About a year ago, I stood in the wings of New York City Center watching Jacqueline Green—a dancer with The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater—twirl across the stage. Sweat flew off her arms. Her face twisting through a hundred different emotions.
I stared, transfixed by her performance. I could have watched her dance all day. Then my friend tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Okay, two more minutes. Ready to join her?”
As excitement and nerves clashed in my stomach, I shed my warm ups and found my place in the wing. For a split second, I wondered: How did I get here? I felt like the luckiest person on the planet.
Then the music signaled my entrance.
I stepped on stage and looked up at the relentless, blinding lights—and saw a theater full of people, two thousand of them, crammed in from the first row to the highest balcony.
We danced, then we had seconds to change costumes, all of us counting the music nervously, leaping back on stage with our arms lifted—and I couldn’t help but grin as sweat dripped into my eyes.
This, I thought, as the curtain fell and the audience erupted with applause, was why I came to New York.
I grew up in a suburb near Portland, Oregon, almost three thousand miles away from the theaters of Manhattan. I started dancing when I was three, and like most young artists, I hoped to visit New York City someday.
I wanted to see a Broadway show and Times Square. I wanted to experience the lights and the culture, but I never imagined that someday I would live there.
My first trip to New York City was when I was sixteen. I had never been to a city as large as New York, and at first, the busy streets and bright lights overwhelmed me. I wasn’t sure what to make of it.
But then, something extraordinary happened. I saw the musical Billy Elliot on Broadway. Billy Elliot tells the story of a young boy who dreams of being a ballet dancer. The protagonist was played by Giuseppe Bausilio, who was barely fifteen—only a year younger than I was at the time. Even though I sat in the very last row of the theater, I could still see the radiant smile on Bausilio’s face as he danced.
Oh, I thought. He’s my age, and he loves dancing as much as I do. Then I thought: Hey. That could be me.
After that show, New York came alive for me. I zig-zagged through lower Manhattan and ended in Times Square. I saw art galleries crammed into hallways and coffee shops; museums seven stories tall; an underground Indian restaurant; old men playing chess on the sidewalk in Chinatown. I heard an interesting conversation on every single street corner.
I wondered, then, what the dance scene must be like in such a place. The city seemed surreal, almost magical.
By the time I left, I felt like New York changed something inside me and sunk its claws into a tiny part of my heart.
When I returned to Oregon, I couldn’t stop dreaming about New York. I needed to go back.
I had always dreamed of a life full of curiosity, and dance was a vessel for that hunger. I found out that The Ailey School, located in Manhattan, had a joint college program with Fordham University. At first, I thought: there’s no way I’m good enough for this. Then I remembered Giuseppe Bausilio, a fifteen-year-old dancing on a Broadway stage. If he can do it, I reasoned, then why not me?
Five years later, I’m a graduate of the Ailey/Fordham BFA program and a freelance dancer in Manhattan. I’ve had the opportunity to meet extraordinary people and do some exciting things. I danced in Grand Central Station to honor its one-hundredth anniversary, in collaboration with the artist Nick Cave; it made the front page of the Arts Section in The New York Times. I danced at Lincoln Center to honor the victims of 9/11, and recently, I danced in a short film, which included poetry about the Orlando nightclub shooting of 2016.
Freelancing can be challenging and wearying sometimes. But it’s always worth it in the end.
Every audition is a thrill. It’s a thrill to show your work to someone and to think that maybe, someday soon, you’ll be on stage in front of thousands of people.
Those moments, and those jobs are your opportunities to share something with the world.
I’m only here because I dreamed about New York and had the courage to ask: “why not me?”
It’s important to ask that question. It’s important to be unafraid of your dreams because that’s what makes you unafraid to try.
I believe that the most crucial element of any performance, competition or audition is this:
Going for it.
It doesn’t matter how nice your feet are or how good your turns are. What matters most is you.
If you’re not afraid to put yourself in front of people and try something new, then there’s no limit to what you can accomplish.
So, ask yourself what you want. And then ask yourself: “why not?”
Elizabeth Shew is a Portland, OR native and a New York-based dancer, writer, and creator. She is a graduate of The Ailey School and Fordham University and holds BFAs in Dance and English/Creative Writing. She has danced for choreographers Cindy Salgado, Jae Man Joo, Brice Mousset, Christopher Huggins and Taryn Kaschock Russell, among others. Recently, she participated in Cherice and Charissa Barton’s summer program, Axis Connect, and performed alongside the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in their annual piece *Memoria. *She is a current apprentice with BodyStories: Teresa Fellion Dance.
Kick up your heels and let's dance!
Broadway Dance Dreams