Michael Jackson, Justin Timberlake and the stars of “You Got Served” led Sven Saaretalu on a circuitous route to Lubbock.
When Saaretalu, now a doctoral student in personal financial planning at Texas Tech University, was a teenager living on Saaremaa, an island off the coast of Estonia, he was a break dancer. He wasn't focused on much else but “wiping the floor,” as he called the style of dancing – spinning on his head, back flips, the worm. It was sort of a macho style, he said, designed to show off the dancer's strength.
“I thought dancing up was for girls,” Saaretalu said. “I didn't dance up. I didn't even know how to dance standing up.”
Not until he trained in hip-hop dance– and was terrible at it – did he turn his sights to Hollywood. He spent hours practicing until he wasn't terrible, he won European championships and he was accepted into California State University-Northridge, conveniently located a few miles from the studio where dancers for Justin Timberlake, the King of Pop and all the popular dance movies train.
Then Saaretalu hurt his back. During his year of recovery, his dance contacts had moved on, all the tours and music videos had full casts and Michael Jackson had died.
“It felt like I missed the train,” Saaretalu said. “It was gone. That was a horrible feeling.
“I put all my eggs in one basket, and then this basket fell and broke all my eggs.”
He moved to Plan B – a finance degree. From there, he applied for the graduate Personal Financial Planning (PFP) program at Texas Tech. Today, he's traded in the baseball cap for slacks and a tie and the rhythmic dance moves for teaching an undergraduate PFP course. It's now Plan A, and he is all in.
“I want to be happy in life. I want to be happy with what I do,” he said. “If you want to be happy and be good at what you do, you've got to work hard. Right now is the time to focus on this field, to do the best I can and give everything.”
An Estonian Teenager
Saaretalu was 15 when his dance group trainer sent him to Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, for a lesson with the choreographer for Aaliyah, an American R&B singer who died in a plane crash in 2001. He didn't want to go, as he was not into that type of hip-hop, but he went so their group would be represented.
He went through the training, which included choreography to two hip-hop songs from the early 2000s. The accomplished break dancer found himself in an unusual position – not being good at it.
“I was awful,” he said. “I didn't hear the music correctly, I was moving to the wrong rhythm. I was horrible.”
Even though Saaretalu went into the training not wanting to try this new style of dancing, he was bothered that he was so bad at it. He set a goal to at least be average and practiced in the dressing room of his mother's clothing store. After a month, he took his practice to the studio where he trained for break dancing.
Once his trainer discovered Saaretalu's newfound passion, he put the teenager to work dancing hip-hop. For his part, Saaretalu spent every night at the studio, sometimes practicing until 2 or 3 a.m., and memorized moves from music videos and TV shows like “The Wade Robson Project” on MTV. While walking home in the early morning, he dreamed about learning from Robson, who choreographed for Britney Spears and 'N Sync; Marty Kudelka, who choreographs for Justin Timberlake; and Dave Scott, the choreographer from “You Got Served.”
Saaretalu focused on dancing, except for a short stint after he discovered parkour, an exercise in which people try to move across spaces as efficiently as possible.
“That hobby didn't last me for too long because I jumped from my third floor balcony and I broke my leg,” Saaretalu said. “That kind of put a stop to my dancing.”
In the year he spent recuperating, he still spent hours at the studio listening to music and envisioning doing the moves to each rhythm. When his leg healed he was dancing again, this time in competitions. Saaretalu's small group won a world championship in Germany in 2006, and he won a solo competition at a European championship in Austria the next year. He also was a three-time solo champion of an international dance competition in Estonia.
All his dreams were put on hold when he joined the military, a requirement for Estonian men. While the military got him into excellent physical shape, it didn't move him toward his dance goals.
“The problem with that is you can't really practice any of your hobbies while you're there,” Saaretalu said.
After completing his military time, he applied to and was accepted to CSU-Northridge. He moved to southern California, registered for classes and found a place to live.
“My mind was like 'OK, I'll study, but that's going to be my Plan B,'” he said.
Coming to America
Saaretalu didn't speak much English when he arrived, but he knew enough to find Millennium Dance Complex, a well-known studio where dancers and choreographers of the stars danced.
“When I was at Millennium, I was looking around the dance floor and saw so many people that I saw on TV,” he said. “It was a little bit intimidating at first. I felt like a nobody, but they approached me and invited me to join their practices.”
At the time, Jackson was hiring dancers for his tour, Timberlake was looking for dancers for a music video, and the scene was hot for young, aspiring dancers. At one point Saaretalu was filmed with several of Timberlake's dancers, a moment he said was the highest point he'd reached in his career. With only a student visa and no agent, however, he couldn't get auditions and he didn't have the money to hire a lawyer and change his visa to allow him to work in the arts. He didn't want to ask his parents for the money, since they thought most his time was spent studying, not dancing.
“All of those things added up and kind of pushed me down a little bit,” he said.
His difficulties didn't end with legal wrangling. Saaretalu suffered a minor back injury in the military, and between the high physicality of his dancing and weightlifting he did to keep his body in Hollywood dancer shape, he found himself with a herniated disc. He said the doctor told him to stop dancing for at least six months.
“I said, 'I don't know if I can do that. I have a career,'” Saaretalu said. “He told me no, you have to take that break if you want to heal. Otherwise you'll get worse and maybe you won't be able to dance at all.”
After a year of recovery, he returned to Millennium. He was rusty after not dancing. Gone were the dancers who had embraced his work, the roles he'd prepared for long filled. His years of work felt wasted.
Saaretalu said his darkest moment came when he stopped at a local grocery store for a soda. In his pre-injury days he frequently stopped at a store around the corner from Millennium to get a soda and relax. After a bad day of dancing he decided to get a soda there, thinking it would remind him the old days and motivate him. When he turned the corner, he found a closed sign on the door. The store had moved.
He remembered sitting on the front steps of the now-empty building as reality hit: his dancing career was over before it really got started. He was 24 years old.
Turning Plan B into Plan A
Saaretalu was still enrolled at CSU-Northridge, though he hadn't exactly been diligent in his studies. He turned his efforts to his education, trying to get his GPA up and joining the speech and debate team. He also got a job, after several months of trying, as a building manager.
“I don't even think I had a suit,” he said.
The job provided Saaretalu with steady income for the first time in his life, a feeling he enjoyed. His next phase in life continued when a business professor told him about an informational seminar on financial planning. He could keep his major and prepare for the Certified Financial Planning exam. He wasn't sure what financial planning was or how to do it, but he signed up, in part because the professors helped him register early, ensuring he got the classes he needed instead of waiting and hoping with the rest of the students.
Saaretalu found financial planning to have more in common with dancing than he thought. He studied until the work made sense, staying up late and practicing as much as he could.
“Everything was brand new,” he said. “I kept taking those classes. I didn't do the best, and I didn't do the worst.
“I knew I liked financial planning, but I wasn't that good at it.”
As graduation approached and he considered his options, he got a call from Texas Tech professor and doctoral program co-director Michael Finke. John Gilliam, an associate professor of personal financial planning, had seen Saaretalu compete at a financial competition and was impressed with his performance. Saaretalu and his partner came in second, after Texas Tech. Gilliam said he and the students approached the CSU-Northridge team and talked up Texas Tech to them. Then Gilliam returned to Lubbock and talked up Saaretalu to Texas Tech.
“He recommended Sven to me as a potential doctoral student and I watched a video of the competition online,” Finke said. “He was confident, understood financial planning and was a great speaker.”
Part of his role in the PFP program is to find and recruit students for the doctoral program, Finke said, so when he realized Saaretalu would be an asset, he recruited him. Saaretalu visited the campus in November 2013 before starting class full-time in the fall.
He's teaching a PFP course, which is much different from teaching a dance class, and is deep into his Plan A. He's studying hard not only for him, he said, but also because he doesn't want to let down his family, the professors who got him here, the other students he worked with and mentors he had throughout his life. His goals include graduation, supporting his family and contributing to his profession, which associate professor Bill Gustafson said he is doing.
“Sven is an amazingly diverse young man with European cultures and sensibilities, always with a warm smile, always with a sharp intellect with exceptional quantitative skills,” Gustafson said. “Put that with his unique dancing ability and you have a doctoral student who will be a dynamic and impactful faculty member in personal financial planning.”
Saaretalu has taken the lessons he learned from dancing and the military and put them toward his career.
“It doesn't matter how physically strong you are,” Saaretalu said. “It's how mentally strong you are that helps you succeed in life. You have to be strong enough not to give up.
“Sometimes in life you may have to figure out your Plan B or C.”
For now, dancing is part of his past – mostly.
“I don't dance anymore,” he said. “I still have some skills, so if I'm challenged enough I guess I can break some moves.”
But he hasn't entirely left it behind either.
“Sven also had an online video from his performance at the European dancing championships,” Finke said. “Somehow the word got out and the rumor is that this has contributed to Sven's popularity as an instructor.”