The first stage I ever performed on was the hardwood floor of my family’s living room in Iowa City, Iowa. I was a four-year-old dance prodigy, choreographing elaborate shows with a full orchestra, an army of backup dancers, and an audience of thousands.
Okay, I’d never taken a dance class, the orchestra was on tape, my only backup dancer was my dog Ming Ming, and the “audience” was my family. But as my bare feet slid across our living room floor in uncoordinated attempts at pirouettes and handsprings, I felt like a star. This was what I was born to do.
No, not dance in my living room. Perform. I never dreamed that I would make it as far as I have, but I always knew I’d be a dancer, no matter what. It was just in me, in my blood, from the moment I was born.
I used to spend all day getting ready for my “shows.” My dad, Sam Ko, was born in Hong Kong, which meant he had a nifty British accent and a lot of CDs and DVDs of Chinese pop songs (it also makes me Chinese American, since my mom, Tammie, is from Florida). Whenever we went to Chicago, Dad would go to Chinatown to buy music. On the way back home, I’d sit in the back of the car and listen to those out-of-this-world sounds. When we got home, I obsessively watched the DVDs, which were filled with kaleidoscopic colors and beautiful women in neon dance clubs. They were like nothing I ever saw on TV in Iowa City. We didn’t even have cable, let alone videos from around the world. They were my escape from our normal suburban life, into a world of excitement and magic—the world of theater, where anything was possible.
Maybe that sounds childish, but it’s exactly what I thought when I was four: that theater could take me out of this world and into a whole new one. Or into a dozen new ones. Or a million.
And I was right.
I loved those songs, even though I couldn’t understand a word of Chinese. Maybe, actually, that’s why I loved them. Nothing got in the way of feeling the music. I would close my eyes and move, without caring what I looked like. There’s that old saying “dance as though no one’s watching,” and that’s what I did every day. Sometimes I would imagine a perfect world—not anything in particular, but the feeling of being somewhere free and perfect and wonderful. I would try to move in a way that expressed how I felt. I would leap and flip and jump, hop and step and kick. I’d mimic the dancers and gymnasts I saw on TV, long before I actually knew how to do any of the moves.
Mom says that I was “energetic” and “creative” (which is mom-speak for “wild” and “stubborn”). Dancing was a great way for me to get all of my energy out without constantly being in her way.
Not that performing in the living room was particularly “out of the way.” Sometimes, if I was really going crazy, Dad would chase me around the house with a rolled-up newspaper, and I would run from him, laughing. “You’re going to be a top surgeon,” he would say when he caught me. He’d carefully take my hands and tell me that they were the “hands of great surgeon!” But then he’d soften up. “But if you really want, maybe an actor,” he’d add. “The next Robert De Niro, that’s you.” He would smile wide and shake his head with pride.
“I always knew you were going to do important things with your life,” Mom says now. Not because I danced all the time, though I did, but because of what I did afterward. I made her tape all of my shows, and when I finished performing, I sat in my room and studied the tapes over and over again. I needed to know what I could do better. I analyzed every step, every kick, every turn. I wanted to be perfect, because even then I knew that’s what it took to be an actor, or a dancer, or any kind of artist.
It’s embarrassing to watch those tapes now and see my bowl-cut hair flying and my arms flailing. If you saw me then, you’d be really surprised I ever made it to Broadway. But there’s no way you could miss the giant smile on my face. I loved dancing, and I always have.
“Alex!” Dad would say when I’d spent too many hours poring over the videos trying to improve my footwork. “Come on—we’re going for a bike ride.”
Dad and I used to bike everywhere: up and down Teg Drive, the quiet suburban street we lived on; out to the University of Iowa, where I would stare at the white stone buildings and dream about going to college; or my favorite, over to the nearby reservoir, where we would go fishing. Together with my older brother, John, and our younger brother, Matt, we’d spend long summer afternoons on the banks. Fishing was just an excuse to hang out. We’d wrestle and fight and swim. On the way home, I’d stand on the back of John’s bike and feel the wind rushing all around me. It felt like flying.
I spent a lot of time with my brothers and my dad when I was little. Dad took care of the house, while Mom worked for the ACT, that test that high school seniors take to get into college. My mom’s really smart. Like, for-real smart. She has a PhD in applied statistics and psychometrics, which basically means math. Really hard math.
It’s probably weird to some people that my dad stayed home while my mom worked. But it was the right thing for our family. It showed me from an early age that what mattered most was doing what was right for you, not what anyone else said was right. It was a lesson that really helped during the long years when I was the only boy in any of my dance classes. If you’re a guy, and you want to dance, be prepared. Most of the time, you’ll be the only one. But you’ll always stand out, and for a performer, that’s a good thing.
I was lucky—not many people in our neighborhood judged us in any way. Iowa City was a great, open-minded place to grow up, and our neighborhood had a real community feel. People were accepting of all kinds of different folks.
Dad did lots of things around the house (he even built the speakers I used for my shows), but he was an especially great cook. Before I was born, his family owned a Chinese restaurant in Iowa City. In fact, that’s where he met my mom. In 1993, the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers both flooded, leaving thirty thousand square miles of the country underwater. It was one of the worst natural disasters to ever hit America. My dad was living in California, but he came to Iowa to help his sisters get their restaurant back together after the flood nearly destroyed it. My mom just happened to work there. It sounds like the plot of a musical, doesn’t it? A big disaster, a new boss with an exotic accent, and a beautiful girl who was waiting tables to pay for college. It’s no wonder Dad loved to cook after that!
While I played his Chinese pop tapes, Dad would be in the kitchen, whipping up big pots of noodles and dumplings. He cooked for us every day. I can’t have Chinese food now without missing him.
Things were pretty great until I turned five, when it was time to go to school. School and I didn’t get along. At all.
I don’t want to give anyone the wrong idea: I love learning, and I plan on going to college at Yale. Or maybe Stanford. A good school, regardless. But elementary school was hard. When I wasn’t home or performing, I was really shy. As a character in a show, I could say the craziest things. And I’ve always been able to express my feelings through dance. But making friends at school was difficult. The teachers said I was smart but needed to stay focused. At home, we had lots of rules and chores we had to do around the house, but the rest of the time my family let me go at my own pace. At school, everything was much more structured. I had so much energy that I just couldn’t sit still. My kindergarten teacher told my parents that I kept doing other students’ work for them, to hurry things along. I mostly spent recess alone, wandering the playground and kicking piles of snow. I was always that kid who got along better with my teachers than my classmates.
I had only one close friend, and we weren’t even in the same school. His name was Sasha Trouch, and he was Russian. Our moms had been friends for years, so I’d known him basically my whole life. His house was just a five-minute bike ride away. Maybe part of the reason we got along is that both of our families were pretty different from everyone else around us. Eventually, his dad, Dmitri, would become one of my first important mentors.
If you’ve seen Billy Elliot, you know that he had only one good friend too, a boy named Michael. It was one of the many things Billy and I had in common, which I think is a big part of the reason I was able to play the role as well as I did. So I guess in the long run, it was all good. But when I was a kid, school made me feel lonely. I couldn’t wait for the bell to ring so I could rush home.
Both my parents believed that schooling was the number one priority in life. My great-grandma always told me that my education was the one thing no one could ever take from me. So when I had problems in public school, my parents tried everything they could think of: first homeschooling, then back to public school, then to private school, then back to homeschooling. . . . I bounced around a bit during those first few years.
Even while I was in kindergarten, my parents were desperate to find something to keep my mind off my school troubles, so right when I started school, they took me to a gymnastics class. For once, all the adults in the room were telling me to get up and run around. Maybe because I wasn’t the only boy, I loved it from the very first day. We were free to run, and move, and jump. It was like all that energy I had to force down in school could finally come rushing out. And I was a pretty quick study. We’ve even got a video of me doing a front handspring in one of my Chinese pop “shows” when I was just six years old.
Soon I was going to gymnastics three or four times a week, and Sasha was in every class with me. My mom would pick us up from school and bring us home from the gym. Sasha’s mom, Marina, made my dance costumes. My little brother, Matt, even joined the team, and soon we were competing together. Our two families became really close. Some days, we’d hang out at Sasha’s place so late playing video games that I would have to call home and spend the night. If you added it all up, we probably spent months of our lives at each other’s houses.
One day, after watching me in a competition, Marina asked if I’d like to train with her husband, Dmitri, who was then working at the University of Iowa as a coach with the men’s gymnastics team.
“Alex has real potential,” Marina told my mom.
I was really excited to train with Dmitri, because the university had one of the best college teams in the country. But it wasn’t until later that Sasha told me the whole truth: before he’d come to Iowa, his dad had been an Olympic gymnast in Russia. In 1996, he won a Gold Medal at the Summer Olympics in Atlanta! Dmitri was so humble, he never bragged about his achievements at all. But I was honored that he wanted to train me.
By the time I was eight, I was going to gymnastics every day, and sometimes weekends too. We shared the gym with students from the Hawkeye gymnastics team. Sometimes they gave us tips, mostly on the small things that make a huge difference in your score in competition, like remembering to point your toes. I promised myself that one day I’d be just as good as any of them.
At home, Matt and I festooned our shared bedroom with plaques and trophies from gymnastics. The back of our door was strung with dozens of ribbons. We might not have been as good as those college gymnasts, but when I closed my eyes at night, I could see myself wearing the Hawkeye uniform someday.
But what I really wanted was to be as good as Dmitri. I could just imagine myself standing on that Olympic platform wearing red, white, and blue, and listening to the loudspeaker announce my name while the national anthem played.
And if it hadn’t been for one little incident, I think I might have made it. . . .