Even though I hadn’t enjoyed my first dance class, I kept making tapes of myself dancing. Soon the tapes began to pile up in my closet. By the time I was five—a year after I’d gone to that first, disastrous dance class—I had quite a collection of them.
My older brother, John, was ten, and for a couple of years he’d been taking classes with a woman named Michael Kohli, who ran a school called the National Dance Academy. It was the big-deal competition dance school in Iowa City. It had bright, airy studios and these beautiful swooping chandeliers in the lobby. They had thousands of crystals hanging from them. They looked . . . expensive. Every day I’d sit and count the crystals while Mom and I waited for John to finish class. It felt like the most elegant place in the world, like I’d already left Iowa and was sitting in the lobby of a Broadway theater—not that I’d ever even been to Broadway at that point in my life, but I could dream.
Mom knew I loved dancing. And she knew I needed something to do with all my pent-up energy. And John was already going to this studio, so . . . she decided to do something totally underhanded and unfair.
Without telling me, she took one of my dancing tapes and gave it to Michael, John’s teacher, who loved it. The next time we dropped John off at the studio, I found myself enrolled in a dance class.
“He has natural talent,” Michael told my mom.
I was mortified that she had seen the tape, mainly because of one small detail: I wasn’t wearing a lot in the video. In fact, I was in my underwear! I was so mad at Mom that I refused to talk to her the entire way home.
But being with John helped me overcome my shyness. Plus Michael was the best teacher a young dancer could have. She had a beautiful smile, and had trained in New York City before opening her studio in Iowa in the early 1980s. She had a huge amount of experience, and she knew how to make class fun.
I took all kinds of classes from her: jazz, modern, lyrical, improv. Pretty much anything they taught at the National Dance Academy, I studied. (Ironically, the only two classes I didn’t take much of with Michael were tap and ballet—the two things I would need for Billy Elliot!) The studio became my second home. I spent a little more time in the gym doing gymnastics, but that was more competitive. Dance was just . . . joyful.
You have to look for your joy. To be successful at something like dance takes a huge amount of work. You dedicate your life to it. And if you dedicate your life to something that doesn’t bring you joy, well . . . that sounds pretty miserable, doesn’t it? Dad always said that the only thing to be ashamed of in life is not doing your very best, and it’s easier to do your best when you love what you’re doing.
Most of what I did with Michael was competition dancing. This meant that we focused more on performance than technique, though we did both. Over the six or seven years I studied with her, I danced in something like fifty competitions, which were held all across the country. At each one, I performed anywhere from one to ten numbers—some solos, some duos, and some big group performances. That’s literally hundreds of dances. And all of those dances were made of moves and combinations that I had to learn first. It took hours and hours of classes and rehearsals in order to be able to compete.
Mom drove me to everything, and dancing was the way we bonded. She was never a dancer herself, like my auntie Kristin, but my mom could see how much I loved it, and wanted to support me. Without fail, she came to every dance competition and recital.
Which felt really good, because Dad . . . Dad wasn’t as into me being a dancer. He wanted me to be a surgeon, or a gymnast, or even an actor.
“Jumping up and down!” he’d huff when he saw me rehearsing at home. “That’s not dance! It’s aerobics.”
I’d be lying if I said it didn’t hurt. I wanted Dad to be proud of me, and he was—when it came to everything else. But he didn’t think dance was serious. He was scared I was wasting my talents. He was so against it, he never came to a single competition.
“Alex, he’s just worried for you,” Mom said, when I’d ask why he didn’t come.
I knew she was right, but still . . . I always dreamed of the day when he would see me dance and realize that this was the thing I was born to do. That this was my passion. Just like in Billy Elliot, the more Dad disliked my dancing, the more I wanted to make him proud of it. I thought if I just worked hard enough, someday he would see it. But it seemed like he would never understand my passion for dance.
In the meantime, dance was something Mom and I bonded over. There’s a lot of work that goes into making a dance. I wanted to be involved in every aspect. One of my favorite things to do was help make my costumes. Dance costumes are fitted and stretchy so you can move in them, but they’re also bright and beautiful to catch the judges’ attention. They’re like what ice skaters wear in the Olympics. I loved picking out colors and patterns that helped tell the story of my dance.
Plus it didn’t hurt that I was really into the Power Rangers at the time, who just happened to wear bright, stretchy costumes to battle evil. I’m not saying that was my main reason for wanting to help make the costumes, but it certainly didn’t hurt.
Once a month or so during the fall, Mom and I would drive to Des Moines, to visit a store called the Theatrical Shop. It was an amazing place, sort of like a mash-up between a Halloween store and a dance shop, all under the awning of an old movie theater. They had fabric, dance clothes, trim, wigs, theatrical makeup, props, shoes . . . everything. I used to love exploring the entire store. Then I’d get some new dance shorts and dance shoes, and pick out fabric for my next costume. We’d bring the fabric to Marina and talk over what I wanted my costume to look like, and then Marina would sketch out the costume and make it for me. Not only did I get great costumes that fit perfectly, but it was also way cheaper, which was good because my family wasn’t rich, and dancing cost a lot of money. So we did anything we could to hold down the costs.
I know I sound a little OCD, but it’s the details that separate a good performance from a great one. When I’m up on that stage, the only person getting judged is me, so I need to make sure I’m happy with everything. If not, I have no one to blame but myself. Lots of people will tell you what to do, or what’s good, or what’s right. And I’m not saying you should ignore them—they are your mentors, coaches, family, and friends, and they’re trying to help you. But at the end of the day, you’ve got to do what’s right for you, no matter what anyone else says.
When I was eight years old, I entered a dance competition in Davenport, Iowa. I really wanted to win. It wasn’t the biggest competition in the world, but Davenport was only fifty minutes away, so it was in my home territory. I had to go big. Michael Kohli and I spent months preparing my solo, which was a lyrical dance that we called “Ko Jun Dak.”
Ko Jun Dak is how you would write my name in Chinese. In China, the family name (“Ko”) comes first. “Jun Dak” is my first name in Chinese. Ko means “tall,” Jun means “smart,” and Dak means “successful.” I was hoping for at least two out of three to come true.
Lyrical dance has its roots in all kinds of styles: ballet, modern, jazz. It fuses all of them together, and it’s beautiful. The pieces tend to be light, delicate, and very emotional, with lots of intricate footwork. Michael choreographed “Ko Jun Dak” to Bach’s Prelude in C Major to highlight the fluidity of the lyrical style. Lyrical dance came naturally to me because of all the gymnastics I’d done.
To make “Ko Jun Dak” work, I needed a costume that looked both strong and graceful. The next time we visited the Theatrical Shop, I picked out a metallic gold fabric that would move like the scales on a dragon. Marina used it to make me a tank top with long fitted pants. Wearing them, I knew my routine would look amazing.
But not everyone agreed with me.
Immediately after I performed “Ko Jun Dak,” one of the Applause judges signaled Michael over to the judges’ table. That’s never a good sign. I could tell Michael was getting annoyed, but I couldn’t hear what she was saying. Then she started making big, angry gestures with her hands and called my mom over.
Uh-oh, I thought. This wasn’t good. What did I do? Could I have broken some rule? Forgotten my choreography? I tried to replay the performance in my head, but I couldn’t figure out what had gone wrong. Instead, I sat there waiting nervously. Scores aren’t announced until the end of the entire competition, and this was only day one, so I had a long wait ahead of me.
When Mom and Michael returned, they both tried to pretend everything was fine, but I could see their pursed lips and frowny foreheads. Something was definitely wrong.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“Nothing,” Mom said. “You’re fine. Perfect, as a matter of fact.”
Michael nodded vigorously.
But if I hadn’t done something wrong, why had they argued with the judge? No matter how much I asked, they wouldn’t say anything. It wasn’t until years later that Mom finally told me the truth.
The judge had given Michael a note. It read:
Be careful when you’re costuming him. He’s a boy, and I’m sure he’s embarrassed to be seen in this.
Even now, it makes me angry.
I’m really glad Mom and Michael didn’t show me that note. It’s hard enough being a male dancer around people not in the dance world. Other kids could be mean when they found out. The last thing I needed was for another dancer—an adult, even!—to make fun of me in the same way. And it was even worse because I was proud of my costume. Seeing that note would have crushed my confidence, which is the worst thing you can do to a young artist. Or to any kid, for that matter. If we don’t believe in ourselves, how can we ever become the people we want to be?
For boys who want to be dancers or actors, this kind of thing is all too common. All I can say is this: it’s happened to every male actor or dancer at some point in their lives, so we’re in good company. Theater, dance—all the arts, really—they’re about emotion, and there’s a lot of people out there who think boys shouldn’t show emotion, which sounds sad to me. I ignore them as much as I can.
Just to be clear: it’s not easy for girls who want to make it as performers either. There will always be haters, and you’ve just got to prove them wrong.
I won First Place Overall at the competition, and when I accepted that trophy, I wasn’t embarrassed about my outfit at all.
But even as I was winning trophies and coming into myself as a person, something was on the horizon that would change everything. Soon, I wouldn’t be dancing in competitions anymore. In fact, my whole world was about to change.
And not for the better.