Jim Nowakowski had his first surgery when he was 7 months old, shortly after he arrived in the U.S. with his adoptive parents, Connie and Gary Nowakowski, of Webster. And, like other babies born with cleft lip and palate, he endured dozens more procedures and surgeries, including one that left his mouth wired shut for 5 weeks, eating only what would fit through a straw. Read more about his cleft lip experience.
A patient of the UR Medicine and Eastman Institute for Oral Health since that first surgery, Jim believes the painful procedures and surgeries helped him maintain his drive to dance.
“After this appointment, after that surgery, after this follow up, I get to go to ballet class,” he remembers thinking. “It was my escape, my therapeutic way to cope with all of it, and something to look forward to. I think I would have been more defeated, but having dance and ballet in my life helped me through all those surgeries and recovery times. I knew it would be OK.”
Still, he remembers those days warmly, despite the difficulties. “Everyone at Eastman and Strong always made it very easy and comfortable,” he said.
After spending eight wonderful years at the Houston Ballet, Jim was ready for the next chapter in his dance career, and auditioned for the popular TV show, So You Think You Can Dance?
A Conversation with Jim Nowakowski
Q. Congratulations on making the Top 20! How does the show progress?
A. It’s definitely been exciting! This coming Monday, we start the live shows. We each perform, and America votes. Then, the bottom three-- based on those votes from each team (Stage vs. Street)-- are up for elimination, who then perform a solo. Based on last week’s performances and the solo, the judges decide who gets eliminated.
As soon as there are only 10 of us, then America decides, the judges do not. The person from each team with the least amount of votes gets eliminated.
Q. How did it feel when Nigel said you’re one of the best dancers he’s ever seen on the show?
A. That means SO much, because number one, he’s a strict judge, and he does know ballet. He has great credentials. For him and the other judges to recognize ballet and respect the hard work that goes into it, is very rewarding.
Q. So what are the judges really like?
A. Everyone asks me that! They are all really sweet people! Jason is a really sweet guy – I love that he respects what I do, especially because he comes from a hip hop world. Paula Abdul is such a sweetie – I felt like she was rooting for me, which was really comforting. Nigel…he’s such a strict judge, that it makes me want to dance even harder to prove myself to him and exceed all their expectations throughout the competition. When the cameras are off, they’re the same. They told us, at the end of the day it’s an experience..they want us to do our best and offer help any way they can.
Q. How do you feel about sharing the story about your cleft lip and palate?
A. Having a cleft lip and palate never defined me as a person – it’s not something I talk about a lot – because it’s just part of me. But actually, that’s been the best part – I’ve received so many messages from people thanking me for sharing my story and inspiring them and their kids. I received a message from a guy who shared that his younger brother has a lot of insecurities and after seeing my story, realized you can go after whatever you want, whatever you’re going through doesn’t have to hold you back.
Q. You’ve been a professional ballet dancer for the last eight years. Will you do ballet throughout the competition?
A. I’ll be learning new genres and styles of dancing throughout this experience. It’s exciting, refreshing, and very fulfilling to me. I’m sure there will be lots of ups and downs and I’m ready to show America what I have to offer. I also hope to inspire and motivate young dancers – both boys and girls, but especially boys who want to try ballet…it’s definitely scarier for boys to try ballet.
Q. Are the cameras intimidating?
A. Yes, but you kind of get used to it. You’re focused on working and rehearsing, and at the same time, people are off to the side being interviewed. I think this is a different kind of reality TV, because you’re sharing what you’re doing in your work, and sharing the process.
Q. How do you feel about sharing the good, the bad and ugly with America?
A. I’m ready and excited to have America take this roller coaster ride with me! I’ll be outside my comfort zone and it’ll be hard, and scary, which makes me somewhat vulnerable. I’d love for America to see behind the scenes and share this journey with me.
Jim greatly appreciates votes and support from his hometown Rochester, NY and the rest of America. Tune in on Mondays at 8 p.m. on FOX. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram. @JimNowakowski and on Facebook at Jim Nowakowski Fans.