CHICAGO—Although she stood to lose her friends, her family, and everything she had worked for her entire life, classically trained dancer Cassie Lisbon, 18, put it all on the line Saturday night when she performed a highly controversial ballet/hip-hop-fusion routine at the Chicago Academy for the Arts' annual spring recital.
The routine, which defied all reason and social order by combining the elegance of ballet with dangerous, never-before-seen "street" moves such as spinning on one's knees and snapping fingers, reportedly lasted four and a half minutes. According to Lisbon, the bold and provocative number was the culmination of a month of rehearsals, 18 years of feeling like she was destined for something special, and six weeks of dating a troubled, but gifted, in-your-face competitive dancer and high school dropout.
"It was like my whole life was just preparation for that one moment," said Lisbon, who added that everything had gone silent as she stood backstage before her routine and suddenly realized that it was this recital or never. "I danced the only way I know how—from the heart. Because in the 'hood and on the dance floor there are no second chances."
"I don't care what they say," Lisbon added. "It's my life, and I'm playing for keeps."
Taking the featured spot in the school's final showcase after her uptight former rival, Annabelle, realized she had been following someone else's dream all along and dropped out at the last minute, Lisbon shocked her teachers and fellow students when the classical Stravinsky piece she was dancing to abruptly stopped and morphed into a slightly faster version with a bass beat and rapidly spoken vocals.
"At first I thought something was wrong with the sound system," fellow student Maggie Pinchion recalled. "But when I saw Cassie smile and take out that folding chair, I realized she was just bringing together two radically different worlds to show us all that we can follow the music that beats in our own hearts. It was so tight."
While school administrators are still baffled as to where such a talented ballet dancer could have learned a second form of dancing, some speculate Lisbon may have ventured out into the rough but vibrant neighborhoods surrounding the private academy.
"I can only assume that Cassie must have visited one of the local nightclub establishments where teens hang out and perform spontaneous, elaborately choreographed one-on-one dance competitions to the music of a young gentleman named Soulja Boy, among others," head instructor James Tillingford said. "Of course, there's no way Cassie could have infiltrated this subculture, unless she entered a biracial relationship with a young man who wanted a better life for himself than stealing cars and playing ball, someone who could teach her how to let go of her formal training—along with the pain of her mother's untimely death—and just let it flow so she could, in turn, convince his hardened, cynical friends that she was 'not bad for a white girl.'"
Continued Tillingford, "But she'd have to really bring it."
The only student in the history of the form to realize that ballet is incapable of expressing a whole range of different but equally true emotions, Lisbon said the road to popping and locking onstage wasn't an easy one. At times, Lisbon admitted, she felt like giving up and just performing the highly technical routine of graceful leaps and spins she had been training for over the last decade. Fortunately, her friends were there to encourage her.
"I could never have done it without my new girl Shandra by my side, telling me I had a chance to be somebody and I shouldn't let anyone stop me from achieving my dreams, because where she's from, 'hope' is a four- letter word," Lisbon said. "I have to accept that full scholarship to Juilliard on my own terms."
"You can't rehearse for life," Lisbon added. "The rhythm is in you."
Lisbon expressed thanks for the support she received from her father, who thought she was throwing her life away with her "ridiculous dancing hobby," but made it to the recital to stand in the back and cheer her on anyway; her boyfriend, Tay, who not only taught Lisbon how to hear the beat of life but also performed a showstopping break-dance routine in the middle of her performance; and her new group of multiracial friends—especially Little Jay, who was tragically killed in a knife fight only two days before Lisbon's final performance.
Although she is excited to start her new life at Juilliard, Lisbon said she may defer enrollment for a year in order to mentor a promising, similar-looking sophomore who has plans to shake up next year's lower-budget recital in a style all her own.