A Former “So You Think You Can Dance” Star Helps Milwaukee Students Find Their Footing

Ten years after his “So You Think You Can Dance” debut, Cedric Gardner still has all the right moves.

Cedric Gardener checks the time, then strides across the lime-green and tangerine-orange Davis Dance Studio, in a building on South 24th Street. “We’ve got five minutes,” he says, surveying the 20-some students fanned out around him. “Let’s go again.”

The fresh-faced dancer, now 33, first gained national attention in 2007, when he freestyled his way to the finals of “So You Think You Can Dance.” Since then, he’s danced in films such as Step Up 3D, worked on choreography for the Fox show “Empire” and made appearances on Nickelodeon’s “Yo Gabba Gabba!” But he’s proudest of his work with the Don & Sallie Davis Boys & Girls Club, teaching 7- to 18-year-olds to pop, lock and air-walk.

The classes are part of a youth arts initiative that the Boys & Girls Clubs of America established in 2014, with more than five million in national funding from the New York-based nonprofit The Wallace Foundation, to provide affordable arts education to families around the country.

Enrollment numbers have skyrocketed since Gardner joined the club, from less than 10 to around 300, and he hopes to be working with 900 this time next year. “There’s nothing holding us back,” he says. “There’s no ceiling.”

Cedric Gardner’s dance students, with Trinity Riley front and center; Photo by Max Thomsen

Gardner has every reason to aim high – his failures have only catapulted him to greater success. The night he was eliminated from “So You Think You Can Dance,” judge Debbie Allen (of “Fame” fame) awarded him a scholarship to her Los Angeles dance academy. And, if his acting, dancing and choreography credits are any indication, he could have had a long career in LA. But the Wisconsin native and MPS graduate has always considered the Milwaukee area home, and he’s happy to be back here, tapping his industry connections to find opportunities for his students.

One of those opportunities, a music video commissioned by Old Navy, brought national attention to the Davis Dance Team last summer. Gardner collaborated with Pharrell Williams’ creative collective, i am OTHER, on the video, working with them to write and choreograph an original song for his students. It was catchy enough to capture the attention of Jimmy Kimmel, who invited a couple of the kids to perform a (slightly sillier) version of the song on his show.

Gardner’s contact list isn’t the only thing that endears him to his students, though. He’s also a charismatic leader, as comfortable in meetings with parents and at major events as he is on the dance floor. When technical difficulties delayed a Davis Dance Team performance at a recent Boys & Girls Club fundraiser, he effortlessly improvised, shouting out impromptu dance instructions to his students before darting into the crowd to pipe music through his cell phone.

“He’s the heart of the program,” Lisa Gilmore, mother of high-school senior Trinity Riley, says. “He sets the tone.” As far as Gardner is concerned, though, his students are the real leaders. And while he has no plans for leaving the club, he frequently reminds them that they need to look out for each other, even when he’s not there, because someday they’ll be the dance instructors, the program directors, the leaders of the city.

Trinity, who is currently filling out college applications and intends to keep dancing through her university years and beyond, understands this intuitively. “I know a lot of the younger kids are looking up to me,” she says. “I know I have to be the best I can be, for them.”

Cedric Gardner teaches at the Don & Sallie Davis Branch of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Milwaukee. Club membership costs $5 a year, and any member can sign up for classes.

‘Stepping Up!’ appears in the January 2018 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

Find it on newsstands beginning January 1, or buy a copy at milwaukeemag.com/shop.

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Lindsey Anderson covers culture for Milwaukee Magazine. Before joining the MilMag team she worked as an editor at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and wrote freelance articles for ArtSlant and Eater.