“Please take off your shoes, belts, anything metal in your pockets, any jewelry, portable phones, etc., and put them in the bin before you pass through the metal detector. Thank you.”
The guard repeated his speech in a monotone every few minutes. I’d been waiting for nearly an hour, so I’d heard it enough times that I could recite it from memory. A long line of would-be guests snaked down the hall from the guard station, patiently waiting and playing with their cell phones. Finally it was my turn.
“Alex Ko?” The guard looked up from a list of names on his computer.
“Yes.” I nodded.
I passed him the thin piece of paper, which we’d ordered from Iowa just for this reason. He stared at it intently before running a black light over it to look for forgeries. I must have checked out, because he waved me through the metal detector and handed me a dark blue identification badge with the letter A on it.
“Wear this at all times,” he said without looking up. “Liam Redhead?” he called out next.
“Wow,” I whispered to myself as I gazed past the security checkpoint down the long and lavish hallway. The White House looks great in pictures, but you have to be there to get the full effect.
Liam and I, along with Dayton Tavares and Jacob Clemente, two other Billys, had flown to D.C. to lead a workshop for the inaugural session of the White House Dance Series, a new initiative that the first lady had begun as part of her health and fitness drive. I’d been back in the show for a few months now, and I was at the peak of my time as Billy. Being invited to the White House was both an honor and a privilege. We would be onstage beside members of the New York City Ballet, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and the Washington Ballet—not to mention the first lady herself, Michelle Obama. The event combined performances, a tribute to choreographer Judith Jamison (the artistic director of Alvin Ailey), and a dance workshop for nearly one hundred young people from around the country. It was an afternoon event taking place in the East Room, an elegant ballroom with three giant crystal chandeliers, a beautiful parquet floor, and stately portraits of past presidents hanging on the walls.
Or at least, that’s where the event was going to take place. But even though it took forever to get through security, we still arrived really early. The East Room wasn’t even set up when we walked in. Juliana told us to settle down and wait, then went across the room to talk to the organizers of the event.
“Hey, Alex, look!” said Liam as we explored the empty ballroom. “Over there—isn’t that where the president makes all his speeches?”
I went down the hallway, where some workers were setting up a podium and chairs. It looked like they were getting ready for a big press event. Later, we found out that President Obama was making a televised announcement that evening, but at the time we weren’t sure what was going on.
“Maybe? It’s hard to tell. Everything here looks so . . . presidential,” I said. “Like you expect to turn a corner and run into him at any moment.”
“I know,” said Liam. “Look, the workers are gone.”
The podium was sitting there, lit up and alone, graced with the presidential seal.
“Wanna take a picture?” Liam asked. “I’ll take yours if you take mine.”
“Sure!” I smiled. I looked around to tell Juliana, but she was busy on the other side of the room, now talking to security.
We’ll be quick, I thought. No point in worrying her.
Liam and I slipped out of the East Room and into the empty hallway. No alarms went off, and I didn’t see any SWAT teams running our way, so I figured we were safe. I looked around. Liam was right: this was definitely where President Obama gave his speeches. I’d seen him on TV, in this very spot, dozens of times. I crept up behind the podium and imagined myself giving an important address. I couldn’t believe I was literally standing in President Obama’s footsteps.
“Okay, pose,” Liam said as he jogged away from me. “Ready? Three, two . . . one . . . Go!”
I threw my left leg high behind me and extended my arms above my head in an arabesque. I couldn’t imagine a more appropriate pose for a photo at the White House.
An arabesque is one of the most regal poses in any kind of dance.
“Your turn,” I said to Liam. We switched positions and Liam did an arabesque of his own. We traded places a few more times, each of us trying to get the most reach, the most extension, the most perfect arabesque we could do, because this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
“That’s your new Facebook profile pic right there,” I said to Liam as I showed him the photos I’d taken on my phone.
“Awesome.” He slapped me five. “Now what?”
We both looked back the way we’d come. No one seemed to have noticed we were gone. Through the open door, I could see Juliana still talking to the guards.
“We should go back in,” I said. “They’ll miss us soon.”
“Yeah,” Liam agreed.
Neither of us moved.
“I mean, we don’t have anything to do for another hour,” I said.
“And if we went back in, we’d probably just be in the way,” Liam added.
“And who knows if we’ll ever visit here again. . . .” I trailed off.
We both looked longingly down the hall. Who wanted to be cooped up in the East Room, when we could actually get to see the place where everything happened? This was the center of American democracy. Lincoln had walked these floors. It was almost our patriotic duty to go exploring.
“Come on,” Liam said decisively. We snuck past the podium and took a left at the first intersection. The hallway we entered was empty, but there were footsteps coming from behind us. We walked away from them as fast as we could without running. Doors opened onto the hall at random intervals, but all of them were closed, and we were afraid to open them. The last thing we wanted was to surprise a group of armed Secret Service agents.
“Duh-duh-da-da-da-dadaduh.” I quietly sang the Mission: Impossible theme song as we moved quickly down the hall. The footsteps behind us were getting closer.
“Here!” Liam said, pulling me into the first open door we found. Inside was the smallest room I saw that day in the White House. It wasn’t much bigger than our living room at home—and it already had people in it. My heart jumped into my throat. Was it a crime to wander the White House unescorted? I wondered. I was about to find out.
“Excuse me,” said the large security guard standing by the door. “Can I see your IDs, please?”
“Is that Bo?” Liam asked, ignoring the security guard entirely and addressing the young man with a black fluffy dog on a leash. I held up my blue ID tag at the guard and hoped for the best.
“Yes,” the dog walker said. “But you’re not supposed to be in here. Aren’t you with the dance program?”
“We’re from Billy Elliot,” I said, partly to the walker and partly to the guard, who was giving Liam an angry look. “But I really wanted to meet Bo.”
It wasn’t a lie, not entirely. I love dogs, and I really did want to meet Bo.
“Can I pet him?” I said.
“No,” the dog walker replied. “Really, no one’s supposed to touch him.”
Bo looked up at us, his intelligent eyes begging us to stroke his fluffy head. He was a Portuguese water dog, and looked exactly like a curly-haired stuffed animal. How could we resist?
“Please?” said Liam.
The man looked around quickly, but we were alone aside from the security guard, who seemed bored now that it was clear we weren’t pint-size spies.
“All right,” the walker said. “But just once.”
I’m happy to report that Bo Obama is a great first dog: cute, smart, friendly, and very, very fluffy. I wish I could have gotten a picture with him, but even petting him seemed to make his handler nervous. I wanted to get out before he made the security guard escort us back to the East Room.
“Thanks!” I said over my shoulder as I pulled Liam away from the dog and out of the room. “Where to now?” I whispered.
Liam shrugged. The dance program would be starting soon. I almost suggested we head back when I spotted another open door.
“Let’s just look,” I said. I darted down the hall and peeked my head in.
The room had two big, heavy red armchairs sitting atop a thick Oriental rug. There were a couple of ornate wooden desks and armoires, as well as the antique paintings that seemed to be required decor for every room in the White House. I guess after forty-four presidents and first families, you end up with a lot of portraits. But what caught my eye was an open cabinet built into one wall. I couldn’t tell what was inside it, exactly, but it looked like thin sheets of metal stacked vertically.
“Whoa . . . cool. What is that?” I wondered.
“I don’t know,” Liam said as he poked his head in next to mine. “But I know how to find out!”
Quick as a flash, Liam was in the room and tugging on one of the sheets.
“Careful!” I whispered as I ran over to help him. Slowly, we tugged it out of the cabinet to reveal a giant map of Asia that was intricately detailed. When fully unrolled, it hung in front of the cabinet with a little stand to keep it in place. It was metal only on the outer edge—the rest was a sort of heavy canvas.
“Cool,” said Liam. “The president has the best toys.”
“It’s one of the perks of being president,” I agreed. “Like Air Force One and the right to skip every line at Disneyland.”
There were dozens of other maps in the cabinet, and I wanted to pull each one out and examine it. I could just picture the president meeting foreign ambassadors in this room to discuss trade agreements and national security issues. I shivered. I couldn’t believe how awesome my life had become. I, Alex Ko from Iowa City, was an invited guest at the White House, exploring the president’s stuff. For the first time, I actually felt famous.
“What do you think’s in there?” Liam asked, pointing to the only other door in the Map Room.
I shrugged and went to open it.
“Sweet,” I said. Liam started to run over.
“Hold up!” I yelled as I slipped into the room and closed the door behind me. “It’s just the bathroom.”
I’d needed one for a while. After I washed my hands, I checked the time on my phone. It was after noon, and the workshop was starting soon. It was time for Liam and me to head back. But as I wiped my hands, I noticed something strange about the paper towels: they had the White House seal emblazoned on them. I took a few as souvenirs.
“Catch,” I said as I stepped out of the room and lobbed a pile of towels at Liam.
“Ew!” he said. “What did you do that for?”
“Souvenir,” I told him. “Look at them. Closely.”
I slipped more into my bag as Liam started laughing.
“Awesome! Thanks, Alex.”
“No problem,” I said. “But we should get back.”
“Think they’ve noticed we’re missing?”
“If Juliana had noticed, I don’t think we’d be missing anymore,” I replied. I was surprised we’d managed to stay free for this long. Management was usually pretty strict at events like this, but we’d gotten lucky. When we slipped back into the East Room, it was clear that no one had even noticed we were gone. If it hadn’t been for the paper towels in my bag (which I still have, to this day, as a souvenir on my bookshelf), it all might never have happened.
“Alex, Liam, Dayton, Jacob!” Juliana called our names from the other side of the East Room. “We’re going to get started soon, but first there’s someone who wants to meet you.”
Juliana led us into the hallway. Right away, I noticed that the farther we went, the more security there was. I felt a tingle of expectation run down my spine. This could mean only one thing. . . .
Finally, we reached a door guarded by four Secret Service agents. There were other dancers already waiting. We joined them in line, and security ushered us in. There, in the center of the room, was the first lady, Michelle Obama!
“Welcome,” she said as we entered.
My jaw dropped. I couldn’t believe I was meeting the first lady of the United States of America. I also couldn’t believe how tall she was. I mean, she had to be at least six feet. At least. And that wasn’t counting her shoes.
“Remember,” Juliana whispered, “don’t say anything unless she talks to you first.”
The guards kept us in line, and one by one, the first lady shook hands with us. As she came closer to me, my heart started pounding. I’d been nervous about meeting famous people before, but never like this. Celebrities do cool things like star in movies and write books, but the first lady actually helped decide how our entire country was run. Hers was a whole new level of power and fame, and I couldn’t believe that I was actually meeting her. Soon she was three people away in line. Then two. Then there was just one person between the first lady and me.
Then she turned to take my hand.
“Oh my gosh, you’re tall,” I blurted out.
“Alex!” Juliana shushed me, embarrassed.
I couldn’t believe what I’d just said. I clapped my hand over my mouth.
Luckily, the first lady laughed.
“Thank you,” she said. “It’s the heels.” She winked at me, shook my hand, and moved down the line.
Soon after that, the workshop started and I found myself leading a hundred kids through “Solidarity,” a big ballet number that intercuts scenes of Billy in dance class with his father and brother fighting armed guards at the mines. I felt doubly blessed. I was both giving back to the community and meeting some of my heroes at the same time. I could barely believe my luck.
After the lesson, a tiny girl in tights came up to me, her black ponytail shaking with nerves.
“Excuse me?” she said, in a voice just one step above a whisper.
“Hi there,” I said, shaking her hand. “I’m Alex. Did you enjoy the workshop?”
“Yes,” she said. “I know you. I mean, I saw you on Broadway. Can . . . can . . . can I have your autograph?” Shyly, she held out a pen and notepad.
“My autograph?” I asked, surprised. “Sure, of course.”
I was in a room with Michelle Obama, Judith Jamison, and at least a dozen other famous dancers, and this girl was asking for my autograph. Kenny’s words about the places I would go came back to me then, and I realized he was right. I wanted to tell each of these kids to keep dancing, keep trying, because you never knew where life would take you. In fact, I wanted to ask this girl for her autograph, because if I could come from Iowa City and end up leading a workshop at the White House, who knew where she would go. Maybe one day I’d be watching her dance, or taking a workshop from her, or shaking her hand as the first lady of America.
Or as the president.
If there is anything that being Billy taught me about life it’s this: you never know what will happen next. Chance leads to coincidence, which breeds opportunity, and allows for victory. A loss precedes a gain, failure creates room for success. At some point, every single one of us in the White House was just a child, dreaming big. Like me. Like Billy. Like the little girl.
“I’m going to be up on that stage someday,” she said, after I signed her notepad. The look of determination on her face was one I knew well. I’d seen it in the mirror every day my whole life.
“Keep dreaming,” I told her, “and you will.”