a special Emmy issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

"Wednesdays are tough," says Nigel Lythgoe, creator and executive producer of So You Think You Can Dance, Fox's long-running dance series, now twirling through its 11th season (and picking up seven new Emmy nominations to add to the 11 it already has won). It's not just that the hours are long -- starting at 5 a.m., when contestants begin arriving at CBS Television City for makeup, wardrobe and grueling rehearsals, and continuing until 8 p.m., after a two-hour taping in front of a live audience, followed by a postshow press line just before the program is aired. No, what bugs Lythgoe most about Wednesdays is that they always end the same way: "You know you're going to crush somebody's dreams," he says.

PHOTOS On the Set of 'So You Think You Can Dance'

On this particular Wednesday in July, when THR stopped by, the dreamers included a hip-hop duo bopping to Sam Smith's "Stay With Me," a couple of jazz dancers twisting to Nikka Costa's "Funkier Than a Mosquito's Tweeter" and some tap dancers doing a Viennese Waltz to Jason Mraz's "I Won't Give Up," along with 15 other twosomes who spent the day being led around the cavernous studio through numerous elevator trips. "It's nearly impossible to give the performances that they have in just hours [of rehearsals]," says ballroom dance champion Mary Murphy, 56, one of the judges -- along with Lythgoe, 65, and former pro ballerina Misty Copeland, 31 -- who eventually will be crushing most of the contestants' dreams. "It just still really blows me away after all these years."

So You Think You Can Dance isn't the ratings juggernaut it was in the mid-2000s, when it was averaging about 8 million viewers; it now averages 4.5 million. But in today's ratings-starved environment, those still are impressive numbers, particularly for a show that has been around since Seal was singing "Killer 2005" (and still married to Heidi Klum). And even though Wednesdays can be tough, the cast seems to be enjoying themselves. "I should think about doing something different," says Cat Deeley, who has been hosting since 2006 (and is up for an Emmy this year). "But I really love what I do. In a time when some reality shows are about people being beaten up and getting drunk, it's nice to have a reality show about celebrating people's talents."

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