At first glance, Spencer Liff has had a career to which the term "meteoric" definitely seems to apply. He has already worked with such Broadway legends as Susan Stroman and Tommy Tune, won the Astaire Award in 2008 for his dancing in Broadway's Cry-Baby, has been seen on NBC's hit series Smash, and is currently nominated for an Emmy Award for his choreography for the hit FOX show So You Think You Can Dance, which concludes its current season on Tuesday, September 18.
But even though he's only 27, Liff is anything but an overnight sensation. "I've been in this business now for 20 years," Liff says. "I've paid my dues and learned and absorbed from so many people, and I'm not afraid to take a risk – even though I get scared as much as anyone else."
Liff's laser-like focus on all things dance started at age five. While on a trip to New York City with his father, Liff's dreams of the Great White Way were immediately born. "I decided to become a dancer specifically to be in Cats," says Liff, mentioning one of the shows he saw. "That's how my one-track mind worked. But I also noticed there were kids in The Will Rogers Follies, so I figured I could do that in the meantime."
A year later, Liff flew out with his mom from Arizona to New York City where he nailed his very first audition -- for the national tour of The Will Rogers Follies -- and soon after embarked on a two-year stint with the show (accompanied by his mother). During that time, Liff kept a sharp eye on director/choreographer Tommy Tune's every move. "Watching Tommy work sparked my desire to be a director and choreographer," says Liff. "I knew I was going to grow up and do that."
He finally got the chance when, after being cast in Cry-Baby, he took on the job of choreographer/director Rob Ashford's assistant. "Rob was the biggest part of my choreographic learning," says Liff. "I couldn't have been taken under anyone's wing any better. Every move for him matters. That's where I learned that the steps have to mean something."
Four years ago, Liff put together a demo tape for the producers of SYTYCD. "I was a big fan of the show and I wanted to put a mark on the Broadway category," says Liff. "I've always been fascinated with dance on film, and I love being able to use the camera as a separate character -- making sure that the eye sees exactly what I want it to see."
A few months later, Liff was asked to choreograph a number on the show, but not everything went according to plan. "I bombed," says Liff. "It was awful. It was a very scary experience and I was mortified. But I picked myself up afterwards and I talked to the producers and said, ‘I want to do the show again.'"
They said yes; the next week, Liff's number was a hit; and he's been a big part of the show – and a favorite of judges Mary Murphy and Nigel Lythgoe – ever since. "Being on SYTYCD changed everything for me," says Liff. "But I constantly think about what the Broadway community will think about it. On the show, I'm under a lot of pressure to do something that the producers will be happy with and what America wants to see, which is different from what normal Broadway choreography would be. We only have 90 seconds to cram in as much as we can and I want to tell a whole story."
Having accomplished so much, so fast, you might think that Liff would allow himself to sit back and relax, but there's no chance of that. For example, while balancing his work on SYTYCD, Liff spent a week in August doing choreography for the Broadway Dreams Foundation's Summer Intensive, which brings together aspiring performers and top professionals.
"I was honored to be there," says Liff. "There were young guy dancers there who said, ‘I'm sick of being made fun of -- and I'm owning that I'm a dancer.' It made me so happy to be a part of that."
Next up for Liff – in addition to possibly taking home the Emmy – is choreographing a new production of Oliver in November at the Human Race Theatre in Dayton, Ohio, followed by A Snow White Christmas, starring TV favorites Ariana Grande, Neil Patrick Harris, and Charlene Tilton, which will play Los Angeles' Pasadena Playhouse, December 12-23.
But, not surprisingly, this dynamic young man is thinking way ahead. "In 10 years, I want to have a style of my own so someone will be able to look at a stage show or dance number and say, ‘Without a doubt, that's a Spencer Liff show,'" he says. "I would love to have Tommy Tune's career. I love performing, and I still get so much joy from it: it feeds my soul. I think I will always live in the musical genre. I'm a song and dance man, and if I can continue on this path, then it's just a blessing."