As a young girl, Jeanine Mason didn't think she could dance, but she sure has come a long way. Persevering in her craft at her mother's urging, she was chosen by Season 5 viewers of "So You Think You Can Dance" as America's Favorite Dancer. "I felt when I was little I was never the greatest dancer," says Mason, "but I always had this passion."
Mason and the rest of Season 5's top 12 dancers bring their ardor to Nassau Coliseum on Wednesday. We spoke with the enthusiastic and very grounded 18-year-old about the show and her other passions.
The real prize
So what does a teenager do with $250,000 in prize money? Not what you might expect. While a sophomore, Mason and her sister started Making Memories for Alzheimer's Research, to raise funds for a cure, after their grandfather succumbed to the disease. "It began as just a club at our high school and we did bake sales and pie-throwing contests and dance performances. But now, thanks to the success of the show and it being mentioned in a couple of interviews . . . we're getting donations, which is amazing. . . . Now it's a foundation and it's called Making Memories for ALZ . . . so that's what most of the money is going towards. The rest will actually be used for college and for moving from Miami to California, where the dancer will major in Communications at UCLA.
Choreographer and number: "I loved Travis Wall and I loved the piece he created for Jason [Glover] and I. That was my favorite of the season. But I loved working with Nappytabs because they were funny and always brought this amazing story to each of our routines. And on top of that, they were so patient and helpful with me when I really fell out of my comfort zone."
Partner: "That's a tough one. I'm going to say Phillip [Chbeeb] because he was my partner in the beginning . . . the show started and we were right by each other's side the whole time just as this amazing thing started happening for us." Judge: "I love Adam Shankman. I loved Mary [Murphy] and Nigel [Lythgoe] but Adam's just so funny," adding that now that Shankman has been named the show's permanent third judge, "It's going to make the show just 500 times funnier. "
Not so favorite
Asked about her least favorite routine of Season 5, Mason said, "You know, a lot people will think it was actually Russian folk, but I was honestly the most afraid when we got Russian folk. It ended up being kind of like the gag for the season and a moment where people just really sympathized with us and just found us really funny. I was very appreciative afterwards. . . . But the waltz was slow and it was hard. That was probably my least favorite.
If waltzes didn't suit her, Mason says she thinks disco would have, and regrets she didn't get a shot at the genre on the show. "I would have loved to have done a disco . . . Everybody always says that it's so hard because it's so high energy, but, you know, I have a lot of energy. And I know it would have been a challenge for me, but it's so much more rewarding in the end when you know 'I just nailed it and that was a disco.' I definitely plan on taking classes in disco." Salsa was another missed opportunity. "I would have loved to have gotten salsa, because I'm Cuban and salsa's something that we always do at parties and stuff. So I would have loved to have actually learned a real routine. That would have been fun."
Mason knew Season 4 finalist Thayne Jasperson before she decided to try out. "Thayne was on the [SYTYCD] tour last year. And he loved it. I worked with him last year on convention circuit." When she asked him whether she should try out for the show, Mason says he told her, "Just do it. Just go and audition." She added that another Season 4 contestant, Commack native and fourth-place finisher Courtney Galiano, "is now a great friend of mine . . . she is such a sweetheart, I love her, love her." Mason says that Galiano is currently in Canada filming the sequel to the TV movie "Camp Rock," and that the two buddies hung out together when the SYTYCD tour was in Canada.
Tour vs. show
Mason says the tour is a lot more physical than the TV show was. "On the show, it's a mental game. You're trying to get a new style in a limited amount of time and do it in front of 20 million people and stay in the competition - you're fighting for your life. . . . Whereas on the [tour] it's just very physical. You're traveling, which isn't easy on the body . . . you sometimes will have three show days in a row and you stay up 'til 2 signing autographs outside and then you have an 11-hour drive to Canada, you know? It's a really weird schedule." But, she adds, the cast is "blown away" by how the audience in each city they visit is more enthusiastic than the city before. "It's just getting better and better . . . It is so worth it. I'm having such a great time."
On the road again
Traveling from city to city has other advantages. Mason gets a chance to go sightseeing. "We do, which is nice. Not every city. You know, honestly, it's become my second favorite part besides being onstage and being able to feel the love from the fans - it's amazing that feeling, I'll never get over it," she says. "But the other part is that we're literally traveling across the country. . . . Something I've always wanted to do is to see all of America. . . . When we get that day off, or that morning, we go and explore. We were in Philadelphia for literally a day - we had the show that night - so that morning Randi [Evans] and I woke up and we went and we saw the Liberty Bell. And I was so glad that I got to do that 'cause I don't know when the next time that I'm going to be in Philadelphia is. . . . When we were in Canada, we all woke up at like 7 in the morning and went and saw Niagara Falls. It's hard, 'cause you have to force yourself to wake up and you're so exhausted. But it's worth it 'cause you get to see something that you may not get the chance to see again.
Whether it's dancing or her other passion, acting - "I feel like I've always been an actress" - Mason's goal is to continue performing.
"My ultimate goal would probably be to be in a movie musical. I love the idea of incorporating dancing with acting and putting out onto film something that could be around and people would enjoy for years and years. . . . I know [a remake of] 'West Side Story' is coming to film and I would love to be a part of that project. 'West Side' is just a musical I admire so much." Her other musical faves? "Oh man, I loved 'Hair Spray,' I loved 'Chicago,' and I loved those old MGM films, 'Singin' in the Rain,' all of those. So I would love to just do one of them and go down with all of those incredible talented people that not only are actors, but are singers, but are dancers and are performers. I would love to be in their ranks." She admires character actors such as Hank Azaria, but says, "Meryl Streep is just the greatest actress of all time. So if I could ever just be in the background of a movie of hers, I'd be the happiest person ever."
What So You Think You Can Dance Tour 2009
When|Where Wednesday, 7:30 p.m.; Nassau Coliseum
Info 800-745-3000, ticketmaster.com