Erin Baiano

Kalani Hilliker Dishes Details About "Dance Moms"—and Where Dance Might Take Her Next

Kalani Hilliker made "Dance Moms" fans sit up a little straighter when she first appeared on "Abby's Ultimate Dance Competition" back in 2013. The then–12-year-old ballerina had charisma, she had sass—and, wow, did she have technique! Abby Lee Miller, the show's infamous host, saw Kalani's star potential from the start, saving her from elimination and ultimately inviting her to perform alongside Maddie Ziegler on Season 4 of "Dance Moms." "I was never supposed to be on 'Dance Moms' beyond that one performance," says Kalani, now 16, but she ended up staying on the show for the whole season—and the following three. "It was my first time, but not my last time, causing drama. And it was also the first time I got to meet the other dancers, who have become like sisters."

Erin Bainao

A lot has changed since Kalani joined the cast of "Dance Moms": Many longtime team members have moved on, the show has relocated from Pittsburgh to L.A., and Miller has left amidst legal troubles. But Kalani remains a refreshing constant on the show, practically unfazed by the utter chaos around her. She's stood out as a leader onstage and in the studio, performing near-flawless routines weekly and serving as a mentor to dancers on the show and in its audience. "Dance Moms" may be on its way out, but this extraordinary performer has staying power.

Journey to the Spotlight

With her endless extensions and crazy-archy feet, it's hard to imagine Kalani as anything except a dancer. But there was a time when she considered taking her talents to the soccer field instead of the stage, switching back and forth daily between soccer practice and dance rehearsal. When the 9-year-old was caught doing grand jetés on the field instead of keeping her eye on the ball, her mom knew it was time to commit to dance.

The pint-sized phenom trained at Club Dance Studio in Mesa, AZ, and quickly signed with an agent in L.A. She got her first taste of TV at age 10, when she and three friends won a chance to appear on Disney's "Shake It Up." From there, Kalani started commuting to L.A. regularly for appearances on "Bunheads" on ABC Family (now Freeform).

Erin Bainao

Once "Bunheads" wrapped, Kalani was excited to return to normal life, competing with her home studio. So when she was invited to join the cast of "AUDC," she hesitated. "I didn't want to take two months out of my training," she says. "But they called so many times to ask that I ended up doing it. And that led to the rest of my life."

A Life on TV

Over the next few years, Kalani grew up in the public eye, experiencing major life events—from hearing about the birth of her baby brother to getting her first car—in front of cameras. These days, her schedule is nonstop: She's constantly running to rehearsals, filmings, competitions, and photo shoots, plus meetings for her three fashion lines and auditions for new projects. And since she's a junior in high school, she still has to fit in at least three hours of schoolwork from home per day.

Erin Bainao

"There's a lot of pressure that comes with being in front of cameras, which gets stressful," Kalani says. "I have to watch every little thing I do, but I also have to remember that I can't make everybody happy. Part of being on reality TV means having no regrets." Since "Dance Moms" only shows a small portion of Kalani's life ("Usually when we're upset or crying," Kalani says), she opts to show off her personality on her own terms on her YouTube page, where she posts makeup tutorials, cooking demonstrations, or meet-and-greets with her adorable brothers Jax and Jett.

At the end of the day, she loves her life in the spotlight, especially when she gets to be a role model to her fans. "One of the most amazing things to hear is 'I started dancing because of you,'" says Kalani, who's swarmed by admirers whenever she arrives at a competition. "Most of my competition friends knew me before all this, and while they may complain about having to take photos for me with fans, they know I haven't really changed. I'm still Kalani."

Staying Focused

One thing that certainly hasn't changed with fame is Kalani's competitive edge—and she makes a point of attending competitions, both with and without the "Dance Moms" crew, as often as possible. Her proudest achievements have been at The Dance Awards, where she's placed in the top three for the last six years. In 2013, she won Junior Female Best Dancer; in 2016, she took home 3rd in the Teen Female Best Dancer category.

With her hectic schedule, keeping up her technique isn't easy. "I don't have time for regular classes, so I've needed a lot of self-discipline," she says. "I'll give myself a barre when I can, and I'm constantly reminding myself to straighten my legs and point my feet. I'm so happy I did a lot of ballet when I was younger, because it comes in handy now."

Erin Bainao

Looking Forward

Now that "Dance Moms" Season 7 filming has come to a close, with no promise of a contract for Season 8, Kalani's thinking hard about what she wants to do next—and it'll probably involve more TV time. "I want to do more acting, and my dream is to be on 'Dancing with the Stars,' " says Kalani, who's ecstatic that "DWTS"
veteran Cheryl Burke has joined "Dance Moms" as Miller's replacement.

Burke, too, sees big things for Kalani. "It's nice to see a dancer who is such a hard worker, but also knows how to have fun with the process," Burke says. "She has great technique and so much passion. Out of all the girls, she's the one I could really see being a professional dancer."

For now, Kalani is keeping her options open. "All I know is I want to keep dancing," she says. "When I was little, I never thought I'd be on TV or move to L.A., but now I'm living my dream—and I'm not even an adult! I can't wait to see where dance takes me next."

Want to hear more from the "Dance Moms" sensation? Click here!

A version of this story appeared in the September 2017 issue of Dance Spirit with the title "I'm Still Kalani."

Latest Posts

Courtesy Hollywood Vibe

These Dance Comps and Conventions Are Coming to a Living Room Near You

While dancers all over the world are sharing the heartache of canceled classes, shows, and projects, our hearts hurt especially hard for a group of dancers we at Dance Spirit couldn't admire more: comp and convention kids. Determined to challenge your artistry and learn from cutting-edge faculty, you dancers normally brave crowded ballrooms and nonstop schedules all year long. But just because you might not be in one of those crowded ballrooms for a while doesn't mean that part of your dance life has to grind to a halt.

Keep Reading SHOW LESS
Taylor Goldberg, Jordan Goldberg, and JT Church attending REVEL's virtual convention (courtesy Leslie Church)

What It's Like to Attend a Virtual Dance Convention

During this new era of social distancing, the dance world has gotten pretty creative. Tons of teachers, studios, competitions, and conventions have stepped up to the plate to help fill our living rooms with virtual dance content. But what's it really like to attend a dance convention online?

Dance Spirit followed JT Church, "Dancing With The Stars: Juniors" pro and "So You Think You Can Dance: The Next Generation" runner-up, as he spent the weekend attending REVEL's "Rev-Virtual" online convention experience.

Hey guys! I have been a special guest faculty assistant for REVEL Dance Convention for the last four years. So I was excited to find out they'd be hosting a series of online convention weekends. With everything that's going on, I've been missing conventions so much. I knew it'd be great to be able to keep up my training.

Two of my best friends, Jordan and Taylor Goldberg—I dance with them at Club Dance—asked me to come over to their home studio so we could take REVEL's online classes together. Here's how it all went.

Keep Reading SHOW LESS
Getty Images

It’s OK to Grieve: Coping with the Emotional Toll of Canceled Dance Events

Grace Campbell was supposed to be onstage this week. Selected for the Kansas City Ballet School's invitation-only Kansas City Youth Ballet, her performance was meant to be the highlight of her senior year. "I was going to be Queen of the Dryads in Don Quixote, and also dance in a couple of contemporary pieces, so I was really excited," she says. A week later, the group was supposed to perform at the Youth America Grand Prix finals in NYC. In May, Grace was scheduled to take the stage again KC Ballet School's "senior solos" show and spring performance.

Now, all those opportunities are gone.

The COVID-19 pandemic has consumed the dance community. The performance opportunities students have worked all year for have been devoured with it. Those canceled shows might have been your only chance to dance for an audience all year. Or they might have been the dance equivalent to a cap and gown—a time to be acknowledged after years of work.

You can't replace what is lost, and with that comes understandable grief. Here's how to process your feelings of loss, and ultimately use them to help yourself move forward as a dancer.

Keep Reading SHOW LESS
Enter the Cover Model Search