Ricky Ubeda was 8 years old when a TV series called So You Think You Can Dance set him on the path of a dance career.
The spark that was lit by the sight of male dancers on TV like Travis Wall and Nick Lazzarini culminated in Ubeda, 18, winning the show in September.
Now, as he and rest of the show’s top 10 tour North America — including a stop Sunday at Hamilton Place Theatre and another the following night in Montreal — Ubeda hopes to return the favour and inspire other dancers.
Here’s what he had to say when the Star caught up with him last week.
Q: How do you find it (the tour) as compared to what you were going through when you were doing the show?
A: I think that it’s a lot less stressful, a lot less pressure now because now we’re kind of like a travelling company performing together and, on the show, we never felt we were competing against each other, but at the end of the day it was a competition and we were always, like, on our feet and people were going home and it was very stressful as a process as a whole, and we were always working. And now I feel like the hard part was putting the tour together and now that we have the show on its feet . . . we’re getting into a little bit of a groove now so it’s getting easier. . . . It’s a lot more fun.
Q: You must know the dances backwards and forwards, so I would think it would be a lot less stressful than being put in a room and being told, “OK, now you’re gonna learn Bollywood for the first time ever.”
A: Yeah, absolutely.
Q: And of course you get to be with your friends, all these other dancers that you met when you were on the show so I’m sure you guys just are having a blast out there.
A: We’re definitely just happy that we can spend time together now . . . and it’s cool to just see different cities that we’ve never seen before and just be together. It’s great.
Q: Let’s take it back a bit to getting onto the show and even farther back when you first started to dance. From what I’ve read you were actually inspired by So You Think to become a dancer.
A: Absolutely, yeah. It’s the reason I started dancing, looking at Travis and people like Nick . . . they were pioneers for, like, my generation of boy dancers who really wanted to start dancing but . . . really didn’t think that they could, so it was really cool to watch the show and be inspired and now, like, flash forward 10 years and I’m on the show and I won the show. It’s all just really bizarre and kind of dreamlike.
Q: I’m assuming that when you were watching you didn’t really have other examples of boys who were dancing other than seeing it on your TV. What was it about watching that dancing that made you say this is something that I want to do?
A: I just thought it was so beautiful and the way that it made me feel, it made me feel something. . . . I thought it would be really cool to make people feel something . . . and to have that power is something so special. I really thought that it would be a great idea to try it out.
Q: Contemporary was what you wanted to do from the beginning, was it?
A: I started hip hop when I was 8, so that kind of was like its own thing. I started dancing because of the show, but I started dancing hip hop first. It was an easier in to the dance world. It looked like it would be more fun. I liked it, but then I just focused more on contemporary.
Q: Tell me about your mentor, Victor Smalley (of Stars Dance Studio in Miami).
A: He gave me a full scholarship to his studio when I was 14. It was the only way I really could dance. I didn’t really have money growing up and my mom didn’t have the funds to pay for my dance classes. He really believed in me when I really wasn’t that good as a child and he really thought I had star potential. He pushed me past my limits and mentored me as person and like a dad. He really steered me in the right direction as a human being as well.
Q: Being on the show, try and give us a sense of how difficult it really was.
A: The show it’s like no other. I had some expectations coming in that it would be hard and it would be difficult, but I thought that I could just get through it and it would be fine. It was so difficult and so stressful to know you’re dancing in front of millions of Americans. It’s a blessing and a curse. You get to inspire them, but it’s also a lot of pressure because if you mess up or if you don’t do well you’re being viewed by all of these people. You have to learn so many things that you’ve never done before under this kind of circumstance. It’s very easy to crack under the pressure, so I just tried to keep a positive mind set the whole time. So that really got me through it and I had a great partner who was also very positive, Valerie (Rockey), she was great. You also learn about yourself in a positive light as well because you are being pushed and you learn how far you can go, and you’re meeting all new people, and you’re learning about your body and you’re getting so much stronger. . . . You become a small family so it’s pretty special.
Q: What was your best moment or moments from the show?
A: I would say my first week on the show was really special for me. I did really well and my partner Jessica (Richens) was amazing and my choreographer Sonya (Tayeh). It was just a really special week and then, obviously, when I won I will never forget it.
Q: You talked about it being surreal. I can hardly even imagine what it must have felt like when you heard your name.
A: It was a dream come true.
Q: One you’d been thinking about for so many years. You said that you’d pictured it in your mind, that moment.
A: I had. It was just mind blowing, really. For it to actually be happening in front of me was just so surreal.
Q: How did you stay grounded through the whole thing because you’re dancing, you’re hearing all these great things from the judges and then you’re going out on this tour now, and I’m sure you’re meeting fans and you’ve got people who are telling you all the time how great you are. How do you keep from getting a swelled head with all that sort of thing going on?
A: I mean, I was just raised that way kind of. My mom has been a great role model for me my whole life and she’s always taught me to always keep two feet on the ground. There’s so much growing I can do from within this point so I’m never just comfortable. But I am very proud of myself and I can be proud of myself. I do believe I’m talented, but there’s so much more that I can do. It’s really special to hear I can inspire people more than anything.
Q: As you say, there’s more for you to do and things that you’re looking forward to. You’re just at the start of your career, but have you thought about places that you want to take your dance once you get through the tour and then of course there’s On the Town coming up?
A: Well yeah, I mean it’s kind of hard to plan things. You train hard and then kind of go with the opportunities that are arising in front of you and you kind of just go from there. But I know I would like to get into choreography. I’m starting to search for that and to create my own kind of thing. Once I find that, I definitely want to dive into choreography. I’m just excited for On the Town right now. (Part of Ubeda’s prize, besides the title and $250,000 U.S., is a part in the Broadway musical.)
Q: Do you know what your start date is gonna be on that?
A: Not yet.
Q: I know that you went into New York and you got to meet the cast, but obviously you haven’t had a chance to rehearse with them and learn routines. That will come. Still, that’s pretty exciting. I know Broadway had been one of your goals so it’s awesome that it’s coming up so soon for you.
A: I know, it’s crazy.
Q: This a question that might be hard to answer, but what does dance mean to you?
A: Yeah, that’s a tough one. I feel like it’s who I am, you know? I just feel like it’s a way for me to express myself, it’s kind of a form of therapy for me and it’s a way for me to inspire others, which has always been a goal of mine. It’s just my whole world.
Q: If you had a message to give other young people who maybe watched you this season about their own aspirations, what would it be?
A: No matter what you want to do, it’s all about the work ethic that you bring to the table. And as long as you have one anything is possible and you can achieve anything. That’s my best advice. I mean I don’t have much advice. I mean I am kind of young, but I feel like that’s one thing that I know that I can say remains true.