SALT LAKE CITY — NBC's "World of Dance" already had a Utah connection with one of its judges, Derek Hough, a professional dancer who grew up in Sandy. Now, in season two, multiple teenagers from Utah are competing on the show for the $1 million prize.
All the Utah competitors originate from the same studio in Orem: Center Stage. Jaxon Willard, 17, from American Fork, is a contemporary soloist. Charity Anderson and Andres Penate, both 18, from Springville, make up the contemporary duo known as Charity and Andres. Finally, the Pulse is an Orem-based Latin ballroom group made up of eight dancers from ages 15 to 17.
Over the years, many Utahns have made it far on TV dance competitions such as "So You Think You Can Dance" and "Dancing With the Stars," including Hough himself. Penate said this has given him and Anderson a lot of people to look up to.
"We're always trying to get as much information and technique and skills we can learn from all these great choreographers and teachers," he said.
Anika Baker, 16, from the Pulse said she thinks the culture of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints contributes to the amount of successful dancers from Utah.
"We are more involved in the arts and in families, and we believe in developing talents," she said. "I feel like if I grew up in a different state I wouldn't have had the same opportunities to be a dancer and dance at an amazing studio."
Willard admits he has no idea why so many famous dancers have come out of Utah, calling it "kind of random." But he's enjoyed the opportunity to be inspired by these local performers.
"It's so cool to be able to learn from their experiences and listen to their stories," he said. "These people have influenced all of us here in Utah who are dancers. That they can come out of this small state and do big things is incredible."
Willard's moving contemporary solo performance wowed the "World of Dance" audience in the first episode, which aired May 29. He earned a high score of 94, well above the required 80 to move on to the next round of the competition. People in the crowd shouted out that he made them cry and that he would win the show.
He also shared his life story before his televised performance: Willard is an African-American who was adopted by a white family in Utah. He never noticed his different skin color until junior high, when other children started to make comments and jokes about it and call him racial slurs.
Willard admitted in an interview that he had never shared his story before and to do it for the first time for such a large audience was scary for him. He worried about causing problems and making too big of a deal out of it. But, since the show aired, he said he's gotten messages from others saying how his story inspired them.
Mainly, Willard said, he hopes his example will help people learn to express themselves in whatever way feels right to them.
"Vulnerability is strength," he said. "You should never doubt that. Because some people say being a man, you shouldn't cry, you shouldn't feel emotions. To me, I feel like a human is someone who does use their emotions and expresses (them) in the way that they need to."
Willard was on the show last season as a part of a group that was .03 points short of making it through to the next round. As a soloist, he's enjoyed being able to show who he is as an individual to the world.
"It is scarier but I also like it better," Willard said about being a soloist. "I just feel I have so much to share and things I want to express. And so, yes, it's super scary to be so vulnerable and to be so open with who you are, but it's also a really amazing experience."
Growing up as a minority in Utah, Willard said he felt like people were always watching him and he learned to get comfortable with that, and thus more confident as a dancer.
Being on "World of Dance" has also made him more confident overall — in himself, in his choreography and in his skin color, he said.
Charity Anderson and Andres Penate
Anderson and Penate's contemporary audition on "World of Dance" aired June 5. The pair made it through the qualifying round with the very high score of 95.3.
Penate said they went into the audition with no expectations.
"We were honestly just hoping for 80," he said, referring to the minimum score required for moving past the qualifying round, "so when we saw that we were in the 90s, that was crazy enough. Then when we got Ne-Yo's 97 — that just blew us away. A great feeling just washed over us."
Ne-Yo, a singer and dancer, is a celebrity judge along with Hough and actor-singer-dancer Jennifer Lopez.
Anderson said it was a lot of pressure to compete in front of the judges.
"They're so inspiring and having them watching you and judging you, it pushes you so much more," she said.
She had a lot of friends and people she's competed with in the past who were on "World of Dance" last year, Anderson said, and that motivated her to get on the show herself. Penate had been her ballroom dance partner from the time she was 8 until she was 12, so she called him up and asked him to audition for "World of Dance" with her.
The duo both recently graduated from high school, and now they're kickstarting their dance career together.
"I've just always thought that if you're going to be doing something for the rest of your life, why not do something that you love?" Penate said. "Getting to go to work and do something that's fun to you — it sounds like a dream."
Anderson added that dance is something she's never been without, and it's therapeutic for her.
"Every time I dance I get to explore new worlds that I can't talk about," she said. "I love sharing stories with people and having other people feel what I'm feeling. I love to relate with people and I feel like I can do that best through dance."
The Pulse's audition has yet to appear on television but will air at the end of July.
All of the eight dancers in the Pulse have been dancing at the studio Center Stage for a number of years, sometimes in teams together, sometimes not. Baker said the Pulse formed a few months prior to auditioning.
Half the members of the Pulse were on the first season of "World of Dance," competing in a larger group called the 801 Squad. Just like Willard's group last year, this team failed to make it through the qualifying round by .03 points.
The 801 Squad was not only a bigger group of around 15 people, it also included younger children, and they performed a mashup of different styles. This year, older, more mature couples have made up the Pulse and they are trying to be more competitive by just doing ballroom, Baker said.
Auditioning for "World of Dance" was a little easier the second time around since they already knew what to expect, Baker said.Comment on this story
"We were a little less nervous," she said. "It was still really nerve-wracking, but because we'd already experienced it, we were over that first-time euphoria and we were able to be more confident in ourselves."
Baker said her favorite part of the experience was building relationships with other dancers on the show.
"It didn't feel like a competition. It just felt like family," she said. "We were all cheering each other on and I thought that was really cool to be a part of."
"World of Dance" airs on Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on NBC.