It takes a lot to be crowned “America's Favorite Dancer” on the popular Fox reality competition So You Think You Can Dance: phenomenal dance skills, drive, passion. For dancer Jim Nowakowski, there is no shortage of that. He was been praised for his talent on the show, but Nowakowski had one consistent hurdle: hip-hop dancing.
As a classically trained ballet dancer, Nowakowski was taken outside of his comfort zone with hip-hop choreography--not once, not twice, but three times. To make things even more challenging, during the third hip-hop dance, he was fighting the flu.
But you wouldn't know it from his positive attitude.
“I feel like the judges think I'm going to eventually get [hip-hop],” Nowakowski joked. “But you can't just tell someone, 'Okay, now you're a hip-hop dancer.' It takes training. Even though I'm doing the right [moves], it was going to always look kind of awkward on me. That was a challenge. I'm such a perfectionist where I know what it's supposed to look like and I don't want to let the choreographer down, so I get so upset with myself.”
Nowakowski's hip-hop obstacles is part of the SYTYCD challenge. Contestants are put through the ringer and must learn at least two group numbers, prepare a solo, and dance in a genre picked out of a hat with a different partner every week. It's a grueling process, but for Nowakowski, he takes it in stride. He beat out thousands of SYTYCD hopefuls during auditions and became an early favorite of the judges. He cracked the top 20, danced his way into the top 10, and was one of the final six dancers on the show until he was eliminated from the competition in the penultimate episode.
It was a long journey for Nowakowski to the SYTYCD stage. Born in South Korea, he was adopted at six-and-a-half months by Connie and Gary Nowakowski and raised in upstate New York before later moving to Houston, Texas.
“I don't speak or read [Korean] and my parents never told me that 'I needed to learn about the culture,'” Nowakowski said. “I think it would have been different if I was adopted at an older age. I would have more questions and I would be more connected with the [Korean culture].”
Now, at the age of 26, he says he's certainly aware of the culture, but being raised by white parents practically all of his life, he never had a formal introduction to it.
“When people ask, 'Wait, so you've never been to Korea? You don't speak the language?' I feel bad because I don't,” he said. “But I know that if I asked my parents, they would educate me more about it.”
Nowakowski's obsession with dance began at the age of three-and-a-half, but it was his love for Broadway and musicals that made him realize that dancing was his calling.
“I never was into cartoons or superheroes — I always wanted to watch musicals and dancing movies,” Nowakowski said. “Wizard of Oz and The Sound of Music were my favorites. I would just watch over and over and over. At the age of 10 I thought, 'This is what I want to do this with my life.'”
Nowakowski began taking dance classes in Broadway, jazz, and other disciplines, but when he was introduced to ballet, he fell in love with it. Eight years later, he joined the Houston City Ballet and has performed in The Nutcracker and Sleeping Beauty.
Now, he is a demi-soloist for the highly regarded ballet company, but SYTYCD was always on his mind. At 18 years old, it was his plan to “fulfill his love for classical ballet first” and then try out for the dance competition, but an injury prevented him from doing so.
Eight years later, he was able to finally pursue that dream. “The timing was right," he said. “I wanted to try something that I always wanted to do, but I was too scared to. If I go and experience it and get cut, that's fine. But at least I did that.”
Though Nowakowski was eliminated from the competition, he gained numerous fans and was considered one of the best technical dancers that the show has ever seen. But ultimately, Nowakowski isn't getting caught up in the Hollywood hype. Instead, he opts to stay grounded in reality and maintain a generous amount of humility.
“I'm not going to change,” Nowakowski said. “I think after the show is done, it's going to fade — which is kind of good, because I don't know if I'm a person that can deal really well with such spotlight situations. As long as I'm inspiring, that's the best part.”