Nigel Lythgoe makes it clear that he is not a dance teacher. The one time he was invited as a student to teach little kids, he scared the hell out of them. He was impersonating a jack-in-the-box, and when the kids approached, he jumped up and shrieked. “Three of the little girls ran off,” says Lythgoe. “Two of them peed themselves, and I was never allowed to go near little kids or teach them again. That was my one experience as a dance teacher. And now they’re giving me an award!”
But Lythgoe has done as much as anyone to draw America’s consciousness to the art of dance. And that is, in a very pervasive, influential way, teaching.
From his early beginnings on English television as a dancer, choreographer, director and, eventually, producer, Lythgoe had the vision to see that dance could be loved by the masses. As a choreographer for more than 500 television shows, he worked with a range of stars, from Gene Kelly to Chita Rivera, and gave the Muppets their original dance moves. With the popular competition television show “American Idol,” he hit his stride as an executive producer in the early aughts. His work as co-creator, as executive producer for, and as a very recognizable television judge on “So You Think You Can Dance” gave kids a new goal: “Gotta dance!”
Lythgoe has also funneled his passion into charity work. Idol Gives Back raised more than $170 million for underprivileged children in Africa and America. With producer Adam Shankman, he created Dizzy Feet, now called American Dance Movement, to foster dance education in underserved communities. Over a decade, the foundation has granted more than $1.1 million to 77 community programs in 32 states.
A heart attack survivor, Lythgoe sought a partnership between the American Heart Association and American Dance Movement. The program, called Kids Heart Challenge, provides dance-inspired movement content that can be integrated into classrooms across the country and helps educate students about healthy life choices.
Michelle Obama inspired Lythgoe to initiate a National Dance Day in the U.S. to combat childhood obesity. On Lythgoe’s urging, Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton introduced a National Dance Day resolution in 2010 to foster students’ fitness through dance education. It is now celebrated in September.
Lythgoe, who radiates charisma, empathy, braininess and sly humor, shares some wisdom about his dynamic career.
Which dance teachers inspired you?
There were three sisters who taught me to dance: Hilda, Ruth and Annette Bromley. They were very good at making me feel like I had a career in that direction. Hilda in particular was a very strong woman and insisted that we didn’t do classes with the girls until much later.
I was very lucky because so many boys nowadays only get to do classes with girls, and [the technique] is a totally different teaching method.
How did the door open for you as a choreographer and producer?
I became a choreographer at 21 when I was with a group of dancers from BBC television called The Young Generation. It took a lot of courage as a cheeky dancer in those days to become the boss. That was the toughest move of my life. Everything after that just seemed to flow, to be frank. Because a lot of producer/directors weren’t happy with directing dance, I went from choreographer to becoming a director of dance. BBC sent me on a director’s course, where I learned all about cameras, lenses and everything else. We’d dance with props like frying pans, and that led to choreographing a lot of comedy shows. That’s how I became the choreographer of the Muppet series, which in the 1970s were all made at ATV in England.
You’ve advocated for dance teaching in the U.S. to have a national standard. What would that look like?
I think America should come up with its own [standard for certification], especially with the influx of street kids who want to be fully trained as well. America is worthy of it. We don’t just need Russian, Italian or British methods. I think the first thing you need to do really is figure out the rules for hip hop. It’s deeply rooted in American society and is now being sort of—it sounds awful—sanitized. It’s loosening up on its original heavily influenced African roots.
What advice Do you have for dancers who want to pursue choreographing, directing and producing?
Just keep plugging away at it. If you’ve got the right ideas, you’ll be given the opportunity. It’s similar to dancing: You need the luck of those doors to open, then you need the talent to go through them, and you make it work. The fright of going through those doors is, I think, what puts people off. With every job, learn as much as you can. Whoever you’re working for—there’s a reason they’re successful. Figure out what it is and employ it. Producing dance on television isn’t going to happen very often. We’re at a very strong moment on American television with the “World of Dance,” “Dancing with the Stars” and “SYTYCD.” I don’t see too many other dance shows coming out unless they’re reality shows behind the scenes: dating with dancing, that style. Not everybody who produces a dance show has been a dancer.
What impresses you most about “SYTYCD” dancers?
Every year, I say to the press the standard of dancers is great this year, and I’m not lying. We’ve just been through the first audition process [for Season 14] and there are kids doing triple tours and 14 pirouettes. I never saw Nureyev doing triple tours. Street kids who do things with ridiculous bravery without any thought are now learning that they need to incorporate more formal training. The formally trained kids are now looking at what the street kids do and thinking, “I want to be able to do that, too.” The sooner we start integrating black dancers into ballet companies, as well, we’re going to see some of the most amazing athletic moves.
You’re known for judging dancers very directly.
All I can say with that is with “American Idol,” before “SYTYCD,” tone-deaf kids would come on and sing because their parents told them they were good singers but in actual fact they were tone deaf. Simon Cowell would say to them, “You’re never going to be a singer. Go home and sue your singing teacher for taking your money.” When they come back next year, they’re still tone deaf. With a dancer it’s totally different. You can say, “You’re not ripe yet. Go away and get yourself stronger.” I’ve seen it so many years now—they come back much stronger and better. You can only say what you see, which is, “You need to work on these areas,” and at the end of the day the performance is judged by the person who is watching it. With my program, if you don’t entertain your audience, you’re not going to get the votes, which is why we never say it’s “America’s best dancer.” It’s “America’s favorite dancer.”
What has surprised you about “SYTYCD”?
I don’t know if I’m willing to talk about it! [Laughs.] No, it’s fascinating how brilliant the dancing is. I can’t wait to see that being introduced into companies now. People would actually get off their backsides to see this at a time when we are losing our audiences, particularly in ballet.
Why did you start Dizzy Feet, now called American Dance Movement?
Adam Shankman and myself were judging “SYTYCD” on the road. We came across a number of kids from underserved communities. We’d say, “Do you take dance class?” And they’d say, “No, I can’t afford it.” So we started the Dizzy Feet Foundation, based on a program I made in the UK in the early ’80s. The foundation grants scholarships to incredible dancers who haven’t the wherewithal to continue their training. We also visited organizations in underserved communities that needed help financially. In New Orleans, years after Hurricane Katrina, dance schools were held in churches because their original places were rotting, some still underwater. We brought 200 pairs of tap shoes. It was a great pleasure seeing the kids’ faces crying for the tap shoes. I had to leave shortly after because it sounded like a herd of elephants.
How did you decide to extend the foundation’s reach to students with disabilities?
I went to a school in New York, where I watched a dance class for autistic kids. They were sitting in a circle. The teacher hadn’t put on the music yet, and some were looking at the ceiling. Some were almost hitting their heads. Then as soon as the music came on, they sat up straight and did a little dance routine, turned-in thighs, rolling arms and shoulders, a bit like the old hand jive. At the end, they linked hands and formed archways around the circle.
One of the mothers said she learned her daughter’s dance routine. She said, “If I go near her, she screams and hits her head and tries to run away and hide. We do this routine together, and I can touch my daughter.” Tears were welling up in her eyes. I also went to see a Down Syndrome class and realized how much joy and benefit dance can bring to those worlds.
What do you think about the state of dance today in the U.S.?
There are fabulous companies, but it’s the hardest thing in the world to keep one together nowadays. It needs investment, and my cautionary word is the arts are being underserved by the government. Relying on the public to supply all the funding is wrong. Somehow we’ve taken the arts out of everything. The arts just make for better human beings. But this is what I caution: The minute “SYTYCD,” “World of Dance” and “Dancing with the Stars” come to an end, I don’t want to lose dance out of the mainstream. That would be disastrous again for dance. In the UK and America, dance [for boys] has been stigmatized. But I’m watching that change. Dads come up to me and say, “I wanted my son to be a footballer, but he’s determined to be a dancer. I’m very proud of him now.”
Would young Nigel Lythgoe be surprised by the current Nigel?
I always wanted to be a star, singing and dancing on the West End stage. I did that by the time I was 19 in a small part. I always thought I would go on to become a major West End player. But I never dreamt of the director/producer/executive director side of it at all. I had no idea that I would end up here in America or what I would achieve here. Young Nigel had stars in his eyes but never, ever thought he would end up here.