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Matt Dorame

There are 20 finalists competing on the Fox hit "So You Think You Can Dance," and Utah has a one-in-five chance of having yet another winner.

Four finalists have strong ties to the state. One's a native; one was raised here; and two made Utah their adopted home.

Chelsie Hightower, Thayne Jasperson, Gev Manoukian and Matt Dorame will perform on "Dance" tonight (7 p.m., Ch. 13); two of the 20 finalists will be eliminated on Thursday (8 p.m., Ch. 13).

Jasperson, 27, was born in Provo, moved to Wyoming and then returned to Utah County, where he graduated from Springville High and got an associate degree at Utah Valley State College. And he's a bit of a late-bloomer in the world of dance.

"I clogged when I was in Wyoming for maybe about a year or so, and I got made fun of by all the boys all the time, so I quit," he said.

He returned to dance at the age of 21 because he joined a singing group, of all things.

"They made me take dance class because they said I was really not good at it," he said with a laugh.

And when he saw the Odyssey Dance Theatre perform, "I was, like — whoa! I want to do that."

So, he started taking ballet, modern, jazz, lyrical, tap and hip-hop — all at the same time.

"Obviously, I didn't become amazing in a year, but I did grow a lot," he said. "And I got onto Odyssey after a year and a half of training."

Timpanogos High grad Hightower, 18, was born in Nevada but grew up in Orem and Pleasant Grove. A ballroom dancer since she was 9, she's been harboring dreams of making it on "So You Think You Can Dance."

"Ever since the first season, I wanted to do it," said Hightower, who was a U.S. Worlds finalist at the 2005 Ballroom Dance Championships. "It's been great so far. It's been amazing; getting to work with these trainers is really priceless."

Arizonan Dorame, 22, who has danced with Odyssey for the past two years, wasn't even sure he wanted to be on "So You Think You Can Dance."

"My mom has been trying to talk me into doing the show ever since season one," he said. "I've always been in school or a company or had some kind of commitment, so I've never been able to do it. It never was something I really wanted to do, just because I've always done company work and I was, like, 'I really don't want to go back into competing."'

Even though there were auditions in Salt Lake City in February (attended by all four finalists with Utah ties), he wasn't planning to audition.

"Our director had heard about it and gave us all the day off just to go down and do the auditions," Dorame said. "I liked the show and it was fun to watch, but it wasn't really for me. And then it kind of all just fell into our laps ... And I thought, 'Oh, maybe this is for me.' And before I knew it, we were here in California shooting. And it probably is one of the best things I've experienced so far."

Manoukian, 21, took perhaps the most unusual path to the "So You Think You Can Dance" finals — from Kazakhstan through Wyoming on his way to Utah. (His father lives in Jackson, Wyo.; Manoukian came to Utah to attend the University of Utah and lives with his aunt in Centerville.)

Although he dabbled in break dancing in his native country, he never planned to be a dancer.

"I was just kind of thrown into it," Manoukian said. "I came to the U.S. and I didn't really think I was going to be dancing because I wanted to play basketball and do other kinds of stuff. And I didn't play basketball because I had to work and my schedule didn't fit, so I just went to the studio and started dancing there.... And after that, I was, like — OK, that's what I want to do professionally."

The three guys were friends before they auditioned. They all appear in the forthcoming MTV musical "The American Mall." Jasperson was a featured dancer in the first two "High School Musical" movies and Manoukian was a featured dancer in "HSM2."

And they've gotten to know Hightower as well.

"We've all gotten really close," she said.

For a show that was looking for dancers from across the country to end up with four with Utah ties seems more than a bit coincidental.

"There is a lot of talent that comes out of Utah," Hightower said. "I think it's just the talent."

"I think Utah has a lot of talent, and it's just never been really looked at that way," Manoukian said. "I know the University of Utah has one of the best dance programs in the U.S."

Coming from neighboring Arizona, Dorame said Utah had a reputation for having strong competition teams.

"They would always do really well and take titles," he said. "And when I moved to Utah to do Odyssey, I saw that there's a lot more than just the competition studios. You have Ririe-Woodbury and you have Odyssey and you have all the ballroom ... and you have Center Stage and the Vibe. It's so much more artsy and so much more a classic type of dance than you get anywhere else.

"It's really cool that if you're not really someone who wants to move to New York or move to California, Utah is becoming an option to go to for a dance career."

Jasperson echoed those sentiments.

"It's just very trained in the arts," he said. "I don't know why it is. I don't know if it's just that there are so many driven people, so many people who are just into the arts.

"I don't know what it is that makes it that way, but I'm glad that I get to be a part of it."

Of course, it didn't hurt that — after Utah produced last year's winner (Sabra Johnson) and two finalists the year before — the "So You Think You Can Dance" producers brought the auditions to Utah this season.

"They should for sure keep bringing them because there's way more talent yet to come," Jasperson said.


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