Sabra Johnson, Neil Haskell, Danny Tidwell: Their Reality
Season 3 top performers from So You Think You Can Dance, Sabra Johnson, Neil Haskell, and Danny Tidwell discuss their reality in an intimate conversation with movmnt magazine. Dancers stand out, even while simply walking. The fluidity of movement, the effortless grace, the confident and physically assertive gait, sets a dancer apart from the crowd. This is why everyone looked at them as they made their way through the restaurant. They make a strong impression.
I can honestly say that I had no idea what to expect, and they certainly surprised me. They made me, themselves and each other laugh a lot. They playfully bickered with one another the way brothers and sisters do. They would turn the interview around on me and ask me questions, and to my surprise, they were genuinely interested in what I had to say. Just visualize for an instant the scene: it is the end of November in Los Angeles, a few days before the end of the So You Think You Can Dance National Tour. Sitting around a candle-lit table with me are Sabra Johnson, Danny Ti dwell, and Neil Haskell, the top three contestants in the third season of FOX’s hit TV show, Kameron Blink – another performer from Season 3 – and Travis Wall, who was the runner-up last season, just like his brother Danny was this season.
Here they are outside Nic’s Martini Lounge in Beverly Hills, sharing stories of the many experiences and people that have led them to this point in their lives. These performers naturally made the evening fly, filled with inside jokes, mischievous anecdotes and priceless stories about their emotions, aspirations, goals and hopes. Sabra Johnson was named “America’s favorite dancer” on the finale of summer’s wildly popular reality program So You Think You Can Dance. Danny Tidwell was first runner-up, and Neil Haskell rounded out the top three as they competed for the coveted $250,000 prize and title of “America’s favorite dancer.” They competed over a nine-week period that challenged them in a variety of dance styles while the country dialed in each week to decide who would continue and who would be voted off.
As if the experience of competing week after week for the American audience’s approval wasn’t exhausting enough, immediately after the show’s finale, the dancers began rehearsals for an extensive US tour covering 49 cities across the country. When I met with them, they were preparing to perform a sold out show at LA’s newest venue, the Nokia Theatre. “It’s bittersweet,” Sabra remarked of the tour coming to an end in Reno a week or so later. “We all auditioned in New York, so since that day, since the callback, since going to Vegas, that’s been my life …we were here the longest; from the very first audition till the very last day of the whole show, the tour and everything. Since this has been our life for that long, it’s so weird to just wake up in December and be like ‘Oh nobody is here to tell me what to do.’”
Sabra, who has had the least formal dance training of the top three, suddenly got a mischievous gleam in her eye and added, “I’m ready. I hate these people,” before exploding into infectious laughter. It should be noted that she has the distinction of being the first female winner of SYTYCD. Neil Haskell, with his messy, flaxen hair and boy-next-door charm, appeared a bit shy and withdrawn at first, but then quickly opened up. He affirmed, “I love what we’re doing right now and for the past six months it’s been my life, but I just can’t wait to move on and do the next thing because the next thing will be just as good as this.” Neil, who began dance and gymnastics training at age five, mentioned that he has his next project already lined up. He will be working on the MTV-produced movie The American Mall that will showcase his dancing and acting skills.
Taking the show to 49 cities across the country in less than three months created challenging issues for the dancers. The responsibility of keeping each show fresh combined with the constant demands of relentless traveling pushed them to their physical limits and was emotionally draining. They admitted to having personal tactics that kept them motivated to perform their best during each show. Danny approaches his work with playfulness. “We’re always ready to have fun and go onstage and move our bodies, you know,” he says, grinning. Neil admits that “little jokes” are sometimes what help him keep his performance energized and fresh. “When I’m on stage I want to make the audience have as much fun as possible,” he remarked. “One time I tripped over Danny and I was like ‘Oh! Oh! Let’s dance harder!’” Neil, who has danced on Broadway in Twyla Tharp’s The Times They Are A-Changin’, made it clear that he is not a fan of the unpredictability that comes with live performance. “I don’t like it when things can go wrong,” he stated candidly.
After ordering a round of drinks and appetizers, the three began to talk about the fan base they´ve accrued over the past six months. For them, it was hard to comprehend how many people the show reached until they were actually out on to the road meeting their fans face to face. “It’s cool that we get to meet [the fans] because obviously they are the people that put us so high up on this pedestal, so it’s definitely nice to meet them and say thank you,” Sabra acknowledged. Neil was humbled by the fans but admitted that he sometimes felt overwhelmed by the sheer number of people waiting by the stage door after each performance. “When you’ve got 400 people standing in line that you have to meet in the next 40 minutes, you can’t take seven pictures with each person, but it’s hard to say no to them. I don’t want to miss other people at the end of the line,” he confessed.
All three seemed hopeful that, with the tour ending and having had the exposure that comes along with dancing on a hit television program, 2008 will welcome many new and exciting opportunities. I asked them if choreography was anything they would be interested in and I was surprised when they said that was not something they saw in their immediate futures. “There is a difference between being a great dancer and a great choreographer,” Neil explained. “Personally, I don’t have anything to give to somebody that somebody else can´t give them, and more. There are other people out there who are going to be able to say ‘this is why you are doing this passé, this is how you are going to put it there, these are the muscles you are going to be using, and here is the choreography to go along with it.’ I’d rather be dancing.”
Danny Tidwell, whose ballet training at the Kirov Academy lead him to perform at age 20 with American Ballet Theatre, has a strong opinion on choreography: “It is a full-time job. If you’re a choreographer, you spend all day working on choreography. You devote all your time thinking, creating, working about it. And then, you go to sleep thinking about that. I’ve just been reflecting about dance, you know? How to make myself better as a performer for a choreographer. A really great one I love is Roger C. Jeffrey. I really hope to work with some great choreographers. Hopefully I can help some young choreographers. I’d love to do that, too.” Neil chimed in again to clarify why dancing was so important to him, “My favorite thing to do, dance-wise, is to take someone’s vision or choreography and make it … even better. If somebody allows me to push it and make it better in my mind, that’s my favorite thing, because you get to make it your own.”
At this point, I could tell that Danny, Neil, and Sabra were starting to tire of talking about their professional lives, and everybody was getting hungry. So after we ordered entrees, our conversation shifted to how they filled their down time while on tour. “We slept a lot!” Danny laughed. “That’s a lie!” Sabra teased. Danny continued in all seriousness, “We didn’t go to the movies. We ate, we went to the mall.” Sabra agreed, “We went to the mall way too much. In a lot of the cities there’s not much to do, so we went to the mall.” They also made sure to go out and sample the food specialties of each city. Sabra told me that Georgia has the best peach cobbler in the country. They also raved that Dallas, one of their favorite cities on the tour, had the best barbecue ribs. And while on the subject of food, I have to admit that I was surprised by how much they ate and wholly enjoyed their food. People generally stereotype dancers as weight-obsessed calorie-counting waifs, starving themselves to achieve the perfect dancer’s physique. I hate to dispel any myths, but nothing could be further from the truth when it came to my dinner with these dancers. They all had abundantly healthy appetites for food and for life. They were not afraid to devour whatever was placed in front of them as we went through a variety of appetizers and hearty entrees. Sabra, who had the most voracious appetite at the table, even ordered a gooey flourless chocolate cake at the end of her meal. It was clear to see that with all the dancing and traveling , they had definitely worked up a well-deserved appetite.
With all that travel and the variety of cities they visited, having settled on New York as their favorite city was a suprise to me. Although each had a few cities that they enjoyed (Sabra especially liked Seattle and Portland, and all three agreed that San Diego was great), it was clear to see that the Big Apple provided them with endless amounts of pleasure. They described their favorite spots: Neil for Hell’s Kitchen, Danny for Soho and Tribeca, and Sabra eagerly nodding her head in agreement with every location.
After the dinner plates had been cleared away and Sabra awaited her dessert, the conversation turned back to dance and the effect it has had on their lives. We discussed how today’s popculture focus has shifted to television and the Internet, and how it seems that people are becoming less and less aware of the visceral power of live performance. To see live dance or theater is no longer how modern Americans choose to entertain themselves, yet the paradox is that television shows like Dancing with the Stars and So You Think You Can Dance sell out almost every date on tour.
We also discussed each of their interests other than dance and performance. Before SYTYCD, Sabra had an interest in fashion. “Who doesn’t love clothes?” she gushed. Danny proudly discussed his involvement with movmnt and his hopes of bringing performing arts back into the general public´s living room and inspiring people to give live performance a chance again. He explained what prompted him to co-create the magazine with publisher David Benaym; “I’ve always had an interest in dance and music and fashion and society. You know, the whole lifestyle.”
Neil admitted to enjoying video games and basketball on his leisure time. It was then that everybody called him out on his love to sing, or rap rather. Neil blushed and put up a bit of a fight at first, but the others pleaded until he gave in and rapped a couple verses from one of his favorite rap songs, with Kameron and Travis doing backup.
I was surprised by the diversity of their musical tastes. Danny admitted to listening to anything from classical to electronic. His dark eyes were thoughtful for a moment before he listed off some more music that inspires him. “I like the song ‘Bittersweet Symphony.’ I listen to the old Cranberries CD.” Sabra looked up from her decadent dessert and squealed, “I love them!” with a mouthful of cake. Danny continued by mentioning one artist he does not listen to; “No Britney Spears!” he quipped. “We listen to music all day. From the moment we wake up to the moment we go to sleep” he continued. “That’s the first thing I do when I wake up,” Sabra agreed. She listed her favorite artists as being Coldplay, Kanye West, Jay-Z and Naz. “Neil listens to Dave Matthews and Eminem,” Danny answered for Neil, who nodded in agreement. It was clear that they spend a lot of time together. “We finally got the surround sound in the bus working,” Neil exclaimed with a grin. But apparently not everybody got to play what they wanted to. Neil proudly established the situation; “No, no. Me and Danny are the DJs.” According to Sabra, if you tried to request something, you ended up with Neil’s retaliation of, “excuse me, excuse me, are you allowed in the DJ booth”
So what set these three apart from the sea of hundreds of other gifted dancers that auditioned with for SYTYCD? Danny asserted; “The New York audition was really good. We killed it. We owned the stage. When the curtain came up, we were just there.” Neil continued, “We were on it, and that’s it.”
When I asked them what guidance they had for other aspiring dancers, the three seemed to agree on one simple piece of advice; just dance. Neil had some additional counsel. “You have to come out with something that is going to separate you. There are a lot of people who can dance really, really well, but what did the three of us have that was different?” Sabra sang out loud, “A back split leap. I have a great layout.” While they were all speculating on the stereotypical roles they might have filled for the sake of television, Neil joked, “Sure, it had nothing to do with our talent …”
By this time, we looked around the table as the waiter cleared the last of our plates. It was almost 11:30 before we realized in amazement that we had been there since 7:15 and hadn’t stopped talking. I could tell they were ready to head back to their hotel and rest for the next night’s performance. As we settled the bill, one of the waiters approached the table timidly with a piece of blank paper. He knelt down and looked around the table, telling the dancers that his daughters were huge fans of the show and that it would mean a great deal to them if the SYTYCD veterans would autograph something for them. He seemed embarrassed to ask and apologized for any inconvenience, but as I looked around the table at Sabra, Danny, Neil, Kameron and Travis, they were all sincerely touched by the man’s request. Each wrote a short, personal message filled with notes of encouragement to the waiter’s daughters and handed back the paper. They were gracious and appreciative of the man’s gesture, and wished him the best before we said our good-nights. The valet brought my car first and I waved goodbye before getting behind the wheel and driving away. I noticed something in my rearview mirror as I drove away: all of them gracefully dancing with one another on a sidewalk in Beverly Hills while waiting for their car. I smiled as I turned the corner and lost sight of them. Dancing is what they love, and they don’t need camera crews or sold out arenas to perform. All they need is an empty strip of sidewalk and each other’s company to put on a show.
Interview by Max Berlinger – Pictures by Gary Land
Conversation organized in Los Angeles by movmnt magazine in November 2007