“Perfect!” Eloy said, and he clapped his hands. The sound of his voice echoed loudly around the small studio, which was empty aside from us, a huge wall of mirrors, and the chair I used in the piece we were choreographing. It was September 2007, I was eleven years old, and Dad’s funeral was only a few months behind us.
I’ll never forget that room: Studio E103 in Halsey Hall. Halsey was where all of the dance studios at the university were located. Even though I’d been coming to campus for years—on my bike with Dad, for gymnastics with Dmitri, and eventually, to the hospital—I’d never rehearsed a solo like this before. Halsey Hall E103 was my introduction to a real ballet dance program.
From the outside, Halsey was a big brick colonial building, like the ones I imagined whenever I thought about going to Yale or Harvard or any posh institution. But inside they had carved spacious studios out of the original architecture. There were large windows to let in light, and ginormous mirrors so we could see our every movement.
E103 was a smaller studio on the first floor, and it’s where Eloy and I met every other week for months as we choreographed Dad’s memorial.
“I don’t think this is right,” I said as I thought about the movement I had just performed. “I don’t think it should go there.”
The step in question involved me grabbing the silver aluminum chair in the center of the room and lying on it horizontally, so that my head stretched out in one direction and my feet in the other. Once there, I paused, held myself perfectly straight, and pedaled my legs like a bicycle. Eloy and I had choreographed the movement to pay tribute to all of the cycling Dad and I had done. I loved it, but I wasn’t sure it was in the right place in the piece. It didn’t flow the way I wanted.
Eloy thought for a moment before responding.
“Where do you think it should go?” he asked.
“Earlier?” I hesitated. I rubbed my arms, which ached from the workout I’d gotten. “I’m not sure yet. I just know it doesn’t go here.”
“Why don’t we try it at the beginning, right after the arm movements?” Eloy suggested. I thought about it, and then nodded. Biking was so much of what Dad and I did together, it made sense to put it at the beginning of the piece.
This was how our process generally went. I came in with moments that I wanted the dance to reference, or things Dad and I had done that I wanted to create movements from. Eloy and I worked together to translate the activity into a step. My movements came from everything: gymnastics, bike riding, fishing, ballet. Even things like church and dinner were part of the piece.
The best part was that Eloy treated me as an equal. Or maybe even more than an equal. He knew how much the piece mattered to me. Normally, I listen very closely to my teachers and directors and try to do exactly what they say. That’s just part of being a professional. As much as art and dance are about inspiration and creativity, they’re also jobs, and if you want to be successful, you’ve got to listen. Everyone might joke about “Broadway divas,” and I’m sure they’re out there, but all the actors and dancers I’ve ever met were complete professionals who did the work when and how their boss told them to do it.
But in this process, Eloy wasn’t the boss. Neither was I, really, but Eloy let me have final say on things because this was my piece. We would try something, and if I didn’t like it, we’d try something else. I’m not like this usually, but this piece had to be just right, and I was the only one who knew what right meant. I wanted Dad to look down and be proud. So I said no to Eloy more often than I probably did to every other teacher in my life combined, and Eloy respected me for it. If I’d known at the time what an accomplished choreographer he was, I probably would have been too embarrassed to insist. Thankfully, sometimes, ignorance really is bliss.
Even though Eloy let me say yes or no to things, he guided me through the entire process. He was the choreographer—I just had a lot of opinions. But it was amazing to work in such a collaborative process.
“Let’s start from the top,” he suggested, after we had a found a new place to try the biking move. “Do you think you can do the whole thing?”
I nodded. Eloy went over to restart the music. He looked back at me, raising one eyebrow to ask if I was ready. I smiled and gave him a thumbs-up as he hit play on the stereo.
Having Eloy in my life helped me regain some sense of stability now that Dad was gone. For months after his passing, everything seemed up in the air. Mom was still only working part-time, which meant that money was tight, and our whole family was still grieving. Nothing in my world seemed solid.
During this time, Eloy was like my father figure, ballet role model, and dream teacher all combined into one. No person can ever “replace” someone else, but Eloy filled some of the space that had been left by my father’s passing. He even helped me feel better about not crying at his funeral.
“When my mom died, I couldn’t cry either,” he told me as we sat around after rehearsal one day. “Everyone grieves in their own way. This is yours. Say good-bye to your father through your dance.”
As the first notes of Yo-Yo Ma’s “Back to School” filled room E103, I thought of what Eloy had told me and whispered, “Good-bye.” Then I settled onto the chair, which sat alone in the center of the room. Yo-Yo Ma had been one of my father’s favorite musicians, and the title of the song made me think about Dad telling me to learn ballet. It was the perfect piece of music for the memorial. I called it “For Ko Cheuk Man, with Love, from Ko Jun Dak.” It wasn’t a long dance—just about two minutes—but it told the story of my dad and me. It was a very smooth piece, with each motion flowing into the next gracefully. Stylistically, it was contemporary ballet, but I incorporated lots of new moves that Eloy and I created, as well as steps I’d learned in all of my previous dance classes, and even pieces from my tumbling and gymnastics days.
Sitting quietly on the chair, I could feel Eloy’s eyes on me, bright and eager. I took a deep breath and made sure I could feel the chair stable and strong beneath me. In making the piece, I knew I wanted to be able to interact with something, so I used the chair as a prop. Sometimes it was a stand-in for Dad, sometimes it was just something for me to dance around. I spun it. I leaped over it. I lifted it up and jumped with it. I even did a handstand on it.
But as the piece opened, I sat completely still on it, facing forward. Slowly, I moved my arms up to the heavens, pointing at my dad and letting him know the piece was for him. As the music grew, my arms moved faster, and I wrapped myself in a hug, as though Dad were reaching down to me. Then I began to move faster, swinging myself over and around so I could lie horizontally on the chair and pedal my feet. Next I leaped up, balanced on the back of the chair, and reached up to heaven. From that moment on, I was in constant motion, flying around the chair to Yo-Yo Ma’s graceful cello. I forgot about Studio E103. I forgot about Eloy’s watchful gaze. Everything became part of the dance, and the dance became everything. For a precious few moments, I even managed to forget the pain of losing Dad.
If you’ve never lost a parent, it’s hard to explain how completely it changes your life. I needed time to discover who I was without Dad, and throwing myself into working with Eloy gave this to me. It was a way to think about Dad without feeling miserable or lost. Creating that dance was what helped me get through the long months following Dad’s funeral. I don’t remember much else from that time besides working with Eloy. It seemed almost as if I walked into Halsey Hall for that first meeting, began dancing, and the next thing I knew, six months had passed and I was onstage at the university, looking out at the crowd as the last notes of the music faded.
“That was amazing,” Mom said as I ran offstage, suddenly shy. Tears were streaming down her cheeks.
“Alex!” Eloy clapped me on the back. “That was beautiful. Beautiful! All the other dance faculty are buzzing about my new prodigy.”
“Really?” I said, shocked.
“Just you wait. I’m going to have to fight to keep you!”
I’d expected the dance to mean something to people who’d known Dad, but I had no idea strangers would be interested, let alone impressed. But I guess that shows that when you make something from pure love, and you work on it as hard as you can, it shines with a brightness that is undeniable. No matter how far I go in life, that performance will remain the most important dance I’ve ever done.
And while it helped me grieve for Dad and move forward, it also had another big impact on my life that was less psychological and more practical. After working together on the piece for a few weeks, Eloy and his wife, Sarah, invited me to join the Dance Forum at the University of Iowa.
“Spring semester starts in January,” he told my mom. “I think Alex is ready—though it won’t be easy, espe-cially with your busy schedule. The program is very demanding.”
“I want to do it,” I said without hesitation. I’d been looking for a real ballet teacher so I could make Dad proud. I knew in my heart that Eloy was the one.
“You’re sure about this, Alex?” Mom asked. I nodded so hard, I looked like one of those bobble-head toys.
“Then we’ll do it. I’ll make it happen,” she said.
I knew it wouldn’t be easy to get the money, but Mom made it happen, and in January of 2008, I officially became a student at the Dance Forum at the University of Iowa.
As a novice ballet dancer, I knew I’d have to prove myself. Thankfully, I was ready for the challenge. As soon as I started, I was there nearly every day. I had a lot of ground to make up. I was blessed with a great gift, but no matter how talented you are, you can’t get far without training. I was determined to show to everyone—Eloy, Sarah, Mom, Dad, myself—that I could make it as a professional ballet dancer.
I worked constantly on my turnout and my point, training my body to stretch into the difficult shapes that ballet requires. Whenever I stood around, I did so in what we called “froggie position,” with my feet pointed out and my legs slightly bent. Eloy built me a wooden device to improve the arch of my foot, which was like a board that I pressed my toes against. I carried it in my bag at all times. Every spare moment was spent getting my body ready for ballet.
Once I was ready, Eloy said, the next step would be to find a professional company to take me on for the summer. Studying with a school like Pacific Northwest Ballet or the Kirov was how you got people to notice you, and began the long process of becoming a company member.
There was only one catch: it was already January. Auditions for summer programs were in just a few weeks. Aside from my short time with Tad, and my private lessons with Eloy, I’d barely had any real training in ballet. I could show all the promise and raw talent in the world, but if I didn’t have the technique, no one would take me.
The clock was ticking.