First Latina Rockette Lillian Colón: Her Life as Testament to the Power of Arts Education

Her journey from a Bronx orphanage to the High School of Performing Arts to The Rockettes to a part in In The Heights, with many stops along the way.  

What was the spark that ignited your passion for dance and set you on the path to pursuing your dream?

Growing up in the Bronx in the projects, we were always practicing the latest dance in front of the building while we played outside all day. But what ignited it for me was when Mother Superior at the orphanage hired a dance teacher from the High School of Performing Arts. She only came once a month, but I only needed that one class to spark my passion.

Can you share a story of an adult teacher or mentor who was particularly influential in your life trajectory? 

Mrs. Zimmerman was her name. She was a ballet teacher at the High School of Performing Arts. She was kind and had a Russian way of teaching, which is a little bit stricter. She guided me through dance class at the orphanage because I told her that I wanted to audition for the High School Performing Arts. That was of course against what the nuns wanted. They wanted to introduce us to dance, but they did not want us to be dancers. Mother Superior was against letting me audition. She wanted me to go to a Catholic high school. I was stubborn. I didn’t want to go anywhere but the High School of Performing Arts. Finally, she changed her mind.  

How did the High School of Performing Arts shape your journey? 

The school taught me everything and it’s where I started my formal training. I remember walking into a ballet class and seeing one of the male dancers doing a tour-en-l’air landing in fourth on the floor. I was in awe. He was brilliant. He ended up being a soloist and played the leading role in the 1980 film Nijinsky. His name is George de la Peña. He was a kind and loving person. Everybody was way ahead of me, so I had to make sure I worked hard. 

Why do you think that arts education for all children starting at a young age is so important, regardless of their life pursuits?  

I didn’t have parents looking over me, helping me with homework and all of that. I was not that great academically. I knew I could be, but I didn’t need to get 90s or As or anything, I just had to pass so I could move on. The hardest part for me was that I was so shy. Dance is what brought me out of my shell. I could express sadness or happiness through dance without ever saying a word. I didn’t have to speak, but I felt understood when I was dancing. Once I get on that stage, nobody could touch me. Right, they can’t come and yell at you that you’re doing it wrong or “point your feet.” They can’t say anything to you. The world is yours. Dance gave me that. 

What is your proudest achievement in your efforts to instill in young people a love for the arts? 

Of course, becoming a Rockette was amazing. But becoming the first Latina Rockette, wow! In the orphanage, my Latina roots were stripped from me. I had to regain my identity. I’m Latina. My name is Colón. It’s not Colon. There’s an accent on that. I have to celebrate the fact that I survived the orphanage, was able to get out, and find my way in the world by myself. I’ve listened to a lot of interviews with a lot of successful people. And the one thing they say all the time is that they had an incredible support system. I didn’t have that support system and a lot of kids don’t have that support system. That’s why I wrote the book, Lilly: The First Latina Rockette, to show the kids that don’t have support that they too can succeed because the support is within yourself. It’s not easy, but you need to grab that strength.  

What is next for you? 

I would love to do a Netflix series or something like that. I would love for Lilly: The First Latina Rockette to be a motion picture. To show that struggle so that children know that they can do it too. Of course, I would love to see Lilly as a Disney Princess, to see her shine on that castle. She deserves that, I think. I also dream of Broadway. I would love to be able to do the Puerto Rican Annie on Broadway. To open those doors for a Latina to come in and do that part. Of course, now I won’t be able to do that part. But I can narrate the story, and I can open doors and opportunities for other young dancers. It’s hard to get a dance show on Broadway. But that doesn’t stop me from dreaming of Lilly on Broadway.  

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