Iowa Alumni Magazine | December 2008 | People

On His Toes

By Kathryn Howe
Alex Ko dances during a lesson with his mentor, Eloy Barrágan. Through the New York City audition process for Billy Elliott, Alex has impressed many prestigious ballet instructors.

Sure, lots of preschoolers dance around the living room. But not like Alex Ko.

His mother, Tammie, noticed something special about the quality of Alex's movement when he was only three. Her intuition proved right.

Alex enrolled in his first formal dance class as a kindergartener. Now 12 years old, he's the youngest student ever in the University of Iowa's renowned dance department—and he's on the cusp of a dream to star in the Broadway musical Billy Elliott.

"To me, he's like a son," says Eloy Barrágan, Alex's mentor and UI assistant professor of dance. "He has a maturity and a dedication to the art that's beyond his years."

In Halsey Hall, Alex twirls and plies in black tights and white ballet flats alongside a group of college-aged women who admire his skills. He moves his body through space with a grace and assuredness uncharacteristic of a typical adolescent boy.

He's here through a state Post Secondary Education Options law that allows young, gifted students to take university courses in their area of talent. Alex takes classes every day at the UI and at City Ballet of Iowa with Barrágan and his wife, Sarah, in addition to voice training and a rigorous home-schooling schedule. He devotes at least 20 hours each week to dance.

Alex met Barrágan in 2007 when he began pursuing private ballet lessons. The two developed an instant rapport and Barrágan soon realized that his new student possessed star potential.

This past summer, instructor and protege traveled to New York City so Alex could participate in the prestigious Steps on Broadway dance program. A teacher with the program noticed Alex and invited him to audition for Billy Elliott, the story of a young boy who dreams of becoming a ballet dancer. He will soon find out if the part is his. If so, his family will relocate to the Big Apple.

Alex can't think of a better, more fitting role to play. After all, the story might as well have been written about him.