Standing 5 feet 4 inches tall, and weighing in at 250 pounds, Leroy Martinez’s story inspired many after he auditioned for Fox’s TV dance competition, So You Think You Can Dance, in February. Martinez, who comes from a family troubled by alcohol and drug abuse, credits dance as his savior from a hard-knock life on the streets. And, although he didn’t make the show’s top 20 cut, Martinez says he’s still invested in giving the kids in his hometown of Lincoln the same fighting chance by way of free classes through his church-run Amplified Dance program.
Why did you try out for So You Think You Can Dance?
In October, my wife Tami said that they’re doing auditions in Salt Lake [City]. [I’d] been trying to get there for the three years, [but] stuff kept coming up, and she said, “I’m raising the money to go, so you’re going. All you gotta do is practice.” I thought, why the heck not? It was a good, positive message.
How was the experience?
The crazy thing is, I was shocked and dumbfounded on how much airtime they [gave] me. I didn’t go for fame, I didn’t go for ‘Hey look at me, I’m a good dancer!’ Or ‘Hey, look, I was on TV; here’s my autograph’—that was never my goal. When I went to this audition, I said that no matter what exposure I get, I want to [give] that back to this dance program.
What kind of responses have you received?
I had a father call me on Father’s Day and [say], “Just keep doing what you’re doing. You’re a beautiful person. It made me cry. You are an inspiration.” I’ve had Facebook messages from Dubai [United Arab Emirates], the Philippines, China, Africa, Japan and Bangladesh. One girl from Africa wrote and said she stopped dancing because people were … critical of her weight. She said, “I watched the show. As of yesterday, I started dancing again because of you.”
When and why did you start dancing?
When I was 12, my mom moved us out to Lincoln to get us away from [an abusive situation]. My mom didn’t want us to grow up around that. We didn’t have a lot of money, and I was looking for free programs to join. When I was 16, I got involved in dance, and it’s [been] pretty much uphill ever since.
How did you get involved with the Peacemakers dance crew?
One day in Sacramento, I was setting up chairs for an outreach show [I was involved with as a youth] and saw a dad and son, and they were dancing. I was like, I gotta meet this guy, but in the midst of being busy, I missed him. A few months later, the same thing happened. [Then], one day during a youth meeting, the leader announced they were going to start a dance class in the gym, and when I was walked in, I saw the dad and son I was trying to find. His name is Chris Smith. He taught me about dance, and then he even had me teaching after a while.
Are you still performing with the Peacemakers?
I haven’t really done anything but the shows [recently] just because with work and moving here and there and getting married, I’ve been busy. My family is the most important thing.
What are you doing with dance now?
The pastor at the church we go to, New Song Community Church in Lincoln, was looking to start an after-school program here in our town to give kids something to do to stay out of trouble. He wanted to offer a positive place for kids of any age. After my audition, I was like, “I could teach a dance class here!” About a month-and-a-half ago, we got flyers and started Amplified Dance.
How is the program funded?
We do basic fundraisers: car washes, bake sales, we go around and ask. But ever since SYTYCD, we’ve had [people from across] America and [people from] other countries wanting to help. I’ve had numerous people calling me. None of the money goes to me; it all goes back into those programs, such as providing food and drinks and shirts for kids in the program for performances. We’re getting donations after donations to help these kids.
Will you try out for SYTYCD again?
On my Facebook page, about 90 percent of the comments are, “You’re so inspirational,” [and] 30 percent are very upset I didn’t go [on to compete on the show in] Las Vegas. I have to go back. If I don’t, I’m going to have a mob in front of my house. I’m excited, just because of the exposure for these kids, and the opportunity I get to help them.