June 2011

By Chuck Barney / Contra Costa Times
Posted: 06/26/2011 03:00:00 PM PDT / Updated: 06/27/2011 10:00:29 AM PDT

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So You Think You Can Dance? Website

Ryan Ramirez got into dancing at age 4, after nailing all the moves in her “Barney and Friends” videos.

Ashley Rich was only 3 when Mom plopped her into a dance studio because she didn’t want her daughter sitting around the house “doing nothing.”

For both Bay Area women, the early head-starts have led to a lifelong passion, and now, prime-time success: They are among the 16 remaining contestants on the popular summer reality TV series, “So You Think You Can Dance.”

“We’ve talked to each other about our Bay Area connections,” says Ramirez, who was born and raised in Morgan Hill. “And how we have to work hard to represent.”

“It’s been a tough, nerve-racking journey so far, but it’s definitely worth it,” says Rich, an Antioch native who lives in Emeryville.

Both Rich, 22, and Ramirez, 19, are former high school cheerleaders. They both specialize in contemporary dance, and made it this far by initially beating out thousands of hopefuls during the “SYTYCD” auditions held last fall in Oakland.

But their journeys on the show have been dramatically different.

This is the second go-round with “SYTYCD” for persistent Ramirez, who barely missed out on making the Top 20 last season. And she has had her challenges thus far.

During the show’s preliminary round in Las Vegas, she suffered a badly bruised tailbone that nearly forced her out of the competition. And last week, despite delivering a sexy jazz routine that had the judges gushing, Ramirez and her partner, Ricky Jaime, were relegated by audience votes to the Bottom Three couples.

That meant Ramirez was forced to do a “dance for her life” solo routine. And though judge Nigel Lythgoe told her it “wasn’t as good as you can do,” it was enough to stave off elimination.

Ramirez credits her survival so far to a fiery brand of determination.

“Coming so close last time just made me want it even more,” she says. She also believes she’s much more mature compared to last season, when she was still living with her parents and attending Saint Francis High School in Mountain View. Since then, she has moved to North Hollywood to chase her dance dreams.

“I’m more confident, and I’m a lot more comfortable with myself,” she says.

As for Rich, who is on leave from her job as an instructor with Tiffany’s Dance Academy, she surprised herself by making it onto “SYTYCD” in her first try.

“I had always wanted to audition in the past but was too chicken. I had to get my nerves up,” recalls the Deer Valley High school grad. “When I heard they were coming to Oakland — just five minutes away — I figured that I might as well go for it, even if it meant getting up at the crack of dawn.”

During the Oakland auditions, Rich’s artistically fluid moves were praised by judge Tyce DiOrio who said she looked like “a deer flying and jumping through the forest.” And last week, she and her partner, Chris Koehl, dazzled viewers with an offbeat jazz routine teeming with style, humor and sexual energy.

Tiffany Henderson, who runs the multisite academy that employs Rich, says the East Bay contestant is winning over fans with her versatility — she excels in hop-hop, ballet and jazz — and her perky personality.

“Ashley is always very smiley and happy,” Henderson says. “She exudes a positive attitude and that comes across on the camera.”

Rich knows she’ll need to maintain that attitude and talent over the long haul to stand out among a field of contestants that has been touted as the strongest in eight seasons of “SYTYCD.” Many of her more seasoned rivals have auditioned three or four times.

“I’ve never seen this many good dancers in one place before,” says Rich, who participated in dance competitions throughout the Bay Area during her teens. “I’m just trying my best to stay positive and keep going.”

For now, both Rich and Ramirez are consumed with “SYTYCD,” learning new routines on the fly and rehearsing with their partners long into the night. But they’re also pondering their futures and the doors the show might open for them.

Ramirez, who calls dance her “second language,” sees herself eventually moving into choreographing stage shows and music videos. She already has worked on projects with renown choreographer Mia Michaels and “Dancing With the Stars” judge Carrie Ann Inaba.

Meanwhile, Rich dreams of someday joining a modern dance company. Would she move to L.A. or New York to make it happen?

“Absolutely,” she says. “Anything for dance.”