ENCINITAS — Merrick Hanna said it all happened so fast.
The bright lights, the cameras, the celebrities.
But then the beat dropped, and Merrick was home.
The 11-year-old Cardiff-by-the-Sea boy who has a love for robots and pop-locking was auditioning for the longtime Fox dance competition, “So You Think You Can Dance.” He wowed the celebrity panel of TV show producer Nigel Lythgoe, singer/choreographer Paula Abdul and pop singer Jason Derulo with his popping, and earned himself a ticket to the show’s second phase.
The performance has since gone viral and garnered Merrick an appearance on the Ellen DeGeneres show, which aired this week.
“I was so excited,” said Merrick, a fifth grader at Ada Harris Elementary. “I was a bit star struck at first because it all happened in a blur…there were a million different things going through my head. I was excited, super confused about what happened next, it was a bit overwhelming with all of the lights an cameras everywhere. But it was mostly awesome.”
It’s also been a blur for the Hanna family, which includes his parents Shawn and Aletha, and his little brother, Sagan.
Aletha Harris said that two years ago, she and the family would spend their Saturdays on the soccer pitch, as Merrick was a competitive soccer player.
But around December 2014, he started to dance — in his room imitating the moves of dancers on YouTube.
“He did that for about six to eight months until someone saw him dancing in the park and said, ‘You need to get this kid into dance classes,’” Aletha said.
They enrolled Merrick in dance classes at the local YMCA, and he hasn’t looked back since.
“He was on the soccer’s A team, but when season came up and he was 9, he told us he didn’t want to play soccer anymore, he only wanted to dance,” Aletha said. “It was quite the change; instead of going to soccer games, we were going to dance recitals and dance battles. But he loves it. He loves the energy and camaraderie between the dancers and the fact that he is often times the youngest one there.”
When asked how Merrick is able to do what he does, Aletha could only shrug.
“He just does it, that’s his secret power,” she said. “He can watch something and do it. I am glad he applied that to dancing and not ninja arts.”
As Merrick improved as a dancer, he started posting videos to his Instagram page. Those videos attracted the attention of producers from “So You Think You Can Dance,” which invited him to audition for this season.
A longtime avid watcher of the show, Aleta said she knew that dancers who survived the first cut are subjected to a battery of different dance styles. So, they enrolled Merrick in “serious dance” classes for three weeks.
“You can’t stuff years of technical training into three weeks, but we tried,” she said.
But on the day of the audition, Merrick stuck to his guns — a style that combines robotic moves with more fluid wave-like motions, a style he calls “flo-bot.”
He attempted to fake out the judges by starting his performance with an awkward rendition of the dance made famous by Alfonso Ribeiro on “The Fresh Prince.”
Then, when the beat dropped, Merrick unleashed a series of pop-locking moves that left the judges in awe.
The judges unanimously and enthusiastically voted Merrick to the next stage of the competition.
Shortly after he got off stage, his mother got an email from Ellen DeGeneres’ show, asking him to appear on the Ellen show.
The whole family got to attend as Merrick was interviewed by DeGeneres and got to meet Stephen “tWitch” Boss, the show’s disc jockey and a former “Dance” contestant — also one of Merrick’s idols.
“The coolest person I met so far is tWitch, he is super awesome,” Merrick said. “He is a super good dancer, his pops are amazing and he can pretty much do anything, and he’s super nice. He even took selfies with us.”
Merrick has already attended the “Dance” academy, which narrows the 83 contestants down to a final 10, but the Hanna family can’t say whether Merrick has advanced until the show airs later this month.
“I think they’d take my house if I told you,” Aletha said with a laugh.
Until then, Merrick is soaking up the residuals of his 15 minutes of fame. He has a couple of auditions in Los Angeles, he will be in a back-to-school TV advertisement for clothing company H&M and he just finished filming a TV pilot.
He will also continue what he loves: dancing. He assists the children’s hip-hop dance class at the YMCA — attended by Sagan. He performs at the San Diego Botanic Garden June 9 at 5 p.m. and at the San Diego Fair June 24 with the YMCA dance troupe, and has a performance June 11 with the Evolution Dance company in Carlsbad.
“I definitely never want to stop dancing,” Merrick said. “But I also want to be a robotic engineer.”