Mary Murphy on So You Think You Can Dance & the “the positive human connection” of ballroom dance

“If you would have told me when I was growing up that I would become a professional ballroom dancer, I would have said you were insane.”

That’s how Mary Murphy, champion ballroom dancer and screaming So You Think You Can Dance judge describes her tomboy-like (and entirely dance-free) childhood. Raised with three brothers, she says she was basically the fourth boy in the family.

“My father was a drummer, my brothers were drummers, so I was a drummer too. They played track and field so I played track and field. There weren’t any other sports offered for women besides that. My senior year, I could do basketball and volleyball, so I played both of those.”

Yet during her junior year in high school, she joined the Majorettes which was, as she put it, “the first time I wore anything remotely girly.” The guys in the band didn’t want a girl in the drumline so she played bassoon and during marching band season, she performed as a Majorette.

“That crowd was the first glimmer of what it felt like to stand in front of people who were applauding you,” she says. “I was head Majorette during my senior year which meant I got to throw the big toss at the beginning of the game. I never dropped the baton once during that throw the entire year.”

It was during college that she took her first dance class. Though she was fully intending on becoming a track coach, she took a modern dance class as an elective and found she enjoyed it. So she took ballet, jazz and other styles of dance all the way through college. After graduation, she went to a dance studio to get a summer job and after a week, she became an instructor. The studio manager saw something in her and took her to see the US Ballroom Championships in New York.

“When I walked into the Waldorf Astoria and saw all the chandeliers and the balconies and the dresses and feathers and rhinestones – everything my existence hadn’t been to that point – it hit me like a lightning bolt,” she says. “I felt it on a cellular level and decided I would become the US Champion and a professional ballroom dancer. It took me a long time to get there, but in 1996, I became the US Champion.”

Beyond a goal to achieve, dance became her all-consuming passion, emboldening her with self-confidence.

“I was going through a difficult marriage and I felt like dancing saved my life,” she says. “When I was dancing, I could feel beautiful again. I was feeling ugly to be honest with you and it helped me and lifted my spirits. The combined movement of body and mind transported me out of my situation. When you’re dancing ballroom dances, there’s more of a human connection. I love all dance, but this way of two people dancing together reminded me of the old movies I saw with Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers and Cyd Charisse. It was the feeling; the positive human connection.”

When So You Think You Can Dance launched in 2005, Mary was among the pool of choreographers and guest judges who brought proper ballroom dance back into the consciousness of our culture. Since then, the show has single-handedly revolutionized dance both on television and on stage, made stars of its choreographers and catapulted the careers of countless contestants who’ve gone on to be professional dancers in concerts, tours, films and on Broadway in shows like Hamilton, Newsies and Cats.

“There’s something extraordinary about So You Think You Can Dance. When you see people mastering something so difficult in such a short time, it’s extraordinary. For anyone to bring that to an emotional level in a minute and thirty seconds of a song – there really is nothing like it. I think the show has also transformed the hierarchy of dance styles. There were preconceived notions of what styles are considered art and now people have found a new appreciation for all forms of dance. The viewers at home can see the subject matter we tackle on this show and see songs come to life while the artists get their music played as these brilliant choreographers bring it to life.”

Another part of what she says makes SYTYCD so extraordinary is the connection the show has created with its audience, something not all competition shows are able to facilitate, especially over long spans of time.

“I have people who come up to me all the time and they mention dances that were on the show ten years ago and they remember them vividly. They remember the music, the couples who danced and the choreographers. It’s fascinating and I’m so grateful I got to sit there for the ride.”

Part of that ride has included guest judging on the international versions of the show in places like Australia, Canada and Scandinavia, opportunities that underscored the universal nature and communicative ability of dance.

“It’s beautiful because it’s such a visual thing. You can speak Russian, Japanese, Chinese, whatever and it wouldn’t matter. Dancing brings music to life. I’m on YouTube all the time watching dance from all over the world. It unites us together. It’s such beauty. We see way too much of what’s ugly in the world and when we have the ability to see a thing of beauty, we need to tap into that.”

Now that the new season of SYTYCD has begun, Murphy says she’s most excited about witnessing that beauty; that someone who does something at such an artistic level that it moves everyone watching.

“Sometimes, when a dance moves me to tears, I turn to the audience to see if it’s just me, but they’re crying too. People tell me on the street that they cry at the same dances I do. I can’t control my emotions when I see something – be it great singers, great actors, great dancers – anyone doing something at the top of their game. I love it all. I’m so glad I get to see things like that. I’m a junkie for that kind of thing.”

That release of emotion has become somewhat of a hallmark of presence on SYTYCD. Far more exuberant than any other judge on a competition show, dancers and audiences alike know when Mary’s excited and often that comes in the form of what’s become known as the “Hot Tamale Train.”

“In the ballroom world, you yell and scream people’s numbers. When I first let out my unbridled scream on the show in 2005, I had no idea it would go around the world. To be honest, it kinda caught me off guard. One reason I think it resonated with people is that there’s real feeling there. There’s not enough enthusiasm today. Everyone is trying to be too careful with their appearance and other people’s perceptions of them so they’re not being themselves. That truly is me. When we see something we love, we show people. We do that at football games or shows. On SYTYCD, when I saw some of the people early on and what they were doing on the show, I wanted to do everything I could to let them feel that I thought it was amazing. So, I’m going to scream from the Heavens that what they did on that stage meant something to me.”

Knowing that teaching is such an important part of her life, I had to pose the question: If you could, what would you mandate be taught to all young dancers? She unsurprisingly said ballroom dance, but then she went on to say she’d love to see ballroom taught in every elementary school, not just every dance class.

“With all the phones and apps and computers and digital media, we are losing human touch. For me, teaching this kind of dance at such a young age would be great because you have to do it with another person. It teaches boys and girls to respect one another; to connect. That’s what’s important.”

So You Think You Can Dance airs Mondays on Fox.

Story by Ryan Brinson
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