Photography by Joe Toreno
“I went blank!” That was 21-year-old Eliana Girard’s reaction when Cat Deeley announced her as the “So You Think You Can Dance” Season 9 female winner. “People were clapping, I was crying and I honestly didn’t know what was going on,” Eliana says. “I’d dreamed of winning, but I never thought it would actually happen.”
That’s right: The girl who got nothing but praise from the judges all season never thought of herself as a shoo-in for the title. For Eliana, the journey to the finale was a reward in itself. “Every week, I got excited all over again,” she says. “I told myself, ‘This only happens once. Stay in the moment. Remember everything.’ ”
As a viewer, it was easy to see that enthusiasm and gratitude—both in Eliana’s complete commitment in the studio and onstage, and in her radiant smile after each performance. “Eliana is a ray of sunshine,” says choreographer Stacey Tookey, who created the stunning “Bang Bang” contemporary duet with All-Star Alex Wong that Eliana picked as her favorite routine of the season. “In addition to having this gorgeous ability and a great personality, she spent the show going, ‘Okay, what else can I learn?’ ”
Superb classical technique, natural artistry, the ability to adapt to any style, a genuine desire to grow and a positive attitude? Sounds like a recipe for a long and fulfilling career.
A Solid Foundation
A native of West Palm Beach, FL, Eliana started dancing when she was 3. She began at Jon Mullen Performing Arts Center, and then followed her best friend to Susan Lyle Studios, where she studied jazz, modern and acrobatics in addition to ballet. As a teen, Eliana attended summer programs at American Ballet Theatre and the Joffrey Ballet School in NYC. In 2007, the Joffrey Ballet School offered her a spot in its year-round program on full scholarship.
“Going from living at home to being on my own in NYC was a huge challenge,” Eliana says, “but I was ready to get out there.” After a year at the Joffrey Ballet School, Eliana realized classical ballet wasn’t her final destination. “I wanted to dance professionally, but in ballet, my body type was scrutinized,” she says. She wanted to branch out and learn other styles, which is how she ended up on scholarship at The Ailey School in 2008.
The Ailey faculty saw the seeds of what would captivate America on “SYTYCD.” “Eliana came to us with a wonderful facility,” says Tracy Inman, co-director of The Ailey School. “I was impressed with her ability not only to pick up choreography and perform it well, but also to understand that artistry is as important as technique.”
One day in 2009, Eliana showed up for class at Ailey and saw Cirque du Soleil was holding an audition in the building. “I went in and said, ‘I don’t have a headshot or a resumé, but I’d love to audition,’ ” she says. The gamble paid off: Eliana was chosen for the original cast of Viva ELVIS in Las Vegas. When the school year was done, she went to Montreal to start rehearsals.
Performing with Cirque was a life-changing experience. In addition to mastering the aerial skills she showcased on “SYTYCD,” Eliana “learned to make the same choreography fresh every time, because we did the same show 10 times a week,” she says. “You have to make your work interesting for the audience, but also for yourself.”
Eliana danced in Viva ELVIS until February 2012. At that point, she was ready to see what other opportunities the dance world had to offer. “I heard ‘SYTYCD’ was having auditions in L.A. I’ve been a fan of the show since day one and I’d always wanted to audition,” she says. “So I thought, Why not?”
A Winning Performance
It was obvious from Eliana’s first audition that she was special. Executive producer Nigel Lythgoe’s comments while she was dancing—including “Love her” and “Wow, those legs”—led to a ticket right back to Vegas. Eliana sailed through to the Top 20. “The first live show was the most nerve-racking experience I’ve ever had,” Eliana says. “You’re onstage and you can see the whole audience, and then you see the cameras and realize this is going to be on TV. But I went into the show with no expectations other than to have the time of my life.”
In the Top 20, Eliana was partnered with animator Cyrus Spencer—a unique challenge, given his lack of formal dance training. But Eliana made the partnership into a learning experience for herself. “Cyrus helped me see how dancers from different backgrounds learn choreography,” she says. “I developed a new way of explaining dance so he could understand it.”
Not even an early dip into the bottom three—which judge Mary Murphy says made her jaw drop—could slow Eliana’s momentum toward the finale. She won over viewers with her passion and humility. The way she effortlessly combined classical pointe work with contemporary movement and acrobatics didn’t hurt, either. “Eliana never took a wrong step,” Murphy says. “She was a great partner, and she had her perfect moment in ‘Bang Bang.’ She entered a new league. She’s exquisite.”
What’s next for Eliana, now that the confetti from her win has settled? “I want to do concert dance,” she says. Among her dream companies: Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago and Nederlands Dans Theater. “I also want to sing, act and do Broadway and film,” she says. With her combination of talent, drive and optimism, the sky truly is her limit.
Favorite color: Mint green
Favorite foods: Sushi and ice cream
Favorite book: The Shack by William P. Young
Favorite TV show: “Community”
Non-dance hobby: Raising birds
If she weren’t a dancer, Eliana would be: A pilot or a child psychologist
Dance idols: Alessandra Ferri, Sylvie Guillem
Advice for Dance Spirit readers: “Never take no for an answer! The amount of work you put into your craft is the amount of growth and success that will happen. And remember to be patient. Everything happens at the right time!”
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.
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.
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.
The coolest place she's ever performed:
I'd have to say the Super Bowl. The field was so cool, and Katy Perry was right there. And there were so many eyes—definitely the most eyes I've ever performed for!
Something she's constantly working on:
My feet. I'm flat-footed, so I'm always hearing, 'Point your toes!' And I'm like, 'I am!'
My hair! That, and a pair of leggings with a T-shirt or tank top.