ade chike torbert

It was Las Vegas week of the hit reality show, “So You Think You Can Dance,” which meant contestants were tested on their ability to quickly learn choreography in different dance genres. Contemporary dancer Ade Chike Torbert had narrowly missed elimination after the ballroom round but had one more chance. Dressed only in black belted pants to expose his sculpted 5’7” physique, Torbert stepped onstage to “dance for his life.” The cinematic tune “Ruthless Gravity” began and the 22-year-old spun into a sequence of precise arm movements, high leg extensions, controlled jumps and graceful floor work. Unanimously and enthusiastically the judges permitted Torbert to the next round.

“I’m so, so pleased that we have the opportunity of seeing you do that right now,” said Nigel Lythgoe, executive producer and judge on the show. “You are not somebody I would like to lose from this competition.

At the beginning of the week in the ongoing elimination rounds, Torbert had thrown the judges a curveball with a tap routine. After his initial audition in New York City, they thought he was a contemporary dancer not a tap dancer. Lythgoe even laughed when he saw Torbert’s tap shoes. “It’s TV,” Torbert said. I think it just went against my story.”

Torbert made it through the auditions in Vegas to land a coveted spot as one of the 11 finalists on “SYTYCD” in 2010.  Three years later, Torbert sits in the Argo Tea near Union Square—his “old stomping grounds” because he used to work down the block—wearing a denim vest, green army jacket, gray sneakers, and a black cap. Both ears are pierced with diamond studs, which shine against his dark skin. As he talks about how the show changed his life, Torbert, now 25, recalls his time on “SYTYCD” like it was yesterday. Finishing season 7 in fourth place, Torbert says that the show gave him the confidence to pursue dance and the exposure to make it in the industry. “I’ve been able to book a lot of things without auditioning because people already know what I have to offer,” he says.

Apparently he does have a lot to offer. Since the show, Torbert has appeared on “Saturday Night Live,” “Dancing With The Stars,” and “The Ellen Show,” made his Broadway debut in the Tony award-winning musical, “Fela!” and just wrapped up the second season of the NBC series “Smash” where he can be seen in dance numbers with Jennifer Hudson.

Initially, Torbert didn’t want to audition for “SYTYCD” because he didn’t think he wanted to be a commercial dancer and he was afraid of humiliating himself on TV. “I can’t have people that know me, watch the show and see me get cut,” he says.

When the show first premiered on Fox in July 2005, Torbert was a student at Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School—the performing arts school made famous by the movie “Fame.” While at LaGuardia, Torbert, who was born in Jamaica and moved to Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn when he was four, also trained at both the Alvin Ailey School and the Harlem School of the Arts. Growing up he studied at The Restoration Dance Theater in Brooklyn. His mother put him and his siblings—he has two brothers (one older, one younger) and a younger sister, in dance classes among other extra-curricular activities—like swimming, piano and gymnastics—to keep her brood occupied. “My mom forced us,” he says. “I think we were really hyper and destroying the house on the weekends. She was like, ‘okay, gotta channel this energy.’”

After high school graduation, Torbert spent two years at the Boston Conservatory and then one year at the New World School of the Arts in Miami, but was unsatisfied with the level of training at both institutions. “It really kind of took my love and passion for dancing away,” he says. From 2007 to 2009, Torbert stopped dancing and continued to live in Miami, working in retail and living the “chill” life with his girlfriend. “One day I was like, ‘whoa, what am I doing?’” Torbert says. “I gotta get outta here.”

So Torbert returned to New York in time for the Season 7 try-outs in January 2010. With a “What do I have to lose?”attitude, Torbert auditioned with thousands of hopefuls to become “America’s favorite dancer.” The process was grueling: by 6 a.m. the line was already four blocks long outside the 34th Street audition site and he didn’t get to dance until 4 p.m.  He got a call back for the next day, which was even longer; Torbert didn’t get onstage until 9p.m. Also, the judges hated his contemporary solo, which is contrary to the comments made later in Las Vegas, where Lythgoe said that Torbert was “amazing.” He later earned that the extreme critiques are part of the script for reality television.  “If something is mediocre, it’s bad. If it’s good, it’s amazing. Mediocre doesn’t get ratings,” says Torbert.

Still, his solo was good enough to get him to the choreography round, after which he was awarded a plane ticket to Las Vegas. He was so happy he started crying.  “I was so emotional, and I don’t know if it was because I was dancing again and I had missed it so much in my life,” he says. “For me to not be dancing, come here and audition and beat out thousands of guys and make it this far…it was the greatest feeling in the world.”

That was only the beginning of triumphs. After Las Vegas, Torbert learned he had made it to the show as one of 11 finalist dancers when Emmy-award winning choreographer Mia Michaels, whom he was star-struck by,  appeared with a camera crew at his family’s house in Brooklyn. He was in disbelief, especially since this was the first year that the show only took 11 dancers instead of 20, due to half the cast being “All Stars”—previous contestants that were exceptionally talented or memorable.

The show filmed in Los Angeles, where Torbert and the rest of the cast lived in condos in West Hollywood. Some of their neighbors were actors on another Fox show, “Glee.” Torbert roomed with fellow contemporary dancer, Billy Bell, and the two enjoyed ordering as much food as they wanted every week so long as the grocery list didn’t include lobster, caviar or filet mignon.

But it’s not like they had all the time in the world to eat, relax and soak up the California sun. The show’s rigorous schedule had the dancers constantly working. Torbert explains the weekly routine: Saturday they learned a group routine all day; Sunday they met their duet choreographer and filmed “behind-the-scenes” footage; Monday they rehearsed for eight hours; Tuesday they practiced on set; Wednesday they did the live show (which meant being on set starting at 6am even thought the show didn’t air until 8pm), Thursday was elimination day and Friday was a day off.

“It’s mentally ridiculous,” says Torbert, who found learning so many different styles of choreography (such as the Foxtrot, Paso Doble or hip-hop) particularly challenging since he had taken time off from dance. “We’re already completely exhausted by the time the show airs,” he adds.

Despite the challenges, Torbert became one of the final four in the competition. “I think I was the underdog,” he says. “I don’t think people expected me to be on the show as long as I was.”

Eight weeks in, just before the finale, Torbert was eliminated. He says that he wasn’t happy or sad but simply indifferent. He felt that the day before had “set up his departure” because he had gotten such negative reviews for his performances of African jazz and contemporary.

Torbert regretted nothing about the show besides not taking more time to enjoy himself and forget about the cameras. “I wish I was more relaxed. I was so serious,” says Torbert, who also wishes he was less fearful. “People would take my seriousness and my fear as me being an angry person. I’m like; I’m scared out of my mind right now. I’m trying to do everything I can do to stay composed and get through this week—that’s it.”

It was difficult dealing with the show’s pressures but Torbert was proud of himself especially because of how happy it made his mom and the rest of his family. “My mom invested so much time and money into me as a kid. I felt like this was sort of my way of repaying her,” he says humbly. “I think it brought her so much joy.”

The whole experience had a surreal feeling, Torbert says, explaining that seemingly one week he was working in retail at a Rugby Store in Union Square and the next he was on national TV and recognized beyond his imagination. “I can Google myself and it’s my picture, my name and my story and a thousand [Facebook] friend requests—I’m like ‘this is insane.’”

Currently represented by Macdonald Selznick Associates, a well-known talent agency, Torbert teaches at different studios as well as the dance convention, Excel In Motion. But the ambitious dancer is looking for more spotlight and has been inspired from his work on “Smash” to focus on a career in film/television.

“I’d rather be known now as an actor who can dance, rather than a dancer who can act,” he says.

Another perk of being on reality TV is that people finally learn how to say your name correctly. With two Nigerian first names, Ade Chike, Torbert grew accustomed to having his name butchered in pronunciation. But the show changed that. “That’s my biggest accomplishment,” the “Smash” dancer says. “People can pronounce my name.”