“Today is a beautiful day,” I whispered, looking at the ceiling from the top of the bunk beds I shared with Matt. I hadn’t looked outside, and I didn’t have anything special planned, but I hoped to make it true just by saying the sentence out loud. I know it sounds cheesy, but try it sometime. It doesn’t work if you don’t mean it, though. You have to convince yourself: today IS a beautiful day.
And I needed it. I was still reeling from learning that I wouldn’t be going to PNB—or anywhere else this summer. When I got back to Iowa, I went right to my room and locked the door behind me. I couldn’t stop thinking about everything I had worked for, and how it had all come to nothing. But the real reason I was so sad was that I had let Dad down. I wanted to be great for him, and how could I without great teachers?
For about a week, I moped around feeling sorry for myself, and angry at my grandparents. Everything was so . . . unfair. What’s the point of working so hard, I thought, if being the best doesn’t even matter?
Strangely enough, it was talking to Dad that helped me feel better. Every time I tried to tell him that it had all gone wrong, and I had totally failed, I could hear his voice in my head saying, “God doesn’t make mistakes. Don’t give up.” I knew what I had to do: I had to forget PNB and move on. I didn’t want to look at anything PNB, or watch a PNB ballet. In my head, PNB and I had broken up.
It took one week of being back in Iowa, taking ballet, and hanging out with Matt and John to really drive PNB out of my mind.
And then Eloy stopped me after class one day.
“Sarah and I are going to New York for ten days,” he said. “Do you want to come?”
Instantly, I knew two things. First, I wanted to go. What performer doesn’t dream about New York City? I probably thought about New York every single day of my life. Second, Mom was going to say no. Ten days in the big city without her? No way. She liked Eloy and Sarah, but we hadn’t known them that long.
“I’ll have to check with my mom,” I told Eloy. I didn’t want to say that I wanted to go until I knew I could actually do it.
“Check with her,” he agreed. “She can talk to me if she wants. I think it would be good for you to see what it’s like in the city.” That’s how he said it, as though there was only one city in the world. The city. “Going to New York will make you more well-rounded, and anyway, you’ll have to go eventually if you continue being this good!”
Making him proud felt almost as good as making Dad proud.
I called Mom immediately, even though she was already on her way to pick me up.
“I have to talk to you about something,” I said.
“What is it?”
“It’s nothing bad,” I said quickly. “But I can’t tell you until we’re home.”
“Aaa-lex,” she said, a warning tone in her voice. She hated when I did this.
If I knew she wasn’t going to respond well to something, I tried to tell her at the best time possible. If I told her while we were still at the university, she would march right back into the studio to talk to Eloy and say no, and I’d never get to New York. I had to convince her slowly.
The whole way home I could tell she was annoyed, but I refused to spill the beans until we were in the house.
“What?” she asked as soon as the front door closed behind us.
“Eloy invited me to New York with him,” I started.
“No,” she said, and turned away.
“But he thinks it’ll be good for me!” I protested.
“No,” she repeated. “End of story. I’m sorry, Alex, it’s a fantastic offer and you should thank Eloy from both of us. But I just don’t think it’s a good idea right now.”
I’d been expecting this, so I wasn’t too upset. I had a plan. I waited a few days, then started begging.
“I’ll do anything you want.”
“Anything. I’ll do anything.”
“I’ll do extra chores for the next two years.”
“I’ll mow the lawn for the next ten years.”
After a week, she agreed to talk to Eloy. I knew it was a lot to ask, to let your twelve-year-old son go to New York City with just his dance teachers, but I could handle it—if Eloy convinced her I’d be in good hands.
“Let me think about it,” she said after talking to Eloy. She felt better knowing that it was going to be Eloy, Sarah, and their baby going as a family. Also, Eloy mentioned that we’d be staying at Sarah’s sister’s house outside the city, which was both safer and cheaper. But Mom was still worried, and money was still an issue. The trip was a week and a half, so it would be way less expensive than any of the summer programs I’d looked at, but it would still cost money, which we didn’t have much of.
Finally, after weeks of saying “let me think about it,” Mom sat me down.
“Here are the rules,” she said.
“I agree!” I yelled, before she’d even said another word. Her serious face dissolved into a laugh, and I knew everything would work out.
“You will call home every day,” she said when she caught her breath. “You and I are planning out your entire schedule in advance so I know where you are at all times. And you’re taking as many ballet classes as you can, because you deserve them.”
Eloy arranged for me to study at Steps on Broadway, one of the premier dance studios in New York City. I was so excited I could barely believe it. I packed my schedule with as many classes as I could fit. If I was only going to be there for ten days, I wanted to make the most of it.
Little did I know that “making the most of it” in New York City could lead to some very big things. . . .
I’ll never forget the city growing bigger and brighter beneath us as our plane descended for landing. The lights seemed to go on forever. It felt like you could drop Iowa City down in the middle of Manhattan and it would be swallowed up without a burp. I was just some kid, with little money and worse luck. Would I drown in the city, or shine bright? I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
My fear and excitement grew as I entered Steps on Broadway for the first time. People in dance clothes rushed in and out, talking about auditions, rehearsals, and roles. Big picture windows looked out on the busy Manhattan streets below, and as I signed in to my first class, I watched bright yellow taxis whiz by outside. Above my head, portraits of famous alumni smiled down like guardian angels. One day, I hoped, my picture would join them.
Please, I whispered to myself (and Dad), let me stay here. Don’t let this be PNB all over again. I was terrified that as soon as I let myself relax, it would all be taken from me. I’d come so close, so many times.
I slipped into the back of the studio, feeling shy and hoping to go unnoticed. As I stretched, the teacher watched me. He had short gray hair and small, wire-framed glasses that looked very sophisticated. He wore all black and was exactly what I pictured when I thought of a dance teacher in New York City. Right before we started, he came over.
“Alex Ko?” he asked.
“Yup!” I nodded. Eloy must have told him about me.
“Wilhelm Burmann,” he said. “Call me Willy.”
We shook hands.
“Some of this might be a little advanced for you,” he continued. “So take it easy when you need to.”
What? I thought. I knew he was trying to be nice, but he actually made me nervous. Well, nervous is the wrong word. He made me . . . more determined. I’d show him what I was made of.
“Don’t worry about me,” I replied. I must have had my “tough face” on, because a tiny smile spread across his lips, which happens a lot when I try to look tough. Before I could say anything else, people swarmed into the room. Willy greeted each one as they came. Everyone stared at me as they entered. I was used to being the new guy, but it was still nerve-racking to have so many people looking at me. I could tell they were wondering what some kid was doing there.
At Steps, I wasn’t in the youth division. Everyone else in the class was an adult, and many of them were professionals. I barely came up to their shoulders, but I was determined to show them that I deserved to be there.
As Willy led us through positions, turns, and jumps, I worked harder than I ever had before. When I leaped into the air, I imagined I was flying. When I landed, I pretended I weighed nothing. But it wasn’t the moves that made the class so difficult. It was the pace. Compared to Willy’s class, everything I’d done before seemed like slow motion. And no matter what I did, Willy kept coming over to give me pointers.
“Extend more,” he’d say, tapping my leg as I tried to hold it rock steady and high in the air. Or he’d look at my feet and say, “Point! Point!”
I burned with shame every time he talked to me, but I wouldn’t give up. All the other dancers were full-on staring at me, and I thought I’d die of embarrassment. I know now that having the attention of your teacher is a good thing, but at the time I thought it meant I was messing up—big-time. It made me feel insecure about my technique and what I had to offer to ballet. But it made me work all the harder.
After that class ended, I went right into my next one. At the same time, Willy, Sarah, and Eloy had a private meeting in the next room. I don’t know exactly what Willy said, but it must have been good, because the next time I looked up from class, Sarah and Eloy were peeking in the door, giving me two giant thumbs-ups! Only then did I relax and really feel comfortable.
I wanted to stay at Steps 24-7. I remember wishing that life were just one big long day, in which we could dance all the time without having to sleep or eat or do homework. But one particular day was better than all the rest combined. That’s when I met Ray Hesselink.
I was getting a drink at the water fountain before class when I noticed this giant of a guy wearing strange tap-shoe covers. They were made from thick, black, quilted material, and looked like Snuggies that had been shrunk down to foot size. I must have been staring for a while, because when I looked up (waaaaaay up), their owner was looking down at me.
“Hi, Alex,” he said. “I’m Ray. Ray Hesselink. I teach tap here.”
He stuck out a big hand to shake, and I took it tentatively. I’d never taken a class with him, and right away I was weirded out that he knew my name.
“Hi,” I said, hoping he’d let me get a drink and leave.
“Do you tap-dance?”
“No,” I said. I’m embarrassed to admit this, but I was kind of a ballet snob. But Ray uttered the two words that changed my life forever.
“I work on a show called Billy Elliot.”
He paused, obviously waiting for me to say something.
“On Broadway?” he continued, trying to prompt me.
“Cool,” I responded. I’d never heard of Billy Elliot, I had no idea what he was talking about, and I really wanted to get to class. But I couldn’t figure out a way to leave without being rude.
“I’ve been watching you,” he said.
Aaaand that was my cue to exit! I stepped back so fast I nearly fell over. This was exactly what Mom had worried about. I opened my mouth to call for help, but he rushed to continue.
“Dance. I’ve been watching you dance. You’re a very talented young man.”
“Oh. Thanks!” I said, feeling bad that a second ago I’d been convinced he was a creeper.
Ray pulled a card out of his wallet and handed it to me.
“Look, I think you’d be perfect for the role of Billy. We’re holding auditions soon. Have your parents give me a call if you want to try out.”
As he walked away, it dawned on me: I’d just been asked to audition for a Broadway show. Broadway, like in all the songs and movies. Broadway, like where Hugh Jackman and Patti LuPone sang. Broadway, like the place I’d dreamed about for as long as I could remember.
I was calling Mom before I even realized I had the phone in my hand.