You can taste the anxiety.
At the Chicago tryouts for MTV's "Randy Jackson Presents: America's Best Dance Crew" -- premiering Thursday, Feb. 7, and hosted by Mario Lopez -- hopefuls pack the halls, trying to find enough space amid the chaos of bodies and discarded gear to get in a few last-minute practice moves. The auditions are going much later than expected, but MTV wants to give every crew its fair chance to rock the house.
"[We're trying] to find a crew in America that best represents that up-tempo, pop-culture style of dance that's referred to as hip-hop dance," choreographer Napoleon D'umo says.
D'umo -- who with partner Tabitha has worked with top talents including Celine Dion, Kanye West and Christina Aguilera -- is one of the judges presiding over the parade of pop 'n' lockers. "I'm looking for originality," he says, "but then, being able to conform to choreography, as well."
And that's what sets this series apart from other dance-competition shows -- the increased difficulty because of the precision this particular style involves.
"Normally, when you teach a piece of choreography to dancers in this kind of setting, you would teach them a little section with just dancing, and you'd watch them," D'umo says. "But what we're incorporating into [the show] is that they have to set it on their crew. There are little portions of individuality you can put into it, but the whole crew has to look the same."
It's that crucial element of uniformity that's giving some of the Chicago crews trouble. They're trying their hearts out -- most of them, anyway -- but it's obvious that a few just are not synchronized the way D'umo would like to see them. They've put countless hours into these routines, both individually and as groups, and it's heartbreaking to watch some of them give it all they've got only to get the thumbs down.
Some would say that that's showbiz.
But D'umo has more insight into what he's seeing not just here or at the "Best Dance Crew" auditions elsewhere, but in the dancing world as a whole. In his view, many dancers today are missing the forest for the trees -- or in this case, the feet.
"Everybody's getting really good at doing more and more technical steps," he says, "and forgetting about the performance. The person who's a layman dancer doesn't realize that you're doing something more technical. They just feel the performance. And if you make them feel something, they think you're good. It doesn't matter that it was really simple or it wasn't. ... I think that came from dancers dancing for dancers because the art wasn't appreciated, and now this show, and all the other dancers that are out are bringing it to the layman and saying, 'Hey, it's more than just steps. There is a performance here.'"
Some of the crews at today's auditions understand this. Although a number of teams have been disqualified for their imprecision, a few have managed to hang on by bringing energy and spectacle in abundance. Overall, D'umo is impressed.
"We had the FootworKINGz go in there, who are the guys on the Verizon commercial -- I've seen them on Ellen DeGeneres' show," he says. It's easy to see from his expression that their routine still has him slightly dazzled. "There are really a lot of professional dancers that are coming to these auditions, ready to take it to that next level."
Getting to "that next level" is a priority for D'umo and for everyone working on this new series. With executive producer Jackson's name attached to it and MTV's involvement, "Best Dance Crew" has the potential to really bring dancing to the forefront for a new generation -- a fact of which D'umo is keenly aware.
In his mind, it's the chance for dancing to truly reclaim the respect it once had from the masses, and to create opportunities for aspiring professional dancers almost unheard of at present.
"I'm hoping, as a choreographer, that it's going to bring it to the next level again, just like Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, when they were the stars of the screen," he says. "Where you can go somewhere, and it's not 'backup' dancing. You're the actual show."