You half expected to see the paramedics all over again. When Jessi Peralta was cut from So You Think You Can Dance, it was so fast, so unexpected, that even one of the judges who sat in on the decision was left reeling. "I thought: She's going to have a heart attack," says judge Mary Murphy backstage just after the show. "That cut was so fast and sharp. I was really taken aback."
Head judge and executive producer Nigel Lythgoe had just finished scolding Lauren Gottleib for her less-than-spectacular "dance for your life" performance when he called Peralta forward and said simply that she would not be staying in the competition. No one saw that coming after Peralta staged a brave comeback from a heart scare (with dehydration causing an abnormal EKG) on Monday that sent her to the hospital and prevented her performing that day (the Wednesday night performance show is taped on Monday) with her partner, Pasha Kovalev.
But four days later — on this results night — the audience was treated to the cha cha they missed as Jessi and Pasha were reunited on stage. Cleared by her doctors, Peralta not only didn't look sick, but set the stage on fire. As the audience rooted her on, she then performed solo, a competent contemporary "dance for your life" mandated by having missed her regular performance. Twenty minutes later, she was given the boot. "If that doesn't get you, nothing will," says Murphy.
The judges' vote was not unanimous, and it was clear that Murphy wasn't comfortable with the emotional roller-coaster Peralta had to be riding: In the hospital on Monday. Back on stage Thursday. Out the door Thursday night. "It was really hard for me because I get emotionally involved," says Murphy. "And you start to feel like a little parent to this Top 20 that come here. You don't want to let go of any of them."
As for Peralta, 25, it had to be a crushing blow. The Rockledge, Florida native has been dreaming of becoming a professional dancer her entire life. To pay the bills, she's been working a 9-to-5 job as an event coordinator for an upscale L.A. bowling alley. But last summer, she started planning to try out for the Fox show. She hadn't even seen a full episode because "my roommate and I don't have television because we can't afford cable," she says. But she had heard that the show asked dancers to compete in different styles and thought that sounded perfect for the wide range of classes she's been taking since she was a child. "I thought maybe I could do that," she says. "Maybe that's where all these random things that I've trained in can come together."
They did come together in some beautiful performances. But what's really striking — and what the audience doesn't know — is that the heart scare wasn't her first serious physical setback in this competition. Peralta was injured last November and went into the audition process without two good legs. "I had badly torn my left hamstring," she says. "So when I went to the L.A. auditions, all these other dancers were in top shape. And I was gimpy. So I pulled a fast one. I pulled out that baby oil (featured during her audition dance) and rubbed it on my stomach. I did it because I was injured and I needed something to throw them off. I didn't want them to see that I was doing everything in that solo on the right side, which, if you're a dancer, you would notice. I kicked my right leg. I spun on my right leg. I did everything on my right leg. To this day, I don't think they know."
The cruel irony is that next week — for the first time in the show's three-season history — the dancers will be getting a week off. "It's ridiculous how hard this show is on the dancers," says Lythgoe. But the time off isn't happening because the producers are concerned about running these dancers into the ground. Says Lythgoe, "It was Fox's thinking that we wouldn't get any viewers on the Fourth of July."
If only Peralta could've just held out for one more week, she would've had the chance to rehydrate and rest her leg. And the producers could have avoided a big scare. Lythgoe says it's been exhausting. "We just hope that when we get to the Top 10 — not with a week like this, I've got to say — we'll have the 10 best dancers."
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