When she walked into the Brooklyn dance rehearsals for Lin-Manuel Miranda’s feature film, “In the Heights,” 66-year-old Lillian Colón thought she was in the wrong room because all the other dancers were less than half her age. But she soon found herself right at home.
Colón did everything that was asked of her—including a lot of jumping jacks at 7 a.m. “They had no mercy on me. I had to do whatever the 20 year olds had to do,” Colón laughed.
Fifteen minutes before the end of the first rehearsal day, Miranda came into the studio to observe a run-through. And just when the dancers were about to be dismissed, they had to give their best performance of the day for the man in charge. “I was like, ‘Oh my Lord, I don't know if I can do this.’ But I did it,” she said.
Colón is no stranger to finding success in her own time. She became the first Latina Rockette at the age of 32, she gave birth to her daughter at 46 and she is currently writing her memoir and working on her one-woman show.
“This is a long journey,” Colón said. “It’s not ‘I’m going to be a star in two years and that’s that.’ Everybody has a passion. Everybody has a love of something. So fulfill it, keep going. Don't let anybody stop you.”
Though Colón was born in New York City, her mother, father and oldest brother were born in Puerto Rico. At the age of 3, Colón was sent to an orphanage in the Bronx by her father (she said he "got rid" of the family — sent her mom to a mental institution and kicked her brother out of the house). She eventually became a “ward of the state” and wasn't legally able to leave the facility until the age of 21. She said the only way to circumvent that policy was to get married. So at 18, she married a man who then abused her.
Colón said she eventually “ran away” from her first husband and never looked back. She eventually traveled to Mexico City to dance—and choreograph for the boy band sensation Menudo with 12-year-old Ricky Martin.
Auditions drew Colón back to New York City, and she was selected to join the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall in 1987, performing in up to 33, 90-minute shows a week for 16 years. She met her current husband, who was working as a stagehand, in 1994 while performing in the Rockettes’ Christmas Spectacular.
Colón made the move from being on stage to supporting the production backstage in the wardrobe department while raising her daughter. All the while, she continued her dance training to keep up her stamina: “I would take my daughter to dance class. She would sit there in the stroller and feed herself with the bottle as I took class.”
Now that her daughter is grown, Colón is ready to once again step into the spotlight. She said, “I feel like I’m on my third career.”
As a Latina raised in New York City, Colón felt incredibly connected to “In the Heights,” and she auditioned for the show “every which way I could—Broadway, regional theater—anytime I saw it in the paper I went in and auditioned.”
In December 2018, Colón’s otherwise supportive husband initially discouraged her from attending the dance audition for the movie because he thought she was "crazy" for thinking she could keep up with younger dancers. When the audition was posted, Colón was 64. She pointed out that the audition was for dancers between the ages of 20 and 65, and she clearly fell in that category, so she decided to audition anyway.
When she walked into the audition room, Colón saw “a lot of young 20-year-olds with beautiful curly back hair, red lipstick, the big hoop earrings, the push-up bras, the whole bit.” Meanwhile, Colón was the only blonde in the room … and the only woman over 50. But she stayed to audition. And after multiple days of hip-hop dancing, salsa dancing, and interviews, Colón’s audition was over.
Long months of silence from the casting team followed as they pieced together hundreds of actors and dancers. It took so long that Colón assumed she didn’t get cast. She finally got the call that she landed a role as a dancer in April 2019.
Kristian Charbonier, part of Telsey + Company, which cast the movie, said, “From the moment she started dancing, she illuminated the room. Not only was she technically a great dancer (she kicked her right leg up right to her face seconds into her improv), but she was effervescent and luminous. There are some people you watch perform who just radiate joy and Lillian is one of the first people I think of that does exactly that.”
The movie was shot in New York City from June until August of 2019. Colón was assigned to dance in several scenes throughout the movie doing choreography that was “very, very tough.” Each scene took two or three days to shoot, and each shooting day was 14 hours long.
At the end of each rehearsal and shooting day, Colón made taking care of herself a priority: “I made sure that I rested, I stretched out. I walked and did whatever I could do to make sure that my legs were strong.” She would frequent the pool in her building in midtown Manhattan to make sure her legs wouldn’t cramp up. Many of Colón’s girlfriends didn’t audition for the movie out of fear that their bodies wouldn’t be able to take the strain. Continuing to take class and strengthen her body really helped Colón withstand dancing on concrete sidewalks in 90-degree weather.
“You can persevere, you can fight if you want. This movie is in my blood—that alone just fills my soul so much and gave me the passion to dance it because it just fills my heart,” Colón said. “We have to do it ourselves in order to show the young generation that you must continue to fight for whatever you believe in.”
Though she wasn’t always in the tight social circles of the younger dancers on set, Colón “felt loved by all of them.” In the end. Director Jon M. Chu told her, “’Lill, you inspired all of these kids. They saw you doing it and they said that if you could do it, they could do it.’”