Martha Nichols' The Wider Sun burst onto the stage of the Beverly O'Neill Theater last August in Long Beach, California, with a sense of urgency and impact. Many in the house had been wowed a year earlier when Nichols won the Capezio A.C.E. Awards competition, but The Wider Sun was her first public showing of original choreography. Would she be able to parlay a great five-minute dance into a successful full-evening show? When the audience leaped to their feet at the end, their response was as much out of happy surprise at Nichols' sure-handed choreographic debut as it was at her quicksilver movement and the palpable elation of the performers. Nichols had captured a joyful celebration of life and relationships in a uniquely satisfying evening of dance.

For those who know her, the success of The Wider Sun was not really a surprise at all. Nichols' unconventional path from North Carolina comp kid to confident choreographer is characterized by strong intention and insane work ethic. She was an early contestant on "So You Think You Can Dance," was an assistant choreographer for Madonna and maintained a nonstop schedule of side gigs in the commercial dance scene and convention circuit. She has quietly developed a choreographic focus entirely her own, along with a reputation for doing things her own way. "So many people use her name as a verb," says Liana Blackburn, a dancer and choreographer who first worked with Nichols on the Cirque du Soleil 2010 show Believe in Las Vegas. "Her name describes so many things without having to say more." To "Martha," it seems, is to break the mold of how to succeed in the dance world—without sacrificing who you are. Here are five times she did what she knew was best for her and her career, no matter what other people thought.

#1: When she insisted on auditioning for "So You Think You Can Dance" in NYC

Photo by Jim Lafferty

"I was teaching for Christy [Curtis] after school," she says, "but I wasn't dancing for myself, yet." With Curtis as her chaperone, she insisted on auditioning in New York, not in South Carolina, which was the closest audition to her home. "I thought, 'If I do this, I want to be chosen because they really want me—not because I'm the best out of the worst,'" she says.

She breezed through the audition and the Las Vegas–based preliminary, earning a coveted spot in the top 20 dancers. Travis Wall was her frequent partner on the show, and she finished in the top 10.

#2: When she turned down Cirque du Soleil

Photo by Jim Lafferty

The summer after wrapping the "SYTYCD" tour, Nichols received a phone call from Cirque du Soleil: The choreographer for its next show had specifically requested her as a dancer. But because they wouldn't reveal who the choreographer was, Nichols turned the offer down. She knew how physically grueling Cirque shows could be. "I wasn't signing up for something blind," she says. "If I'm going into new territory, I need way more information. I'm 19—I'm not trying to be done dancing when I'm 21." Ultimately, she learned it was Wade Robson, with whom she'd worked on "SYTYCD." She officially signed on and spent the next two years performing Believe in Las Vegas.

#3: When she set herself the goal of saving $15k before moving to LA

Photo by Jim Lafferty

During the last year of her Cirque show in Vegas, Nichols decided she would move to Los Angeles at the show's end. She set herself the goal of arriving with $15,000 in her pocket. "I wanted at least six months to live comfortably in L.A., even if I wasn't making one cent," she says. To do this, she flew to a different studio nearly every weekend to teach and choreograph. "My bag would be packed in my car, and I'd take the 12:40 am flight on American Airlines—I became friends with the people who worked at the airport," she says. She'd teach on Sunday and Monday and be back in Vegas by Tuesday morning. By the close of Believe, she'd reached her financial goal.

#4: When she left Madonna's tour

Photo by Jim Lafferty

Madonna's Rebel Heart tour was a demanding experience: The tour cast would rehearse 12 hours a day, six days a week, and as assistant choreographer, Nichols was tasked with cleaning numbers, taking notes, running music and even coming up with choreography. When a dancer broke her wrist, Nichols ended up going on for her for six weeks, executing a particularly tricky bit of choreography. "There was a moment in Madonna's song 'Holy Water,' where Madonna would climb to the top of a pole and stand on my stomach to sing the song," says Nichols. "She didn't trust the other girls to do it."

Shortly after getting the chance to perform at Madison Square Garden—a bucket-list dream for Nichols—she left the tour. "They all looked at me like I was crazy," she says. But Nichols knew it was time to challenge herself again—this time, by moving to New York. "By that time, I was comfortable in L.A.," she says, "and I learn better when I have to fend for myself and figure stuff out."

#5: When she turned down a famous Broadway show

Photo by Jim Lafferty

No matter what's happened, she hasn't lost her trademark I-know-what's-best-for-Martha spunk. "I've been offered Hamilton for two years," she says. "I don't want to do Hamilton. People say, 'You'd be so good!' Just because you can doesn't mean you should. I wouldn't be happy doing Hamilton—I'm not ready to do an eight-show week again."

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