In all aspects of her life, Lillian Colón comes to dance—whether overcoming a hard-knock childhood and abusive marriage or marshaling her passion to join the legendary kick line at Radio City Music Hall. Her self-published 2021 memoir, Lilly: The First Latina Rockette, takes readers step by step through her wrenching but ultimately inspiring story.

Before she was 4, Lillian’s father abandoned her to an orphanage in the Bronx and had her mother inexplicably committed to an institution. A visit to the orphanage by a dance teacher from the High School of Performing Arts (made famous by the film Fame) changed her life. Celebrity cameos pop up throughout her story—the boy band Menudo (for whom she served as choreographer), Chita Rivera, Bob Fosse, and the late comedian Freddie Prinze, who was a dear and supportive friend—but it’s her perseverance that resonates and makes hers a universal story for anyone who’s ever pursued a dream. She’s also living proof that it’s never too late to achieve: At the age of 65, she was cast in the film adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony-winning musical In the Heights.

In a starred review, Kirkus calls her memoir “a thoughtful account of personal discovery.” Colón spoke with us on Zoom from her home in New York; our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

I’m getting ahead of myself, but my wife and I recently saw Ricky Martin in concert. He’s 52. You were the choreographer for Menudo when he was 12. Do you think he’s still doing some of the moves you created for the band?

Oh, my God, he sure is. Those hips don’t lie [laughs]!

When you were cast in In the Heights, I imagine the younger dancers came to you for advice and inspiration?

That happened to me at the audition. When I mentioned being the first Latina Rockette, the room went crazy. All the kids started coming up to me and saying they wanted to be like me when they grew up. And I was like, I’m not that old! Anthony Ramos, the star of the film…I dressed him when he was a chorus boy at Radio City Music Hall. At that time I’d gone into wardrobe to support my daughter. He looked at me like, “You can dance?” I said, “That’s what I really do.”

Did that experience—seeing people fascinated with your story—inspire you to write the book?

After I left the Rockettes in 2002, I was looking for a new passion. I’d just had my little girl—that gave me another passion. But I also wanted to reinvent myself and give back for my dance career. It took me 20 years to write the story. The good Lord gave me what I needed to do to get this story out. It was a little tough.

Writing, like dance, is all in the preparation. Did you read other memoirs for inspiration?

Yes, I read Michelle Obama’s Becoming. I wanted to see what a top-notch book would look like. I read Supreme Court justice Sonia Sotomayor [My Beloved World] because she’s Puerto Rican, and I read [actor] Rosie Perez’s book [Handbook for an Unpredictable Life] because I wanted something a little funkier. But I needed to find my own voice to tell my story.

Your book is a testament to the indomitable human spirit. How did you develop the tools and the will to become your own fiercest advocate? Because the nuns, for example, didn’t encourage you to attend the High School of Performing Arts.

I watch artists give acceptance speeches where they thank the people in their lives. I didn’t have that support system. I only had me. I only had that voice inside me saying, You can do it. My passion for dance drove me to succeed, because when I’m onstage, no one can touch me. My book is really for the child who doesn’t have that support system and doesn’t believe that they can do it. You really can do it if you believe in yourself. I call it the three P’s: Patience, Perseverance, and the Power within yourself. It’s all we really have. If outside voices tell you you’re not pretty enough, not young enough, not thin enough, not something enough, believing in yourself will push you forward.

Where did this passion for dance come from? How did your dancing dreams begin? From reading the book, it doesn’t seem like you would’ve seen dance on TV growing up, for example.

[It was] the dance teacher the orphanage brought in from the performing arts high school. We didn’t watch a lot of movies in the orphanage. We would watch The Sound of Music, things like that, with nuns in them. We watched Lilies of the Field [laughs]. When our orphanage went on the outing to Radio City Music Hall, I was mesmerized by the perfection of that show. I wanted to be a part of that, a world more perfect than the one I was in.

Which of your experiences had the biggest impact on you?

Of course, doing Can-Can with Chita Rivera and the Rockettes. I looked up to her as a mentor my entire career. She was who I wanted to be like. She was a dancer, and her father was born in Puerto Rico. I kept in touch with her. The last time I saw her was Thanksgiving. I always go to West Bank Café, and she was there. She was always full of life, sweet and supportive. Her passing is such a loss to the community. [Ed.: Rivera died in January.]

Arts education these days is endangered in schools across the U.S., but you’re a shining example of how important it is.

It saved me. Coming out of the orphanage and later, when I was in a domestic abuse situation, being able to express myself through dance gave me the passion to keep going. A lot of children are shy, and the arts help bring them out. They help them find community, which means you find yourself and you move forward.

When you auditioned for the Rockettes, were you even aware that you could be the first Latina Rockette?

No, I just wanted to be the best dancer I could be! But I love that title now. It does come with a responsibility, though. I continue to be the best I can be to open doors for other Latinos, so they can live the dream I’ve lived.

How is your story not a movie yet?

I know, I know! That’s where the dream continues. If you can see it in front of you, you can achieve it. I would love to see it as a movie, or a TV series or, because I love live theater, a Broadway musical.

Who would play you?

I get that question all the time. What I would love is to open the door for another young Latina and maybe help her career. It’s great to dance, but if somebody doesn’t give you the opportunity, where do you do it?

Donald Liebenson is a writer in Chicago.