When Ricky Ubeda fell to the ground in tears after being crowned the winner of this season’s So You Think You Can Dance, it was because he was overcome with emotion, having envisioned the moment since the long-running Fox reality competition first inspired him to start dancing. (Related: Awww.) It’s also because he was damned tired.
Have you seen So You Think You Can Dance? Produced by TV geniuses who are also perhaps sadists, the rigorous celebration of dance might be the most demanding talent competition out there, requiring its contestants to leap, pirouette, cha-cha-cha, and toss their dance partners in the air with unrelenting frequency over the course of its summer run each year. In Wednesday night’s finale alone, Miami-based winner, 18-year-old Ricky, danced a staggering six full-length routines, running the gamut from hip-hop to contemporary.
And he was flawless each time.
Little more than 12 hours after confetti rained down as he sobbed into host Cat Deeley’s bosom, Ricky has somehow been whisked from the Los Angeles soundstage to The Daily Beast’s New York offices to chat about his win. (There was no time even to stay for the show’s wrap party, what with redeyes to catch and Live with Kelly and Michael tapings to get to.)
But upbeat and adorable even as he asks, bleary-eyed, for a cup of coffee, Ricky was as game and personable as any SYTYCD fan would hope their favorite dancer from the past season—and he was the favorite to win from his first audition in Atlanta—to be, answering my questions about being the frontrunner, laughing as I joke about guest judge Jesse Tyler Ferguson’s blatant crush on him, and even humoring me by posing for this ridiculous photo:
In addition to sitting comfortably knowing that he can, in fact, dance, Ricky (after doing a passé together we’re on a first-name basis now) wins $250,000, a yet-to-be determined role in the upcoming Broadway production of On the Town, and will tour with the other Season 11 finalists around the country.
Before all of that begins—and before he gets the sleep he so sorely deserves—we chatted with him about his brilliant season on the show, the curse of the Viennese waltz, the joys of a Travis Wall contemporary routine, the perfection of Cat Deeley, and a host of other things that the biggest So You Think You Can Dance nerds will find utterly fascinating.
I’m sure you’ve heard that people thought you were going to win from the first audition. You seem pretty humble so I’m sure you’re not going to say, “I knew it, too!” But how does it feel to hear that people were so impressed by you from the start that they just assumed victory was a foregone conclusion?
It was really special. But I also think that, for some reason, people expected me to not have to work at anything. To just sail through. I think people think that I would just wake up in the morning and do Bollywood or the waltz, things I had never done before. But I had to work my butt off in order to look good doing these things.
That’s a good point. That when it seems so effortless people don’t think you had to work hard.
Yeah. That can hurt! It was really special, though, to know that people loved what I was doing.
There’s a lot of crying on the show.
Me. I’m a wreck.
It seems like a really emotional experience.
And you’re soooo exhausted.
That’s what I was going to say! When you’re so tired you can’t help but cry.
You’re just so exhausted that anything can throw you off. And especially if you do well, you’re like, “Oh my god…” (pretends to sob) It just feels so good because you put in so many hours and work your—I don’t want to say ass off, because then you’ll quote me [Ed. Note: Sorry!] It’s true! Top 4, we were like crying all the time. We would hold hands and just hold each other crying because of how exhausted we were.
The feedback you got each week from the judges was always so glowing. That must be surreal to hear those things from big celebrities. Was there anything that stuck with you that’s just seared into your brain?
A couple. What usually happens is that I go out there, finish dancing, and am like, “What did I just do?” In a good way. I get lost in it. So to hear them say good things goes right over me. Not in a bad way, but I’m so out of it from the dance I just did that I don’t really hear what’s going on and don’t really remember what they tell us exactly. I think a lot of contestants are the same way: it was either good or it was bad, and that’s all you remember. But I remember the first week when Nigel called me the magician of dance. That was really cool and special. And then when I did my duet with Jaime in the Top 8, he was floored by the way that I can put my technique in the background and it takes the back seat to the piece and what it means. That’s something that I try to do, so I’m glad that he noticed that. And Jesse Tyler Ferguson said he wanted to date me. That was fun.
Jesse Tyler Ferguson had the biggest crush on you!
It was hilarious. I love him. He took a selfie with me on stage after I won. He was, “You’re so talented.” And I was like, “Where are we going on a date?”
You know he’s married!
I know he is. But whatever! [Laughs]
So back to you winning last night. You crumbled!
I fell into the ground. That was pretty dramatic. I hadn’t seen it until I was on Live with Kelly and Michael this morning and they played it. I was like, “Oh my god, I’m so dramatic. I’m crying so much.”
What were you thinking?
I have played that moment in my head so many times. Since I was like 10. I can hear Cat rustling her card and opening it and saying my name. It was real. I was like, “Is this real?” That’s what I said. I remember thinking, “You have to get off the floor.”
I remember Cat Deeley literally took your head into her arms and let you sob on her shoulder. First of all, I’m jealous. Second, do you remember what you said to each other?
I was probably just like, “I can’t believe this is happening right now. What’s going on?”
I love Cat Deeley.
You love Cat Deeley? I LOVE CAT DEELEY! She is the sweetest person ever. She got us all these little trinkets, key chains that have our names engraved in them that say “So You Think You Can Dance” on the back. She’s just so nice and makes us feel so comfortable.
How well do you get to know her during the process?
Pretty well! We get to have fun with her. Not super-duper close like we would get with the producers. But pretty close. We would see her for every dress rehearsal we do and she would talk to us after every dance in the dress. She’d tell us what she thought. She always loves it, of course, she would never say she hates it. But she’s a big fan. She goes on the journey with us and she gets really excited when we succeed. She’s so cute. I love her.
Do you have a favorite dance that you did this season?
I have a couple. The first is the dance with Jessica. That’s the one I picked to dance last night. I think it’s really unique and I could do it forever. My duet with Zack, the hip-hop dance. It was just crazy. I also think it’s really cool that we’re both not hip-hop dancers and took it to that level. And then my duet with Kathryn, and my first duet with Valerie, the contemporary that Travis Wall choreographed.
Was there one that was the hardest for you to get?
Absolutely. The waltz.
Yes! OK. Be honest. When you guys are finding out what styles of dance you’re getting for that week and you draw ballroom, are you just like, “Goddammit!”
[Laughs] I was actually really excited. Because I wanted to learn it.
Yeah, but you’ve seen the show before. Someone does the foxtrot and then is eliminated pretty much immediately.
Yes. The Viennese waltz is the kiss of death on this show. So me and Emilio both pulled ballroom that week. And it always works out that one gets the Latin ballroom and one gets standard. And I was like, “I want the Latin!” And then I got the waltz. I was like, “No! They’re trying to get rid of me.” But it was amazing, actually. I was really surprised. But it was so hard to learn! That was the first time I cried in rehearsal. It wasn’t dramatic—just to myself in a corner. But I was like, “OK, pull it together.” You have to make it look so easy, but it’s so, so hard.
On the flip side, when you draw a Travis Wall contemporary routine, you must be like, “I hit the lottery!” Right?
Literally. The first week I got a Sonya Tayeh routine and then the second week I had Travis. I was like, “Am I in heaven?” It was great. I did two duets with Travis and three group numbers. I worked with him the most.
No wonder you were the frontrunner. You worked with Travis the whole time. What do you think is your best move? Your go-to when you want to impress people?
I’d say using my legs. I think my legs are important to my dancing. [Laughs] I use them a lot. I put them up. I put them down. I split them.
Jesse Tyler Ferguson Instagrammed a selfie from the judging panel with your leg up in the air on stage next to Cat Deeley and it was completely vertical. It was an amazing selfie.
He was just laughing about me being comfortable like that, how that’s how I’m most comfortable. He was like, “I’m most comfortable on the couch eating popcorn and that’s how you’re most comfortable. Now let’s take a selfie.” I was like OK! And they didn’t show extending my leg on TV, you only saw it in his photo.
You mentioned that you had envisioned winning this show before, and that’s why you were so emotional. When did you start watching?
Weirdly, and sappily enough, I started dancing because of the show. I was 8. People like Nick and Travis were guys dancing contemporary and made it just look cool. And they were so funny and awesome that I thought, “I want to do that.” And it’s cool that now you flash-forward and I’m on the show working with the people who inspired me to even start.
Did you get to tell Travis that?
Oh, he knows. He’s just so touched. He doesn’t say that much, but I knew he understood where I was coming from.
We chatted about the crazy rehearsal process and how much dancing you do all day. How much do you guys get to eat to sustain all of that?
Not that much. We, like, lose our appetites. It’s weird. Starting like Top 14, you’re just like, “Oh, wow. There it goes.” You start losing all this weight and looking gaunt and frail. Then you start losing your appetite because you’re nervous all the time. You don’t eat as much as people think. I wish we ate more.
I mean, when I take the stairs instead of the elevator one day, I’m like, “I’m going to have an ice cream sundae because of all the extra calories I burned!” I would’ve thought with all your dancing, you guys would be like that, too.
Oh, I definitely did eat, like, not good. When I got home I would eat Toaster Strudels and ice cream and Frosted Flakes in bed. Because I was so tired. But we didn’t really eat that much. We don’t have time! We got home and I wouldn’t even have the energy to open a box of Frosted Flakes. It was terrible, in a good way.
What made you decide that now was the time to audition?
I was waiting for the moment I turned 18, really. I turned 18 in December and auditioned right at the beginning of January. I was ready. It was time.
How do you prepare your audition for something like this?
Funny story. I prepared the audition the night before, without a mirror, in my hotel. I had some pieces that if I made it to callback week that I was saving, the really special solos to blow them away with to get into the Top 20. So I just put something together for the audition. And thankfully it worked. That could have been a gamble.
A lot of people made a big deal about the scope of talent this year. There were two tappers in the finale! Can you tap?
No. I can’t tap. I have never taken a tap class. It’s not really possible where I live. And I started late, and tap, usually, is something you start when you’re a kid. But I don’t see why I can’t learn, because I’m going to be on Broadway. So I probably should.
I’d imagine there’s going to be some tap in On the Town. How do you feel about getting this role on Broadway?
It was one of my many dreams. Just kidding, I don’t have that many of them. But Broadway was one of the things on the list to do next, and now it’s in my lap, which is crazy.
Do you know the parameters of it?
Nothing! Nigel Lythgoe was just like, “Oh, they’re really excited to work with you,” and I was just like, “OK!” New York is my favorite city in the world. This is where I wanted to move.
What are you hoping winning the show does for you, or what do you want to do after? On American Idol, for example, you win a record contract and put out an album, which is a logical next step. But there’s not that kind of logical transition after you win So You Think You Can Dance.
I think the show is just an amazing platform for something you want to do. The money gives you stability to move out to where you want and to audition to have these opportunities. And it lets people see you and offer you things. Now my next step is Broadway, but I don’t know what the next step after that would be. We’re going on tour for six months. And then I’m just going to dance. I don’t have an answer for that one!
Well, you have $250,000 to think about it with. What are you going to do with it?
It’s so overwhelming. I haven’t even though about the fact that I won, let alone what I’m going to do with all that money. But I am going to see a financial adviser and save it and make money off of it. I’m going to invest. As a dancer, you don’t get to make all the money you want. And I want to work in what I want to work in, and not have to choose a job because it pays more. So I want to do something smart with the money, and then use a little bit of it to move out here to New York.
Finally, when do you get to sleep?
Tonight, hopefully! I get to go home tomorrow night, I think. I hope.