Since placing in the Top 10 on "So You Think You Can Dance" in 2006, Martha Nichols' career has been steadily on the rise: She spent two years dancing with Cirque du Soleil, has toured with the likes of Rihanna and Madonna, and has appeared in films like La La Land, The Greatest Showman and, soon, In the Heights.
But it just as easily could have never happened.
"I actually did not want to audition for 'SYTYCD,' " she says with a laugh. "My mother had passed 10 days after I graduated high school, and so I stopped dancing. We were watching the show, and my adopted dad kept saying, 'Hey, you should do this.' " Nichols finally gave it a shot, and the rest is history.
Two breakthroughs: "I guess you could say 'SYTYCD' was my breakthrough, but I also feel like I didn't bring all of myself to it because my mom had just passed. Emotionally, my breakthrough came when I moved back to L.A. in 2010 to commit to being a dancer."
Her advice: "If you only show up 50 percent, you can't get mad at somebody for underestimating you."
Pre-performance routine: "I definitely pray. I like to hold a plank because it roots my hands and my feet back into the earth and gives me a deeper sense of grounding."
Biggest mentor: "Mandy Moore taught me almost everything I know about dancing on camera. She even gave me my first job in L.A., which was on the Nickelodeon kids show, The Fresh Beat Band."
On set: "I loved working on In the Heights! The associate choreographer, Dana Wilson, is a good friend of mine. All the energy that you'll see in the film is authentic to what was experienced on set."
L.A. vs. NYC: "I needed to be in L.A. when I was there to fully navigate New York the way I want to now. But for who I am right now and the woman that I am growing into becoming, New York is home."
What she's reading: "The Screwtape Letters, by C.S. Lewis; How to Worship a King, by Zach Neese; Talking to Strangers, by Malcolm Gladwell; and my Bible."
On her faith: "It is a gift to call myself a dancer. The extra blessing is that I get to do it for a living, and share it with others. God chose to give me this, and so I give it back as an offering and a thank-you. When I perform, it's not about me. I'm simply an instrument, and I'm a carrier of light."
Next up: "I'm working on my first show in New York. I'll be choreographing, directing and dancing."
Staying humble: "My grandma keeps me in check. If my head slightly starts to get big or I start to tap into my ego, Grandma will shoot me down in 2.5 seconds."