Waiting to hear if she and her dance teammates won nationals, Lily reflects on the ups and downs they met along the way
I walked onstage slowly, following the dancer in front of me. I was sweating up my costume, partly because of the intense heat coming from the blazing stage lights overhead and partly because of the anxious anticipation. I peered into the audience, trying to find my grandma. My eyes traveled over hundreds of people, tall and short, young and old, but from the stage, they all looked the same. All I could see in front of me were rows and rows of seats, not a single one empty.
The stage itself was humongous. Colorful lights hung from a beam on the ceiling, illuminating the large wooden platform. Velvety violet curtains—three on each side— hung indifferently from the rafters backstage. On the large screen, fixed on the back wall of the stage, the Kids Artistic Revue (KAR) logo was projected in an enormous purple font. After a long wait, the audience murmured like the gallery at a trial as two men wearing black suits stepped onstage carrying a towering trophy. At first, the trophy looked shiny black, but as the men set it in the center of the stage and it caught the light, rainbow hues flashed magically across its long metal rods, thrilling me.
I gulped nervously as a woman with long, curly red hair came striding up to the stage holding a giant piece of paper. Quickly, the cavernous auditorium became eerily quiet. Squinting, I managed to see the number 200 written on an oversized check; it was the $200 prize to be awarded to the winning dance team— the National Grand Champion.
Out of nowhere, a feeling of dread shot through my body, and I shivered despite the invisible glow of heat radiating from above. My team had won first place in the first round, and we had survived the secondary round to make it into Showcase, the finals, our chance to win the ultimate prize. Just a few of the original fifty squads had to be bested, and I kept thinking that it would be a shame to have gone so far just to lose in the showcase round. Of course, the other teams were probably thinking this way too. I glanced around the stage, where the eight other teams had formed a half circle.
What were the chances that we would win?
“I yearned to feel the thrill of dancing on stage for a large audience, but my family was too poor to afford dance lessons, and my parents couldn’t even afford to buy me dance shoes. Eventually, I gave up on my dream”.
I thought back to the regional competition three months earlier when our team had received a low score. On stage, we had been wobbly and messy, and everyone had returned home embarrassed and sad. Afterward, there was even talk about forfeiting our spot in nationals because of our poor performance in the regionals. When I’d heard some of the rumors flying around, I was upset. To me, there was no doubt: we absolutely had to go to nationals! After how hard we had worked, and how long, we couldn’t, after one bad performance, just give up. Luckily for me, our tough-as-iron instructor, Ms. Lu, agreed. Instead of letting us give up, she demanded that we work harder than ever and pushed us to our limits. Slowly, our form improved, and a twinkling of hope began to reappear. Day after day, we rehearsed for hours, and now, three months later, we were at nationals. As far as I was concerned, we had to win to prove those disbelievers wrong.
As we stood there waiting, the passing seconds felt like hours. I found myself nervously fingering a long tear in my skirt, one that had been cleverly patched up with a long white thread that had rendered it practically invisible. And, oddly, touching the thread triggered a memory.
My mind drifted back to the day after our defeat at regionals, when my beloved grandma was sitting on the couch in our living room, sewing the rips in my costume, rips that had occurred on the rough competition stage. “You can do it, Li-li,” she said to me, sensing my lack of self-confidence.
I stopped whatever I was doing, walked over, and sat next to her. Her warm, gentle voice and soft smile, along with her soft curls, hid an inner toughness.
“Never give up,” she said to me in perfect Mandarin. “When I was a young girl like you, I lived in a small town in China called Shantou. My dream was to be a professional dancer. I would secretly watch dance performances on television and search magazines for pictures of elegant dancers and paste them on my bedroom wall. I would lock myself in my room and dance to some music, glancing longingly at those pictures. I yearned to feel the thrill of dancing on stage for a large audience, but my family was too poor to afford dance lessons, and my parents couldn’t even afford to buy me dance shoes. Eventually, I gave up on my dream. You cannot, Li-li,” she said to me, her eyes sparkling with a deep determination that I didn’t have.
I nodded earnestly and gave her a tender smile. “Don’t worry, Grandma,” I reassured her. “We can do it.” I held her delicate hand for a few more seconds and then left, a warm feeling in my chest and a new motivation burning in my heart.
Our team, consisting of sixteen nine-year-old girls, had spent many months learning a dance called “Everybody Do the Cancan.” It was a cabaret-style jazz dance, and the highlight was a very difficult sequence that came in the middle of the performance. At a precise time, all sixteen of us would form a straight, horizontal line and, while kicking our legs high and together as one, complete a 360-degree turn. It had to be done with the utmost precision in order to really wow the audience, and we knew it would make or break our score. I remembered how, during rehearsals, Ms. Lu had told me my kicks were too slow, my toes not pointed, and my knees not straight enough. We spent countless hours trying to perfect that single move, but for the longest time, I couldn’t get it right. The feeling of letting down my teammates and having them repeat the same movements again and again because of my mistakes was seared into my memory.
One day, Grandma had come to rehearsal, like she often did, to pick me up, and that day, she came extra early in order to peer through the window and watch me practice. As a result, she had witnessed Ms. Lu lecturing me about my form. When practice was over, she noticed that I was dejected and sad, my shoulders drooping, and as I told her what Ms. Lu had said about my knees, a look of indignation crossed her face. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, Li-li,” she said. “You were the best one there. I think Ms. Lu was talking about someone else.” I almost laughed. Grandma always knew how to make me feel better.
My mind then drifted to the spare room in our house and the many hours spent on the cold hardwood floor practicing that movement, my knees dark bluish purple from falling, until I finally conquered this most difficult maneuver. It had turned out to be worth it, for much like a jazz guitarist must feel after conquering an especially difficult solo, the thrill that ran through my body as I executed the movement perfectly during the showcase was indescribably wonderful.
Just then, I was shocked into the present as one of the men loudly cleared his throat while holding up a microphone. My eyes flickered across the audience as I searched vainly for Grandma. “And the national grand champion for Primary Large Group is . . .”
The audience seemed to plummet into a black hole of silence. I could feel myself holding my breath. Next to me, my teammate Ashley whispered, “I can’t listen!” and covered her ears. I tried to smile but was frozen still with excited fear.
We had to win. We had to! Please . . .
All of those long hours at practices, all of those bruised knees and sore ankles and muscles . . .
I watched as the man’s mouth began to open. In slow motion, as if he were mute, he seemed to struggle to open his mouth . . .
Finally, he yelled, ‘“Everybody Do the Cancan’!!!”
Yep. I thought. I knew it. We didn’t win.
Then my brain processed the true meaning of what he had just said.
My eyebrows shot to the stars, my eyes widened to the size of saucers, and my jaw dropped to the ground. In the corner of my consciousness, I heard someone screaming—a scream loud enough to shatter glass. Then I realized it was me. My teammates were screaming too, but it felt like my scream—so full of shock, relief, and elation—had blanketed the room.
My eyebrows shot to the stars, my eyes widened to the size of saucers, and my jaw dropped to the ground.
Shrieking, all sixteen of us dashed to the trophy and the $200 check, claiming both as ours in the biggest and best group hug of all time. And while the other teams trudged off the stage, my teammates and I admired the trophy, which was twice our height. Smiles beamed from ear to ear as hundreds of individual and group photos were taken next to the massive award. Instinctively, I searched the crowd once again for my grandma, and this time I spotted her sitting in the second row, a huge smile and glistening eyes radiating from her face. As I watched her, her eyes seemed to say, “You did it.”
I don’t remember every single little detail about what happened next since the elation had blurred my thinking, but I do remember a journalist walking up to us and asking us how we felt. Someone shouted, “We feel good!” That was followed by some laughter and more voices calling, “Yeah, we feel really good!”
The trophy looked spectacular in our dance studio—shiny, tall, and colorful. Every time I looked at it, I would feel a surge of pride as I remembered what it took to win that coveted prize.
Several weeks later, when we threw a party in honor of our team’s achievement, the winning of the National Grand Championship, the entire team gathered in the studio; we ate cake while watching videos of our performances that weekend. We also watched the fateful moment when the judge had announced the winner many times. It felt great, but by that time the glow had already begun to fade slightly. For by then we were all thinking, “Tomorrow we’ll be back in the studio, in our leotards and high buns, ready to bruise our knees and test our ankles in our quest to win next year’s competition.”
But for one last moment, after everyone else had left, I waited for the light to catch the metal rods on the trophy just right and send rainbow hues flying in all directions. And when it did, I felt the thrill one last time, this time for my precious grandma.