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Hannahlei Cabanilla's Time on "SYTYCD" Changed Her Life

Photo by Adam Rose, courtesy of FOX

Deep in the throes of "So You Think You Can Dance" Season 16, the euphoria of summertime and live shows is causing us to reflect on seasons past. While much has undergone change since the show's inception—movement trends, choreographers, dancers, judges and fashion—the positive impact it has on the trajectory of the winner's future remains as significant as ever. "This show has changed my life—it's changed me as a person," says Hannahlei Cabanilla, winner of Season 15.

Cabanilla now splits her time between Los Angeles and Orange County, doing industry work, teaching at various studios and traveling. Some of her most coveted gigs since winning include Rent: Live, the "SYTYCD" Season 15 tour and the 2019 American Country Music Awards. Her advice to the next winner? "Believe in yourself, because you were meant to be exactly who you are."

Biggest surprise about "SYTYCD" "I didn't realize how hard it would be. I've been watching the show since I was 6, and they don't show the audience how many hours of rehearsal the dancers have each day (nine), or how stressful it all truly is. You only see little clips of rehearsal, and then the happy moments onstage. There are blisters, and bruises and fatigue. It's a lot of pressure and stress. We were constantly thinking about the show. Even after rehearsals we would go back to our apartments and practice more. It's live, and you only get one take to make all these styles that you've never done before look perfect and professional. The stakes are getting eliminated. You're playing mind tricks with yourself thinking you might go home because of anything you did or didn't do. It's a lot."

Most powerful moment "I did a piece with Marko Germar called Welcome Home. The choreographer was Robert Roldan, and it was the first piece he ever created for the show. The rehearsal process for it had a lasting impact on me. Up until that point I had stayed strong and hadn't had any mental breakdowns, but during this rehearsal process I became very emotional because of the nature of the piece. I kept getting notes to be more personable, and to make my dancing more human-like. We did an exercise to get in character where I read the lyrics to the song out loud to Marko while I danced. I connected to the song so well that I broke down crying during the dance. I tore down walls and was able to be a better dancer because of it."

Lasting impact "'So You Think' has opened up a world of opportunities for me. I got to work closely with so many choreographers on the show who have hired me to work with them since. It has helped me build a recognizable name for myself in the dance world. Beyond that I have created special lifetime bonds with the other top-10 dancers from the show. We fight like family, but we love each other so much. This opportunity helped me grow. I wouldn't change a thing about it. It built me into the dancer and person I was meant to be."

Teaching Tips
A 2019 Dancewave training. Photo by Effy Grey, courtesy Dancewave

By now, most dance educators hopefully understand that they have a responsibility to address racism in the studio. But knowing that you need to be actively cultivating racial equity isn't the same thing as knowing how to do so.

Of course, there's no easy answer, and no perfect approach. As social justice advocate David King emphasized at a recent interactive webinar, "Cultivating Racial Equity in the Classroom," this work is never-ending. The event, hosted by Dancewave (which just launched a new racial-equity curriculum) was a good starting point, though, and offered some helpful takeaways for dance educators committed to racial justice.

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According to, out of the 30 top-ranked college dance programs in the U.S., tap dance is offered at 19 of them, but only one school requires majors to take more than a beginner course—Oklahoma City University. Many prestigious dance programs, like the ones at NYU Tisch School of the Arts and SUNY Purchase, don't offer a single course in tap dance.

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After months of lockdowns and virtual learning, many studios across the country are opening their doors and returning to in-person classes. Teachers and students alike have likely been chomping at the bit in anticipation of the return of dance-class normalcy that doesn't require a reliable internet connection or converting your living room into a dance space.

But along with the back-to-school excitement, dancers might be feeling rusty from being away from the studio for so long. A loss of flexibility, strength and stamina is to be expected, not to mention emotional fatigue from all of the uncertainty and reacclimating to social activities.

So as much as everyone wants to get back to normal—teachers and studio owners included—erring on the side of caution with your dancers' training will be the most beneficial approach in the long run.

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