Photography by Joe Toreno
It was one of the most emotional moments in one of “So You Think You Can Dance” Season 9’s most emotional routines: Chehon Wespi-Tschopp, 23, leapt across the stage, his face a picture of anguish, to rest his head on a suitcase that represented all the possessions he had left in the world. By the time the dance was over and the judges were wiping away tears, there was no doubt: Ballet dancer Chehon had proven that his passion and performance were every bit as strong as his classical technique.
Still, no one was more surprised than Chehon himself when Cat Deeley announced he was the season’s male winner. “I knew I would be the runner-up, and I was OK with that! I was ready to hug Cyrus [Spencer] and congratulate him,” Chehon says. “When Cat said my name, I was shocked. I didn’t know I had that much support from the viewers.”
It wasn’t an easy road to “SYTYCD” success, but Chehon earned his title as America’s Favorite Guy. Here’s how he made the most of his time in the Top 20—and found a place in America’s hearts. Overcoming a Late Start
Born in Chicago and raised in Australia and Switzerland, Chehon didn’t take his first ballet class until he was 13. “I saw my first ballet performance—Swan Lake,” he says. “Afterward, I tried to do the choreography in my living room. I hit my head and had to go to the hospital—so my parents decided to find me a proper dance school.”
He started at a ballet school in Zurich, and a year later asked his parents about going abroad to study more seriously. After auditioning and being accepted to Germany’s Hamburg Ballet School, the John Cranko School at Stuttgart Ballet and The Royal Ballet School in London, he chose RBS.
“When I got to London, it was a shock,” Chehon says. “I’d never seen so many guys in ballet. I showed up thinking I’d be the next Mikhail Baryshnikov, and it burst my bubble. I had a lot of catching up to do.” But he did catch up, going on to win the 2009 Senior Grand Prix at the American Dance Competition. He was ready to go pro.
Finding a Professional Path
In September 2009, Chehon joined Los Angeles Ballet, where he stayed for two seasons. With LAB, Chehon performed Giselle, The Nutcracker, George Balanchine pieces and works by “SYTYCD” notables Sonya Tayeh and Mandy Moore. “Chehon really matured during his time with us,” says Colleen Neary, co-director of LAB. “When we hired him, he had very good technique, but he didn’t have much performing experience. In those two years, he grew into an artist.”
Working with Tayeh and Moore exposed Chehon to a side of dance he’d never seen. “They opened my eyes,” he says. “From then on, I knew I wanted to move into the commercial world.” He started by taking himself further from his classical comfort zone by joining the national tour of Twyla Tharp’s Come Fly Away. He was on that tour when he took the leap and auditioned for “SYTYCD.”
A “SYTYCD” Journey
Unlike fellow winner Eliana Girard, Chehon wasn’t an early favorite. He struggled in Vegas Week, never having studied anything besides ballet, and in the live shows he had trouble emoting. “Leaving home at a young age meant I had to let go of a lot of friends. I find it hard to open up,” he says. “And I treated the first episodes as a ballet audition, without thinking to bring personality.”
He landed in the bottom three early on, but the judges were quick to save him. “We had so much faith in Chehon,” says judge Mary Murphy. “We wanted everyone to see what we saw.”
After his brush with elimination, Chehon was shaken. “Chehon’s extraordinary, but when we were working on ‘I Will Always Love You,’ his confidence was low,” says choreographer Stacey Tookey. “I’d give him a step and he’d do what I wanted and more—and then he’d ask, ‘Was that okay?’ ” The piece was a triumph for Chehon and partner Witney Carson, but it took a few more weeks for Chehon to truly open up onstage. The week his mom traveled from Switzerland to see the show, he danced a steamy Argentine tango with All-Star Anya Garnis and an emotional solo. The next week, he moved the judges to tears in Tyce Diorio’s suitcase routine. “We’d just seen him make an enormous jump forward,” Murphy says. “Just like that, Chehon stepped into stardom.”
In the Top 4, Chehon’s vulnerable performance in Tookey’s “Leave” with All-Star Allison Holker brought the house down. “On top of the tricks, we finally saw Chehon the artist,” Tookey says.
For Chehon, being on the show “turned everything upside-down,” he says. “I entered the show feeling like I had so much growing to do—but I definitely didn’t expect to win!”
Full name: Chehon Biko Fidelio Wespi-Tschopp
Favorite movies: Star Wars, Avatar, Watchmen—“any epic science fiction”
On his iPod: Ólafur Arnalds, Max Richter, District 78
Non-dance hobbies: “I like going snowboarding whenever I’m home in Switzerland. I love to choreograph and can spend hours listening to new music. I also like to cook!”
Dance idols: Mikhail Baryshnikov, Carlos Acosta
Advice for Dance Spirit readers: “Dance with honesty and find ways to push through negativity. There will always be someone who can do something better than you can, so you have to find a way to make it yours. Also, ‘SYTYCD’ taught me that it’s not always about being perfect. Ultimately, the audience doesn’t connect to perfection—they connect to the passion and love in your movement. Watch everything and everyone—
there’s something to learn from even the most inexperienced dancer.”
Harper Watters is a ballet dancer for today's generation. A social media maestro and a charismatic performer, the Houston Ballet soloist is equally at home in front of the camera hosting his hit YouTube series, "The Pre Show"; interacting with fans on his crazy-popular Instagram account; or showing off his beautiful classical technique onstage. It's a multifaceted identity that's proven to be invaluable to his career—and it's taking him to places he never even dreamed of.
Getting corrections from our dance instructors is how we grow, and as students, it's important that we do our best to apply every correction right away. But sometimes—whether it's because we're in physical pain, or have a lot on our minds, or are just not paying attention—those corrections don't sink in. And from a teacher's standpoint, giving the same corrections time and time again gets old very fast. Here are 10 important corrections dance teachers are tired of giving. Take them to heart!
Summer intensive auditions can be nerve-racking. A panel of directors is watching your every move, and you're not even sure if you can be seen among the hundreds of other dancers in the room. We asked five summer intensive directors for their input on how dancers can make a positive impression—and even be remembered next year.
When we think of a dancer who's broken barriers, American Ballet Theatre principal Misty Copeland tends to be the name that comes to mind. And though Copeland has been a crucial advocate for equality in the world of ballet, Raven Wilkinson—a mentor of Copeland's—is considered one of the original pioneers of the movement.
In 1955, Wilkinson became the first African American to dance with the renowned Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Her fortitude in the face of bigotry and hate cemented her legacy. Now, with the release of the new children's book Trailblazer: The Story of Ballerina Raven Wilkinson, a new generation of dancers will be inspired by her tale of overcoming obstacles to achieve a dream.
The book details Wilkinson's life, from her experience as a young dancer training in Harlem, to her run-ins with the Ku Klux Klan while on tour with Ballet Russe, to her later ballet career in Europe. "There were times where my heart really hurt because of the situations I had to deal with," she says. "But I always had faith that I was made to be a dancer and that I was gonna dance."
Dance Spirit spoke with Wilkinson to discuss the new book and get her take on racial equality within the ballet world.
Postmodern pioneer Trisha Brown redefined how dance is seen and felt. A founding member of Judson Dance Theater, Brown frequently collaborated with other experimental artists like Yvonne Rainer, Merce Cunningham, Twyla Tharp, and Steve Paxton.
She embraced pedestrian movement, pairing everyday gesture with rhythm and fluidity. "It's liquid," says Wendy Perron, who danced with Brown in the '60s and '70s. "Like a river with many tributaries, water coming out of a faucet, or being on a raft and seeing the water move away in different directions." Brown also pushed beyond stages with choreography in fields, museums—even on the sides of buildings.
There's a common misconception that a dancer's body has to be thin. But the truth is that talent knows no body type, and the number on the scale never determines an artist's capabilities. Here are some extraordinary dancers fighting the stereotype of what a dancer "should" look like.
We always love a good halftime performance. And we LIVE for halftime performances involving talented kids. (Fingers and toes crossed that Justin Timberlake follows Missy Elliott's lead and invites some fabulous littles to share his Super Bowl stage.)
So obviously, our hearts completely melted for 5-year-old Tavaris Jones. Tavaris may have just started kindergarten, but during Monday night's game between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors, the Detroit native danced with the panache of a veteran pro at halftime.