For Nigel Lythgoe, “So You Think You Can Dance” is more than a job. It’s a return to his roots.
Long before he became co-creator, executive producer and judge for the Fox hit, Lythgoe was just an 11-year-old kid in the U.K. who wanted nothing more than to dance. His first class was in tap, but he didn’t stop there.
“I trained in every other style that was physically possible,” Lythgoe says. “I did ballet, modern, jazz, ballroom — everything that was needed to become a professional dancer in the United Kingdom.”
Which he did. By the late ’60s, Lythgoe was performing with the BBC’s “Young Generation” dance troupe. Later, he transitioned into choreography, and his moves graced more than 500 TV shows.
Finding that he liked the rush of television, Lythgoe opted to leave dance behind to focus on his new career.
He wielded considerable power as controller of entertainment and comedy at London Weekend Television, but it was his gig as a judge on the series “Popstars” that made him a household name in his native country. With his blunt honesty and biting remarks, Lythgoe was the original Simon Cowell, dubbed “Nasty Nigel” by the British press.
In 2001, he joined Simon Fuller’s 19 Entertainment, where he produced “Pop Idol,” which was later spun off in the U.S. as “American Idol.” Lythgoe’s role as executive producer of that Fox juggernaut ultimately paved the way for “Dance.”
“When you’re successful with something as big as ‘American Idol,’ you can come up with crazy ideas, and people will see you about them,” Lythgoe says. “I doubt very much that (without ‘Idol’) any network would’ve spoken to us about a dance show.”
It was Lythgoe who, based on his own diverse background, insisted “Dance” incorporate so many different styles.
“Nowadays, so many people do one thing, like hip-hop, and say they’re a dancer,” he says. “If you think you can dance, then you should also be able to do the cha cha cha or salsa.”
These days, Lythgoe can’t help but marvel at the turn his career has taken.
“Forty years ago, I thought, ‘That’s the end of my dancing, I’m moving to television production,’ ” says Lythgoe, who’s launching the Dizzy Feet Foundation in hopes of providing a new generation of aspiring dancers with the opportunities he had. “And yet I’ve managed to swing it around and find myself back in a world that started my entire career. I’m so passionate about the bloody thing. I just feel so lucky.”