Lord of the Dance

Choreographer Scott Grossman is the man behind the moves of the pageant contestants.

April 07, 2005|By Abigail Tucker | Abigail Tucker,SUN STAFF

Despite its name, the "we" turn was one man's inspiration. Scott Grossman conceived of it alone last week in the hallways of River Hill High School in Clarksville, where he had quietly extracted himself from the company of 51 shimmying Miss USA 2005 contestants.

The pageant choreographer was having "a breakdown moment," but not in the good, "break it down!" dancing kind of way. He was in crisis mode. Something was terribly awry with the swimsuit parade, but what?

"I knew there needed to be a turn, but very soft," he said. In his thick-soled white sneakers, the 45-year-old twirled, softly, by himself until the new turn emerged.

Here's where the "we" comes in.

"Wheeeeeee!" Grossman trills, spinning with his head thrown back, arms outstretched. The exclamation, he said, is the essence of the gesture.

Pageant fans, know this: When you watch your favorites stroll the Hippodrome stage next week, every jut, thrust and swivel of their sexy little hips was modeled on the body of a 210-pound man with muscles the size of cannonballs and chin stubble almost as long as the hair on his head.

"It's all about the ability to live truthfully in your given imaginary circumstance," Grossman said, quoting a favorite acting coach.

Grossman's imaginary circumstance these days is that of an unmarried woman between the ages of 18 and 27, like all Miss USA hopefuls.

In life, though, he's an artist. "A consummate artist," said Phil Gurin, the pageant's executive producer. "He's in his moment. When he's in his moment, you watch art explode."

Grossman did seem on the verge of explosion at several points during a recent rehearsal, one of six the contestants will have attended during their three-week stay in Maryland leading up to Monday's pageant. As the women danced in a darkened studio, crisscrossed with lines of neon tape that stand in for camera angles, stage scenery and dance patterns, Grossman observed with a critical eye.

When one contestant's saunter was a tad too sedate, the veins in his neck stood out like ropes.

"Get peppy!" he screamed over the techno beat of the practice music.

Despite this tough love, he's also the women's staunch advocate.

"It's hot, it's hot, these ladies are major!" he declared to one television news crew, which inquired why pageants are worth watching these days.

Grossman is pretty major himself. He is among the beauty world's luminaries, having played himself in the hit movie, Miss Congeniality, the sequel to which is playing in theaters now (although Grossman doesn't appear).

He's locked in the struggle to transform traditional pageantry into a performance form more in sync with the popular culture, a transition that needs more crafting than the average snap turn.

"We're trying to take the cheese out of it," Gurin explained.

In 1987, when Grossman, then a professional dancer in search of a steadier flow of income, signed on as an assistant choreographer with the Miss Universe Organization - which owns Miss USA - cheese was institutional.

Dance sequences, often accompanied by original songs, resembled "the opening number for a Broadway show, without the substance of Broadway," he said. "It just got too goofy. It wasn't their style. The girls are too intelligent, too glamorous for that."

Since taking over as the head choreographer of the pageants in 1994 - after a stint in the mid-1990s when he returned to the stage himself - he has worked to incorporate a catwalk style into the show, so that women stalk rather than skip across the stage and smolder instead of smile at the camera.

"He doesn't treat us like pageant robots," said Miss Virginia USA, 26-year-old Jennifer Anne Pitts. "He treats us like fashion models."

Actually, when they first arrive in Grossman's borrowed studios, many of the women are a long way from the runway. Some are experienced performers, but many are remarkably awkward, with sharp elbows and coat-hanger shoulders. They lack natural rhythm.

At the first Maryland rehearsal last week, Grossman said, "I had two ladies in this room who could not clap on the beat."

Immediately he grouped the women into two teams, christened the Cherry Blossoms and the more remedial Potomac Rivers.

The Potomac Rivers "really needed some work," he said.

So he lent them his athlete's body, swooping around the room, trailing a denim shirt wrapped around his waist like a dress train.

"I pull out the high-fashion style," he said. "As a male, I get in touch with my feminine side. I exaggerate the movement. I let them plug into my groove.

"Before you know it, they're starting to groove. Then I try to take away the mimic and let them find their own style."

He's a gifted teacher, his students say.

"I mean, I didn't even get the French turn," said Miss Illinois USA, 21-year-old Jill Gulseth. "A lot of times you don't know which foot to put in front of the other, and then where to put the foot after that."

On Sunday, she eventually nailed the sequence, she said.

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