Jennifer Lopez returns to her dance roots for NBC’s new competition series
by Matt Scanlon • Photo by Maarten de boer/nbc
Before there was Jennifer Lopez the singer, with three hit albums in quick sequence (On the 6 in 1999, J. Lo in 2001, and This Is Me… Then in 2002)…before there was Lopez the film star, the first Latina to earn over $1 million for a film role and whose cinematic projects to date have grossed nearly $3 billion…and long before she became the highest paid Latina in entertainment, period, there was a career establishing role as a Fly Girl dancer on the hit Fox show In Living Color.
The dance troupe, as choreographed by Rosie Perez for the show’s first four seasons, was known for embracing and adapting New York City street moves, celebrating muscle as well as grace, and for its style sensibilities, producing what the Los Angeles Times referred to as “the best fashion show on TV.” The blog fashionfollower.com described the approach as “body [contouring] dresses worn with Dr. Martens, lace bustiers with baggy jeans, and ballet skirts with biker shorts. Outfits needed to be infinitely danceable, which meant either stretchy or roomy, and always worn with flat shoes.”
The Fly Girls launched several careers, including Carrie Ann Inaba of Dancing with the Stars, but it was “Jenny from the Block,” a Castle Hill, Bronx native, whose debut in the third season gave rise to superstardom…one Variety TV Reporter Elizabeth Wagmeister opined as “one of dance’s greatest success stories and role models.” She turned her Fly Girls rep into acting briskly, and after a breakout role in 1997’s Selena biopic, has been a steady presence on big and small screens, perhaps most famously over the course of her five seasons as a panel member on American Idol.
As the judge of a new competition show, Lopez travels at once forward and back…returning to her roots in NBC’s World of Dance. Where the show departs from typical competition structure is in its roster of performers—dancers who have typically already won or competed in national or international competitions, and come to the show to vie for the enviable title of “The World’s Best Dancer,” as well as a $1 million purse.
Executive produced by Lopez, along with Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas and Benny Medina, the NBC Universal Television Group series premiered on May 30 and was off to a solid start, with 9.7 million same-day viewers for the premiere (NBC’s America’s Got Talent’s 12th season premiere— also on May 30, attracted 12.3 million viewers). The two shows have combined since to produce Tuesday night ratings higher than the other three broadcast networks combined. Hosted by Jenna Dewan Tatum and with music writer/performer Ne-Yo and award-winning dancer Derek Hough joining Lopez at the judge’s table, World of Dance represents a considerable investment for NBC, which considers it a vital part the summer lineup.
“[The show] is different because it provides an opportunity that was never there before,” said Lopez in an NBC interview. “I started off as a dancer. Back then, there was little room for growth, to really make a name for yourself, make any money, or really have a future. This opportunity gives the dancers a chance to become a personality…become a celebrity…and to make money that typically doesn’t exist in the dance world. Never mind being named the best at what you do.”
From the first, the 47-year-old single mom (she has twins with ex-husband Marc Anthony, and is currently dating former New York Yankee Alex Rodriguez) stressed that judges, host, and even crew members needed to be tethered to movement performance.
“It was really important for me—for everyone who was involved with the show—to be authentically linked to dance, whether they were a dancer themselves or worked with dancers, and really understood this world,” said Lopez. “I want this to be a show for the authentic community…dancers who are trying to make it, who are auditioning right now, or who are professionals but might be transitioning to choreography or directing. Everybody involved in the show, especially the judges and the host—I wanted them to have that vocabulary, to understand what performing of this kind is.”
“Everyone here has already won competitions…are already at the highest caliber of their skill and talent, and we are bringing them here to compete against other people also at that caliber,” said Dewan Tatum. “So we’d be in a position to actually say who’s the best. I also grew up dancing, it’s my first passion… the first true love of my life, and I’d always wanted to give back and assist the new generation…to give them an opportunity I know as a kid I would have given anything to have. And Jennifer [Lopez] has broken so many boundaries—from dancer to singer to actress—she is a role model for just about every dancer out there.”
For Hough, a competition ballroom and Latin style dancer, choreographer, actor, and singer—and who won two Primetime Emmy Awards for Outstanding Choreography for his work on Dancing with the Stars—the diversity of criteria upon which World of Dance contestants will be judged is also unique.
“What I bring to the table is that I was a competitive dancer, so I know what it feels like to compete, and in many different styles. From Latin to ballroom to hip-hop to contemporary to tap, this will be an interesting mix, and we’ll be looking at costumes, choreography, the performance itself, and the connection with the audience. Also, this set is in the round; it feels like a gladiator arena.”
“It was just a natural fit—to be involved with something like this,” added Lopez. “When NBC came to me and asked what I thought of this idea—would you produce it with us—I knew that it was something I’d always, always wanted to do. And then I brought up, ‘Maybe you should give them $1 million too!’”
Asked what insider tips she’d give to future contestants, Lopez offered: “My only advice to anybody starting off dancing would be to be the hardest worker in the room, to stay focused and keep your eyes on the prize, on your goals, and to try to be better every day. If you’re not doing that—if you aren’t growing, you’re dying.”