After 13 seasons, "So You Think You Can Dance" viewers probably thought they'd seen it all. From "Ramalama (Bang Bang)" to Bollywood, Travis Wall to tWitch, it seemed like there couldn't possibly be any room left on Mary Murphy's Hot Tamale Train.
Then came 19-year-old Lex Ishimoto. When Lex showed up at the show's Season 14 NYC auditions with an improv solo in lieu of a choreographed routine, the judges were shocked—and then brought to their feet by his show-stopping creativity. From there, the jaw-dropping moments kept coming. In week one of the live shows, Lex busted out a super-crisp tap (!) routine. In his Episode 12 solo, he pulled off a triple (!) tour en l'air. And in Episode 14, he and fellow finalist Taylor Sieve revealed that they'd been dating on the down-low (!!!).
To dance insiders, Lex's name isn't new: It first popped up in playbills when he joined the national tour of the musical Billy Elliot at age 11. Last year, he was featured in Sia's "The Greatest" music video, and he's toured with Travis Wall's critically acclaimed contemporary company Shaping Sound. But now, Lex is officially a household name as America's Favorite Dancer—and has a first-class ticket on that Hot Tamale Train.
"I Wasn't Born to Be a Dancer"
Like most of the 15 "SYTYCD" winners before him, Lex kicked off his dance career at a young age. "Between watching my sister perform and seeing You Got Served, I got hooked on dance," says Lex, who grew up in Irvine, CA, and began training at age 7 at West Coast School of the Arts in nearby Costa Mesa. "I wanted to do what the other kids were doing, but I wasn't born to be a dancer. I was pigeon-toed, and I wasn't flexible one bit. It took five or six years of hard work for me to be able to move like a normal dancer. I call those the dark ages for me, but it was worth it." Eventually, Lex began attending competitions and conventions, including JUMP, The PULSE on Tour, and Youth America Grand Prix. He trained in jazz, tap, ballet, and hip hop, and dabbled in Broadway during the Billy Elliot tour, where he was one of four boys performing the lead role. "That was a pivotal moment in my life," Lex says of the Billy tour. "I could definitely see myself doing Broadway again. I'm officially retired as Billy, though."
Photo by Toreno
Lex won Teen Best Dancer at The Dance Awards in 2014 and Senior Male Best Dancer in 2016. He moved to Boston and danced with Boston Ballet II for two years before getting hired as an assistant and choreographer with Break the Floor Productions, the parent company of JUMP, NUVO, 24 Seven, and The Dance Awards. Shortly afterward, he booked Sia's "The Greatest" video, and was tapped to go on tour with Shaping Sound.
At that point, most dancers would be ready to take a big ol' nap. But Lex was ready to try his hand at live television.
"This Was My Time to Show the World What I Do"
Lex is an OG "SYTYCD" fan. "I started watching the show when it first came out," he says. "I remember being a kid and seeing Nick [Lazzarini] on Season 1, and ever since then, being on the show was one of my dreams." He knew Season 14 was his shot. "I felt like this was my time to go out and show the world what I do," he says.
And that's exactly what Lex did, from the minute he set foot on the NYC audition stage. "We were all shocked and thrilled by Lex's audition," says judge Nigel Lythgoe. "We saw some excellent contemporary dancers this season, and I knew there would be a real battle in achieving a place in our Top 10, but I was certain Lex was going to be there."
Photo by Toreno
At The Academy, Lex was drafted onto Season 12 winner and resident tapper Gaby Diaz's All-Star team, a surprise to viewers who expected Gaby to nab a fellow tapper. But her choice was strategic. "Once I heard the All-Stars would be performing in different styles every week, I knew I wanted a dancer who had trained in everything," says Gaby, who had also performed with Lex as a fellow member of Shaping Sound. "Lex was the most well-rounded dancer out there."
"I Didn't Want to Show a Fake Side of Myself"
Despite his impressive work at The Academy, Lex faced significant criticism once the live shows began. While his technique and performance quality earned praise ("I knew from the first live show that he was a contender," judge Mary Murphy says), the judges worried that he wasn't connecting with the audience. And on a show where your fate is determined by audience votes, that connection is key. But Lex wasn't discouraged by the feedback. "I didn't want to show a fake side of myself," he says. "I may not have the brightest personality, but I know a lot of people are like me, and I thought maybe those people would connect with me." He thought right: Lex soared through all seven of the live shows without ever landing in the bottom three.
Lex and Gaby Diaz in Anthony Morigerato's tap routine "More" (photo by Adam Rose)
Though he made it all look easy, Lex faced a few challenges along the way, especially when it came to the physical demands of the weekly show. "I think because Lex is so great, his routines were always really difficult, and that started to take a toll on him," Gaby says. Old injuries—rotator cuff issues in both shoulders, a problematic right ankle, a bad back—started to flare up. "There was a point where I wasn't sure if it was safe to continue pushing him," Gaby says.
But Lex never faltered in his full-outness. He also says he never got nervous for the live shows, even during those final weeks when the contestants were performing up to five or six routines apiece. "The stage is my second home," he says. "I thrive on the nerves and pressure. I've grown up with it, so it's a natural feeling for me."
"He's Going to Change the Game"
Photo by Toreno
Right now, the Season 14 Top 10 are wrapping up their 39-city national tour. After that, Lex isn't sure what's next. Desmond Richardson has invited him to train with his company, Complexions Contemporary Ballet, and Lex says one of his dream jobs would be to tour with Justin Timberlake. But wherever Lex ends up, Lythgoe knows one thing for sure: "He's going to change the game and go down as a legend."
A version of this story appeared in the December 2017 issue of Dance Spirit with the title "The Lex Effect."