In many ways, Harley O’Neill is just like any other high school student. A dual-enrolled senior at Santa Fe High School, she successfully maintains her grades and her job as a dance teacher at ‘O2b kids!’ If you could read O’Neill’s mind, you would find thoughts revolving entirely around something she cannot imagine her life without—dance.
Her dance career may have began learning “basic stuff” as an 8-year-old at ‘O2b kids!’ but it reached new heights in January when she traveled to Atlanta as one of the youngest contestants to try out for the hit Fox competition show, ‘So You Think You Can Dance?’
While attending a private dance lesson at IndepenDance, O’Neill casually brought up the auditions to her teacher and close friend Mary Knestrick, who researched more information and urged her to try out for the auditions that ended up changing O’Neill as a dancer and person.
To begin the competition, O’Neill said the dancers had to do a 20-second improvisational dance in a group, something she enjoyed because she could easily do a mix of the various styles of dance she knew. It didn’t go as smoothly as she expected, however.
“The producer of the show stopped me halfway through and said, ‘There is absolutely no technique in that whatsoever.'”
Luckily, O’Neill was given a second chance to try again, and was received warmly by the round of judges, receiving the show’s “Golden Ticket,” which allows dancers to go to the “Winner’s Circle.” Upon receiving the ticket, O’Neill was more excited than many of her fellow competitors.
“I was hyperventilating and everyone around me had already done this before,” she said. “It was the scariest thing of my entire life—me, out of tiny old Gainesville and O2BKids!”
Performing in front of the large audience and renowned judges was more than a nerve-wrecking experience for O’Neill; she described it as “so surreal I felt like I was in a dream.”
“I felt like I had nothing inside of me, no conscious,” she said. “My heart dropped in my stomach and I couldn’t breathe. It was so unreal that I didn’t believe it.”
The following weekend was the round of callbacks, where judges select their favorite dancers to move on to the final round of the show in Las Vegas. Finally coming to terms with how far she’d made it, O’Neill was able to relax and focus on enjoying the moment. With the support of her dance teacher Knestrick, her parents and her grandma “Mimi,” who had come to Atlanta to cheer her on, O’Neill put the whole experience into perspective.
“My next thought was that I didn’t care if I went to Vegas,” she said. “I just wanted to make the judges smile and not disappoint my family, I wanted to make them proud.”
As one of the youngest dancers trying out for the show, O’Neill wasn’t surprised when a judge told her she was too immature and not ready for the show. Despite the criticism, O’Neill also remembers the nice things the judges said to her and was able to leave on a high note.
“Nigel called me ‘cute as a button,’ I won’t forget that,” she said. “I told the judges, you’ll see me again, I’ll be back next year.”
Stress, worry and critique aside, O’Neill noticed some advantages she had against other dancers, which she attributed to Knestrick, who encouraged her to learn acting and experiment with a variety of style to maximize her versatility as a performer. O’Neill also took with her profound realizations she will never forget.
“Every dancer should go on that show. The experience is so priceless,” she said. “It’s so different from any other audition I’ll ever do. I learned it was OK to get excited, it’s OK to want more and want to be the best—that’s the motivation.”
‘So You Think You Can Dance?’ is a far cry from her humble beginnings when she first started dancing at ‘O2BKids!’ Eager to experiment with styles outside of the traditional jazz, tap and ballet, her dreams of bigger things became realized with the instruction and support of Knestrick.
“She’s the reason I went from dancing with pom-poms to trying out for ‘So You Think You Can Dance?’” she said. “Mary opened all the doors to get my creative juices flowing.”
Knestrick taught hip hop and more modern dance classes, bringing with her what O’Neill refers to as “West Coast style,” the likes of which she hadn’t been able to find in Gainesville. Too old for O2BKids, Knestrick, along with O’Neill’s mother and stepfather, Joli and Tim Day, opened IndepenDance, so she could continue dancing.
“I think that if you’re going to experience the art form, it should be in as many aspects as you could,” Knestrick said. “It helps them become better dancers all around. Harley is very unique and that’s what made her stand out; she’s not afraid to try anything.”
O’Neill’s experience with ‘So You Think You Can Dance?’ was truly a testament to her ability to overcome her fears and inhibitions, an experience she’ll carry with her as she takes on each new challenge in her life.
In just a few short months after graduation, O’Neill plans on having another life-changing experience travelling the world with her friend. Inspired by the Australian mentality of taking a gap year between high school and college, O’Neill wanted to satisfy her curiosity and explore before starting college. Despite disappearing from Gainesville for nearly a year, O’Neill plans to stick with dance while traveling.
“I want to take at least a few dance classes on each continent,” she said. “It’s the only way I can stay up and fresh in the dance world.”
O’Neill plans to travel to Europe, Africa, Australia, Asia and South America, and hopes to experience new styles of dance in each place.
“When I get back I’m going to work my butt off. I just want to audition, audition, audition,” she said. “Then move to California.”
O’Neill said she knows she wants to go to college, but is having trouble narrowing down what she wants to do. She’s hoping for a revelation during her travels. One thing, however, is certain: she’ll always be dancing.
“Travel is so important to me,” she said. “This is going to change my life. But dance will always be a part of my life. Without dance, I wouldn’t be Harley—it just doesn’t go.”