When he was 8, Ricky Ubeda began watching the first season of Fox’s competition So You Think You Can Dance, and decided dancing was what he wanted to do.
A decade later, the Miami teen is one of the final four contestants on SYTYCD’s 11th season — and a favorite to win the $250,000 grand prize when the winner is announced in the finale on Wednesday.
“I was a big fan of the show and now it’s pretty crazy to be a contestant,” Ubeda, 18, said from Los Angeles, where he’s been shooting SYTYCD since the end of May. “I get to work with the people who’ve inspired me my whole life.”
Last Wednesday evening, more than 100 students, friends, teachers and supporters from Stars Dance Studio Miami — the Kendall school where Ubeda has trained since his early teens — gathered at the Cadillac Ranch restaurant to cheer him on. Little girls with lean-muscled legs rushed excitedly between tables, while Ubeda’s teenage cohorts beamed and giggled. The crowd, most wearing Team Ricky Ubeda T-shirts, screamed hysterically whenever he appeared on one of the TV screens covering the wall, vaulting across the brightly-lit stage or tearfully listening to the judges’ comments.
SYTYCD is the pinnacle of the world of dance schools grooming students for competitions, with an intense, reach-for-the-stars ethos.
“He always told us if you don’t follow your dreams you’ll never do what you want,” said Stars student Adriana Aguerri, 10, watching Ubeda with a cluster of friends. “He inspires me to always learn more and do my best. All of us want to follow in his footsteps. Whenever you ask Ricky to do something, he never says no.”
Studio owners Victor Smalley and Angel Arce have hosted the weekly watch parties since the season began, raising $10,000 with donations, raffles, and T-shirt sales to pay for Ubeda’s mother and other family members to fly to L.A. and see him.
“The whole studio has come together,” says Smalley, who danced on SYTYCD’s Season 6. “Ricky is such an amazing kid — he is always inspiring people, he’s moved everyone and now he’s moving the world.”
Ubeda’s grandmother, Dinia Ochoa, grinned as she watched her grandson. “I knew he would do this,” she said. “He always danced with his whole heart and soul.”
Ubeda, whose parents split up when he was 4, grew up in Southwest Miami-Dade near Florida International University with his mother and grandmother, both from Cuba, and his older sister and brother. His mother, Dinia Ubeda, who works in the office at Greenglade Elementary School, drove him to classes, rehearsals, and competitions. Her son says she supported and inspired him.
“My mom really believes in everything we wanted to do but she understands we have to work hard,” he says. “She was at every performance of mine, and she got me to every rehearsal. She’s the reason my dancing is so vulnerable. My mom is not afraid to show what she’s feeling, she instilled that in me, and that’s one of the most important things in my dancing. She’s really been my role model.”
Smalley, who spotted Ubeda in eighth grade, gave him a full scholarship. Smalley also gave Ubeda a job teaching at Stars when he got older. Ubeda also trained at Coral Reef Senior High School, an arts magnet school with a fine dance department from which he graduated this spring, and was a finalist in the intensely competitive YoungArts program last January.
During high school he danced from noon until 10 p.m. He has a lean, elfin physique and an explosive energy, with a rocket-powered jump and extraordinary flexibility he flashes in 200-degree split leaps.
But Ubeda says the expressiveness and commitment he learned at Stars have been just as important as his technique. He auditioned for SYTYCD with Skin and Bones, an achingly emotional solo that Smalley choreographed for him.
“Victor instilled something in me that made me an artist,” Ubeda says. “I started finding the way I wanted to move and tell stories, and that’s when I decided this is what I want to do forever.”
Although the studio regularly sends dancers to competitions, Smalley says they also try to instill more creative values. “We look on dance as an art form and dancers as canvas for choreographers,” he says. “We try to make them as dynamic and liberated as possible.”
Ubeda has been on an emotional and physical roller coaster since auditioning for the show in January. He got the call that he had made it into the Top 20 — and the telecast — while driving to a Vampire Weekend concert at the Fillmore Miami Beach in April.
“It was really surreal,” he says. “I was yelling and crying and driving — that was like the best day of my life.”
The dancers learn new routines and dance styles in long hours of intensive rehearsals (Ubeda has helped fuel his fellow competitors by making Cuban coffee every morning), with fans voting two dancers off each week. Their struggles and reactions are telecast to millions, and if the melodrama is calculated by the show’s producers, the grueling process and emotions are real for the dancers.
“Every time before I step on that stage I cry like a little baby,” Ubeda says. “It’s the most challenging process ever. You want to give your best, and your body, your mental state are pushed past their limits. You go to new levels of stress and pressure you never thought possible.”
Whether or not he wins the top prize, Ubeda and the other top 9 contestants will go on an 80-city U.S. and Canadian tour this fall (it comes to Miami’s Adrienne Arsht Center Nov. 28). While he’s not sure what he’ll do after that, he’s sure he’ll keep dancing.
“You come out of here feeling so much self-worth,” he says. “You feel like a super hero.”
The finale of So You Think You Can Dance airs from 8 to 10 p.m. Wednesday on WSVN-Ch. 7.