Dancing toward the Dream
His eyes were glued to the stage … he didn’t even blink.
And as the curtain came down on “Billy Elliot: The Musical” on Broadway, Ryan Lenkey told his mom, “I want to do that.”
That was almost two years ago, since “dance found him.”
“‘I didn’t find dance – it found me,'” his mom, Dawn Lenkey, said, quoting her 11-year-old son. “It just fell into his lap,” she said.
Ryan was always the “littlest” kid on his sports (baseball, hockey, soccer) teams … he had a growth hormone deficiency, Dawn explained. “But in dance, you can be the littlest kid,” and it’s OK.
He took speech classes, Dawn said, because the growth hormone deficiency caused some delay in his development. He needed some help to speak more clearly. He was shy.
“I was worried; I never thought he’d be happy.”
And now, the self-assured tween knows what he wants.
He wants to dance.
Just like Billy Elliot, the 11-year-old with a dream who triumphs against the odds in the Tony Award-winning musical, Ryan’s life has been changed by dance.
“My mom and I went to New York. I thought I wasn’t going to like it (“Billy Elliot”), but I was inspired by it. I wanted to start dancing, and I wanted to be Billy Elliot,” he said.
When they got home from that New York trip, “he kept bugging me to sign him up for dance,” Dawn said.
He took dance classes at Oglebay Institute’s School of Dance for about a year, before moving to Karen Prunzik’s Broadway Dance Studio in Pittsburgh. He attended The Rock School for Dance Education in Philadelphia, Pa., last summer, and this summer he will study at Point Park University’s International Summer Dance.
“Miss Kim (Kim Kafana) was to the first to believe in him and instill confidence in his ability,” Dawn said of the Oglebay Institute dance instructor.
Another teacher, Lenora Nemetz, who has performed on Broadway, most recently with Patty LuPone in “Gypsy,” told Ryan he had “a gift,” Dawn said. “It was very encouraging to hear that from someone who was on Broadway.”
He has won a number of competitions and received a variety of scholarships. He won a platinum award for Access Broadway competition, and at a recent On Stage New York competition, he won first place overall solo, judge’s standout awards for best actor and for potential, as well as the triple threat award. He performed “Electricity,” a defining number from “Billy Elliot.”
“It doesn’t seem to get old. I thought it was going to wane, but it’s just gotten stronger,” Dawn said of his son’s desire to dance.
They travel to Pittsburgh at least three days each week, sometimes four. Ryan takes classes in ballet, tap, jazz, voice, musical theater, a couple of private classes each week, as well as a class called “stretching, strength and acro.”
Ballet is his favorite, “by far,” he said.
Since that first time in the audience of “Billy Elliot,” Ryan has seen the show three more times (each show with a different Billy) auditioned for it twice (with one call back) and can tell you countless bits of trivia about the show and its Billys. For example, the 11,000th show was this past May 24, he said.
Dawn said she chose to see that show in 2009 because, knowing it had won 10 Tony awards, she figured it would be entertaining. And because it featured a boy, “I thought maybe he could relate to it, in some way.
“I had no idea it would become his obsession. … It’s what he wants to do and what he wants to be. He literally meant it when he told me he wanted to be that kid on that stage.”
While the role of Billy is what he’s reaching for, there are also parts for Billy’s best friend Michael and a character named “Posh Boy,” who has a small role. He’d be happy with those parts, too, he said. “I just really want to be in the show.”
“Even if I don’t get Billy or Michael now, I can get the older Billy,” he said. Ryan said that the current Billy’s Older Self is played by Stephen Hanna who was born in Pittsburgh and studied at the Pittsburgh Youth Ballet School.
When he auditioned in Orlando, Fla., in February, out of the 20 or so boys, they called five boys back that day.
“I did hip-hop, ballet and tap. She (the casting director) said, ‘We’re going to keep some of the kids. But, the rest of you, keep dancing.’ She called my name and five kids got to stay,” he recalled.
“I was really excited that I might actually get a part. I was thrilled,” Ryan said.
His mom explained that the auditions were videotaped, and at the end of the audition, the boys were told their audition tapes would be sent to the producers back in London, and it would be months before or if they heard anything.
“Ryan had a very successful Orlando audition and call back and was encouraged to go to the New York audition six weeks later. At this level, these boys can improve dramatically with intensive training in six weeks, and Ryan had the opportunity to not only audition but perform a solo routine for the casting director, choreographer and producers, ” she said.
The wait continues. They’ve not heard anything from either audition yet.
Ryan explained that he could be chosen to go to “Billy Camp,” where you study to be the lead character. At the end of the camp, “they pick the best,” he explained, and you move on to a role.
There are four companies: London, New York, Toronto and the U.S. touring show, which adds up to about 12 to 16 Billys. He’s made lots of friends in his dance classes and at the auditions. “It’s a tight-knit group and very non-competitive,” Dawn noted. “Boys at this age are very supportive. They keep in touch.” Meeting other boys his age who dance is good for him, and proves he’s not alone in this endeavor, Dawn said. “There’s lots of people out there like him.”
That’s a very different world than girls in dance. And, Dawn knows that world.
She, too, was a dancer. She studied dance in Pittsburgh, was a voice major at Carnegie-Mellon University and performed for three seasons with the Pittsburgh CLO, as Liesl in “Sound of Music,” in the chorus in “Brigadoon” and Bet in “Oliver.” She performed with Pittsburgh siblings Rob and Kathleen Marshall in “Brigadoon,” who have both gone on to Broadway. Kathleen is an award-winning choreographer and director, while Rob also is an award-winning choreographer and director, involved in television, film and musicals.
In fact, during tonight’s Tony Award show, Ryan will be rooting for Kathleen who is nominated for Best Direction of a Musical and Best Choreography for “Anything Goes,” which is nominated for a total of nine Tony Awards.
It’s not only mom who’s supporting Ryan’s dancing dream.
Ryan’s brother, 15-year-old Devin, is very supportive, as is his dad, Dr. Atilla Lenkey.
“My husband will drop whatever to help … he couldn’t be more proud,” Dawn said.
His true friends totally support him and celebrate with him, Dawn said. “He’s had to put with some negative behavior, but it doesn’t seem to bother him.
“I think he’s found his calling,” Dawn said. His confidence level has increased. “He really believes in himself, and believes in everything he does, even outside of dance. His grades got better. Two years ago, it wasn’t like this. But, now he’s a confident, independent and happy kid. It has made him happy. He finds that within himself and from dance.”
Why did “Billy Elliot” touch Ryan so deeply?
“It just moved me,” he said.
“I think I’m going to be doing this for the rest of my life.”