For a national ballroom champion and seasoned competitor, trying out for “So You Think You Can Dance” could have been just another audition. Yet at the Utah semifinals, Chelsie Hightower was terrified to take the stage for her shot at TV’s hottest dance competition. “I was so nervous—I’d competed on a world level, yet I was more scared than I’ve ever been in my life,” shares Chelsie. “After all, if you’re rejected, it’s on national television, not just in front of family and friends. I remember my heart beating out of its chest and my palms sweating, but I shut off all my emotions and told myself, ‘Just dance.’”
Her simple motto must have worked, as Chelsie not only landed a ticket to Vegas but also a plum berth in the show’s top 20 contestants. Of course, no one but Chelsie was surprised that she made the final cut—not only are her ballroom moves muy caliente, but she’s also extremely well-rounded and versed in all styles of dance. With equal parts sass and sensuality, Chelsie is known for her fast footwork, crisp technique and seemingly effortless partnering panache. DS was lucky enough to snag this sizzling star-in-the-making while out on the “SYTYCD” tour for an in-depth interview—find out what 19-year-old Chelsie had to say about life as a ballroom belle!
Dance or Die
Born the youngest (and only!) girl in a family of six kids, it’s not surprising Chelsie grew up a self-proclaimed tomboy. “We were constantly outside playing sports,” remembers Chelsie. “I was always wearing jerseys and trying to play soccer with the boys at recess!” So it was almost by accident that she made the switch from soccer cleats to stilettos, as Chelsie initially joined an after-school ballroom dance program just for fun. Says Chelsie, “I started out doing it socially to meet more people and loosen up a bit, but I ended up having a natural talent for it.”
Chelsie’s newfound affection for dance led her to enroll at a local studio, where she took jazz, hip hop and ballet for several years alongside her ballroom work. All the training didn’t go unnoticed—at 14, Chelsie was approached to audition as a potential partner for up-and-coming ballroom star Bradley Gregory. (By that point, Chelsie was part of a ballroom dance youth program at Utah’s Brigham Young University. She’d also scored a national ballroom title at BYU at just 11 years old!)
To get the gig, Chelsie had to impress notorious ballroom coach Shirley Ballas, which was no easy feat. “Shirley is one of the top coaches in the world and is known as an intimidating lady,” shares Chelsie. “I’ll never forget it: I came in, she looked me up and down, and it was the longest three hours of my life! I was scared to death.”
It turned out Chelsie had no reason to worry—she landed the partnership and was soon whisked feet-first into the world of competitive ballroom dance. Bradley’s uncle sponsored the pair, granting them access to top-notch coaches such as Karina Smirnoff (now on “Dancing with the Stars”). “We had world-class professionals flown in to train us personally one-on-one for an hour and a half every day,” says Chelsie. “I still credit all my training to the family who sponsored me; they invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in us.”
The high point for Chelsie and Bradley came in 2004 when they were selected to compete on Team USA at Blackpool, the world’s most prestigious ballroom competition. Along with three other couples in the age 13–15 category, Chelsie and Bradley traveled to Britain for the big event. “It’s a huge thing to be on the national team,” says Chelsie. “Four couples from every country compete, and you’re up against all these amazing dancers.”
Yet behind all the glamour lay a grueling side that took some getting used to for Chelsie. Expectations were high on the young couple, and the competition was extremely intense. “Ballroom dance is a really serious atmosphere,” she shares. “I was surrounded by 10-year-olds with fake tans and more makeup than I’ve ever seen. I had gone into a world that was ‘dance or die’—everyone was there because they were in it to win it. I had to adopt that mentality just to survive out on the floor!”
However, Chelsie was more than up to the challenge—thanks to her resilient nature. Along with her talent for dance, it was also her life experiences that gave her the strength she needed to succeed. Because of her dad’s business, her family had moved no fewer than 10 times from the time she was born until she was 16 years old. (Chelsie was born in Las Vegas, but moved to Utah at age 6.) “I learned to accept change—and to love it,” says Chelsie, adding that growing up with five brothers also helped. “I also learned how to be tough and deal with life challenges a little bit better.”
After proving herself in the high-pressure ballroom world, Chelsie decided to take it up a notch by putting her versatility to the test on “So You Think You Can Dance.” As one of the top 20 contestants, Chelsie had to rely on her previous dance training and summon skills in genres ranging from hip hop to lyrical to Broadway. Yet Chelsie had one distinct asset over the others: her previous experience with partnering. “I definitely think I had an advantage because I know how to create chemistry and help lead my partner,” says Chelsie.
One of Chelsie’s most memorable pairings on the show was with Mark Kanemura, a quirky contemporary dancer from Hawaii. (The couple’s hip-hop piece to “Bleeding Love” choreographed by Tabitha and Napoleon D’umo was a fan favorite!) “Mark and I worked together so well,” says Chelsie fondly. “He is very chill, and I’m very demanding when it comes to my dancing—I know exactly what I want and how long I want to practice. He was great about that; I don’t think we ever fought once.” Chelsie also became very close with fellow contestant Courtney Galiano, her roommate during both the show and the subsequent tour.
Along with making lifelong friends, “SYTYCD” also afforded Chelsie the opportunity to work with top choreographers like Mia Michaels and Tyce Diorio. “I absolutely adored all the choreographers,” says Chelsie, adding that she found Mia’s routines the most difficult. “They all had so much knowledge and career advice to share, which was priceless.” Chelsie credits Tyce Diorio for giving the most valuable advice: “He told us how film lasts forever and how you should always give your all, even when your body is exhausted—because at the end of the day, it’s your performance that matters, and you only have one time to get it right.”
The admiration was mutual—Chelsie consistently got glowing feedback from the judges, who praised her “incredible star quality” (Mandy Moore) and “absolutely tremendous” talent (Nigel Lythgoe). Fans flocked to support Chelsie, who was one of the only dancers not to land in the bottom three until she was voted off just before the finals.
After placing in the show’s Top 6, Chelsie continued her “SYTYCD” journey as one of the headliners on the show’s nationwide tour. Playing to sold-out arenas around the country, Chelsie and the other contestants got a chance to perform for and connect with fans—as well get a taste of the rock-star lifestyle. “The first time we walked out onstage, the crowd was so loud we couldn’t hear ourselves speak,” remembers Chelsie. “We all had goosebumps and tears welling in our eyes. To come and perform in front of thousands who adore you is an amazing feeling.”
Now that the tour has wrapped, Chelsie is looking toward the future—which is full of seemingly endless possibilities. Not only will she continue her ballroom work, but Chelsie also plans on staying open to whatever comes her way. “I want to do it all—I’ll do whatever it takes to stay on the stage and do what I love to do,” says Chelsie, who plans on moving to Los Angeles in January. “I’d love to be a world champion at Blackpool; it has been a goal of mine since I was little. I’d love to perform in a Cirque du Soleil show in Vegas. I’d love to go on tour with someone like Janet Jackson. I’d also love to be on ‘Dancing with the Stars’!”
Whichever direction Chelsie’s career takes, her blonde ambition is sure to be matched only by her intense love of dance. Says Chelsie, “It doesn’t matter where I am—in the dance studio or in front of thousands of people—the movement feels so good and allows me to release all my emotions. It’s so much fun and so rewarding. Just being able to dance is so amazing.”
Photo: Kristie Kahns