From Ballet to Blackjack, a Dance Pioneer’s Amazing Odyssey

Lee performed in “The Nutcracker” as a student; he was never invited to join City Ballet. But he clearly excelled in his classes and onstage. For that, he credits his strong foundation of Russian training in China — and his mother’s exacting standards. He can still see her standing in the studio doorway at the School of American Ballet, observing closely.

“She was watching the class and then would go home and tell me, ‘You did this wrong or that wrong, you got to do it this way,’” he said. “So I really worked hard, and I was good.” (His favorite teacher at the school was the demanding Anatole Oboukhoff: “He always wanted more, and that’s why I liked him very much.”)

To make a living Lee turned to musical theater, performing in shows like “Baker Street” on Broadway and the cabaret “Carol Channing With Her 10 Stout-Hearted Men,” which opened in London. He pieced together jobs for more than 20 years, often unsure of what would come next.

He was dancing in a Vegas revue, “Alcazar de Paris,” now in his 40s, when a blackjack dealer friend suggested he go to dealer school. “I can’t dance all my life,” he remembers thinking. He decided to give dealing a try and soon landed a job at the Four Queens. Aside from four years at another casino, he has worked there ever since.

In December 2022, he got a voice mail message from Lin. With her reporting skills and some crucial assists from Yu, she had determined that he lived in Las Vegas. Of the five phone numbers she found for George Lees, four led nowhere; his was the last she tried.

When they finally connected, she put her other project on hold to focus on his story; she and her small creative team had a final cut by November. “George is 88, and I wanted him to be able to enjoy this moment, where people recognize him for his dancing,” she said.

As he prepares to return to New York, Lee said he felt gratified, most of all, for his mother.

“I’m proud for her that I didn’t let her down,” he said. “It makes me feel better to look up at her and say: ‘Look, mother, now you see what’s happening, what you did for me. You gave me all the good foundation, everything. Through you, I’m here now.’”

Lee will take part in a conversation at the performing arts library on Feb. 7 (presented by Works & Process) with Jennifer Lin and Arlene Yu.

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