How 19-Year-Old Hannahlei Cabanilla Won "So You Think You Can Dance" Season 15

November 13, 2018

When Hannahlei Cabanilla rolled up to her Dance Spirit cover shoot—just 36 hours after being named the “So You Think You Can Dance” Season 15 champion—she looked impossibly fresh-faced and well-rested. The Anaheim Hills, CA, native may have had “about eight blisters,” as she joked, on her feet; she may barely have slept since the big win; and she may have just performed on “Live with Kelly and Ryan.” But she jumped right on set, and quite literally didn’t stop jumping for the next five hours. The fabulous technique, irresistible personality, and (especially) boundless energy that earned her the title of America’s Favorite Dancer were all on full display.

So what was it actually like for Hannahlei to compete on the show she’d watched since she was a tiny dancer—and what’s next for the now–19-year-old? Read on.

“There was no question: As soon as I turned 18, I was going to audition.”

Hannahlei was never going to be anything but a dancer. “My older sister started dancing when my mom was pregnant with me,” she says. “I was in the studio before I was even born.” Hannahlei took her first class at Orange County Performing Arts Academy at just 2 years old, and loved it right away. By 6, she was competing in solos and group routines at Hall of Fame, Starpower, Showstopper, Showbiz, and Kids Artistic Revue. “I do feel like I was a standout on the comp scene,” she says, somewhat sheepishly.

Amy Berokoff, Hannahlei’s longtime teacher and choreographer (and self-proclaimed No. 1 fan), knew Hannahlei had “it” right away. “I met Hannahlei when she was 11,” Berokoff says. “She was so shy, she didn’t talk to me for a few years. But she didn’t need to talk—she was just that good. She’s a powerhouse in that tiny body, and honestly, she’s always been years ahead of her fellow classmates.”

Photo by Erin Baiano

Young Hannahlei had two big dreams: to tour with Beyoncé, and to compete on “SYTYCD.” “I started watching the show during Season 1,” Hannahlei remembers. “I would have finale watch parties with all my friends, and there was no question: As soon as I turned 18, I was going to audition.” In the meantime, after graduating high school, she enrolled at University of California, Irvine, as a dance major, while continuing to teach classes at OCPAA.

“My heart dropped into my stomach. The competition wasn’t over.”

Hannahlei’s 18th birthday arrived in time for her to audition for the show’s 15th season. After a drawn-out early audition process, which included a video, a live callback, and an improv round for the show’s producers, she finally got to dance for the judges: Nigel Lythgoe, Mary Murphy, Vanessa Hudgens, and Stephen “tWitch” Boss. She performed her solo with “sweaty hands and butterflies”—and got a standing ovation. “I finished, I looked up, and everyone was standing,” she says.

“My first impression of Hannahlei was ‘Wow, where did this kid come from?’ ” Murphy says. “She was everything in a dancer that I could have hoped for—strong, explosive, with great technical training that allowed her the freedom to make choreography look easy. She has that star quality that makes a champion, and she radiates love, joy, and confidence on and off the stage.” Unsurprisingly, Hannahlei was sent through to The Academy round, set to take place two months later. (And to go from the best day ever to the worst, she had wisdom tooth surgery the day after her performance for the judges!)

Photo by Erin Baiano

For the next two months, Hannahlei “trained like crazy.” She started taking private ballroom lessons with “SYTYCD” alum Lacey Schwimmer, and brushed up on her tap skills. At the end of May, the remaining contestants reconvened at the Dolby Theatre in L.A. for The Academy. There, Hannahlei performed two contemporary solos, and then breezed through each round of choreography, including hip hop with Tabitha and Napoleon D’umo (“I was so starstruck learning from them,” Hannahlei says), ballroom with Jean-Marc Genereux (“I was pretty stressed during that round, but I made it through!”), contemporary with Travis Wall (“Such a dream”), and a group round with Mandy Moore (“She’s so funny, and such a genius”).

The process was, to put it mildly, challenging. “The show doesn’t do the Academy justice,” Hannahlei says. “It’s a lot more intense than what you see.” After hearing she’d made the Top 20, Hannahlei had a moment. “I’m not an emotional person and I rarely cry, but I cried so hard that day,” she says. “We were all so giddy and happy.” And then came the bombshell: This season, they were actually looking for a Top 10. “My heart dropped into my stomach. The competition wasn’t over. I wasn’t going to the live shows yet.”

Of course, Hannahlei did end up making it to the live shows. After performing a ballroom duet with Season 5 contestant Jonathan Platero—an eight-hour learn-and-perform process Hannahlei jokingly refers to as a “stress-ball-change” situation—Nigel said he wanted to be Hannahlei’s partner. The dream she’d dreamed during her old finale viewing parties was becoming a reality.

“I knew I was meant to be there.”

For the live shows, Hannahlei was paired with Cole Mills, a ballroom dancer she calls “the best partner ever.” They immediately became one of the couples to beat. “It was a huge confidence boost right away,” Hannahlei says. “I knew I was meant to be there.” And Cole says he and Hannahlei got close quickly. “Lei Lei is fearless,” he says. “When faced with the daunting task of performing heart-stopping routines in front of millions, with tricks we’d never done before, she had no issue trusting me and learning how to be an even better partner.”

Photo by Erin Baiano

Hannahlei never found herself in the bottom or in danger of going home, despite knowing that “anything can happen with the show, even if you kill all your dances and do your best,” she says. Some of her success might have stemmed from the fact that “SYTYCD” wasn’t her first experience dancing on live television or working with cameras: She performed at the American Music Awards with Selena Gomez in 2017, and appeared in Sia’s “The Greatest” music video. But that didn’t make the intensity of the show any easier to handle. Along the way, her body saw tons of wear and tear—especially those crazy foot blisters, which came from performing in heels every week (!) leading up to the Top 4 show.

Then, in the finale, Hannahlei and Jensen Arnold stood onstage as the final two, holding hands and waiting to hear Cat Deeley announce who would be the last woman standing. “My heart was racing, my hands were sweating and shaking,” Hannahlei says. “And then I just remember hearing my name and everyone running over to hug me.”

“This is where she belongs.”

Now, in addition to being America’s Favorite Dancer, Hannahlei also has a cool $250,000 to her name. “I want to take my parents on a trip to Greece,” she says. “I’ll probably save up and maybe move out to L.A. And I want to buy a Gucci belt!” She’s currently dancing alongside the rest of the Top 10 on the official “SYTYCD” tour, and will get the final part of her prize, a spot in the live musical Rent, in January. Now that she’s conquered her “SYTYCD” dream, she’s added another one to her list: joining Shaping Sound. (And for the record, Beyoncé, she’s still very much hoping to dance with you.)

Photo by Erin Baiano

Berokoff, who was in the live audience the night of the finale, says Hannahlei’s “SYTYCD” triumph felt almost predestined. “I absolutely thought she would win,” Berokoff says. “She picks up choreography so fast, she’s always prepared, she doesn’t get nervous, and she’s not scared of anything. She adapted well to every style they gave her, and she seemed so comfortable the entire time. This is 100 percent the future I saw for her. This is where she belongs.”

A version of this story appeared in the December 2018 issue of
Dance Spirit with the title “Hooray for Hannahlei!”