It is pretty clear that Essence Wilmington CAN dance.
The 20-year-old Davenport native has been a dazzling star on the TV competition, “So You Think You Can Dance” on FOX, and is now in the top 6 contestants as the series will broadcast its final three episodes, Wednesday nights at 8 p.m.
“What made Essence stand out, she’s a fabulous hip-hop dancer,” Jeff Thacker, executive producer of the show, said this week. “If you look at Essence, first and foremost, she has an amazing smile and she has a great personality.”
Thacker personally reviewed the 1,400 video auditions the network received for the 17th season of “So You Think You Can Dance.” About half of those (judged on their uniqueness and talent) were asked to come to live auditions this spring in New York, Los Angeles and New Orleans.
A 2019 Davenport North graduate, Wilmington first sent in a video audition in early 2020, and the season was canceled due to COVID.
She faithfully watched the 16th season in 2021, to prepare to audition again this past March. Wilmington was picked to do a live audition in L.A. in late March.
“The first one was the producer round, and they let us know if we got a gold ticket, to go through the next round,” she told Local 4 on Tuesday. “That was the judges’ round that they showed on TV.”
About 75 dancers made the judges’ round, and 42 made it to the choreography round – to learn varied styles of dance, Wilmington said.
“It’s scary. I don’t know, I was just nervous all the time, palms were sweating all the time,” she said. “Especially the dance styles I wasn’t used to.”
When the show premiered May 18, there were 12 dancers competing for the three judges — Leah Remini, Stephen “tWitch” Boss and JoJo Siwa. Episodes are pre-recorded in L.A., and Wilmington’s parents were in the audience for each one.
Thrill of a lifetime
Essence said she cried when she found out she made it on the show.
“I cried because that was the biggest thing I ever got in my life,” she said. “I had gone to a lot of auditions for dance, to get an agent – never got it, always got cut. So this was the first big deal, because I didn’t get cut.”
“It was crazy that I got picked; I didn’t know it would happen,” Wilmington said. She had auditioned in L.A. for a few years as a teenager.
After watching last season’s “So You Think,” she said she learned to stretch as a dancer stylistically.
“I hadn’t really done other styles of dance on the level these amazing people are on,” she said. “I tried to copy and do the best I could do. So I know if made the show at the time, I would have to put myself in that position.”
Wilmington started teaching dance when she was 12, in her basement.
“When I was 11 and I tried out for the Chicago Bulls to be a Bulls Kid, at halftime during the NBA games, my mom posted it and made a fan page for me,” she said. “She posted everything I did and a lady messaged my mom.”
That’s how Essence started teaching other kids to dance. She did one season of dancing at Bulls’ halftime in Chicago when she was 12.
Wilmington also returned to choreograph students who were on the United Center court. When she graduated from North, she was in the Scott Community College dual-enrollment program, and earned her associate’s degree at the same time.
Pursuing dance dreams
Wilmington decided to pursue her dance dreams – training, teaching and auditioning – instead of a traditional four-year college degree.
Gaining all this national exposure will help her career, she said.
For last week’s show, Wilmington only had four hours to learn and polish an emotional contemporary dance with All-Star Koine Iwasaki. That dance reflected the challenges of anxiety and depression (Watch it HERE).
“You guys are both struggling, doing this together,” Wilmington recalled. She was super excited to be on the show overall.
“It was crazy, being in the limelight,” she said. “It was crazy being on TV; everyone’s seeing me and I’m so happy. Also the fact that, no matter where you come from – whether it’s a small city or town – you can do whatever you put your mind to.”
The best highlights of SYTYCD have been all the friends Wilmington has made.
“All the contestants, we’re so close. We have a great chemistry,” she said. “Another highlight is putting myself in uncomfortable positions, and making myself feel comfortable.”
Putting her best foot forward
Wilmington never thought she’d make it this far on the show.
“I just prayed every day, just hoping I would put my best foot forward,” she said. “Every week was crazy and insane. I just thank God for everything. I just kept going and kept trying to rise to the occasion.”
“It’s like an indescribable feeling,” her mother, Ebonie Wilmington, said Tuesday. I’m obviously overwhelmingly proud.”
Essence did her first public dance for a variety show at age 9 at Davenport’s Washington Elementary.
“She was nervous, but she did it,” Ebonie said. “She was a shy kid, so to see her do that, it was like, ‘Wow.’ You could just see the love she had for it.”
Seeing her in SYTYCD, Essence is “definitely a different person,” her mom said. Hearing the judges’ praise was enlightening.
“It was nice to hear things from other people, their thought and perspective of what she is as a dancer,” Ebonie said.
Essence may now split her time between L.A. and the QC.
“Right now, I have some friends I’ve met in the industry and would like to collab with,” she said. “Going back and forth, and also having my dance team here, I don’t want to let that go.”
Wilmington worked with Rock Island High alum JUNO, choreographing her music video “Nobody Cares,” with the Essence W. troupe last summer. JUNO actually was a babysitter for Essence when she was little.
“She is so inspiring; she’s the best,” she said. There are three SYTYCD episodes left, Wednesday nights, at 8 p.m. on FOX 18. The winner will get $100,000.