Any Jennifer Lopez audition is bound to be intimidating. But when it’s one of your first big auditions? And you’re one of the youngest dancers—as well as a ballroom dancer amongst hip-hop veterans? Then it can be downright terrifying!
Yet when Hefa Tuita found himself in just that situation late last year, he turned it into an opportunity to get noticed. During the freestyle section, a nervous yet determined Hefa bucked the hip-hop trend and decided to impress Lopez and her entourage with a smooth cha-cha. “A lot of people were doing tricks and flips, and I thought to myself, ‘What can I do that’s completely different?’ ” Hefa remembers. “I started doing some Latin [ballroom] stuff, and Jen and Marc [Anthony] were looking at me like, ‘Cool!’ I got a few smiles out of it.”
Hefa ended up getting more than a few smiles: He booked a recurring slot as one of Lopez’s backup dancers. In the last year, Hefa has joined Lopez on various jobs, including the 2009 American Music Awards, “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” and numerous European tour dates. And those are just the latest in a long string of hip-hop-heavy opportunities: In just two years, Hefa has danced alongside such household names as Rihanna and Janet Jackson. It’s been a complete 180 for the seasoned ballroom dancer, who today appears poised to become one of Hollywood’s premier commercial talents. “I’m new to the whole working and booking game, but I’m having a blast with it,” says 19-year-old Hefa. “Whatever positive direction life takes me in, I’m happy to pursue it.”
Swift Rise to Success
One look at this rising star and it’s easy to see why audiences and choreographers alike can’t take their eyes off him. Tall and lanky, with Pacific Islander roots, the Utah native rocks a one-of-a-kind look: long cornrow braids, funky street style and a demeanor that truly reflects his love for dance. And his dancing is just as unique: By turns playful and powerful, light-footed Hefa somehow manages to make even the most staccato moves fluidly connected.
So how did Hefa cultivate this distinctive style? At 7 years old, he started doing hip hop just for fun, but it was at age 14 that Hefa decided to get serious about dance. He transferred studios from Spanish Fork, UT-based Heart N Soul to Orem’s Center Stage Performing Arts Studio and began studying standard and Latin ballroom, contemporary, jazz and ballet under the direction of owner Kim DelGrosso. He also joined forces with DelGrosso’s daughter Averie, who became his ballroom partner. Hefa found himself thriving under Kim’s tutelage, and she took him under her wing. “She’s just awesome,” says Hefa of his teacher. “She became like a second mom to me.” It didn’t take long for Hefa to catch on to the ballroom basics, mastering the quick footwork with a lifted upper body, all while spinning, twirling and supporting his partner.
DelGrosso also presented Hefa with his first professional opportunity: an audition for High School Musical 2. As a close friend of choreographer Bonnie Story, DelGrosso got word about the open call and shared the news with her studio dancers. Hefa recalls the audition vividly: “I remember walking into the room and seeing Kenny Ortega and Chucky Klapow. I was starstruck!” His nerves didn’t hold him back, though, and he was cast in the film as a featured dancer. Hefa later booked a role in High School Musical 3 as well. (Look for Hefa as a kitchen worker in the “Work This Out” number of HSM2 and as a dancing student in HSM3’s graduation scene.)
Growing up in Utah, a dance hot spot, afforded Hefa numerous other opportunities to hone his craft. He appeared in a show with the prestigious Utah-based Odyssey Dance Theatre, as well as with Origins Dance Company and in the “Dancing Under the Stars” showcase with notable ballroom dancers like Chelsie Hightower and Louis Van Amstel.
DelGrosso is thrilled that Hefa has had so many chances to shine. “He is seriously God’s gift to the dance world,” she says. “Without a doubt, he is the most talented kid I’ve ever worked with; he is filled with so much music and movement. Hefa’s presence onstage is something you really can’t teach."
Hollywood Comes Calling
Behind every extraordinary dancer there are a few good mentors, and Hefa is no exception. Along with DelGrosso, Hefa also counts esteemed commercial choreographer Tony Testa as one of his most influential teachers. Hefa met Testa when he landed a gig as one of the principal dancers on Nickelodeon’s “Dance on Sunset” in 2008—a job Hefa says changed his life and outlook on dancing.
“Before that, I’d always thought of dancing as a fun hobby, and that job inspired me to take it more seriously,” says Hefa, who, at just 16 years old, moved to Burbank for four months in order to take the job. The experience was like dance boot camp for Hefa: He spent every day in rehearsals with Testa, who served as the show’s choreographer. “Tony totally changed my style; I used to dance really sloppily, and he cleaned me up completely,” Hefa says.
Looking back, Testa remembers being immediately impressed by Hefa. “We had an extremely large group that auditioned, maybe even in the ballpark of thousands,” says Testa. “When Hefa came in, I saw something really special about him. He has a natural gift for performance. Hefa was an immediate ‘yes’ from all the Nickelodeon execs. We were blown away by him.”
Testa worked on transforming Hefa’s heavily ballroom-based skill set into strong hip-hop chops. Hefa also had to learn how to think less like an attentive partner and more like a shining soloist. Says Testa, “Over the course of the show, I worked hard with him and got him to pay attention to his body—controlling his lines and getting into the style of what I was doing. He was like my little protégé. He’s phenomenal.”
Trials and Triumph
In the summer of 2009, Hefa had the opportunity to reunite with Testa as one of 20 scholarship recipients chosen to perform in Monsters of Hip-Hop’s annual L.A. showcase. Written and directed by Testa, the show also featured top choreographers like Tabitha and Napoleon D’umo, Rhapsody James and Chonique and Lisette. A lavish show with very little prep time, the job involved 15 straight days of work and more than 200 hours of rehearsal. But for Hefa, it was a welcome initiation into the rigors of professional dancing. “I was lucky enough to audition for the show and make it to L.A., which was crazy cool,” Hefa says. “At first, I was really shy because everyone was from big cities like Chicago and L.A., and I was like, ‘Dang, I’m just a little kid from Utah!’”
Needless to say, the show’s choreographers didn’t agree with Hefa’s humble assessment. The show was a pivotal professional moment for Hefa, as it led to a long affiliation with the D’umos. They’d recently signed on as Jennifer Lopez’s choreographers and invited Hefa to that fateful first audition where he wowed the singer with ballroom freestyle. After Hefa nailed the audition, the D’umos hired him for a series of jobs—kicking off with the 2009 American Music Awards performance of “Louboutins.” Hefa also found himself front and center during Lopez’s highly publicized New Year’s Eve 2010 appearance in NYC, a surreal moment for this former small-town boy. “There were so many people there, and I was flooded with all these emotions at once,” he remembers. “It was so fun to dance in the rain and snow in the center of Times Square. Afterward, we watched the ball drop. It was amazing.”
As Hefa continues to land high-profile gigs, his work has taken on more significance as a means of support for his family. In November 2008, Hefa’s dad died unexpectedly at age 39 of complications from a stroke. Just days before his father’s passing, Hefa and his two younger brothers were slated to dance in a local show—and ended up dedicating the performance to their father. Since his father’s death, Hefa has stepped up, helping his mom raise his siblings, 16-year-old Soa and 11-year-old Niua. (He also has two older half-siblings, 20-year-old Taylor and 22-year-old Tiana.) “I still live in Utah, and come out to L.A. on an as-needed basis,” he says. “I’m blessed to be able to stay home and still work. I’m home with my family as much as I can be.”
Despite his pain over his family’s loss, Hefa maintains an optimistic view of the future—he’s grateful to be doing what he loves. When asked about his goals, he simply leaves everything open to destiny. “I’m so excited to be dancing on a professional level,” he says. “Before it was all about having fun, so now, getting paid for it too, is like, ‘What?!’ It’s been a big move in my life and a great blessing—this is definitely something I plan on doing for a while.”
You may have spotted Hefa… as Rihanna’s opening act, in the films HSM2, HSM3 and Unaccompanied Minors, on the TV show “Dance on Sunset,” in Chris Brown’s “Transformers” music video and in various industrials and commercials.
Music Man: Hefa’s iPod is loaded with hip hop and R&B; his faves include Musiq Soulchild, Usher and Drake.
The Next Jonas Brothers? When he’s not grooving to music, Hefa’s usually playing it—with his two younger brothers! The trio started a group called the Tuita Boyz, and they recently released a single, “Never the Right Time.” (Hefa plays drums, guitar and piano—Renaissance man, much?)
Hangin’ with Miss Jackson: Hefa’s first big “Hollywood moment” came on the set of “Dance on Sunset” after a surprise visit from Janet Jackson! “We would always have guest artists come in and perform, but one time Tony really surprised us by bringing in Janet,” says Hefa of meeting his dance idol. “As soon as she walked in the room, we all went crazy. My jaw just dropped and I couldn’t even say anything. I was screaming on the inside!”