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Asian American Male Ballet Dancer Finally Gets His Due

George R. Lee wowed the dance world ... then took a sharp detour

spinner image George R. Lee at a blackjack table in Las Vegas
George R. Lee is a blackjack dealer in Las Vegas. As a ballet dancer, he performed in the Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical ​“Flower Drum Song.” He retired from show business in 1980.
Roger Kisby

George R. Lee, 89, a blackjack dealer at the Four Queens Casino in Las Vegas, is the subject of the new documentary Ten Times Better.

People tell me I’ve been rediscovered: the first Asian American male ballet dancer. But I was never hiding. I’ve been here the whole time.

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I started dancing because of my mother. She was from Poland, and she was a professional dancer. When I was small in Hong Kong, I would watch her do her exercises. She would tell me, “Oh, you want to try? Follow me.”

By age 7, I was performing in a nightclub, because during World War II, we had to make a living somehow. I was lucky: There were Russian people working in the club as dancers, and they would give me advice. I took professional dance classes with them. It was tough, at 7 years old, to keep up with the pros, but I did it.

After the war, when the Communists started moving into Shanghai in 1949, my mother got worried for our safety. So we left for a United Nations refugee camp in a jungle in the Philippines. We were supposed to stay for four months. They offered my mother a chance to leave for Australia, but because I was half Chinese, I wouldn’t have been allowed to go with her. So she stayed. We were stuck there for two years — then America accepted us. But my mother knew I would be judged differently because of how I looked. She told me, “You’ve got to be 10 times better than whoever they have there.” And I did the best I could.

In New York, I went to the School of American Ballet, the training school for the New York City Ballet. Advanced class was easy for me because of my Russian training. At the time, George Balanchine was choreographing his Nutcracker, and when he heard there was a Chinese boy in the school, he decided to use me for the Chinese Tea dance. He asked me what leaps and turns I could do, and I showed him, and he said, “Oh, that’s good. You will do that.” I could jump really high. I was hoping to get a permanent spot in the company, but they had an excuse: They said I was too short. It’s true, I was shorter than the men in the company.

Still, I had to work. I heard that someone was looking for Asians for a Broadway show. For my audition, I did a solo from Tchaikovsky’s The Sleeping Beauty. These Broadway people didn’t know what the hell I was doing. But the show’s director was Gene Kelly, and he liked me. After my audition, I was waiting for the elevator to go home, and he came by and said, “Why don’t you take this job? You could learn something new and get paid for it.” That’s how I got cast in Flower Drum Song, the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, and learned jazz dance. Gene Kelly made a spot for me in one number where I could do solo jumping.

From there I danced in whatever shows I could get. I went on the road with Carol Channing as one of her 10 chorus “boys.” But you’re not a boy forever. After a while, I would go to cattle calls, and they would say, “You are great in dancing, but you’re not the type.” And the shows were different. They don’t dance jazz like in the old days. They do a lot of wiggling.

spinner image a young George R. Lee jumping high
George R. Lee started dancing because of his mother. He could jump really high and performed in George Balanchine and Gene Kelly productions.​​
Courtesy George Lee

I figured the best thing was to retire from show business. This was in 1980. I was doing a show in Las Vegas, and a friend suggested I get trained as a blackjack dealer. My mother was upset at first. She thought by working at a casino, I would be involved with the mob. But it’s not like that at all.

Dealing is my second career. It’s different from dancing, but I enjoy the life. At the casino, we all get along. We help each other out. I have bad knees now, and I can’t stand up too long, so they gave me a table where I can deal sitting down. Customers come in looking for me. They always call me by name and are like a big family for me.

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A few years ago, a journalist named Jennifer Lin contacted me. She had heard about me dancing for Balanchine, and she wanted to make a short documentary about me. The film was released this year, and it has been great. I’m really proud. Because of the film, I have gotten to see a lot of my old friends from the dance world. I have gotten to think about and talk about everything that happened to me, things I had forgotten. I am glad things are different now. There are more opportunities for dancers who don’t fit the mold.

But I’m happy. I have a roof over my head. I’ve worked all my life, and I’m still working.

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