So You Think You Can Dance‘s Season 9 co-champion Eliana Girard says that her decision to quit a steady job as an aerialist with Cirque du Soleil and audition for a reality competition was the best choice she’s ever made, but by far the scariest. “I had been with Cirque for almost three years, and it was amazing because it felt like home. I had my friends. I had a steady income,” she says. “But as an artist I felt really stifled, and I felt like I wasn’t improving or growing.”
What started as a quest for artistic fulfillment, though, ended up with the title of America’s Favorite (Female) Dancer and a prize exceeding $100,000. “It’s just so surreal and unreal to me, and it’s so hard for me to say that I won,” Eliana explains. “Those words don’t feel familiar. But it’s such a huge honor and it’s something I’ve always dreamed of.”
TVLine caught up with Eliana to talk about her partnership with the Season 9 men’s runner-up Cyrus Spencer, the work that went into some of her most memorable routines and the physical pain that comes from working the pole.
TVLINE | In the first few weeks of Season 9, a lot of the feedback you got from the judges was about how you had to carry your partner Cyrus through the choreography, since he was largely an untrained dancer. Was it awkward to get that feedback while standing next to your partner?
I absolutely love Cyrus. He is my best friend, and he’s such an incredible guy. He works hard. He doesn’t care if he looks silly or if something seems weird; he wants to get it right. And it was amazing to work with someone with that type of spirit. For me, it was about being patient, helping him out, and just pushing. “You can do this and I believe in you.” But it can get really discouraging when you have people around you who are trained, and you are trained in something completely different. Like when we had the Jive, I had to make sure that Cyrus wouldn’t give up. “It takes two of us to make this work. You’ve got this. Don’t let yourself get in your own way. Don’t take no for an answer.” And it was worth doing that work, but I will say that it was tiring. I had to make sure that he was mentally and physically okay, and then I had to make sure that I was okay, too.
TVLINE | And the feedback from the judges?
It felt good to get that feedback, because I didn’t know if people knew how much work it was taking. The first couple of weeks were really difficult. I wouldn’t change it for the world. I’m still grateful that Cyrus was my partner. And I learned so much from him. But it was nice to know that people could see the work that was being put into it.
TVLINE | I think everyone has to agree that Stacey Tookey’s “Bang Bang” contemporary routine that you did with Alex Wong was the highpoint of Season 9. Did you know you were working on something really special right from rehearsals?
We tried to walk into rehearsal creating our own world; we were going to dance like no one was watching. Stacey was trying to get me away from depending on the prettiness of movement, and pushing me to not merely attach to the emotions of the choreography, but to actually [experience] these real emotions, to find ways where I could make it feel and look real. She’d have me move and push, then ask “What does this really mean?” It was an experience I’ve never had before.
TVLINE | Some of the positions that you got into during that routine were crazy. At one point, Alex lifts you, and you’re upside down, with your legs straight in the air, the two of you creating one straight line.
Oh my God. The first time we did that was so scary. We called that the yoga pose. Stacey is brilliant. And Alex is literally the best partner. It was a match made in heaven. He’s an incredible person and so hysterical. But also, we both approached movement the same way because we have the same background [in ballet]. So it was the kind of immediate connection you don’t get very often. We’ve both said that we have to dance together more; it will be a lifelong connection for sure.
TVLINE | Are you using different parts of your body, different muscles, for a contemporary piece like “Bang Bang,” versus, say, your Quick Step the followng week with Ryan?
Every style affects your body in a completely different way. Like with Hip-Hop, your thighs will definitely be sore, because there’s a lot of low-to-the-ground stuff. But with ballroom, my back was hurting because there’s a lot of keeping your upper body posture, and arching in a beautiful way, to keep that line with your partner. Each week, our bodies would be hurting in a different area just because of how different each style is.
TVLINE | Another highlight of the season, I thought, was the Mia Michaels piece where you and Cole battered each other like rams. You guys made some reference on stage about not always being able to see where the other one was when you were charging at each other. Was that scary?
Honestly, that was the most nerve-racking part of the piece. Every time, we would either hit heads or completely miss each other. We ended up with scabs on our scalps from fighting. Literally, I got little cuts in my hairline. It hurt so bad.
TVLINE | In that routine, I thought there was a weird juxtaposition between the movement and the music. The music didn’t have the same angry energy that the movement did.
Exactly. When you first hear the music, you’re like, “Oh, this is so pretty!” And you want to do pretty moves with it. But Mia had us learn the choreography first, so we understood the movement and we understood the emotion behind it, and then she just stuck the music on as a top layer. She didn’t want us to get lost and change our movement according to the music. I think it’s brilliant: It almost feels eerie because of that juxtaposition.
TVLINE | Let’s talk about the Ray Leeper pole-dancing Broadway piece you had in the performance finale alongside Tiffany. How on earth did you get that high up on the pole, into that contorted position, without coming off? I was just gasping the whole time. What’s the difficulty level?
It’s very, very hard. The pole is a very difficult apparatus, because it definitely comes with ripped skin, bruises and cuts. Aerial work comes with so much pain. And with that position, it’s all about twisting the back and just settling in, and then you have to squeeze that lower leg really tight so you don’t fly off. There are so many different components that you have to achieve all together so that you don’t fall.
TVLINE | So where do you go from here?
From here, I’d love to do concert dance, to do more contemporary work, to work with Stacey, Travis [Wall], Sonya [Tayeh], Peter Chu. I’d love to really start growing as a mover. There’s a lot more that I want to learn. And I’d like to get into Broadway and acting. I love singing, I love musicals, and I would really love to get into film and plays as well. So, yes, I’m kind of hoping for a triple-threat option. [Laughs] I can’t sit still, so why not go for it all?