At the start of Tuesday's episode of "So You Think You Can Dance," Provo's Jenna Johnson was on the brink of elimination. It was the second week of fan voting, and Jenna was among the bottom three.
The three dancers each performed a 40-second solo, making their respective cases to the judges not to eliminate them. The first two dancers performed well, but, with some forced smiles and worried looks in their eyes, the anxiety was noticeable.
Then it was Jenna's turn. First she struck a dramatic pose. Then, breaking character, she joked with host Cat Deeley. Then she danced, with confidence and flair, and a smile that didn't emote any worry -- not the typical performance of someone on the chopping block.
If Jenna was nervous, she didn't show it. Though apparently she's just as good of an actor as she is a dancer.
"There's no explanation of the feelings you feel when you're about to lose the dream you've dreamed of your whole life -- it was definitely nerve-racking," Jenna said in a phone interview Friday morning, during a rare break from the show's constant rehearsals. "You can never be comfortable in this competition. You have to always be on your game, and be ready for anything."
The show's judges responded to her poise accordingly, and, for at least another week, the 18-year-old local remains on the program. For those who know Jenna, those 40 seconds of composure, humor and determination were nothing more than the way she's always been.
Born this way
"Jenna's always had a real passion for the stage," said her mother, Tammy Johnson. "She's always been a little performer; a little drama queen. That was something we saw in her at a very early age. She does things the way she wants to do them, and that's one of the reasons she's been so successful -- because she just makes up her mind about who she is and what she wants to do, and goes with it."
Shala Hanks, one of Jenna's former dance coaches, worked with Jenna during her early dance years. Jenna's personality, she said, was well suited for the world of dance.
"She's one of those people that from such a young age had star quality," Hanks said. "She's a born performer, she's a born hard worker. Every once in a while you see someone come through who's really special. And she's special."
Those star qualities -- determination, independence and charm in abundance -- translate well to the stage. But in the home? Well, sometimes they do, and sometimes they don't, according to Jenna's father, Curt. The parenting tricks that worked on their four older children didn't have quite the same impact on Jenna, he said.
"With the other four, I would give certain verbal or visual cues and they would respond, but not Jenna," Curt said. "And try as you might to stay upset at her, you just can't, because she'll do something so incredibly funny. The things that sometimes drive me crazy about her are the things that make her so endearing to audiences."
All in the family
Not that Jenna was a terror in the home growing up. Far from it. Family has always been next to dancing on her priority list, Curt said. Dance, in fact, has brought many of them closer together. Jenna's two older sisters, Stacy and Jill, are both dancers -- as well as previous contestants on "So You Think You Can Dance."
For a time, Stacy, the oldest of the siblings, was Jill and Jenna's company director at Center Stage Performing Arts Studio in Orem. Jenna idolized Stacy, Tammy said, and when Jenna was old enough to join Center Stage's senior company with her two older sisters, they became instrumental in her progress. With two of them dancing beside each other, and one of them as the director, the three sisters formed a unique bond.
"It was probably the best scenario I could ever ask for," Tammy said. "And they're extremely close. It's been such a positive thing in every way."
Having now reached this season's top 16, Jenna has gone further on "So You Think You Can Dance" than either of her older sisters. Going through the audition process before, Jenna said her older sisters have been crucial to her success and sanity through the rounds of competition.
"I don't think I would be here if it weren't for them," Jenna admitted. "They are my biggest supporters, other than my mom. They've already been to the show twice now. And I can't tell you what a relief it is to look in the audience and see their faces."
While their experience on the show has helped Jenna, it hasn't necessarily made it easier for her parents. For Curt, watching his sons play sports, in all of its organized straightforwardness, was much less stressful than watching Jenna in her many dance competitions.
"With the boys, you can't perform for them, but at least you know where they stand," he explained. "The score is always visible, you know how they're doing, you get a sense of how things are coming along. But with this, you have no idea."
That subjectivity was no more apparent than a few weeks ago, once the initial auditions had ended and contestants were whittled down to 20. On that week's episode, the show's main judges, Nigel Lythgoe and Mary Murphy, disagreed about Jenna's routine -- Murphy loved Jenna's performance, but Lythgoe was far more critical. Cut to the following week, and Jenna found herself in the bottom three.
Indeed, the show can be a roller coaster for the dancers and their families. However, those who have watched Jenna through the years think she can go far on the popular Fox show. While most of the show's dancers are trained in one specific area of dance, Jenna is trained in jazz/contemporary and Latin ballroom, having won national awards in both. Since the show has dancers tackle different styles each week, Jenna's diversity might give her the upper hand, Shala Hanks said.
"The show's never really had someone like Jenna before, who's the top in the nation in both styles of dance," Hanks remarked. "There's a lot of sacrifice involved in that."
That sacrifice began manifesting itself during junior high. At a time typically dominated by friends, parties and young romance, Jenna felt the pull of the studio, and started logging increased hours in practice or at competitions.
"That was when it kicked in that I really wanted to do this for the rest of my life," Jenna said. "It was when everyone started hanging out after school and on the weekend, and I could never do that. I was always at dance rehearsal or at a competition on the weekends. Right then was when I realized that if I want this to be the rest of my life, if I want to have a career in it, I have to make sacrifices."
According to Jenna, her parents repeatedly told her the choice was always hers: to cut back on the dancing, and balance the scales between dance and friends. She chose to stick with it, and fellow dancers began filling the social void, becoming her closest friends during their rehearsal schedule -- a schedule that was practically never-ending.
"In sports, there's usually an off-season, but dance truly is full time -- there is no off-season," Curt said.
Six months after graduating high school, Jenna moved to Los Angeles. Since then she has worked with some prestigious choreographers, and received offers from some of the best male ballroom dancers in the country looking for a female dance partner.
Where she's meant to be
In many ways, "So You Think You Can Dance" was just the next step for a dancer that has gained the acclaim of most everyone who's seen her dance. The show, now in its 10th season, has always been in Jenna's sights.
Initially, one of her biggest motivations was the chance to work with the show's choreographers, widely considered among the best in the industry. As the show has continued, Jenna said the friendships with fellow top 20 dancers has become just as meaningful.
"We've gotten so close," she said. "I think it's because we're the youngest group they've had so far as a top 20. We're young, we're super close to each other, and we're just clinging to this moment that we get to share."
With all the the composure and expertise Jenna exhibits on stage, it's easy to forget the age factor -- she's still only a year removed from high school, after all. And, although she's fiercely independent, her parents are still experiencing plenty of -- how to put this -- parenting opportunities.
During a video recap of a recent "So You Think You Can Dance" rehearsal -- where she was doing a suggestive cha-cha routine -- Jenna turned to the camera and proclaimed, somewhat jokingly, "I like being the sexy girl!"
As they watched it play out on national television, Jenna's mother shook her head in seeming embarrassment, while her father flashed that slight, weary grin so common to fatherhood.
"To her, I think the word 'sexy' means 'cutesy' or 'flirtatious,' " he said. "I don't think Jenna knows what 'sexy' really means. We'll try to ban that from her vocabulary."