Biographies & Memoirs

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Chapter 24

My Return

“I don’t know,” Dr. Hamilton said as he stared at my X-rays. He scratched his head and tsk-ed his tongue. I sat on the edge of my seat, silently begging.

I’d been back in rehearsals for a month now, slowly getting up to speed. We’d had to change some of my routines to accommodate my leg, but not as many as I had feared. I was absolutely forbidden to do any big acrobatics, so my entire “Electricity” number had to be rechoreographed. And even though I’d kept up my endurance by doing endless hours of cardio, my legs still needed strengthening. But it didn’t take long before I could do the full show without any hiccups.

“Wear this,” the therapist at PhysioArts said before the first dance rehearsal of my return. She handed me a brace that had a horseshoe-shaped piece of padding threaded into it. “This should keep your knee from ever touching the ground, even if you’re kneeling.”

“Thanks,” I said. “How long do I have to wear it for?”

“From now on,” she said. “We’re not taking any chances. And there’s no more running in the mezzanine, or doing any warm-ups on a hard floor anywhere in the theater.”

Everyone was walking on eggshells when it came to my leg, which I guess made sense, because it was a serious injury. But I was nearly recovered, and I’d dealt with so many accidents before, I almost didn’t understand the issue. I’d hurt it, it was better, and now it was time for me to come back. I was sick of waiting.

There was one last hurdle to jump through. I needed a doctor to sign me back in. If Dr. Hamilton agreed, March 14, 2010—five months to the day after my injury—would be my first day back as Billy Elliot.

I wanted it badly, and not just because I was desperate to get back into the show. That performance was actually a fund-raiser for Hancher Auditorium at the University of Iowa. Nearly seventy-five Iowans had purchased tickets, and though they didn’t know me, they were coming in part to see the local boy who had made it big. I didn’t want to disappoint them. But it wasn’t up to me.

Please, I pleaded silently as Dr. Hamilton stared at my X-rays.

“Okay,” he said finally. “I’ll sign you in.”

“Thank you!” I wanted to leap over his desk and hug him.

“But you need to be careful. I don’t want you back in here in four weeks because you pushed too hard and tore it again. It could very easily return.”

He looked me square in the eye.

“You were lucky this time, got it?”

“Yes, sir.” I nodded. “I promise I won’t do anything stupid.”

And I meant it.

At least, I did when I said it. . . .

My first show back went as smoothly as it could. The Iowans in the audience cheered at everything I did, and although I was hyperaware of the changes we’d made to accommodate my leg, no one else seemed to notice.

Being back felt like a dream come true. No more sitting around, no more physical therapy, and no more wondering what was going to happen to me. Finally, all the obstacles were gone, and I could do what I had come here to do: perform on Broadway, dance my heart out, and make Dad (and Mom) proud.

But I couldn’t stop thinking about the parts we’d cut, and wishing I could do the full thing. Maybe it’s the perfectionist in me, but I hate doing less than I know I’m capable of. But I knew if there was even the slightest chance I’d reinjure myself, they’d pull me right out—even if we were only halfway through the show! About once every other month, a Billy had to be removed at intermission, usually because he’d had a minor injury or gotten sick. Thankfully, there was always a backup Billy on-site, waiting in the dressing room, but I still didn’t want it to happen to me. So I played it safe . . . mostly.

But just two weeks after I returned to the show, Kenny Ortega was coming to see me. He was the man who choreographed Dirty Dancing, and he directed and choreographed the High School Musical franchise. In other words, he was a very big deal. We’d met a few times in the past—he had actually started to become friends with our family over the past couple of years. But now he was coming to see me and I wanted to impress him.

Stephen had been urging me not to pursue a career in dance. He said I should keep up with ballet, but focus on my education or something else that didn’t have such a short life span. Dancers were prone to injury, as I’d already learned, and even without accidents to cut their careers short, most were finished by their thirties. I knew Stephen was right, but impressing Kenny Ortega was important to me. He’d flown all this way to see me back in the show. Even if I didn’t want to dance forever, I wanted to dance my best right now!

As I warmed up before the show, I tested my knee. It twinged a little, but no more than it did after a normal workout.

I’m fine, I thought. I’ll do the real thing, just this once, then I’ll go back to the new version Kate choreographed.

“Got anything for Dollar Friday?” asked one of the stagehands, pulling me out of my worries. He had a huge jar filled with ones and fives. Every Friday, anyone who wanted could put a bill in with their name on it. At the end of the show, a winner was drawn and received the whole pot. I liked playing—it was one of those things that made the show seem like a family. But not tonight.

“Sorry,” I said, patting my costume. “No real pockets.”

And besides, I had enough to worry about tonight. I took some aspirin as a precaution to help with the swelling, and made sure my new brace was on as tightly as possible. I performed most of the show as expected, and when Act I finished, I felt fine. I knew, without a doubt, that I could pull off my acrobatics tonight. But I also knew I was going to be in trouble if I did. I watched the monitors during intermission, checking out the audience and trying to spot Kenny, but I couldn’t see him. I was nervous about Act II, because that’s when Billy’s really big number happens, “Electricity.” It had been five and a half months since the last time I’d done the gymnastics routine full out, and I hadn’t even tried an aerial cartwheel since. What if I didn’t hit my tricks? What if I fell? What if I embarrassed and reinjured myself? That would be the worst-case scenario.

As we came closer and closer to “Electricity,” I ran through the routine in my head. I kept coming to the same conclusion: I could do it. I could do the whole thing. I could do a back layout and an aerial cartwheel, and I could probably hit the landing.

As the music to “Electricity” began to swell, the woman playing the judge from the ballet school asked me (as Billy) what it felt like when I danced. I shot a final look at the audience. The house was full and Kenny was out there. I had to do it. I had to show him what it felt like when I danced.

I put all of my heart into “Electricity” that night, because I knew I had to make up in enthusiasm and energy for what I was missing in practice and endurance. As the music built to a crescendo, I prayed.

Please let this work.

Then I hit the floor.

Cartwheel, handspring, back handspring, backflip—I hit every single trick, including the back layout and aerial cartwheel and stuck the landings. The crowd went wild. The front row jumped to their feet. The applause was deafening. And best of all, I was winded, but my knee felt fine. All those hours at PhysioArts had paid off.

As I stepped offstage to change for my next scene, I knew I was in trouble.

“You. Me. Afterward,” said Tom, who was filling in for Kate that night.

He looked furious.

My stomach dropped. Surely, once I explained, he would understand, I rationalized, and I would call Kate and explain to her too. But I knew she was going to be mad regardless.

Kenny Ortega came backstage as soon as the show ended.

“Alex!” he said, grabbing me into a hug. “That was fantastic. Really, fantastic.”

“Thank you,” I replied. “That means a lot, coming from you.”

“I can’t stay long—and it’s probably past your bedtime anyway. But next time I’m in New York, why don’t you, your mom, and I all get dinner?”

“We’d love to!”

“Great,” Kenny said. “And tell your mom hi for me!”

When I saw Kate the next day, her voice was cold and stony. “You risked your health to impress Kenny Ortega.”

When she put it that way, it sounded much less reasonable than it had in my head.

“Kate, I’m sorry. I really am. But I knew—”

“No,” Kate said. “You didn’t know. You can’t know. What if you had slipped? What if someone left a prop in the wrong place, and you tripped over it? What if your knee re-tore? Do you know how many promising careers I’ve seen destroyed by tricks like the one you pulled last night?”

“I know, but . . . that didn’t happen. It worked out fine.”

My excuse sounded thin, even to me.

“Alex, you are fourteen years old. A serious injury now won’t just end your career. It could stop you from growing properly.”

Kate paused and ran one hand through her hair. In that moment I saw all the fear and worry that were behind the anger. Guilt struck me like a slap across the face. Kate was trying to protect me. I felt ungrateful and childish.

“I’m sorry, Kate.” I wished I could sink into the floor and disappear. “I promise you, this won’t happen again.”

“I know it won’t,” she said. “Because if it does, and you reinjure yourself, you’re out of the show. If you cannot, or will not, take care of yourself, we will do it for you.”

“I’m really sorry, Kate. I didn’t think about what I was doing, and I won’t do it again.”

I felt like I was going to cry. I’d let down someone who trusted me, and I’d put my own health in danger. This wasn’t the kind of person I’d promised Dad I would become.

Kate hugged me.

“You know I’m only mad because I’m worried for you?” she said.

“I know.” I tried not to sniffle.

“Good. Never do this again. See you tomorrow.”

With that, Kate left. I sat in my dressing room for another minute, thinking about the previous night. What I had done was stupid and careless, and I was lucky to get off as lightly as I had. From now on, I swore to myself, my health would come first.

Besides, Kate was right. I could do permanent damage to my body. If I handled it right, Billy Elliot would be just the beginning of my career. In more ways than one, I needed to start thinking about what I was doing next. There was no way this job was permanent. If I didn’t injure myself, I’d age out, or the show would close. I had to start planning ahead.

But for the moment I was back, and I was ready to finally enjoy my life as a Broadway star. True to his word, Kenny Ortega returned to New York frequently, and he took me out nearly every time. The funny thing about meeting celebrities is that it never happened the way I would expect. It was always offhand, accidental, and nonchalant, like the time I spoke to Jennifer Grey.

Kenny, Mom, and I were at Joe Allen splitting nachos and guacamole and talking about life in New York. I was telling them about my thoughts about my life after Billy, how I wanted to continue studying ballet while I applied to college, when suddenly Kenny’s phone rang.

“Sorry,” he said, looking at the number. “Gotta take this. Jennifer! Hey! Great to hear from you.”

He paused just long enough to snag a nacho from the tray.

“I’m having dinner with some friends. Actually, you should talk to one of them. This is Alex. He’s a dancer, and he’s on Broadway right now.”

He put his hand over the mouthpiece.

“Jennifer Grey,” he mouthed. “From Dirty Dancing.”

As though I didn’t know who Jennifer Grey was! I might not have been born in the eighties, but I don’t think there’s a dancer alive who hasn’t seen that movie.

“She wants some advice,” Kenny said, thrusting his cell at me. “Help her out.”

With no other choice, I took the phone.

“Hi?” I said, unsure what useful advice I could possibly give Jennifer Grey.

“Alex, I’m Jennifer,” she said sweetly. “Great to meet you. Kenny says you’re a dancer?”

“Ballet, mostly,” I told her. “But I’m on Broadway right now. In Billy Elliot.

“So cool!” she said excitedly. “Congratulations. You’re just the person I need.”

“Really?” I said, confused. “How can I help you?”

“I’m on Dancing with the Stars right now, and it’s been a long time since I’ve danced this much. What do you eat to keep your energy up? It’s so tiring!”

“Well,” I said, shocked that she’d actually asked a question I could help with, “I usually have a Clif Bar and a banana at intermission. That’s my power snack.”

“Cool,” she said. It sounded like she was taking notes. “And how do you warm up?”

“Jumping jacks, running . . . a little bit of everything really. I just try to do stuff that’ll loosen me up.” I thought for a second, and something occurred to me. “Don’t do it on concrete, though. You could injure yourself. Watch out for your knees.”

“Awesome,” she said. “Do you watch Dancing with the Stars?”

“I will now,” I told her, and we laughed.

“Well, wish me luck if you do. Say good-bye to Kenny for me—I’ll let you get back to dinner.”

With a click, she was gone.

“Kid’s a natural,” Kenny said to Mom as I stared at the phone. Had I really just given advice to Jennifer Grey? Talk about worlds being flipped upside down.

“Was she nice?” Mom asked.

“Really nice,” I mumbled. “I just can’t believe . . . I mean, why would she want my advice? I’m just a kid.”

“Alex,” Kenny said, shaking his head in shock. “You’re on Broadway! No, strike that, you’re in a title role on Broadway. You haven’t been ‘just a kid’ in a while. And this is only the beginning. Mark my words, you won’t believe the places you’ll go.”

As we finished lunch, I thought about what Kenny had said. I guess maybe I wasn’t the same kid I thought I was anymore. Even though all of this seemed so new, it was my reality now, and I needed to get used to it. But I didn’t think Kenny was totally right. I mean, what could possibly top being on Broadway, meeting Rosie O’Donnell, and talking to Jennifer Grey?

As it happened, I was about to find out.

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