Dance and art

Meet MDC3: The « World of Dance » Winners Who Defied the Odds

In March 2020, the same day the « World of Dance » cast got word that production would be shutting down due to a global pandemic, MDC3 artists Madison (Madi) Smith, Diego Pasillas and Emma Mather stood shoulder to shoulder onstage, bracing to hear the final results of the competition. The champion title and $1 million prize money were within reach, decided entirely by the three celebrity judges sitting in front of them. As their competitor’s scores dropped from the lips of Derek Hough, Jennifer Lopez and Ne-Yo at roughly 2 percentage points below their own, viewers watched realization dawn. MDC3’s mouths dropped into gigantic Oh‘s before their hands slapped over their faces in disbelief. Sparklers shot up while confetti rained down, and the announcer shouted, « MDC3, you are the winner of ‘World of Dance’! »

It was an impressive accomplishment for any group of dancers, let alone three teenagers who’d faced rejection from the show three times over. Despite their youth (Madi is 18, Diego is 17 and Emma is 16), this moment was hard earned through years of dedicated patience.

Madi, Diego, and Emma face to the side. They are clearly in motion, as the girls' long hair moves through the air. All three are dressed in white, set against a blue background.

Photo by Joe Toreno

The Team

MDC3 was established seven years ago under the direction of Mather Dance Company artistic director and industry choreographer, Shannon Mather (yes, Emma’s mother). They were an unlikely trio—all different ages (then 9, 10 and 11), heights and strengths. Yet something told Mather their differences were exactly what would make them succeed. « From the first year I put them together, they were making people cry, » Mather says. « It’s chemistry you can’t touch. »

Emma, the youngest of the three, has trained under her mother’s direction her entire life. At 5 years old she began partnering at MDC, and developed a knack for tricks, lifts and connection. « She was a young little pup who wanted to be thrown in the air, » Mather says. « She’d been doing acro from a young age, and loved the ultra-physical side of dancing. » It’s unsurprising to learn of Emma’s fearlessness. In her work with the trio she’s often soaring above the heads of the others, twisting and turning in unexpected patterns. In terms of movement, Emma’s dancing can be described as feminine, innocent and clean. Her lines are long and smooth, curving and extending as if gliding through honey butter. Injuries (three broken fingers) and medical challenges (unexplainable stomach issues) have peppered Emma’s training experience, forcing her to exhibit extra diligence. « I have accepted that you’re gonna deal with some injuries in dance, » Emma says. « Now, I focus on how to catch myself when falling, and I take lifts more seriously so I don’t get hurt. »

Diego joined Mather Dance Company just one year before MDC3 was established, and his potential was immediately evident—even if his muscles had not quite developed. To Mather, his greatest strength was his vulnerability. « He’s never had a problem getting in there, opening up and telling a story, » she says. « He’s not afraid to cry. » Mather says there was one number in which, when the music ended, you could hear him crying in his final position. « He didn’t care—he was connecting, » Mather says. Diego began his training as a competitive gymnast from ages 5 to 7. Then, his mom put him in his first hip-hop classes at Beach Cities Dance Studio in Huntington Beach, CA. He quickly fell in love and began adding other styles to his toolbelt. After three years his agency, Go 2 Talent, recommended he make the switch to MDC. Since the transition, he’s gone on to become a competition darling, winning both the 2014 Junior and 2016 Teen National Maximum Velocity Artist titles, and the 2019 Radix Core Performer title. Since MDC3’s inception, Diego’s physical strength has caught up with his storytelling, making him an athletic, dynamic mover and partner. Despite his success, Diego has faced his fair share of challenges, as well, namely bullying. « Male dancers get bullied a lot, » Diego says. « I just try not to listen to rude comments and use dance as an escape. It’s my happy place, my safe space. »

Madi started dancing at 2 years old at a studio in Temecula Valley, CA, called Cathy’s Dance. After a few years of training in ballet and hip hop, she began bouncing around a few other studios in the area. At 7, she settled down at MDC, where she would spend the next decade of her life perfecting her craft before graduating in the spring of 2020 (just in time for the professional dance world to be shuttered by COVID-19.) « Madi brings fire, » Mather says. « She has a strong hip-hop background and excellent musicality. She leads the group as a mama bear. Before they would go onstage I would turn to her and say, ‘Madi, you’ve gotta have this.' » Madi’s dancing matches Diego’s and Emma’s in clean lines, seamless transitions and solid technique. Where she stands out is maturity. Her movement, gaze and expression demand that you watch, without coming off insincere—a difficult tightrope to walk. As she heads into the professional world, Madi says the biggest challenge she’s faced as a dancer thus far is body image. « I struggle with it still, » she says. « To help, I try not to compare myself to others, and fuel my body with healthy foods because it makes me feel better. »

The Creative Process

MDC3’s works always begin with a concept. « We never do anything without a purpose, » Mather says. « It’s not just a dance. We want people to feel something. » Mather works to find a song everyone loves, that fits all three dancers’ movement qualities and has a storyline. From there, they workshop lifts. « We try to find cool ways for them to move through one another with seamless partner work, » Mather says. « It’s so hard to do with three people. I often have to find a way to incorporate the third person into the lift, or have them do separate movements that thread through it. » Once they have lifts down, they go into endless hours of rehearsals. « It can take us three hours to get through eight counts, » Mather says. In each piece of choreography she sets, Mather’s goal is to create something unique that audiences and judges haven’t seen before.

Just like any other team, disagreements come up while working through this creative process. « We’ve been together so long, we’re like siblings, » Madi says. « We bicker about little things. » Still, they’ve found ways to mitigate relational challenges. « We’ve come to know each other’s boundaries, and we work to not overstep, » she adds. « Plus, we tend to brush things off pretty fast and not get too upset. » Emma says they often use Mather, their director, as a mediator. « She’ll watch and say, ‘Ya, that was Emma’s fault, she missed a hand,’ and then we can move on, » Emma says.

All three members of MDC3 are dressed in black, against a white background. They stare at the camera, in a line, holding each others hands, with their arms interlaced. All three wear soft but serious expressions.

Photo by Joe Toreno

The Road to « WOD »

When « WOD » ran auditions for its first season in 2017, the show reached out to Mather about one of her older trios who’d seen recent success on the competition circuit. One of the dancers (Madelyne Spang) was on tour with P!nk at the time, so Mather offered to send her younger trio, MDC3, instead. It didn’t pan out. « We were just too young, » Emma says. « We were still growing both physically and mentally, and needed time to get better. On top of that, we only started rehearsals, like, a week before the audition. We weren’t prepared. » So they returned the next year to audition for Season 2, where they were better received but once again cut. When they later watched that season’s cast perform on air, it became clear to them what they were missing.

« Charity and Andres really understood how to feature the big moments of their pieces with ‘wow’ factors that season, » Diego says. « We couldn’t do that yet. » Emma agrees, stating she and Diego were roughly the same height at the time, making lifts difficult. « We could barely get off the floor—not even close to what we can do now, » she says. Season 3 followed the same pattern of rejection, but this time, everyone was pretty surprised. « We really thought we had a good chance, » Madi says. Even casting from the show called to communicate their surprise. « I knew we were getting closer, but they just still weren’t ready, » Mather says.

When Season 4 came knocking, the group told producers they didn’t think they were what the show was looking for. The « WOD » team promptly called back, and explained that they did, in fact, want to see the dancers again, but they had some notes for improvement. Namely, new music choices that favored popular sounds rather than songs audiences were unfamiliar with, the incorporation of avant-garde lifts, and how to maximize camera angles. (For example, avoid busy dancing around lifts that might distract from the « wow » factor within the frame.) The dancers took the corrections, studied old footage to learn the judges’ preferences, and decided to try one last time. Rehearsals began one month before auditions and the three poured everything they had into emphasizing storytelling and bold movement.

MDC3’s commitment to giving the judges what they wanted paid off. On October 21, 2019, the trio got the call saying they had made the show. Mather immediately told the dancers to jump on a group FaceTime so she could share the good news. Mather was on the East Coast at the time, so all Diego was just waking up and still in bed when they got the call. Madi and Emma were still in school, and had to slip away from class to speak with Mather. « It was a moment of total disbelief, » Madi says. « We had tried for so many years that we were losing hope. We were so excited! » Emma remembers walking back to class in a daze. « I had to act like nothing happened because we weren’t allowed to tell anyone, » she says. « It was so crazy. »

From the second they stepped onstage, MDC3 was a clear showstopper. After their performance in the Duels, the judges couldn’t contain their praise. According to the dancers, some of the excitement was even cut in post. « Derek was smacking on the floor, all of the judges stood up and came toward us, and the crowd was jumping up and down, » Emma says. According to Mather, at this point, other choreographers began to communicate to her their confidence in the group, even confessing they thought they had a chance to win the whole thing.

The Win

Throughout their entire « WOD » process, winning was not on MDC3’s radar. « Our goal was just to make it to the big stage for semifinals, » Diego says. After watching ballroom couple Jefferson and Adrianita perform for the first time in the final round, their certainty about the performance shrunk even more. « We didn’t think we were going to win after seeing them, » he says. « When we beat them, it was a complete shock. » Then, it was down to the final act, Géométrie Variable, a group MDC3 had never watched perform before. « We knew they were older than us, and very different from us, and we were nervous, » Emma says. « I just had to hope that our big lifts and technique would be enough. We really thought anything could happen at that point. »

Despite their fears, and after years of hard work, MDC3 was announced the winner. « It felt like everything went silent around us, » Madi says of that thrilling moment. « All of the cannons were going off, but it felt like it was just the three of us standing there. Me and two of my best friends, soaking in this crazy experience. » « It changed us, » Emma says of the opportunity. « It pushed each of us to levels we had never been before. »

The Future

The end of filming « WOD » coincided with shutdowns and shelter-in-place orders mandated due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Though MDC3 walked away with the title and their prize money, they’re still anxiously awaiting the chance to open new industry doors provided by their win. They each dream of world tours, award shows and concept videos. When the time is right, they plan to chase their dreams together. « We hope to work together in the industry, » Emma says. « If it weren’t for COVID we would be doing more of that already. We want to make good work that can speak to people. » In a world of so much tumult and uncertainty, one thing is abundantly clear: The artists who make up MDC3 are just getting started.

Fast Facts

Madi Smith

Most-used emoji: 💀

Go-to improv song: « Anything James Arthur »

Favorite dancewear company: Honeycut

Favorite food: Steak

Pre-performance ritual: Prayer

What the « World of Dance » audience at home didn’t know about her: « I like to cook! »

Favorite judge: « Derek was super nice to us on the show. He really expressed that he was rooting for us. »

Diego Pasillas

Most-used emoji: ❤️

Go-to improv song: « Any song by James Arthur »

Favorite dancewear company: Nike

Favorite food: Sushi

Pre-performance ritual: Prayer

What the « World of Dance » audience at home didn’t know about him: « I hate bananas. »

Favorite judge: « Derek, because he has such a strong understanding of dance. »

Emma Mather

Most-used emoji: 😝

Go-to improv song: « Lasting Lover, » by James Arthur

Favorite dancewear company: Five Dancewear

Favorite food: Caesar salad

Pre-performance ritual: Prayer

What the « World of Dance » audience at home didn’t know about her: « People were surprised to learn that my mom was our choreographer. Oh, and I have dual citizenship in the U.S. and Canada. »

Favorite judge: « I love Derek. He’s such a big inspiration to me. »

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