By Linda Tuccio-Koonz
Photographs by Jason Rearick
August 30, 2012
He seems shy at first. But when he gets onstage to dance, Mckenzie Bernardino is poised and confident — like a graceful bird taking flight. The 9-year-old Danbury [Connecticut] boy has won numerous competitions since he first started lessons at the Academy of Dance Arts in Brookfield.
In 2009 he was chosen from more than 400 children to attend the School of American Ballet at Lincoln Center in New York, where he has been studying on a full scholarship.
Mckenzie was nervous before his initial audition in Manhattan. Only 6 years old then, he didn’t even know what an audition was; his mother, Ana Bernardino, explained. “I said `We’re gonna bring you somewhere and they’re gonna ask you to dance and see if you can take classes there,’” she told him. “We got there and he was number 338.”
Afterward, they had to wait three months for the school’s decision. Finally a letter arrived, and everything fell into place.
For me, when I see him perform, it’s like a dream,” said his mother, who came here from Brazil at the age of 20. “When I see him it’s like I’m seeing an artist, not my son. When he gets onstage, it’s something I can’t explain; I see him focus, he’s the star when we get there.”
Mckenzie wants to be a professional dancer when he grows up, ballet or jazz, he enjoys both. “When I’m dancing I feel excited, because I like it a lot,” Mckenzie said. “I do it every day.”
Mckenzie started dancing when he was 4. “He used to imitate a TV cartoon called `Angelina Ballerina,’ ” said his mother. Angelina is a dancing rabbit. Mckenzie learned basic ballet positions and moves by watching her.
Noting her son’s interest, Bernardino took him to the Academy of Dance Arts in Brookfield to see if he wanted to give it a try. “I talked to the teacher and he was just watching (a dance class). Afterward, he went up and tried some of the movements. He was 4 1/2. The teacher said, `Are you sure he’s never danced before?!’ “
When Mckenzie started jazz, tap and ballet lessons, Bernardino said there were some difficult moments. Some family members and friends insisted ballet was for girls. “He was upset; he didn’t want anyone to know he was a dancer,” Bernardino said, adding he also didn`t want to stop dancing. I always tried to make him understand dancing is not a girl ,or a boy thing, it is an art.”
Though she and people such as her husband, Robson Furtado, as well as her brother and pastor were — and are — supportive, some others still gave him a hard time. They told him to pursue other interests. He tried karate, but didn’t like it.
With Mckenzie excelling locally and at the School of American Ballet, no one is poking fun now. After performing as a soloist, he was chosen to compete in Chicago, where he worked with a Disney choreographer and also danced in the opening number of an international competition.
“I would like to encourage all boys his age to go for your dreams and pursue them,” Bernardino said. “Mckenzie’s dream is to be a professional dancer and perform all over the world, and he is on his way.”
Last year, when Mckenzie was in third grade at Danbury’s King Street Elementary School, Bernardino drove him to Manhattan four times a week for classes. This year he’ll go five times a week.
Bernardino acknowledged she could not support her son’s efforts if it were not for the assistance and encouragement she receives from friends, family and fellow congregants at Emannuel Church on Main Street in Danbury. Though she earned a law degree in Brazil, she works cleaning houses now, and has limited resources.
“Friends and people from our church ask how we’re doing and if we need help; they know it`s hard for me to keep doing what I`m doing,” she said. “Some days I go to my brother or friends and say I don’t have money for gas or parking (and they lend a hand).”
When Bernardino first came to the United States, she lent a hand to others, as well. She started sending money back to Brazil so her sister and two nieces could go to school, and still does what she can to help.
“I thought I could live here and build a better future for me and my family,” said Bernardino, who taught herself English by watching cartoons and listening to music.
She said she could not help Mckenzie with his dream if it were not for his ballet scholarship, the Brookfield school’s flexible payment schedule, and the wages she earns from her clients.
“I’m glad I’m here,” she said. “I thank this country for the opportunities that have been given to me and my son.”
Mckenzie still studies at the Academy of Dance Arts in Brookfield, where director Doreen Rafferty described him as “amazingly talented.”"He has a fantastic memory and is always prepared — all the things we want,” she said, adding the school has a few hundred girls, and about eight boys.
Mckenzie is an “overachiever” and it’s “obvious he enjoys dancing,” Rafferty said. “He’s part of our (tap and jazz) competition team. He’s a natural talent and has a great future ahead of him.”
Aside from taking classes in ballet, tap and jazz, where Mckenzie said he feels “comfortable,” he’s a typical kid. He likes music by artists such as Katy Perry and Nicki Minaj. And after school he plays tag and catch with neighbors and cousins.
The thing is, his mom never has to call him and say it’s time for dance class. He knows and is ready to go.
“You have to believe in yourself and never give up,” Mckenzie said.
© 2012 Hearst Communications Inc.