Hannahlei Cabanilla started doing dance competitions when she was about 5 years old. Despite being a shy kid, she doesn’t remember ever being scared.
“I’ve never really gotten nervous when I’ve been on stage, even during the live television show,” she said, referring to the 15th season of Fox’s “So You Think You Can Dance,” which she won in September. “It’s so weird that I don’t get nervous, but I just feel at home dancing on stage.”
The 19-year-old was born and raised in Anaheim Hills to a computer programmer father and a stay-at-home mother who always made sure to add rhinestones to her dance outfits for her solo competitions. Cabanilla’s middle name is Dazle, something she says her mother came up with because she wanted something that sounded sparkly.
Cabanilla began taking dance classes at the Orange County Performing Arts Academy in Anaheim when she was only 2, joining her older sister. First, she learned ballet and tap, and later, jazz, hip-hop and more.
“My mom always said that I was so serious about dance ever since I started,” she said.
Over the last 17 years, the people at the Orange County Performing Arts Academy became so much of a second family, that after Cabanilla graduated from high school, she continued teaching there while attending UC Irvine — and her mother now works there as a receptionist. On the menu bar of OCPAA’s front page, along with links for more information on classes, faculty and tuition, is an entire section titled “Hannahlei!”
Cabanilla has been watching “So You Think You Can Dance” since the first season, but she had to wait until she turned 18 to audition. Ever since her first performance on the show, when judge Vanessa Hudgens told Cabanilla that she made her proud to be Filipina, she was a crowd favorite, and she ended up being one of the front-runners until the very end, when she was crowned America’s Favorite Dancer.
Nowadays, her schedule is packed, as she flies back and forth between the nationwide “So You Think You Can Dance Live! 2018” tour, where she’s performing with her fellow Season 15 Top 10 finalists, and rehearsals in Los Angeles for Fox’s live television production of the Tony-winning rock musical “Rent,” coming up on Jan. 27. One of the prizes for winning the competition was a spot on the show.
But after a month and a half of traveling, she’s looking forward to performing at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa on Dec. 2 and at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles on Dec. 3.
She promises some surprises, though a couple of her favorite performances will be familiar to those who watched her compete on the show: a contemporary dance to Joy Williams’ “Welcome Home,” choreographed by Robert Roldan, and the cha cha, which audiences first saw her perform on TV with her dance partner Cole Mills.
“I’m so excited to come home,” Cabanilla said. “I’ll know people in the audience, and it’s just very special to me to be able to dance for people that I love.”
IF YOU GO
What: “So You Think You Can Dance Live! 2018,” featuring Top 10 finalists, including Anaheim’s Hannahlei Cabanilla
Where: Segerstrom Center for the Arts, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
When: Dec. 2 at 7 p.m.
Cost: Tickets start at $39