Piano chords thrum as a solitary spotlight illuminates a man staring defiantly into a camera, adorned in makeup and a flowing, ethereal white gown. Under two minutes of flawlessly executed contemporary dance follows, the male-female duo onstage narrating a story through their movements. It’s a tale of a man grappling with an intrinsic desire to be himself and the expectations society has thrust upon him.
Choreographed by Travis Wall to Damien Rice’s “It Takes a Lot to Know a Man,” the routine performed on August 27’s live show of So You Think You Can Dance Season 15 went viral overnight. Viewers and media alike raced to praise Wall and dance show contestants Darius Hickman and Taylor Sieve, who brought to life a poignant portrait of modern-day gender expression.
A Palm Beach native, 19-year-old Hickman earned accolades for his tender but fierce embodiment of a man challenging gender roles. “I got so many messages and comments about it which overwhelmed me with joy,” Hickman says. “It’s something I had struggled with growing up and not being comfortable with myself and opening up to others.”
Hickman admits that taking on such a piece was “nerve-wracking” since he knew what it represented and didn’t want to let the choreographer or himself down. Rather the opposite, his raw performance moved judges of the show to tears and cemented his name into SYTYCD history.
Finishing in sixth place, the finalist is currently on the road with fellow Season 15 dancers for the SYTYCD Live! Tour. Hickman, who now lives in Los Angeles, is looking forward to returning to his hometown for tour performances in Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach. But the homecoming is not all positive memories for the skilled dancer.
“I had a really rough childhood, so I don’t think I ever found any good in growing up in Florida,” he says. “But now, looking where I am and where I was, the beauty of it is that I am comfortable [with] what I am and what I’ve been through. I’m comfortable with what my life is and what my life was. I think that home is a place where I have those good and those bad feelings.”
The 19-year-old had his fair share of obstacles growing up. When he was a kid, Hickman’s mother battled a drug addiction, went to jail, and his father was never in the picture. Raised by an aunt who was in an abusive relationship, a young Hickman also suffered firsthand from her partner. Eventually, he and his aunt got out of the damaging situation, but she passed away when he was a teen. Hickman moved in with his grandmother.
Through it all, dance was his reprieve. “I started dancing when I was 12,” he says.
Six years of training sharpened a natural talent into unforgettable skill. His family didn’t have much money, so when his friend persuaded the then-18-year-old to fly to L.A. and try out for SYTYCD Season 14 in 2017, he had to put together a GoFundMe page to help get him there. A first go at the dance competition didn’t end with much success: He was sent home while vying for a spot in the Top 20. Never one to give up, Hickman used the experience as incentive to get better and returned for auditions earlier this year. Knocking viewers’ socks off with his polished style, the Floridian made it all the way to the Top 6 of Season 15.
Now, 30,000 people follow his digital journey as a dancer, a number bound to grow as he blossoms in the public eye. Hickman is embracing the opportunities he’s worked diligently for. He’s ready to do what he set out to do when first joining SYTYCD: inspire.
“The last [tour] show that we did, a mother came up to me and said, ‘You’ve inspired my son so much. He is struggling with his sexuality and doesn’t know what to do and he feels like he’s excluded from groups and he watched you and bawled his eyes out and now he feels so much better about himself.'”
Confident and unapologetically himself, the contemporary dancer reveals that his goal from the beginning of his time on the celebrated dance competition was never to win but to live his truth. “I always say it, it’s on my Instagram bio, I say it on every live show: Just be yourself. I think that’s so important. Especially considering the situations you’re in and where you are, it’s so easy to forget who you are and to conform to what other people are doing. Then you become an object and you don’t stand out.”
Hickman acknowledges that’s why his take on Travis Wall’s courageous choreography was received with “so much love.” It came from a place of individual strength; from the throes of a person rising up from the dust of a trying upbringing, shaped by a lifetime of challenges. “I think that’s what made me different on the show, I was myself the whole entire season… For so long I wasn’t comfortable with what I’d been through; I wasn’t comfortable with sharing it, especially not on national television. But I was able to do that and help people because of it.”
Not yet 20, Darius Hickman is chock-full of eloquence, wisdom, and a contagious ambition. What’s on the horizon for the young dancer? “I want to do everything.”
So You Think You Can Dance Live! 2018. 8 p.m. Saturday, November 10, at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, 201 SW Fifth Ave., Fort Lauderdale; 954-462-0222; browardcenter.org. Tickets cost $30 to $99.50 via ticketmaster.com.