When Jim Nowakowski was growing up, in Rochester, New York, he couldn’t simply flip channels on his TV to see the kind of dancing that might inspire him.
He had to lug out the clunky VHS tapes he had of his hero, Russian ballet star Mikhail Baryshnikov.
“We didn’t have YouTube and we didn’t have a mainstream TV show that could expose people to so many genres of dance,” said Nowakowski, 26. “But now there is one.”
The show Nowakowski refers to is the hit FOX dance competition “So You Think You Can Dance,” on the air since 2005. He was a finalist on the show’s recent season, which ended in September, and he’s currently on tour performing with other finalists around the country. The tour makes a stop in Portland on Saturday, with a show at the Cross Insurance Arena.
Besides the obvious boost it can give his dance career, Nowakowski likes “So You Think You Can Dance” for what it is doing to popularize a wide range of dance, from hip-hop and jazz to ballet and contemporary. He said he’s been happily surprised by all the emails and cards he’s received from fans.
“The show is mainstream, and it’s relate-able. It’s not just ballet, it’s all dance,” said Nowakowski, who has danced with the Houston Ballet in Texas. “It celebrates all dance, and people let us know what it means to them.”
The show is not just inspiring young dance hopefuls, it’s helping to change the field of dance performance, making it more accessible, like the show.
A good example of the show’s impact on the dance world will be on view in Portland on Friday, when a traveling dance show called “Shaping Sound” is presented at Merrill Auditorium. (See story on page M16.) Travis Wall, artistic director for “Shaping Sound,” was runner-up in the second season of “So You Think You Can Dance” and went on to work as a choreographer on the show. Co-creators Nick Lazzarini and Teddy Forance also danced on the FOX show.
Nowakowski said that people who come to the live version of “So You Think You Can Dance” will see something similar to what they see on TV. The top 10 finalists will be dancing in myriad styles, from swing or jazz to hip-hop, no matter what their own dance background is. And they’ll be dressed in “over-the-top costumes” performing choreographed routines that can be somewhat campy and definitely fun.
“We’ll have some Broadway numbers, some Bollywood numbers, some theatrical numbers,” said Nowakowski. “And everyone gets to solo.”
Unlike the TV show, the dancers don’t compete and get eliminated. Nowakowski finished in the top six of the finalist pack. The recent season’s winner was Gaby Diaz, who is also on the current tour.
The thing that surprises people the most about the live show, Nowakowski said, is how many numbers are packed into a two-hour show with relatively few dancers. There are a total of 14 dancers and the show has 53 separate numbers.
Nowakowski said his favorite number in the live show is probably a jazz routine he performs with fellow finalist Yorelis Apolinario. While Nowakowski comes from a ballet background, Apolinario is a freestyle dancer.
Nowakowski said he started dancing around age 2 in a “creative movement” type class. He had an older sister who danced, and he says he wanted to do everything she did.
So he followed his older sister into ballet, and made it his life’s passion.
So far, being on “So You Think You Can Dance” has not led to specific opportunities, like a position in a dance company. Nowakowski and the other finalists will be on tour into January, and then he’ll start seeing where his career might lead.
He said he’s always had a dream of dancing and living in Europe, and being on “So You Think You Can Dance” might be the boost he needs to follow that dream.
“Being on the show opened me to a lot of things,” said Nowakowski.
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Saturday
WHERE: Cross Insurance Arena, 45 Spring St., Portland
HOW MUCH: $27.75 to $47.75