Thousands auditioned but only 20 remain on season 8 of So You Think You Can Dance. The contestants spoke with PEOPLE shortly after receiving the good news to share their struggles and their hopes of becoming “America’s Favorite Dancer.” Meet the men before they take the stage next week for the first live show – and the fist elimination of the season.:
Alexander Fost, 21, contemporary
Hometown: Pasadena, Calif.
Frost started dancing in high school to get out of taking P.E. “I didn’t want to do sports but I wanted to get involved,” he says. After auditioning three times, the classically trained ballet dancer left the tights at home this year and tried out in “jeans and a beanie,” winning the judges over with personality rather than just technique.
Tadd Gadduang, 25, street
Hometown: West Valley, Utah
Gadduang’s early dance inspiration? Sibling rivalry. “My older sister would make fun of me because I couldn’t [dance], so I was like, ‘You know what? I’m going to get good at this,'” he says. “Dancing is the last thing I thought I would be doing today,” adds the former retail worker who’s auditioned five times before. “Now, I guess it is my day job.”
Marko Germar, 22, jazz
Hometown: Canoga Park, Calif.
Germar has a bullet lodged near his shoulder joint from a robbery he witnessed after moving to California from Guam in 2008. He’s been street dancing since age seven but was pushed into further training by his ballroom instructor mother. “I was doing hip-hop and I was like, ‘I don’t want to [learn other styles].’ Probably part of my parent-child defiance thing.”
Ricky Jaime, 18, contemporary
Hometown: Tampa, Fla.
Jaime choreographed his first performance – a surprise dance for his mom at her wedding reception – when he was 9 years old. So she enrolled him in classes, which he continues to take as a dance student in Chicago. He says that he’s most excited for the group dances on the show because, unlike his 9-year-old work, “it’s a full on production: hair, makeup, everything.”
Wadi Jones, 24, break dancing
Hometown: Ossing, N.Y.
Jones is a self-taught b-boy who learned how to dance by watching videos with his brother as a kid. “We never had the money to take classes so we just practiced on our own, tried to critique each other,” he says. And now? “I’m teaching 10-year-olds how to windmill,” Jones adds. “It’s dope because later they’re going to be twice as good as I am.”
Mitchell Kelly, 20, contemporary
Kelly was a football player before he discovered Alvin Ailey and fell in love with dance. He first auditioned in season 6 and was cut during the group choreography round in Vegas. Fresh out of high school, Kelly decided he needed more professional experience before auditioning again. “I was so sheltered,” he says, and he found it by working as a choreographer for Kim Zolciak of The Real Housewives of Atlanta.
Christopher Koehl, 21, hip-hop
Hometown: Garland, Tex.
The Dallas dance teacher first auditioned last year and hit it off with fellow top 20 dancer Missy Morelli. “We actually partnered last year [in Vegas] and we did pretty well,” he says. “We gravitated to each other immediately and clicked. Like we finished each other’s sentences.”
Jess LeProtto, 18, Broadway
Hometown: Little Falls, N.J.
This Broadway veteran (Bye Bye Birdie, The Boy From Oz) comes from a family of performers and caught the bug while waiting for his sister outside of her dance class. “I would sit in the lobby and sometimes I would peek under the door crack and see what she was doing,” he says.
Robert Taylor, 30, hip-hop
Hometown: Brooklyn, N.Y.
Taylor is well aware of what sets him apart from the other dancers. After auditioning for the first three seasons, the oldest member of the top 20 studied contemporary dance, jazz and Broadway before switching to hip-hop. “I said, ‘Okay, I really need to buckle down since the age limit is 30,’ ” he says. “I feel very lucky and blessed to be where I am.”
Nick Young, 19, tap
Hometown: Franklin, Wis.
Young grew up playing football, baseball and soccer, but says he was “forced” into dance by his mother, who owns a dance studio. Despite teasing from other kids – “I was getting made fun of a lot,” he says, “like all guy dancers do,” – he stuck with it. After being cut in season 7, he returned this year as a tapper – a move he feels helped him land in the top 20.