You won’t see Emmy-nominated So You Think You Can Dance choreographer Sonya Tayeh back on set for the rest of season 10 – she’s in New York in full rehearsals for The Last Goodbye, a Romeo and Juliet-based rock musical directed by Alex Timbers that’ll open in San Diego this fall. But she and her giant earrings will surely still be there in hot-blooded, aggressive spirit. EW spoke to Tayeh, known for her intense, demanding training process and “combat jazz” dance style, about what’s been “overall a really emotionally connected season.” Every one of the six remaining dancers, Tayeh said, “were so in touch – and out. It was pretty f*cking beautiful.”
Tayeh raved about her first dance for the season – a contemporary with two of the Top 6, Fik-Shun and Amy Yakima (pictured). “They fell in love with each other from the beginning,” she said. “Amy is just one of the most reliable dancers I’ve ever met in my life. She’s the one where I’m literally like, ‘Oh, I’ll just sit so cozily in my chair because I have full trust that you’re gonna kick this sh*t out, like so hard, all the time.’ She’s just bonkers to me. She’s who I would wanna be if I was a dancer her age.”
On Fik-Shun: He’s a certain type of dancer who always wants to learn, is so hungry for it. When I first watched him, I wasn’t sure of him, you know? But man, he was just so open, so ready. That was amazing. And that was my first piece of the season! I was like, are you kidding me?
On Jasmine Harper: Jasmine, I mean, talk about desire. She wants this so bad – that’s why I love Jasmine. She makes my eyes water because I can see it. I can smell it. She never stops practicing. I always see her warming up. She’s always focused. I radiate towards that because I know that feeling.
On Aaron Turner: Aaron’s versatile and he’s also very open to being versatile, which helps. He and Jasmine together were just so kind and generous towards each other. You could see it. It’s from the soul.
On Hayley Erbert: I only had her for a group. She was quieter to me, so it takes me a bit more time to connect with that. But she’s got an amazing facility. Beautiful dancer. I would always just say “Give me some more fire.” I know she’s got some umph in her.
On Paul Karmiryan: Paul was another really beautiful one, well-mannered, so polite. Kind and sweet. Working his ass off as if he didn’t win the show before. [Karmiryan won the Armenian version of SYTYCD in 2011.]
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: This year the judges officially used input from the choreographers to help decide who should be eliminated. How did that process work?
SONYA TAYEH: I would only weigh in on the weeks I did a dance. The producers would pull us aside and ask us how it was to work with them – which I think is really important. They need to know if they were a pleasure to work with. It speaks volumes. All of us choreographers talk amongst each other anyway. Etiquette is so important. You gotta be nice. You can’t be difficult.
How do you deal with a dancer’s difficulty when you encounter it?
Difficulty is a blanket for being insecure. So I always tell them, we don’t buy it. You’re just being scared, and you’re resisting, and you’re refusing something that we’re trying to do to help you. But that breaks down fast. It’s never really bad. They have their moments. But I think it was awesome for Nigel to acknowledge the choreographers like that.
Can you run through your typical approach to choreography for a SYTYCD routine?
We don’t find out ‘til the night before rehearsal which two dancers we have – and we only get them for five hours. The concept of the piece is usually pretty much what I’m going through in my life, emotionally, or if I have something that’s inspired me in the world. I come in with a big structure of movement with holes in it – so I can fill in the holes with the dancers, based on what their strengths are.
And we really immerse ourselves. I try to make sure I have an emotional moment with them as opposed to just trying to drill this movement into them. We talk about life, we have conversations, we cry, we laugh, you know? We have a whole lifetime in five hours. It’s pretty awesome.
Who would you say had the most profound emotional breakthrough this season?
With Malece [Miller], that was a really amazing time, and a struggle for her too. That got really emotional. We broke down our lives together. I could just smell that she didn’t think she was good and didn’t think she was beautiful. I cried and she cried and I just talked to her about my life and my struggles too. I said okay, well, are we gonna sit here and consistently think that we don’t deserve to be here when we are here? How does this work?
Is “feeling the dance” something that can be taught, especially in so little time?
Yeah, I think I always try to. I have the intention of understanding that some are more afraid than others; some are more closed-off. I always try to present support and love when they walk in. I make sure to tell them I know how nerve-wracking this is, I’m nervous too, we’re gonna do this together, we’re gonna make you look amazing. They need to feel relaxed and open up. Because they see us as these heroic people. They walk in and they’re like, “F*ck.” You can see it in their eyes. They’re just like, wow. So I try to remind them we’re all human, and we have this beautiful opportunity to create dance together. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.
It does seem like the dancers both fear and love you at the same time.
I know that I can come off as intimidating or scary, but it’s because I’m really passionate and I love it so much. And I love them, I really do. I want it for them. But I don’t take any laziness. I don’t understand what that is. I feel like if you’re trying for this, you need to be obsessive and hyper-disciplined. That’s what I always try to instill. You should not stop trying, and thinking, and talking to your partner, and problem-solving, and be dying for it. They don’t have a preference of style. Sometimes they do and then it doesn’t work, because I don’t conform to what you think I should be choreographing. It’s very, like, either you like me or you don’t. Take me or leave me, but I’m only one person and I took a long time to build how I wanna move and I feel like I have something to offer. And I’m not gonna deny that to them. I have that standard and it works.
Are you super intense in all walks of life?
Yeah, totally. Until I am laying down in my bed, I am doing something. I can’t relax. Everything’s just really extreme for me. I’m pretty self-disciplined and I have a regimen. If I didn’t have one, I’d be crazy. I keep myself in check for sure, in my studies about dance, my health, my career. I think it’s because I didn’t have all of this when I was young. My life wasn’t the easiest life. I’m not saying I’m perfect, I’m saying I know how it is to struggle, so I remember that. I feel really grateful. Every time I’m on the show, I feel like it’s the first time.
Would you want to sit on the actual judging panel again?
I think it’s fun. I do think constructive criticism is great – you want people to know. I would want people to be honest with me. It’s not rude. It’s constructive. And it’s important to the dancers – you can’t just always praise them. There’s always room for improvement. Not to badger them, it’s just insight. They’re 18! They need to see how to build their layers as dancers and artists.
Are you wearing giant earrings right now?
Yep. They’re wooden daggers. They look like samurai daggers – they’re from this guy who makes earrings out of, like, old branches and crazy sh*t.
Watch two more of Sonya’s season 10 SYTYCD routines below.
And here’s her Emmy-nominated season 9 dance featuring Cole Horibe and Allison Holker: