Esteban Hernandez could have been a star on Broadway, but when he was offered the role of Billy Elliot in the eponymous hit musical, the 14-year-old ballet whiz declined.
"I didn't think I was ready yet," the Mexican-born Jewish dancer said. "I would have been performing all the time, instead of working on my technique."
A real-life Jewish Billy Elliot? Hernandez acknowledges some similarities.
"People say that ballet is only for girls or imagine boys in tutus, and so in that way, we both have to fight stereotypes," he said. "A lot of people don't realize that ballet is more complicated than any other sport because you don't have to just jump -- you have to make it look easy. But Billy Elliot's father didn't want him to dance, and in my case, my father was my teacher and is a big supporter."
Hernandez, a student at Philadelphia's Rock School for Dance Education who arrived in the United States two years ago to pursue his passion, is considered one of the ballet world's most promising rising stars. He has racked up medals, scholarships and international recognition, and his teachers say a career in a top ballet company is almost certainly assured.
"To say that he is a prodigy is not an exaggeration," said Bo Spassoff, president and co-director of the Rock School, and a former ballet master at the Pennsylvania Ballet. "His control, balance and strength are incredible, especially given his age. He does stuff that finished professionals can't and don't do."
Hernandez, who started dancing at the age of 8, has a long and impressive résumé: He won gold medals at the Cuba International Dance Competition and at the Youth America Grand Prix International Finals, the largest ballet competition in the world. He also came in first place at the recent Tanzolymp festival in Berlin, Europe's largest dance competition. And last year, he was honored with Mexico's National Youth Award, in a ceremony attended by Mexico President Felipe Calderon.
"His career will go anywhere he wants it to go," said Stephanie Spassoff, the co-director of the school. "I've seen a lot of talent, but he is truly amazing. When he dances, he is just brimming with love, joy and a desire to dance."
Transformed Through Dance
Hernandez has the demeanor of a relaxed and well-adjusted teenager; however, he is simply transformed the moment he begins to leap and pirouette. It underscores a discipline and maturity far beyond his years.
His training is rigorous. He dances more than eight hours a day, and weekends rarely offer time off. "There's a lot of competition in ballet, and you need to work 110 percent every day."
Hernandez, the eighth of 11 children, hails from a dance family. Both parents were performers and his older brother, Isaac, a graduate of the Rock School, is a dancer with the San Francisco Ballet. His father performed with the Dance Theatre of Harlem and the Houston Ballet.
Enrolled as a ninth-grade student in a school in his native Guadalajara, Hernandez studies in the Philadelphia apartment across from the Rock School that he shares with two older sisters. He only takes tests when he returns to his hometown. Dance is his life, he says, and he admits that it's difficult for him to connect with people outside of that tight-knit community.
Though Hernandez wasn't raised in a religious household, Jewish traditions are personally significant, he says.
Stephanie Spassoff jokes that she assumed that he and his brother Isaac were Catholic because their family was so large.
"But then we were at a restaurant and Esteban said, 'I can't eat that because I am Jewish,' " she recalled. "I was so surprised. I had never met a Jewish Mexican before."