Energetiks talks with Jim Nowakowski

After watching an episode of the latest SYTYCD (America) season, you could be forgiven for assuming Jim Nowakowski is one of America’s most talented commercial dancers – you’d be right, after all – however such a title doesn’t quite do the endearingly high-spirited and effortlessly fluent dancer credit. Despite pulling off everything from Hip Hop to Ballroom as if it was second nature, the self-confessed perfectionist is a product of much more classical training, he became hooked on dance at the tender age of three and a half, fell in love with ballet soon after and by ten years old Jim had decided that the ballet world was his true calling.

His life story was already the stuff of fairytales, complete with hardship and challenges to overcome before Jim had even made it to the dancefloor. Adopted from South Korea at six months old by an American couple,  Jim was born with a cleft lip and palate - enduring his first surgery at seven months old and many more to follow, including one that left him with his mouth wired shut for five weeks, unable to eat. Unfortunately the recurring facial reconstructive surgeries meant that Jim had to get used to a frequently changing appearance growing up. Other kids noticed too, and Jim experienced his fare share of customary schoolyard bullies as a result.

Yet for all that, it only takes a minute in his presence before you become almost overwhelmed by his irrepressible positivity and convivial disposition.  Just one more factor that made him the stand-out favourite for Season 12, but it was perhaps the precision and technical accuracy that his classical training had given him that made Jim this Season's master of all styles. His movements are indulgently elegant, with every extension drawn out with poise and a nonchalant ease – it’s as if Nowakowski’s body is oblivious to the demands that gravity takes on a dancers limbs - as if instead of concealing bones, his muscles wrap around a weightless frame that also happens to come equipped with an aptitude for tremendous musicality.

Before that fateful day in Los Angeles, where Jim stepped on stage to perform for the judges and a spellbound audience, Jim had been rising through the ranks as a demi soloist for the Houston Ballet, his home for the previous eight years, but an injury and a growing desire to step outside his comfort zone and embrace the challenging and unfamiliar prompted him to try out for the popular TV show and trade ballet moves for kick-ball-changes and isolations. If you scrutinise his movements though, the precision and punctilious accuracy underlies every performance, from the vivacious energy during a Samba with partner Anya, to ruling the dance-floor with a fiercely spirited Contemporary performance, set to Lorde's 'Rule the World'.

Possibly the only thing more astonishing than Jim's performance on the show, was the bomb-shell moment when he was eliminated after making it to the top six (clearly audiences were just as shocked, as they flooded twitter and facebook sharing their disappointment and surprise at the unexpected departure). However there's no doubt this is just the beginning for the talented twenty six year old. Having proven his versatility across the full spectrum of commercial genres (adding to his already impressive classical background) Jim is ready to take on whatever life throws his way - and all with that trademark smile beaming from his face.

We caught up with Jim shortly after his SYTYCD tour ended to chat about the show, growing up and advice to aspiring performers, read the interview below;


Energetiks: Hi Jim!

E: You’ve just finished touring with the SYTYCD Season 12 Top 10, congratulations. How did you find the experience overall?

Jim: The overall experience of the tour was such a magical and special one. Not only did I get to perform some of my favorite pieces in sold out arenas and theaters, I got to meet the fans. It was so great and inspiring to meet so many individuals and hear their stories, their thoughts of the show, and to thank them personally for voting and supporting me.


E: You have such an incredibly inspiring story – being adopted from South Korea at such a young age, dealing with a cleft palate resulting in several years of reconstructive surgeries and the consequential bullying that you were subjected to – but perhaps most inspiring of all is your wonderfully positive and constantly optimistic personality. Did you ever have moments where you felt the odds were against you, or that you were at a disadvantage?

 J: There were many times I was insecure about my looks and about my dancing, especially attending a public school where not many male dancers were present and that I could relate to. My passion for the art form is what kept my head in the game, and motivated me. I used it as an outlet and I would tell myself at the end of the day, that the struggle will only make me stronger and the reward will feel that much bigger.


E: How did your dance journey begin?

J: I started dancing at the age of 2 and a half, because of my older sister who was dancing at the time. I wanted to do everything she was doing. My parents put me into a small dancing school in my hometown and would ask me every year if I wanted to continue. I would of course say yes, and by the age of 10 I knew I wanted to take it on as a career. I knew I needed more training in order to make my dream into a reality. At age 11 Timothy Draper the founder of the Draper Center for Dance Education offered me a scholarship to the summer intensive. I continued at the Draper School the following fall, and was there until I graduated at the age of 18.


E: You spent 8 years dancing with the Houston Ballet, was it hard leaving that family or were you ready for a new challenge?

J: Leaving Houston was really difficult because it became my second home. I basically started a new chapter in Houston and made friends who I now consider family. At the same time I knew career-wise and personally I needed a fresh start and a change. My Houston family were so supportive and knew I was needing that.


E: What led you to audition for So You Think You Can Dance?

J: I was actually fighting an injury for the past 2 years off and on. At the same time I was in need of a change of pace and I felt like I needed a break from ballet. Other forms of dance were so intriguing to me, but I was always timid to try other genres and didn’t know where to begin. I thought what better way than to throw myself into a competition like So You Think You Can Dance. I came back from my injury the end of February and made it to the last audition in Los Angeles March 15th.


E: Coming from such a classical background, the show really allowed you to open up your repertoire. Do you think you’re still a classical dancer at heart though, or has the commercial side made it’s impact?

J: I will always be a “bun-head” as they call it, and ballet will forever hold a special place in my heart. I will always stay connected to the ballet world and continue to do ballet. –It’s my therapy.


E: Is there a particular move or exercise that you always feel at home doing?

J: To be honest being in ballet class and at the barre is where I feel at home and in my safe place. I feel confident, comfortable, and the most beautiful at times.


E: What’s something people might be surprised to learn about you?

J: I am such a kid at heart. I love babysitting my friends kids, going to Disneyland, amusement parks, going to the latest Pixar movies, playing games, and going to a  park that has swings.


E: How do you feel about the audition process, do you enjoy or dread it?

J: I loved Vegas week. It was hard because of the hours and you didn’t get much sleep, but it was really exciting and new to me. I liked dancing to prove to the judges why I deserved to make their Top 10 stage dancers. It brought something out of me that I didn’t know I had.


E: Which artists have the biggest influence and inspiration on you as a dancer/performer?

J: All artists whether it’s painters, other dancers, or singers, all inspire me and influence my art. If I had to choose a specific artist, I would have to choose Mikhail Baryshnikov.


E: How did you feel when Nigel said of your audition that you were “one of the best dancers [he’d] ever seen on So You Think You Can Dance”?

J: I could not believe he said those nice things. It was so surreal to be standing up there on that stage as he said those words. That was so huge coming from Nigel who has been judging on that show for the past 12 years. Those words are what helped me fight through the competition to make sure I didn’t let him down.


E: The dance industry can be particularly brutal and hyper-critical at times, what’s your advice for coping with failure/disappointments and the inevitable ups and downs?

 J: As long as you stay true to your art and your passion no one can ever take that away from you. Understand that life in general is sometimes about timing. It’s not always about you as the individual and your dancing, but other factors such as if there is availability/contracts available in a company, or who they are looking for at that particular moment in time. When that break does happen for you, it will make it that much more rewarding.

E: What makes you laugh?

 J: My friends, SNL, Amy Schumer.


E: Are you more at home onstage or in the studio?

 J: Onstage. When I am dancing on stage, I feel like I can be whoever I want to be with no judgment, and I feel like I am on top of the world.


E: Do you have any performance/dance-related superstitions?

 J: I don’t have any particular superstitions I just have to make sure I am super warm because I know that when I perform I have a lot of adrenaline and will give that extra push and don’t want to hurt myself.


E: What’s something that frustrates you about the dance industry?

 J: That at times it can be very subjective.


E: You’ve had a bit of experience dealing with injury, what helped you cope (mentally and physically) and what did you learn from the recovery period?

 J: Being injured was a blessing in disguise. I had time to do things and took time for myself that I never would get the opportunity to do when I was on the go 24/7. I got to watch many of the performances of my colleagues, and would learn so much from not only experienced veteran dancers, but also the younger ones as well. I got to re-train and take beginner classes to teach my body to do things correctly. I also got to do Pilates and Gyrotonics to help strengthen my body and improve my weaknesses. It definitely was difficult mentally, I will not lie about that, but the biggest lesson that came out of it was really realizing and understanding that dancing doesn’t define me as a person, but is just a small part of what makes me “Jim”.


E: How do you look after yourself and your body to stay in peak condition?

 J: Sleeping right, eating right, and most important recovery time for you body. Allow it to rest when you have days off. I love the saying, “ your body is your instrument”.


E: What has been your proudest dance moment so far?

J: I have a few “proudest” moments. Winning the Gold Medal at the Youth America Grand Prix, and international student ballet competition, signing a corps contract with Houston Ballet at age 18, and making it to the final 3 stage dancers on SYTYCD.


E: Which was your favourite routine to perform on SYTYCD?

 J: I have a few all time favorites. But the Hip Hop routine with Jaja choregraphed by Chris Scott, ‘No Woman, No Cry’ was really special. It was my first time tackling hip hop, the piece meant a lot to Chris, and had a wonderful message, and my mom was in the audience for the first time.

Jaja and Jim, Hip Hop Routine 'No Woman, No Cry'


E: What could you spend hours doing?

 J: I could spend hours at an amusement park.


E: What’s your favourite quote or motto?

 J: “For some life lasts a short while, but the memories it holds last forever”


E: It’s been such an incredible ride for you since that first SYTYCD audition, have you had much time to think about what the future holds, where you’d like to go from here?

J: I want to explore the LA dance industry for a while. I would love to dance in Europe for 3 to 4 years, and I would love to be in NYC freelancing and possibly book a Broadway show.


 E: And finally, what words of advice do you have for any aspiring dancers and performers?

J: Your hard work and commitment will pay off. It may not be in the place you’re necessarily trying to receive it from, but it will be appreciated and it will be worth it in the end. Also – your respect will get you further than your talent.


All images courtesy of Jim Nowakowski

All images courtesy of Jim Nowakowski

To keep up to date with Jim's life follow him here on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.


Interview by Elly Ford