LEOMINSTER — While all eyes were on pregnant headliner Rihanna during the Super Bowl halftime show last weekend, one of the dancers was living out a dream she’s had since she was a little girl.
This was the third Super Bowl city native Yuliana Maldonado danced alongside a world-renowned pop star. Last year she shook her groove thing as part of troop dancing with Mary J. Blige and crew and three years ago she performed with Jennifer Lopez.
“All three shows are special to me in their own way, but I have to say my first experience back in 2020 with Jennifer Lopez is unforgettable,” Maldonado shared. “That first feeling of being on that stage is indescribable.”
The 23-year-old was born in Puerto Rico and moved to Leominster with her family in 2011. She began dancing at the tender age of four, a move that would prove to be life changing.
“My mom put me in dance because I was born with a condition, club foot, to help me correct my feet,” Maldonado said. “I spent the first year of my life between casts and special shoes.”
She joined Miss Tanya’s School of Dance in Fitchburg the year she moved to Leominster and said her experience dancing there for six years helped her to get where she is today.
“It wasn’t just a dance studio” she said. “They became my second family. I learned discipline, responsibility, and genuine love.”
When asked if there are any particular dance teachers she wants to give a shoutout to, Maldonado mentioned two that stand out.
“Tanya Robichaud for supporting me, for her love and guidance. She would always say she saw potential in me and made me believe in myself. To Brittany Johnson, my first hip hop teacher. When all I knew was ballet, she influenced me into diving into something new and I’m so glad I did!”
After graduating from Leominster High School in 2017 Maldonado moved to California to pursue a dance career, leaving behind her family — dad Julio Maldonado, mom Eneida Santiago, and her younger sister Angelica Maldonado, 20, who’s currently serving in the United States Space Force, the space service branch of the U.S. Armed Forces.
“Initially I was doubtful about making dance a career,” she recalled. “It seemed so out of reach but I knew I had to at least give it a shot and somehow I ended up here making dreams come true.”
Maldonado is represented by Bloc Talent Agency out of Los Angeles, who hires her for the Super Bowl gig and lines up other dance opportunities for her. Turns out she wasn’t the only LHS Class of 2017 alumni performing at the Super Bowl – a hometown football star you’ve probably have heard of, Noah Gray, won the Vince Lombardi Trophy with his team, the Kansas City Chiefs.
Maldonado said she has “been blessed” to have participated in the Super Bowl three times and that she thoroughly enjoys “being able to perform in one of the biggest platforms there is for any artist.” She went on to say that rehearsals for the large-scale shows “can definitely be challenging” and that they often practice between eight to 12 hours a day beginning months before the performance.
Dance is her full-time job and she declared that “thankfully I’ve had a lot of amazing opportunities.” Her favorite style of dance is jazz funk, a “fun and energetic” genre that’s a combination of all the dance training she did growing up.
When it comes to her hopes and future goals for her dance career, Maldonado said she feels like she “still has a lot to accomplish” — and that she is considering taking acting classes.
“I’d love to go on tour,” she said of one of the items on her professional bucket list.
She has a whole village of people behind her cheering her on.
“My parents and sister are my biggest supporters and my friends back home in Leominster. They hype me up and always show me so much love! Having their support motivates me to give it my all.”
Both Johnson and Robichaud have been glued to the screen watching Super Bowl performances and “they’ll take tons of pictures and send them to me,” Maldonado said. “I love that they do that.”
Maldonado’s dad moved to California at the end of 2016 after getting a transfer through his job, anticipating Maldonado would join after graduation.
“He was worried about me being 17 and on my own in Los Angeles at the time. My mom and sister moved a year after. If it weren’t for their support I don’t know if I’d make it,” Maldonado said.
The family all lives within minutes of each other in the LA area and Maldonado said “it’s a blessing to have them close.” The dancer misses her crew back home, including her grandfather, and said that living on the west coast is a totally different vibe.
“I miss Leominster and just the feeling of home, the slower pace of life, LA can get crazy, and spending time with friends,” Maldonado shared.
Her parting thoughts encouraged other female dancers to reach for the stars.
“If there’s anything I can say to all the girls who have dreams, don’t think it’s impossible. Don’t be discouraged by people who say it isn’t a real career or it can’t be achieved.”