"Alright, Alexis," Dad said in a very serious tone. "Hand it over." In fact, it was much too serious for me to even take seriously. But I knew that Mom must have called him all the way from LA and lectured him about being a parental figure. So now here I was, fresh off the plane from LA, ready to have a summer of fun in New York like I had every summer since their divorce when I was six. But first I had to get through this: sitting in the front seat of my dad's dutiful Jeep, clutching my bag to my chest while my little brother Jesse listened eagerly from the backseat. For the millionth time, I wished I had been born with the brain Jesse had. He was fourteen and I was already bribing him to do my math homework for me.
"Alexis, I am not buying you any pizza until you give it to me," Dad said in a threatening voice.
"Dad," I whispered. "Don't use my love of pizza against me." Jesse snickered, but Dad looked at me solemnly and I knew I couldn't joke my way out of this. I finally reached into my bag and pulled out a worn, white envelope, my full name Alexis Maria Josefina Gonzales printed on one of those pre-made labels and stuck to the front. On the other side, my school's name was printed in plain typeface. I remembered staring at that envelope for hours, trying to figure out a way to somehow superimpose acceptable grades instead of my crappy ones, but I knew it would be no use. I would have to confess to my parents at some point.
I handed Dad the envelope and covered my eyes with my palms, shrinking down in my car seat.
"Alexis," Dad sighed. "An F in your English class?"
"What?!" Jesse exclaimed, grabbing at my report card. "How could you possibly fail English, Lex? You were born speaking it!"
"Well maybe you were," I snapped at him. "But Mom and Dad thought it was a great idea to speak both English and Spanish to me so they could have a genius, bilingual baby. Well, surprise!"I told Dad. "You just ended up with a dumb one instead."
"You're not dumb, Lex," Dad insisted. "But with D's in math and science, too...your GPA is looking lower than your brother's batting average."
"Hey!" Jesse cried.
"Sorry, bud. Baseball was not your sport. But Lex," he said seriously. "You're supposed to be applying to college right now. How do you expect to get into any decent university with these grades?" He sighed and rubbed his temples dramatically. It was so odd to see my dad, my laid-back dad, who preferred plaid shirts, baseball caps, and Breaking Bad reruns over everything, stressed out over something like grades.
"Dad, you didn't go to college," I reasoned. "And you love your job a hundred times better than Mom likes being an accountant."
"I got lucky, Lex. It's by some miracle that I'm not living out of a shack and developing my photos at the corner CVS." Dad took off his Dodgers baseball cap, ran his hand through his newly salt-and-pepper hair, and put the cap back on. "Maybe you should stay behind a year. Retake some classes, get your GPA up, apply for some good schools..."
"No, Dad!" I protested. "I'd rather work at McDonald's for the rest of my life than repeat a grade! At least they get free burgers!"
"And then what will you do after you graduate?"
"Dance," I replied, without even thinking. But I knew the words sounded stupid before they even left my mouth.
"Alexis," Dad told me, "I don't think you can make a living from dancing on the streets with the kids from the neighborhood."
"No," I argued. "But Miguel Fernandez from the studio says that he'd hire me to help teach his tango and flamenco classes after I graduate."
"Kiddie," Dad told me, using the nickname he had for me before I could even remember. "I just want you to be happy. I want you to be happy, healthy, settled...I don't want you to have to worry about where your next month's rent is coming from, like I did." He looked back down at my awful report card one last time and I felt guilt wash over me like a tsunami. It was one thing for my mom to ground me for a week. It was another to hear the disappointment in my Papa's voice.
"I'm sorry," I whispered.
Dad looked up at me, hearing the sadness in my voice, and gave me a smile. Then, he crumpled up the report card and tossed it out the window. "I know you are. And I know you'll work hard. This is summer, we're supposed to be having fun instead of making each other feel badly. What do you say we shoot a little downtown before dinner?" He asked, pulling the car out of the airport parking lot.
I grinned. "Yes!" Ever since I had been tiny, one of my favorite things to do was take pictures with my dad. When he had been living in LA, we would hike up to the Hollywood sign and I would peek through the letter O's, or else I would pose by the Walk of Fame stars. Other times we'd drive out to the beach and I'd pretend to be a mermaid. But as I got older, and all I wanted to do was dance, Dad learned how to capture every jump and turn. Even after he moved to New York, we'd find a random set of stairs or a pretty background and I'd jump or turn, and he'd catch it on camera in a way only he knew how.
"Here, Dad!" I instructed, pointing. "Right in front of Radio City! Park the car!" I leapt from the front seat, Jesse following behind me. On a cool, early summer weekday like this, the sidewalk was clear enough to get some good shots. I reached down to tighten the laces on my new high-tops. I had spent over an hour in the store trying to pick out the perfect pair to wear to New York, even though I knew Dad wouldn't care which shoes I wore. He was so laid back, so unlike my mom who wanted everything flashy and trendy. They were so different in every way, which was probably the reason they had divorced so early on.I obviously got my style from my mom, but it didn't matter. Dad would be just as excited about my new shoes as I was. He was always interested in everything I was excited about, which was something I loved about him and missed the most when I was stuck in LA for the school year.
As Dad parked the car, I bowled into a handstand, contorting my legs in the air and rotating on my hands to warm up. Beside me, Jesse rolled into a stall, his hands supporting his head on the ground as his legs hovered in mid-air, reaching past his head. I grinned at him, glad that he still remembered. I had taught him stalls back when he was just tiny, living in LA with me. I had first seen the move in a Chris Brown video and tried to teach myself for days, tumbling around my carpeted living room until I had finally found my balance. It was always the most exciting feeling to learn a new trick and I had never been too shy to show them off. What I lacked in grades, I made up for in dance. I had to be special somehow.
"Dad, get this!" I called, leaping into a jump I had seen on an episode of So You Think You Can Dance-my front leg extended, my back leg nearly hitting the back o f my head which was thrown back, my arms reaching toward the sky. They called it an "angel", but I felt more like a bird-flying without boundaries.
"Now watch me, Dad!" called Jesse, springing back on his hands impressively, attracting the attention of the passer-bys while Dad's camera shutter clicked away. I grinned and began to turn in the attitude position, my leg bend backward at an angle, until something in the window of the music hall caught my head.
Auditions: New York Academy of the Performing Arts Dance Department. INTRODUCING NEW HIP HOP PROGRAM.
Immediately I stopped turning. "Dad, look at this." I ran my hand over the sign, reading further. "It's a high school!" I exclaimed. "Where you get to dance all day! Students are trained in a variety of dance techniques including ballet, contemporary, modern, and our new hip hop program. High school students of all grades are encouraged to audition. Admission is selective. Full scholarships are available." I looked at Dad with excitement. "Dad, this is awesome! This could help me graduate on time! And I could dance every day and I could stay here in New York with you and Jesse!"
Dad walked to my side, camera in hand, and squinted at the sign. "I don't know, Lex. Do you think your mom would be okay with it?"
"She wouldn't care if I just auditioned," I persisted. "I probably wouldn't even get in. But I think I should at least try!"
"Ballet," Jesse commented, wrinkling his nose as he looked at the dancer on the poster, decked out with a large, pink platter tutu. "You can't dance ballet."
"I can so," I argued, wrinkling my nose back at him. "I took classes back in LA once in a while. I wasn't terrible. I even had toe shoes." I looked at Dad with the best pouty face I could muster. "Dad, please, please, please just let me audition tomorrow! I promise I'll explain everything to Mom and she'll understand! I'm just doing this for my own future!"
Dad looked at me critically for a moment, but he couldn't hold in his amusement and cracked a smile. "Okay, Lex. You can audition tomorrow." I squealed in delight. "But don't get your hopes up. This is one of the most selective schools in New York. I don't want you disappointed."
"I won't be, I promise!" I said, hugging him. "I'll just do my best, and hopefully that will be enough!" In my head, I was already preparing the outfit I would wear: something flashy, like bright leggings and a printed top which would draw their attention. Ideas of freestyle moves were already swirling in my head. I could even throw in some Latin dance to show them my versatility. I was going to give them everything I got.
"Come on, then," Dad said, packing his camera in his bag and gesturing to me and Jesse. "I hear the best thing to prepare for an audition is the biggest, greasiest slice of New York pizza in the city. To Gambino's we go?" he asked, putting his arm around me.
I grinned and nodded. "To Gambino's we go."
And in that one moment, everything changed. I went from having no idea what I wanted to do with my life to actually having a dream for the first time. I looked back at the sign one last time, admiring the ballerina's beautiful expression and the way the stage lights illuminated her face. Just by looking at her, I knew that she loved dancing. And if there was nothing else that bonded me, with my snapbacks and high-tops, to this ballerina in a tutu and pointe shoes, it was that.
"I packed an extra water bottle in your dance bag. Extra bobby pins and a hair-tie are in there, too. Don't stress yourself out too much if the girls have more training than you. You have more energy and passion than any of the girls in there. Go big or go home." Dad coached as we rushed through the hallways of the auditorium, trying to find the audition room the next day. We were already running late-Jesse's cat Leon had mistaken my favorite sports bra for his litter box-and I was already feeling flustered to the max. Dad wasn't helping. "And don't be too upset if you don't get in," he continued rambling. "I'll get you an entire pizza for yourself if you don't get in...well, I'll get one for you if you do get in, too. Either way, you're getting a pizza so there's no need to worry."
"Okay thanks, Dad," I hissed, giving him a look as I finally found the registration desk. But there was no way I was signing up for auditions with my Dad and little brother hovering over my shoulder. "Go." Catching my not-so-subtle hint, Dad nodded and dragged Jesse toward the hallway where the rest of the parents crowded around a window to watch their kids audition. He stuck out like a sore thumb, he and Jesse's Dodgers caps like blue flags among the hoards of mothers in their suburban haircuts, preppy cardigans, and Louis Vuitton handbags. I prayed he wasn't going around telling everyone to look out for his daughter-the one in the patterned leggings and crop top-but he probably was.
"Hi," I said to the two women at the registration table. "This is where I sign up?"
They looked at each other solemnly before the one with the brown hair asked, "This is the audition for the New York Academy of Performing Arts."
"Great, then I'm in the right place," I said with a friendly smile, but their stony faces made it obvious that this ice was not about to melt.
The blonde cleared her throat and told me with such high superiority that I could actually throw up, "Registration began at 1:30."
"But the sign out front said auditions started at two..." I said, gesturing toward the door.
"But registration began at 1:30," the brown-haired lady emphasized, with the rudest tone I could have imagined.
I looked back and forth between the pair of them. "Okay..." I said slowly, not sure where to go from here.
The blonde finally sighed and shoved a sheet toward me. "Auditions are about to begin. Just sign your name and take your number and we'll have you fill out the rest of the form if you're accepted. Hurry and get changed."
"Oh, I'm already dressed," I told her, scribbling my name on the form and smoothing the number 22 sticker onto the thigh of my leggings.
"You do know this is an audition for the New York Academy of Performing Arts," the brown-hair repeated, looking me up and down from my loose hair to my neon high-tops. "Not a hip hop crew."
"I'm well-aware, thank you," I told her with a snide smile, hardly able to contain my annoyance.
She looked at me a final time before gesturing toward a door on the left. "In there. Mr. Reeves is already beginning class."
"Thanks," I said, grabbing my bag and hurrying into the room, the door closing behind me with a slam.
And then it felt like a prison cell with no hope of parole. As the door shut behind me with a clatter, everyone in the room's heads snapped toward me and in a horrifying moment I realized that every dancer at the audition was dressed in the same uniform-black leotards, pink tights, ballet slippers, and their hair slicked back into a neat bun. My pulse immediately began to race and my hands began to sweat. What had I gotten myself into?
I turned to the man at the head of the room, standing with a woman who looked just as stern and uniformal as the rest of the girls, but older. But the man looked at me with interest, and I couldn't tell if it was because of my absurd outfit or the deer-in-headlights look on my face.
"Yes," I told him, running up and handing him my form. "Alexis Gonzales, number 22."
A couple of girls at the front of the room, who I guessed were assistants by their lack of audition numbers on their leotards, snickered at my introduction and my face grew hot.
"Well, Alexis Gonzales," the man told me with a small smile. "Why don't you put on your ballet shoes and join the rest of the girls at the barre for warm-ups?"
"Oh," I said, flustered all over again. "I'm just here for the hip hop audition."
The assistants laughed at me again, but this time louder. I noticed the one with the tight blonde bun and piercing blue eyes whisper something in her friend's ear before Mr. Reeves turned and gave them a look and they quieted. He then turned back to me kindly but seriously.
"I think there may have been a misunderstanding. Yes, we are introducing a new hip hop department this year, but our dancers are trained in every genre from modern ballet to classical, contemporary and partnering. We want to audition dancers who are able to perform all types of dance."
"I understand," I whispered, my embarrassment at a climax.
"If you don't wish to audition anymore," the stern lady to his right came forward and put out her hand. "I can take your number back."
I looked at her, with her eyes that seemed too large for her skinny face, her limbs too long for the rest of her body which gave her the appearance of a baby deer. She must have been a dancer all her life-that was evident from her scarred feet and knobby joints. But with her stick-straight posture and willowy body, it was evident to me that if this was the type of lady who had been trained at the Academy, I might not fit in so well after all.
But I had never been the type of girl to fit in. And just because this woman, who looked so sour and tired, had been trained classically, didn't mean that I didn't love dance just as much as she did, if not more. And it didn't mean I wasn't as good of a dancer as her either, or as good as the rest of the girls in the classroom for that matter.
I stepped back. "No, thank you." I told her. "I'd like to still audition, if that's okay. I'll just take off my shoes." I scampered over to the wall where the girls' dance bags were set and hastily threw off my high-tops. I glanced toward the window of the studio, where Dad stood looking in. He gave me a proud smile and a thumbs-up. I smiled back and ran to the ballet barre, standing right at the front of the room and under the nose of the snooty ballet teacher. I could feel her stare at me for a moment before she began to command the class.
"We'll start with plies. First position. Demi, demi, grande."
I focused my gaze on the wall in front of me, remembering all of those tortuous Wednesday afternoon ballet classes of my childhood which Mom had forced me to take if I wanted to take hip hop and flamenco. And even though I had considered those some of the most boring hours of my life, I could still remember the fundamentals which had been drilled into my mind until they were second nature. Turning out my feet and presenting my arms, I pulled back my shoulders confidently. Just because these girls had leotards and pointe shoes didn't mean that I couldn't show the Academy that I could dance, too.
"And roll up..." the cranky lady instructed as she demonstrated the contemporary combination later that afternoon. I followed her precisely, feeling Mr. Reeve's eyes constantly watching me. Sweat beaded my forehead and seeped into the hairline of my ponytail. My muscles, awakened after so many years without ballet, ached, but I didn't want to show it. Although I had kept up well with the other girls, I knew that there was nothing special about my ballet skills which would grant me admission to the school. But that just meant I had to work extra hard. I kept my eyes trained on her, concentration coursing through my body in a way it never did when I was in school. This was my school.
"And assemble," she narrated as she brought her feet together. "Which leads into your angel jump. Caroline," she barked at the assistant with the blonde bun who was busy chatting with her friend in the corner. "Would you care to demonstrate? I'm not giving you extra credit to just stand gossiping with Veronica."
The girl named Caroline looked surprised to have been called out and just stood for a moment looking back at the teacher. Taking this as my opportunity, I volunteered, "I can demonstrate." I walked to the front of the group and brought my legs together in an assemble before leaping into my angel jump, just like I had yesterday in front of Radio City.
But when I landed, I didn't see Dad holding his camera. Instead I saw Caroline's disgruntled face in the corner. I looked back at her confidently, not apologetic for what I had done.
"Good back flexibility," Mr. Reeves commented, nodding. I felt a flush of pride course through me. "I think we've done enough of this for today," he said, walking up to the lady. "I'm interested in seeing this group do some hip hop. Let's see their versatility. Veronica," he asked of Caroline's friend. "Would you grab Elijah from the other studio for me?" She nodded and ran out. I took this opportunity to refasten my hair in its high ponytail, but stopped midway through when Veronica came back in, followed by the best looking guy I had ever seen in person.
He looked like someone from a magazine, with his dark, close-cropped curls and deep blue towered over my 5'2 frame, but it didn't take much to do that. He was obviously a dancer, with his turned-out stance and toned muscles. But there was something about his walk that was easy, not like most ballet dancers. I could easily picture him doing a stall or hitting and popping through a hip hop routine. He smiled at Mr. Reeves as he walked in, but cast a glance toward me in my non-traditional uniform, and for a split-second we made eye contact. I could feel a flutter in my stomach and I quickly looked away. But then I snuck another glance, just because he was too good to take for granted. They didn't make them like this in LA.
"Elijah, do you think you could take the group through a quick hip hop combo?" asked Mr. Reeves.
"Sure," he agreed easily, stretching his arms behind his back. His muscles flexed as he did so. "Just sixteen counts or so and then they can freestyle?" I heard girls murmur behind me. Freestyle was abhorred by most dancers, especially the ballet bunheads who had been doing the same combinations since they were seven.
"I'm just gonna take you guys really slow through the combination and then we'll speed it up, okay?" he asked the room. "Don't be afraid to go for it, even if it's not something you're used to doing. Stay low and stay tight. Ready?" There was something so incredibly sexy about the way he addressed this group of students so comfortably and with such openness. I studied him, the way his feet never stopped moving as if he wanted to dance all the time, and the way a smile lingered behind his eyes at all times. I could tell he knew what it was like to want to dance all the time, everywhere, and do nothing else. Because I was the same way.
He took us through the combination a few times before we performed it. I was confident with it-it wasn't so different from the hip hop routines I did back home and not nearly as difficult, although it was apparent that he could have made it harder. But when we were able to perform the combination ourselves, I could tell Elijah's eyes were watching me. But I didn't mind-I wanted him to. I wanted him to see what I was best at.
I threw myself into the combination, hitting each move so hard that my hair whipped back and forth and I had to concentrate to keep my balance. For a terrifying moment I thought I might forget part of his combination as he watched me, but I didn't. Everything felt perfect. And finally, I was able to freestyle. WIth only seconds to prove to them that I did belong at their fancy school, I threw in every single move I could, from handstands to stalls to tricks and turns. And as I finished, breathing heavily, my muscles shaking from intensity, I knew that I had given it my all. I could be proud of what I had done at this audition, no matter the outcome.
Elijah grinned at looked back at Mr. Reeves. "She's got it," he said, pointing to me. I could have died and gone to heaven.
Mr. Reeves nodded. "She does. Alright everyone," he said, clapping his hands. "Elijah, thanks for your help today. Girls, we'll notify you within two weeks with our decisions. If you have been admitted, congratulations, we'll see you again in September. If your talents aren't exactly the standard which we are looking for at this time," he looked directly at me and my heart sank, "we hope to see you at auditions again next year. Have a good weekend." The girls in the class applauded, like all good little ballerinas are taught to do at the end of a class. But I hurried to grab my bag and then ran up to Mr. Reeves who stood chatting with the cranky lady and Elijah while the snotty assistants gathered up the papers on the front table. I hadn't planned on this, but I could feel that I was so close to achieving admission, and I couldn't let it slip through my fingers now.
"Mr. Reeves," I said, interrupting him. "Could I talk to you real quick?" He stopped and looked back at me, granting me permission. I took a deep breath of courage, again sensing the cranky lady's harsh stare and Elijah's eyes on me. "I know that my ballet technique isn't as good as the rest of the girls, and I haven't had as many years of classical training, but I can promise you," I insisted, "I'm a really hard worker. I'll work harder than you could ever imagine. I don't want to be good-I want to be great. And I can get there, if you'll let me." Sensing the need to seal the deal, I hurriedly added, "And I'm 100% Mexican! I'll add diversity to your school which, judging by your assistants," I gestured toward Caroline and her friend, "you're sorely in need of." I looked at him, pleading with my eyes. Elijah stifled a laugh.
"Thank you...Alexis, wasn't it?" he asked me, looking slightly amused.
I nodded. "Yes. Alexis Gonzales." I smiled. "Thanks for your time." And with that, I turned and left the studio, knowing I had done absolutely all I could.
Dad and Jesse met up with me in the hallway. Dad was grinning, looking prouder than I could ever imagine. He put his arm around me in a hug as we walked out. "Kiddie, you definitely earned yourself some pizza tonight."
I smiled back up at him. "Can't wait."
Nearly two weeks had passed without any word from the Academy. Not a letter, not a phone call. It almost seemed as if the entire experience had just been a dream, and that I hadn't really auditioned at all. It's fine, I told myself while scooping some pasta onto my plate at the dinner table one rainy Monday evening. I'll just finish up high school in LA, get my grades up, and maybe audition for some college dance programs later on. It won't be too bad.
Dad set down a salad bowl on the table and, as if reading my mind, said, "Maybe your letter got lost in the mail."
I shook my head. "Dad. This is the New York Academy of the Performing Arts. It's not like they would have used anything but certified mail. But it's okay," I told him. "I'm fine with it, really." I wasn't sure if I was trying to convince him or myself, though.
He nodded. "I know you're okay with it. I was just getting used to the idea of keeping you here with me in New York," he said regretfully.
I set down my fork and looked at him seriously. "Dad, why did you move here in the first place?"
"I have my studio here," he replied simply, passing me the parmesan cheese can.
"I know," I said, setting it down on the table. "But...why did you leave us behind in LA? Me and Mom and Jesse before he moved here? Didn't you want us anymore?"
Dad sighed and looked at me, sadness lingering behind his brown eyes. "Lex, your mom could have come with me to New York. Have you ever thought of that?" I just looked back at him. At first I didn't agree-Mom had Grandma in LA, and her job, and everything she knew...but then I realized, that wasn't a very good answer. Dad left everything he knew back in LA to make a better life for himself in New York. Couldn't she have done the same?
"It's okay," I repeated, picking up my fork. "I only have one year left of school and then maybe I can go to college here! That would be cool-" I was interrupted by the doorbell. "I can get it," I told Dad, standing from the table and walking to the front door. My mind was still consumed with thoughts about my parents when I opened the door, and was startled to see standing on the porch in the rain was no other than Elijah from the Academy. I couldn't even utter a sound as I looked at him in surprise.
"Hi," he said with a smile, although rain dripped into his eyes. "Alexis Gonzales?" I nodded, mute. "You're not an easy person to find," he said with a small laugh and explained, "You forgot to fill out the rest of your registration form at auditions. We had nowhere to send your letter. I tried to look you up in New York, but the only dancer Alexis Gonzales I could find was from LA. I finally called that house and an older lady told me, in a pretty testy way, that you were staying with your dad for the summer. So I'm sorry this is so late," he said, fumbling with his backpack, "but here it is. Your decision letter from the Academy." He held out a plain white envelope, so much like the one that held my report card. Would this letter, too, bring only bad news?
Hardly knowing what to say, still in shock that he even was able to find me, I took the letter. "Thank you," I said finally.
He nodded in reply and stepped back off the porch. "Well...I guess I'll see ya."
I nodded back. "See ya." And I closed the door, walking slowly back into the hall, looking down at the envelope which held the answers to my future. Finally.
"Was that the kid from the auditions?" Dad asked, walking into the hall. "Why didn't you let him out of the pouring rain? Why was he here, Lex?"
I looked down at my shaking hands, holding the opened letter. And then my eyes met his. "Dad...I got in."
Dad's eyes widened but, like me, he was at a loss for words.
I looked back down at the letter and read, with more confidence and pride than I ever had in my life, "Dear Miss Gonzales, the faculty and staff of the New York Academy of the Performing Arts is very pleased to offer you admission into our senior year dance program. We were impressed with your audition and feel that you will be an asset to our school. We would also like to offer you a full scholarship, based on your talent and aptitude. We hope to see you in September." My mouth gaped as I looked back up at Dad with huge eyes.
"You got in," he said, a grin breaking over his face.
"I got in!" I squealed, throwing myself into his arms, feeling happiness like never before. "I got in! I got in!" I scanned the letter once more, hardly believing it was really true. I squealed in happiness before telling Dad, "I'll be right back!" and throwing open the front door. I ran outside into the rain, looking down the sidewalk, shielding my eyes from the rain. "Elijah!" I yelled after him as he was getting into his car. He looked up.
"I'll see ya in September!" I yelled excitedly.
A smile spread across his handsome face. "Yep! See ya in September!"