I can still remember the day I got the call from her mom that my granddaughter had been accepted to dance with the world-famous Radio City Rockettes.
But I was not surprised that she had reached perhaps the pinnacle of her career. After all, dancing was something Afra had been doing since she was 3 years old, the only one of my four granddaughters who took to dancing. Nykeva, LaQuonia and Jamie chose other careers — education, fashion and law.
The only daughter of my younger son Shawn and his wife Mary Anne, Afra was born in Panama when her dad served there in the U.S. Army Band.
When she was 2, she and her parents came back to Miami and lived with me in what is now Miami Gardens until they moved to South Miami. Afra started school at South Miami Elementary School. When she was in the third grade, her mom, a teacher, did her master's dissertation on the Sudbury Valley School in Framingham, Mass., where there is no set curriculum and all learning comes from the students' motivation.
Afra’s parents decided to enroll her in Sudbury Valley and she and her mom moved to Framingham when she was 8. Afra chose art, writing, English Literature, Spanish and math but she took dance classes off campus at Walnut Hill School, the Boston Ballet and the Jeanette Neal Dance School.
“One of my favorite stories about Afra was when she was 3 and for weeks had talked about wanting to take tap dancing,'' her mom told me. “Finally I went to the nearest school to where we lived, Dancer's Point, and told them she wanted to take tap. She was so little I was carrying her on my hip.”
The school agreed to let her try a class, even though they didn't have a tap class for 3-year-olds. Within a year, Afra had advanced two levels.
“It was so clear that she had talent right from the beginning,” her mom said.
Her dance education continued when she was 15 and her mother moved to New York. Afra was accepted into the Professional Performing Arts High School and studied dance at Alvin Ailey School of Dance and Broadway Dance Center, where she studied hip-hop and tap.
She was accepted to Fordham University in New York cIty and decided to turn professional at 17. She auditioned for the Rockettes at 19, was accepted and joined their road tour her first year. Her first performance came in 2004, in Denver, CO., and lasted through New Year’s Eve. I was there on Christmas Day and made Christmas dinner for her and some of her fellow Rockettes.
Afra’s talent began to shine on another stage, as well. In 2006, she took a leave of absence from the Rockettes to make her Broadway debut in the musical Wicked. And, of course, I was there. Later, she joined the cast of In the Heights which won the 2007 Tony for best musical.
I remember sitting in bed at home that night watching on television as my granddaughter ran onto the stage with the rest of the cast to accept the award. Her parents called me from Radio City Music Hall to share the experience.
During the 2007 Christmas season, Afra again took a leave of absence, this time from In the Heights, to return to the Rockettes. It was the group's 75th anniversary and it would be the first time she would dance on the stage at Radio City Music Hall. She has been invited back each year since then.
I can't tell you how excited the entire family was that year. We sent flowers backstage to Afra, as we always do, and my friends M. L. Carstarphen and her sister Barbara C. Bush joined us in New York City for the Christmas day performance.
And, this past Christmas, like every Christmas since 2004, I have gone to see my granddaughter perform — except in 2006, when I went to see her in Wicked.
By now, you would think that this would all be old hat to me. Not!
Every year when I see Afra on stage with her wide, beautiful smile and mile-long legs, my mind goes back to the time when she was a little girl of 3 and I'd pick her up from her dance classes at Dancer's Point in Coral Gables. When she was 6, she was one of the little angels in The Nutcracker at a performance in the Dade County Auditorium. I still can hear her and her cousins squeal in delight as we met and hugged her at the stage door carrying bouquets.
Where have the years gone?
Afra has grown and matured in her profession. This Christmas, as I do every year, I counted from the left of the stage until I saw her. It was almost as if there were no other dancers on stage but her.
It is grueling work, I know, but I've never met a Rockette who doesn't love what she does. For example, one day before the close of the show, Afra performed in three back-to-back shows. And she still loves it.
“When I auditioned, I'd never seen the show. But I remember thinking the Rockettes do it all, from tap to jazz and precision. I was delighted to get the job,” Afra told me. “That first year, I was away for three months; it was my first long-term job as a professional."
She says she still gets excited just looking into the audience and seeing 6,000 faces smiling back at her.
"That's the best part,” she said, “and the fact that I love the bond I have with my fellow Rockettes. We are a sisterhood. I love them."
And so do I.