I auditioned for a reality T.V. show because #YOLO

26 Jan

It’s 8 am. A few beleaguered New York City government employees scrape snow off the gray sidewalks and there’s a light, freezing rain. Hundreds of people line up outside of a building on 34th Street, snaking down an entire city block.

One of the security guards marshaling the crowd says he’s been there since 5:30, when the first hopefuls began to arrive.

It’s not a new iPhone or Halo release, not a chance to meet the president or be on “Good Morning America.” It’s the first round of auditions for a reality television dance program on a major T.V. network.

And I was there. Because YOLO?

Eerily enough, the experience reminded me of “The Hunger Games.” Hundreds of tributes from District 8 (which, according to The Hunger Games wiki, is New York), gathered for the reaping. The tributes had to be between the ages of 18 and 30, and the auditions would pit “stage dancers” against “street dancers,” where a certain number of each type of dancer would advance to the next round.

Like “The Hunger Games,” the selection process seemed arbitrary and random, less a test of skill and more the random selection of a fraction of dancers from the 500-plus assembled.

I believe the first part of the audition was seeing who was willing to stand outside for two hours in the freezing, wet misery of a New York City winter morning. I passed.

I formed an alliance with two other tributes—a magenta-haired student named Kelli and a hardened, three-time survivor of the Games, Matt.

Matt, a professional dancer from outside of Boston, had auditioned for the show three times before and had made it to the elimination rounds in Vegas during one of the earlier seasons.

“I’m a ballet dancer, but I actually get paid more often to do hip-hop,” Matt informed me and Kelli. “But I’m not going to do hip-hop here! We’re in New York!”

He had a point.

Kelli and I bombarded Matt with questions, and he explained the process. First, you went in and got signed in. Then you were taken into an auditorium with everyone else, and ten people at a time would go on stage to improv. Anyone who made it through the improv round today would come back tomorrow and do their solo in front of the judges.

Matt was a champ, answering everything we threw at him.

“Did you tell your job what you were doing when you went to Vegas?” I asked him.

“I was working for three studios at the time, and I told two of them and they were cool with it, and the third wasn’t, so I quit that job,” Matt said. He said that he had to sign all kinds of waivers for the T.V. show, swearing secrecy and that he wouldn’t post about the elimination rounds on social media.

“Did you get paid while you were in Vegas? Do the contestants on the show get paid?” I asked.

“Nope. But almost all of the top 20 get contracts no matter what. Sometimes they’re with Broadway or something and they’re actually better gigs than the winner gets,” Matt explained.

How the contestants could afford to work for free for that long was beyond me, but I guess people will do anything to get on T.V. And since I was at an audition for the show, I can’t really talk.

By the time we inched our way to the front of the line, were I.D.-ed, given wristbands, had our bags searched, and were patted down, I had lost all feeling in my feet. The security guards checking our bags said that no glass bottles were allowed inside—I wanted to ask what incident had happened in the past that led to the creation of that rule, but decided I probably didn’t want to know.

We were in the arena—a giant, ornate auditorium on the seventh floor of the building. There were about 500 people in the auditorium talking excitedly to each other, stretching, warming up, adjusting their hair, speculating about how many people from today would make it through.

Inside the Arena.

Inside the Arena.

At about 10:30 am, an imposing British man took the stage, welcoming everyone and giving his spiel:

“We are not looking for America’s best dancer. We are looking for America’s favorite dancer. Wow us with your personality and your technique. We are only going to let 70 people through today. We must be tough about who we let through.”

Two former contestants on the show, who were met with thunderous applause and cheering, joined him. The former contestants said what they were looking for in a dancer—someone with a lot of heart, someone they connected with—and the first 10 dancers were called to the stage. I wondered if the former contestants would be the mentors for the tributes that were reaped today, sharing their prior knowledge of the Games.

Ten dancers from their respective disciplines—street hip-hop, jazz, contemporary, ballet, ballroom, etc.—were called to the stage at a time, the British man played a song, and the dancers danced one at a time, with the British man calling “Next,” every 30 seconds or so.

In some cohorts, everybody was cut, dismissed with a “Thank you for coming today.” In others, one or two were asked to stick around for another improv round. A few lucky people were given a ticket asking them to come back the next day to dance in front of the celebrity judges.

Matt went before us, and we watched him breathlessly, cheering when it was his turn to dance. All smiles and great lines, I thought Matt was surely a shoe-in, but he was cut too.

It was hard to not sing “Another One Bites the Dust,” after each group.

The number of tributes—uh, dancers—slowly diminished every hour. Kelli and I were finally placed in a group of ten and told to prepare. We had about five minutes to stretch and get ready to go on stage before we were there, each taking our place on a numbered piece of masking tape. I felt like Katniss in her glass tube, about to be shot up into the arena. The only similarity between her and me though was that we both wore Spandex.

The floor was uneven, light wooden parquet, and I had already seen a handful of people slip and fall. I had no idea what song they were going to play, since it had changed for each group that took the stage.

“We Found Love in A Hopeless Place,” by Rihanna started and the girl and guy in front of me each danced for their thirty seconds. I danced for mine, trying to put as much personality in as I could. I felt like I couldn’t remember how to dance. I was having a hard time bridging the gap between the music entering my brain and my body coming up with steps to do to it and I was not warmed up enough, lacking adequate time or space to prepare.

Kelli went two people after me, and I cheered for her, even though I was onstage. After everyone danced, we were asked to line up.

“Number five, have you auditioned for us before?” the British man asked Kelli.

“No,” she replied.

He handed her a ticket. “Congratulations. The rest of you may go.”

I hugged and congratulated a shell-shocked, near tearful Kelli.

“You’re going to rock! Don’t forget all of your stuff!” I said, making sure she didn’t forget her backpack in her euphoria. I grabbed my bag, boots, and coat, and followed the rest of the group out of the auditorium.

One of the guys who had been in my group sat down on the carpet outside of the auditorium, wiping tears from his eyes. “I’m so over this. I’ve done this four times,” he told me.

I hugged him. “You did great. It doesn’t mean that you can’t dance.”

One of the other guys in the group, a tall black guy who had been cheering for his friends as they went up on stage before him, calling one of the girls his “niece,” shrugged. “I danced the best I could and had fun. That’s all that matters.”

I had to agree with him. It was a total blast, all Hunger Games similarities aside. The odds of being chosen to even advance to the next round were slim, but now I can say I auditioned for the show. And I had a ton of fun doing it. It’s rare to spend a day surrounded with such an eclectic assembly of dancers, and even rarer to see the amount of positivity and support among the different dancers that I saw on Saturday.

It seemed that, for the most part, everyone at the audition had the same mindset—we are all here because we love to dance, and being catty and cutting other people down isn’t going to give you any better chance of advancing to the next round. It wasn’t the tribute versus tribute bloodbath of The Hunger Games at all.

It was a day of free entertainment, networking with other people in my field, and getting a behind-the-scenes glimpse at part of what goes into a reality t.v. show. I would do it again in a heartbeat and can safely check the experience off my bucket list.

The audition tour will continue in Districts 3, 6, 8, and 9—I mean, other large metropolises in the United States— and I’ll definitely be watching when the show airs this season, at least enough to catch Kelli’s audition with the judges.

May the odds ever be in her favor.


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