updated 05/26/2011 AT 10:00 AM ET
•originally published 05/26/2011 AT 2:00 PM ET
Memorial Day may mark the beginning of summer, but another indication that the sunny season is upon us is the premiere of So You Think You Can Dance.
FOX’s reality dance competition kicks off its eighth season Thursday with auditions in the San Francisco area and Atlanta – the city host Cat Deeley was most impressed with this year.
“And I didn’t expect to be,” Deeley told PEOPLE in Los Angeles, the last stop in the show’s audition tour. “You always know you’re going to get great people in New York and Los Angeles and then the cities in between you are searching for those diamonds in the rough.”
Deeley estimates they gave out over twenty tickets to Vegas after the first day of auditions in Atlanta. “I thought it would be a lot of street dancers,” she said, “but it was lots of contemporary.”
And sending those contestants to Vegas was decided partially by Mary Murphy, the renowned choreographer who will be returning to the SYTYCD judges’ panel after beating the thyroid cancer that kept her away during season 7.
“I’m very glad that the ‘hot tamale train’ is rolling back in to town,” Deeley said of Murphy, who is known for the unique catch phrase and her squeals of delight. “Her enthusiasm is completely infectious.”
Nigel Lythgoe and guest judges Tyce Diorio, Adam Shankman, and more will join Murphy in the cities featured on the season premiere as well as New York, Salt Lake City, and Los Angeles next week.
Season 8 will feature 20 new finalists – ten boys, ten girls – chosen to perform on live shows beginning June 15.
Once the top ten is chosen by America, the remaining contestants will once again be partnered with returning all-stars as they were last season, a twist co-executive producer Jeff Thacker was eager to repeat.
“The blend worked so well [last season] because the all-stars wanted the contestants do to good and the contestants wanted to please the all-stars,” Thacker explained. “It was literally a freight train. The dynamics were just incredible.”
Freight trains, tamale trains – it is going to be a crowded station when So You Think You Can Dance premieres Thursday (8 p.m. ET) on FOX.