By Nika Madyoon
She gasped for air, a nervous smile making its way across her face. She waited for what seemed a lifetime to see what the controllers of her fate would decide. To Jill Wilson ’12, this was, at first, just another competition. But 10.2 million viewers and singer Paula Abdul made it more than just that.
The three gold stars appeared at once; euphoria replaced anxiety as Wilson and her dance partner, 18-year-old Jacob Jonas, who graduated last year from Beverly Hills High School, saw their dream become a reality.
“To know that they appreciated our story and that they appreciated my style blending with his style was a really big moment,” Wilson said.
Wilson and Jonas were one of 18 acts that advanced to the semifinals of “Live to Dance,” a new reality show and dance competition that first aired Jan. 4.
Six of 18 semifinalists danced each episode and two of those six advanced. Each episode, judges Paula Abdul, former Pussycat Doll Kimberly Wyatt and Travis Payne — renowned choreographer to the late Michael Jackson — chose an act to move on to the next round. The next week, America’s vote was announced and the next set of acts performed. After three weeks, six finalists remained.
Wilson has trained at MNR Dance Factory since the age of 2. At 7 years old, she joined the competing team. Last year was her last competitive season. Wilson said that growing up, she tried a variety of sports at The John Thomas Dye School, but dance stuck with her through it all.
“It’s my passion and my everything. I don’t do other sports—I just dance and I love it,” she said.
Wilson has danced in many competitions and has been awarded prizes for being first overall and fourth for “Top Solo,” among others. She first started working with partner Jonas, however, about one year ago.
Jonas first attended MNR two years ago as a junior on a scholarship, and initially planned to do a duet with another female dancer. Her absence during a competition and Wilson’s agreement to take her place catalyzed their partnership. Fifteen at the time, Wilson was unaccustomed to working with male dancers, but over the next year Wilson and Jonas won several cash prizes, trophies and medals as a duet.
Jonas submitted samples of his dancing to “Live to Dance,” and was told to return with a female partner and a more contemporary style. Another dancer did not want to enter with Jonas, so he invited Wilson to compete with him.
Wilson was at first undecided. Having dreamed of participating in “So You Think You Can Dance,” which has a minimum age limit of 18 years, she was unsure of how her performance on this show might affect her chances.
“I decided to just try it and that it would be a good experience,” she said.
Wilson and Jonas went through two rounds of auditions to make it to the televised audition, where they made it to the semi finals. Starting in September, the pair spent two months choreographing their piece at MNR.
“Dancing on television is a different world than dancing live because people love props and lights and music and drama, whereas for a live performance, usually the simplest pieces are the ones that are most meaningful and the ones that resonate a message,” she said.
After learning that their music was “cleared” for use on national television, Wilson and Jonas only had just over one week to prepare for the live semi finals which aired Jan. 26.
Wilson and Jonas worked directly with Abdul, who spent time with each act before the semifinal performances. Working with Abdul was helpful when trying to locate little problems, though Wilson and Jonas were reluctant to change their original choreography, as they wished to keep the dance true to their intentions.
“It was funny because Jacob and I are so different in our own styles, let alone from Paula’s style,” Wilson said. “She has a really good eye for things. Her eye to say, ‘This doesn’t look right,’ or ‘It needs to be more at this angle,’ things like that are what she’s really good at.”
After working with Abdul and giving what they thought was a technically flawless performance, Wilson and Jonas were surprised at the judges’ disappointment. They wanted to exhibit versatility for the judges, and show that they could do something different by avoiding repeating the love-story, contemporary feel of their first piece. They made sure the dance had hip hop elements and showcased Jonas’ style.
“Performance-wise, Jacob choreographed [the dance] to be a very intricate, deep, meaningful story. That’s what we do — we tell stories through our dances. We don’t just do trick after trick, we really try to send a message,” she said.
This piece concerned the idea of leaving one’s comfort zone. Wilson began at a school desk, trapped “in this environment where people are forcing me to do stuff and not appreciating what I’m doing.” Wilson then is drawn into a separate world with Jonas, where she shows her “true art and passion.” Wilson said the dance was representative of the relationship she has with Jonas.
The two were eliminated after failing to win America’s votes in the semi finals. They received red stars from Payne and Hyatt, and one gold star from Abdul. The duo believes the judges focused too much on comparing the “story” of this piece with that of the last.
“We nailed every single lift,” she said. “We wish the judges talked about the strength, but they focused on the story.”
Though they did not win the competition, Wilson and Jonas are satisfied with their achievement. She explained the importance of exposure for dancers, and is glad to have been “put in a positive light” by the show.
Wilson missed three weeks of school, including all of her midterms, except for English. She said her teachers were “as understanding as they could be.” Wilson was expected to make up her exams upon her return to school.
“A lot of the teachers were really supportive and knew that it was a big adventure,” she said. “But as teachers, they have jobs too.”
Wilson, who signed with an agency just before the show premiered, plans to take open dance classes at studios such as The Edge, Millennium Dance Complex and Debbie Reynolds Studio. She sees professional dance as part of her future.
Throughout her tenure on Live To Dance, Wilson was cheered on by members of the school community. Friends made posters as they watched from a live audience, while others dedicated Facebook statuses to urge others to watch her perform. Many created fan pages to support Wilson in her endeavors. She also frequently gets e-mails and friend requests on Facebook from her fans.