Tween dancer Merrick Hanna has ‘Got Talent’

Famously taciturn TV talent judge Simon Cowell isn’t one to gush. But when it came to appraising the robot-style dancing of 12-year-old Merrick Hanna on NBC’s “America’s Got Talent” this summer, he hasn’t held back.

“This to me was one of the best performances I’ve ever seen on the show,” said Cowell, after the Encinitas middle-schooler auditioned in May.

Since then, Merrick has continued to rise in the weekly competition series. Recently, he made it through to the semifinals, where he will compete against 21 other top acts (Merrick will be performing on the Sept. 12 episode).

Merrick — who started dancing three years ago and specializes in styles known as “popping” and “animation” — said he can hardly believe the response he’s received from Cowell (who gives him a standing ovation after each performance) and the TV audience.

“I’m not expecting them to stand and I don’t expect the applause, because I look at the other acts performing with me and they’re all so amazing,” he said.

Cowell isn’t the only one charmed by Merrick. A Youtube video of his audition has logged more than 13.4 million views in the last three months. He’s also a huge social media star. He has 157,000 followers on Instagram, 86,000 on his Youtube channel, 37,000 on Facebook and 13,500 on Twitter.

Regardless of whether he wins or loses on “AGT,” Merrick has already received one promising lead.

“You’d be someone I’d put in a pop video in a heartbeat because you tell the story of a song,” Cowell said after one performance. “It’s fantastic, so smart, so clever and so current.”

Merrick, the son of Encinitas residents Shawn and Aletha Hanna, started dancing after he gave up playing soccer for something more fun and personal.

“I dance because I like music and there’s something about how I can express myself through my body,” he said.

Aletha said that she and her husband have tried to give Merrick and his younger brother, Sagan, a wide variety of activities and experiences, including music lessons and youth theater. They never expected him to connect so deeply with dance, but it didn’t come as a complete surprise.

Shawn’s mother, 80-year-old Judith Lynne Hanna, is a noted dance author and scholar and has taught dance anthropology at the University of Maryland.

Merrick describes his grandmother, who was backstage at his “AGT” audition, as a big influence on his life. But the inspiration for his performance style came from another “America’s Got Talent” act, the San Diego-born hip-hop dance crew Jabbawockeez.

“The reason I chose this style over other styles of dance is that I really liked robots and saw Jabbawockeez doing animation and thought it looked similar to a robot.”

Two of Merrick’s three performances on “America’s Got Talent” have been bittersweet dances about a lonely robot boy, set to songs by Alec Benjamin, “I Built a Friend” and “Lost Boy.”

Merrick started taking dance classes at the Magdalena Ecke Family YMCA with instructor Cameron Greene. They’re still working together, but Merrick is now one of Greene’s only students.

Merrick also takes instruction and choreographic assistance from Poppin John of the SoulBiotics Krew. But for the most part, the Hannas say Merrick comes up with his own songs, story ideas and choreography.

The biggest challenge this past summer has been finding new songs and dance steps each time he makes it through to the next level. Many of his suggestions have come from his fans on social media.

“It’s very challenging to create a performance that tops the last one,” he said.

“America’s Got Talent” is just Merrick’s latest competition. He has also been a contestant on “So You Think You Can Dance The Next Generation” and “Lip Sync Battle Shorties.” He has also performed on “The Ellen Show” and commercials for H&M, Honda and Gap Kids.

Juggling the show and family has been a challenge this past summer. Merrick and his mom have spent weeks at a time at an L.A. hotel while the series rehearses and tapes in Pasadena. Last weekend they came home for three days, just long enough to do laundry and a little family bonding before heading back up again on Sunday.

For the semifinals, Merrick will have to miss the first two weeks of school, though Aletha said all of the children on the show get a mandatory three hours of school instruction each day.

Shawn said Merrick has received so much interest as a result of the show, the family is considering a temporary relocation to L.A. Merrick said he hates the idea of leaving his school and his friends behind but he does want to pursue an acting career.

Whether he makes it through to the finals is the next big question. Although he has some big fans on the judging panel, Merrick hasn’t generated the buzz among TV viewers as some of the other acts this season. He said the shock he expresses on-camera during the results episodes is genuine.

“It’s not like I’m really nervous I’m going to get eliminated, I expect to get eliminated,” he said. “I’m not expecting to move on each time, so I just really want to enjoy the experience and live in the moment.”

– Pam Kragen is a writer for The San Diego Union-Tribune