Exclusive: Tiffany Maher on What It's Really Like to Dance on TV

January 25, 2018

These days, dancers are on television more than ever before. From live shows like “So You Think You Can Dance” and “Dancing with the Stars” to teen sitcoms like “Shake It Up,” flip through your TV lineup and you’ll see dancers in more than just music videos and award shows.

But what is it actually like to dance on TV? We caught up with Tiffany Maher from BET’s hit drama series “Hit the Floor” to find out. Dance is the focal point of “Hit the Floor,” which centers on the Devil Girls, dancers for the faux-NBA Los Angeles Devils. Maher (who’s also a “SYTYCD” alum) took some time out between rehearsals, fittings, and catching a flight to teach at Tremaine Dance Conventions to give us the behind-the-scenes scoop—and to explain what exactly “bacting” is. Because we definitely don’t know.

Dance on TVTiffany Maher (front) on “Hit the Floor” (photo by Ron Jaffe, courtesy Sarah Fahey)

Before the Shoot

What do all professional dancers have in common? They rehearse. Dancers on “Hit the Floor” log eight-hour rehearsal days before filming even starts. “The challenge is finding a day where all three actresses who dance with us can be in rehearsal together,” Maher explains. “They all have such different filming schedules. So normally the dance is prepped, taught to the dancers, and then taught to the actresses before we solidify everything. Sometimes the process takes one day. Sometimes it takes four.”

The Devil Girls always have a camera blocking rehearsal as well, which is a change from typical stage performance rehearsals. “For television, sometimes you have to cheat your angles or cheat a formation to get a shot,” Maher adds. “Our choreographer always goes over the steps slowly to tell us the different angles that look better on camera.”

The dancers’ days on set always start with hair and makeup. For the Devil Girls’ smoky-eye, red-lip, curled-hair look, the whole process takes about two hours. “Specialty numbers take even longer to get ready for,” Maher says. “In Season 2, we had a Bollywood number that took four hours. There’s one number you’ll see this season that took three to four hours for everyone to finish. But the hair and makeup was amazing!”

On Set

When the show airs, all the audience sees is a fierce two-minute number. In reality, one routine normally takes between three and four hours to shoot. First, as a warm up, the dancers run the number for the crew, so they can get an idea of how to film it before they hit record. But once the camera starts rolling, the dancers are expected to do their best work in every take.

“We always do five or six passes of the dance all the way through, and then we’ll break it up into sections,” Maher says. “We do that for various reasons. Sometimes it’s to get a part really tight; sometimes it’s to get a specific look between two characters for the storyline.” Devil Girls are always serving drama!

After filming the dance routine, frequently the Devil Girls stay for “bacting.”

OK, for real: What is bacting?

Since “Hit the Floor” is first and foremost a scandalous drama, the dancers aren’t always just dancing on set. They’re often “background acting,” aka bacting. “We always have so much fun with it,” Tiffany says. “And the producers give each Devil Girl a line every season, which is really sweet.”

Dance on TVMaher (front) on “Hit the Floor”—with some serious “bacting” going on behind her (Ron Jaffe, courtesy Sarah Fahey)

What It Takes to Dance on TV

The Devil Girls dance in styles including hip hop, jazz, Bollywood, contemporary, lyrical, heels, and jazz funk, and their hot routines are choreographed by Michael Rooney (whose resumé, by the way, is six pages long). “I wasn’t expecting how intense the dancing would be on the show. It’s no joke,” Maher laughs. “I have so much respect for the actresses who dance with us because it’s not easy. Especially by the tenth take!”

Clearly, if you want to be a Devil Girl, versatility is key. Maher remembers that part of the three-day audition included reading lines for the casting director. While this can admittedly be more nerve-wracking for a dancer than just, well, dancing, having some acting chops is definitely required for a show like “Hit The Floor.”

Dancing on Camera vs. Dancing Onstage

Maher admits that performing for the camera is very different from performing for a traditional audience. Dancing live is one shot; on a TV series, there are always multiple takes. In a live show, you can get your energy from the crowd; on camera, you have to pull it from within yourself. In a traditional performance, you might spend some time in the back row; in a filmed production, you’ll probably have to work it for a camera right in front of your face. It takes some getting used to.

That said, filming videos has become a prominent part of taking class these days, and Maher urges young dancers to take full advantage of any opportunity to perform on film. “It’s important to be comfortable getting up close and personal with the camera and looking directly into the lens,” she says.

Even after all of the preparation, there’s still a lot to keep in mind once filming begins. “It is important to be attentive, efficient, and follow all directions,” Maher says. “Be wise about your angles. Be aware of your formations. If you can’t see the camera, the camera can’t see you. Always ask the director if you’re looking into the lens or past the lens. If a camera looks like it might hit you or you might hit it, stop dancing! Do not hit the camera,” she laughs. “It is so expensive.”