Long before she was Emmy-nominated, before she was a Dancing with the Stars Pro, before she became one of the biggest names in dance, Allison Holker was a hopeful on the second season of So You Think You Can Dance. She competed on the show at its apex, when viewership was at its pinnacle and the dances began to garner critical attention. (The season in which she competed was the first that garnered Emmys for Mia Michaels and Wade Robson.) But more than the outward acclaim she received, what she took away from the program was far more introspective.
“When I was first a contestant,” she says, “what surprised me the most was how much I enjoyed the other dance styles. I was very new to the industry. I was 18 years old and I’d never done an Argentine Tango or a Salsa before. I was naïve and immature so the show gave me a chance to explore myself and grow into the woman I am today. When you jump in at such a young age, you learn a lot about yourself and who you want to be.”
A clear front-runner, audiences were shocked when she was eliminated before the conclusion of the season, something she said was a very “interesting feeling.”
“Of course I was sad my journey on the actual show was over, but I’d already made it to the tour and made so many connections through the show that mostly I was just proud of my journey,” Holker said. “I was also proud of my friends who were continuing their journeys on the show. Yes I was voted off, but I feel like I won in the end. I had so many experiences and worked with so many choreographers that it’s hardly a loss.”
That experience working with so many dance luminaries is one of the ways SYTYCD, more than any other competition show format, has produced professionals in their field. Idol made some of its contestants into megastars, but SYTYCD really infused dance with a generation of talented artists who were able to get their foot in the door.
“[The show is] obviously shaping the entire dance world,” she says. “They’re finding the best talent but they’re also demanding greatness out of you. They want great dances. They want great quality work. They want quality choreographers. You have to dance your best to be on that show. It’s not about an individual either. You’re paired with someone so there’s a pressure to be your best for you but for them as well; so you both shine and both do well. Everyone there is the best at what they do. Those pressures and expectations make everyone who shows up do a great job.”
Holker says something else that separates SYTYCD is the supportive environment that’s cultivated among the dancers and the producers.
“Everyone wants the best for each other and wants the show to achieve its highest expectation. That’s why viewers are so loyal. We all want it to be the best. Nigel [Lythgoe] does an incredible job bringing out the best in the dancers. He’s given the dancers the opportunity to not just be dancers, but to be at the forefront of the show. There aren’t many places for dancers to shine like that. This showcases their talent but it also showcases who they are.”
Since her time as a competitor on the show ended, Holker has worked in every facet of the entertainment industry. From music videos to dancing with the biggest names in music to working on shows like The X-Factor, she’s credits her drive and discipline in training for her string of successes.
“I love to apply myself but I have to tell you, I train diligently,” she explains. “I’m always taking classes in all kinds of styles. With any skill set, I really believe you have to keep it fine-tuned. Beyond the physical activity of it, it’s a mental act as well. Meditating, reading and art museums keep my artistic fuel there and alive. It’s my motivation every day. When I can put myself into other people’s art, it fuels my own. I also work 24/7. I believe in continuing to push yourself to be the best.”
Part of that push to be the best comes from working with the best, and Holker has worked with an illustrious list of people she calls “the best choreographers in the world in all styles of dance.”
“I’ve trained in all styles since I was a child so I’ve had so much incredible training from very well-known teachers,” she says. “But, if I had to name a few, I’d say Travis Wall, Mia Michaels, Tyce Diorio, Kenny Ortega and Louis Van Amstel. They’ve all had a huge impact on my life and given me such cool experiences. I also believe we are still close because everyone I’ve worked with, we’ve worked together to tell a story through dance.”
Training is something that didn’t end when she began booking gigs and now, she’s able to pass on the importance of continuous learning and training to the next generation of dancers at dance conventions across the country.
“I’ve been teaching in dance conventions since I was 18. That’s where I got a lot of my training because I traveled to many dance conventions when I was growing up. That’s also how I met Mia Michaels or Brian Friedman or Tyce. They gave me a lot of chances and it helped me with my future. I want to be a part of the conventions because I want the next generation of dancers to have the chance to learn like I did. I love the new generation of dancers. They are incredible. What they can do is crazy and I’m so inspired by them. It’s important for us to share our skill set and also learn from them because you can learn so much.”
In 2014, she was announced as one of the Pro dancers on Dancing with the Stars paired with Mean Girls star Jonathan Bennett, an opportunity that surprised and challenged her in ways she hadn’t been before.
“On DWTS, it’s a huge journey,” she says. “As the Pro, you’re just as much a part of the process as the celebrities are. They’re vulnerable; they’re taking this huge leap of faith to grow as a dancer but also in their lives. You become their life coach in a way. It’s incredible the experience you have with these people. You’re there to support and help them, but it’s so much more than a dance show. It’s about being a support system and growing a relationship. I feel like I’m so close to all the partners I’ve had. It’s been a wonderful process and I absolutely enjoy and love that show.”
More than simply performing, one of the draws of the show for her is the amount of input she gets as a creator.
“We get to be so much a part of the process. As the Pros, we help with song choices and with lighting and the showcase and choreography and even camera angles. They allow us to have so much artistic direction.”
Beyond the freedom to create, DWTS also brought Holker something she didn’t expect: an Emmy nomination for her work with Derek Hough as well as the opportunity to perform at the ceremony.
“Being nominated for an Emmy was really special. We all work so hard in this industry so to be celebrated for a second and have someone appreciate our work like that showed that we were working in the right direction. To be celebrated with the other amazing choreographers, some of which are my mentors, it was a big game changer for me.”
Of her celebrity partners she’s worked with thus far on the show, she says her most recent partner, Babyface, taught her a lot about herself.
“He and I had an incredible friendship and understanding of each other. We both have children and believe in the same kind of things in life. He was a great example to me of what my family will be in the future. He is one of the most kind and humble people I’ve ever met; truly a class act in what a gentleman and a family man is. The way he handles himself is something I really respect. I think he just showed me a lot about what you can be as a person. I respect him so much and it was an incredible experience to get to be with him. Our kids are friends how which is also cool.”
This summer, she’s returning to So You Think You Can Dance, this time as an All Star, something she says is a completely different experience than being a Pro on DWTS.
“The biggest difference is that as an All Star, most of the time, someone else is choreographing on you,” she says. “As a Pro, you’re choreographing all the dances. I think as an All Star, you have more space to relax and be there with your partner on their level. As a Pro, you’re overseeing everything that happens.”
Along with all of her dance-centric projects, Holker and her husband Stephen “tWitch” Boss have launched a dancewear line, Tenth House, bringing clothes dancers could wear to rehearsal but also look and feel good in when they left. She also has a second line of jewelry coming out later this year as well as a brand new adventure she’s excited to begin.
“Well I’m going back to SYTYCD and hoping to go back to DWTS as well. I absolutely adore that show. Besides the clothing line, I’m also getting into acting. I’ll start filming some projects in the next year. I’ve always prided myself on trying new things and allowing myself to grow. Acting feels like the right next step for me. I’ve been telling stories through my dance and now I can do it through my words. I’m excited about pushing myself to new limits.”