As Step Up is stepping over from movies to television, it’s ready to right some wrongs within the franchise. And showcase more incredible dancing. Obviously.
When all 10 episodes of Step Up: High Water debut on YouTube Red on Wednesday, fans will be introduced to siblings Janelle (Lauryn Alisa McClain) and Tal (Petrice Jones), new main characters who are decidedly different from the movies’ pairings.
“We never had any people of color as leads, so we definitely wanted to lean in on that,” Adam Shankman, executive producer of both the films and the series, tells EW. “In the movies, there was never any gay, bi, trans, lesbian — no LGBTQ characters in any of the movies. I was laughing, like, how did I make five movies about dancers and that never became a piece of it?”
Further, the stories will move away from dancers saving the world (who needs The Avengers when there’s Moose?!) and back to dance saving the individual.
Here, Shankman (who’s producing the series along with his sister, Jennifer Gibgot, as well as Channing Tatum, Jenna Dewan Tatum, and showrunner Holly Sorensen) talks about some of High Water‘s biggest differences — and benefits — from the rest of the franchise, as well as some of its elements he’s most excited about.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Can you talk about the choice to continue the franchise with a series instead of movies? Or does one not negate the other?
ADAM SHANKMAN: In terms of Step Up movies, the thought was a complete reboot if that were to happen. And when the opportunity for the series came up, which Susanne Daniels, who’s now running YouTube Red, got this particular job, Step Up was one of the titles she came after very hard because she’d been loving it for a very long time. She had talked to me about doing it for years in different incarnations at different networks, and it had just never sort of come to pass. When she got to YouTube, one of the most watched things on YouTube is dancing, and so it seemed like a natural fit. So that was a pretty fast sell.
The first thing that we talked about was starting from scratch, doing a totally clean slate and going back to the original concept of the original movie, which was to be more of a drama with dancing in it, as opposed to a lot of dancing with a story to wrap around the dance numbers. We went back to character and all that and a less flashy, more independent way of thinking about the show.
Even though it is a fresh thing, are we going to see any previous Step Up-ers? You’ve got the Tatums as executive producers — are they going to pop in at all?
I can’t talk about that. At this point, we have used other Step Up choreographers and … there are dancers who’ve crossed over but no main characters.
Is there any plan to do that?
Everybody kind of leans in and leans out, leans in and then leans out. Holly Sorensen, our new creative runner, I think would welcome the idea of having some of the old cast pass through in some capacity, but we’re really focusing on developing these new characters.
Were you inspired at all by Dance Academy and the success of that Australian series (which is available on YouTube)?
I’ve never even seen it. We were not inspired by that. But it was very important to me that we go back to an institution at the center of it, whether it be a dance company or a college or a high school. I know that Holly was inspired by, I believe that Kanye West has a school of the arts — or a collective, as it were.
In addition to it going back to being more character-driven with more acting and having an academy, were there any other elements you felt the show needed to have?
I wanted to have more diversity: We never had any people of color as leads, so we definitely wanted to lean in on that…. It was very, very important to me that sexual identity be discussed in this, because in the movies there was never any gay, bi, trans, lesbian — no LGBTQ characters in any of the movies. I was laughing, like, how did I make five movies about dancers and that never became a piece of it? Talk about the most obvious thing in the world! It never even occurred to us, I think because the studio kept wanting us to use the same characters over and over again. So by not being able to really bring in new characters, we weren’t able to really diversify.
This definitely feels more true to the dance world than most of the movies.
Oh yeah! I mean, when I was shooting that audition scene for the school, I looked at it and I was like, “This is what it looks like. This is for real.” And I also wanted that sense that dancers really cheer each other on, not just battle. The other thing that was important was, I said, “We’ve got to get away from this idea that dancing might be able to save the world. We can lean into dancing can save each other’s lives — because that’s true.” But this idea we had sort of started with the movies where the dancers were almost like superheroes? I was like, “Let’s get our feet back on the ground, so to speak.”
Tell me about getting Ne-Yo and Naya Rivera on board.
Ne-Yo was one of the first people that we talked about, and when his name came up, we knew that he was working with Jenna on World of Dance and so she told him that we would be contacting him and that we would love to have him…. He is an absolute blessing and godsend for the show. He is the sweetest man. He turned out to be an extraordinary— I mean, as the series goes on, you’re going to see his acting range just go crazy. He has huge, huge episodes and a very complicated character.
And then Naya is an old buddy of mine from when I shot Glee. We wanted somebody who felt like she was always going to be keeping [Ne-Yo’s character] in check. She’s a very strong lady, and it seemed like a great pairing. I called her and we talked through it and I said, “So are you ready to back to art school?” And she was amused.
Are you going to be releasing a soundtrack for this?
Yes, we are.
What’s something Step Up fans should look forward to in the second half of the season?
One of the most beautiful scenes you’ve ever seen in your entire life from a dancing perspective is the kid who plays King (Eric Graise) — [he] does a dance that’s beyond belief. It’s one of my favorite things I’ve ever been able to put on the air. It’s episode 8 or 9.
Is there already talk about a season 2?
There is discussion, but they want to see if people look at season 1. But I know that they’re happy with season 1.
Anything else you want to add?
I’m really proud of the show…. This, to me, is starting to become one of my favorite [Step Up] incarnations because we are really getting into the lives of some really interesting young characters and exploring areas that the movies never got to explore. And the dancing is, to me, so like a breath of fresh air inside the shows and never feels cheesebag or over-the-top. It all feels authentic to me.
Step Up: High Water season 1 will be available on YouTube Red at 12 p.m. ET on Wednesday, Jan. 31.