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Emanuel Sandhu thinks he can dance

Canadian figure skater showing his talents off the ice

After failing to do so last season, Emanuel Sandhu has made it to the top 20 in this season's <i>So You Think You Can Dance Canada</i>.
After failing to do so last season, Emanuel Sandhu has made it to the top 20 in this season's So You Think You Can Dance Canada. (courtesy of CTV)

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By Lois Elfman, special to icenetwork.com
(09/11/2009) - For most of the dancers who made the top 20 on this season of So You Think You Can Dance Canada (the Canadian version of the U.S. show), it's the first opportunity they've had to perform on television. Then there's three-time Canadian men's champion, world and Olympic competitor Emanuel Sandhu, who throughout his skating career has been known for his artistry and dance qualities. A former student at the National Ballet School of Canada, Sandhu has put skating on hold while he focuses on his other passion.

"I haven't really danced on stage probably since I left the National Ballet School in '97," Sandhu says. "I wouldn't say it's culture shock, but it's completely different from what I did on ice, but the more I get used to it, the more I find the similarities just because they're both performance arts. That's what keeps me focused.

"The production values in So You Think You Can Dance Canada are huge," he adds. "It's very inspiring and very motivating for the dancers. It is like being a rock star. I find that incredible because we're taking an art that may have once been suit and tie elitism -- especially with ballet -- and you're disseminating it into the masses by television and making it part of pop culture."

Growing up in Toronto, Sandhu, 28, both danced and skated. Although he never abandoned taking dance classes, placing second in senior men at the 1998 Canadian Championships definitely put skating on the front burner. He competed at worlds eight times, with a high placement of fifth in 2006. He won several Grand Prix events over the years and took gold at the Grand Prix Final in December 2003.

His last big competition was the 2007 world championships. He tried out for So You Think You Can Dance Canada last year, advancing from the regional audition in Vancouver to the finals in Toronto, but ultimately not making the program. This year, he was determined to earn a spot in the top 20. Unfortunately, skating nearly sabotaged him.

While skating Art on Ice shows in Switzerland in March, he tore cartilage in his right knee during the warm up for the final show. He underwent surgery and was diligent in rehab. Instead of attending the Vancouver audition, where he lives, he delayed until the Toronto audition, which gave him additional time to heal.

"Last year, I think I found out about the audition a day or two before," Sandhu says. "Instead of sitting home and thinking, 'I'm kind of scared to do this,' I was basically running to the audition, tying up my shoe laces and choreographing something in my head. It was really exciting. This year, [despite the injury] I felt more prepared and more stable as a dancer."

One huge difference between this show and skating is the very short amount of time the dancers have to learn new routines. Each week, they tape the competition show on Sunday night and it airs on Tuesday (when viewers vote for their favorite dancers). Wednesday nights are the live elimination shows -- two dancers are eliminated each week until the final four face off for the title of Canada's favorite dancer. Thursday, the dancers begin to learn their new routines, which have to be ready for Sunday.

"It's like a mini-Olympics every week in terms of the emotional intensity that we go through as dancers," says Sandhu. "You have to embody the character and the groove and the style of the genre you're performing plus learn the choreography."

As a singles skater, he never skated with a partner. He did take pas de deux classes in ballet school, and he took some partnering classes before this year's auditions. He also took classes in genres like hip-hop and ballroom to be better prepared. Sandhu says he loves working with a partner. For the first five weeks of the show, he's paired with Kim Gingras, unless one of them is eliminated.

"I see ballet as my formal training, and I've spent many years doing it," he notes. "When you're doing hip hop, you've got to let go of all that you've learned in ballet class because it's almost a completely opposite way of dancing."

The show tapes in Toronto, so his mother has been able to attend. An opera singer, she's the one who first put Sandhu into dance class because legendary ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev was her idol.

"He's one of my dance idols as well," says Sandhu, who notes that, following his defection from the Soviet Union, Nureyev helped propel dance into pop culture in North America. "I think my mom's really happy that I'm kind of coming full circle."

At press time, Sandhu was about to tape his third show. Canadian fans can view the show on CTV and phone in their votes. There are also videos on CTV.ca. For those outside of Canada, most of his performances can be found on YouTube.

For fans of Sandhu's skating, he says doing So You Think You Can Dance Canada does not mean an end to his days on the ice. He's even maintained his eligibility, so he hasn't closed the door on a competitive return.

"Skating has been a huge part of my life for such a long time. It was brought me a lot of joy and a lot of heartache as well," he says. "It's not something I can now say I want to give up completely. It's certainly shaped who I am as a person and it's certainly shaped who I am as a dancer." To be continued.