Sometimes the people you meet on a plane just want to sleep and ignore you. That’s cool: I’ve been that guy. But sometimes you somehow get upgraded to the Economy Comfort section when what you really thought you were doing was just asking for an aisle seat. For 30 bucks I got a great seat and an even better story.
When Allen Genkin walked by me originally, I thought he may have made a mistake. Somehow—and I don’t claim to know why—I knew he was supposed to be in the middle seat next to me. He returned back up the aisle and with a sheepish grin, took his proper place.
Already, I dug the guy. My recent bouts with late onset Chemo-brain have caused me not a little consternation (I’m surprised, actually, that the word “consternation” came to me: word retrieval lately has been… has been… uhhh…)
I’m not as gifted at meeting people as the ladies in my family are. On our last trip, Taylor became fast friends with a 65-year-old woman who had just re-entered the dating scene and Skye was recently witnessed comforting an elderly man who was crying on the subway. Marci, always one to make a connection, figured out within 30 seconds of showing up for jury duty that the gentleman behind her in line also had a daughter in tiny Northfield, Minnesota, four states and several inches of snow away.
So when Allen and I got to chatting, I was first impressed by his appearance on Dancing With The Stars. We were delayed on the tarmac and spent the time watching videos of him on the show. The dude’s a crazy-good ballroom dancer. If you’re familiar with the show: No, he wasn’t dancing with one of the stars. Allen competed in the 2012 “Ballroom Battle,” a part of the ABC series in which a few rising ballroom stars from across the country are chosen to compete on the popular prime-time series.
As I met him, he was flying back to Cali to prepare for the Main Event on a cruise ship. I was flying west to attend another bone marrow conference which surely made him jealous. Sorry Allen, you’ll have to wait a little longer before you can live the glamorous life like me!
You’ll have to go through Hell and back before you can purchase a ticket to my kind of stardom.
Hell and back? Allen had a permanent address in Hell. The simple fact that he was here sitting next to me was miraculous. But that doesn’t even begin to cover it. To be a solid gold dancer and be on the cusp of super stardom is one thing. To do it when you’re only 22 is yet another. But try this challenge—after being obese as a child.
Yeah, obese. At the age of 13, the kid had a size 48 waist. Dreams of dancing were about as far away as the rich and caloric Russian food he was raised on was near.
This is the same person who was sitting right next to me and turning down my offer of a supposedly healthy half-a-tomato-and-cheese sandwich. A dancer’s diet is strictly adhered to. I didn’t, therefore, disturb his nap when the peanut, pretzel and pop cart trollied down the aisle.
Big deal, right? We’ve heard that narrative before; an overweight kid gets in shape and pursues his dreams. Yawn. Wake me when the next cart comes by.
Uh, okay, did I mention that his mom died a few years later when he was still only 15? It was a sudden loss, a drowning, but I had pried enough and didn’t want to ask for more specifics.
So now there’s this smiling, warm, gracious kid who overcame childhood obesity and a horrible tragedy only to go on and become one of the top ballroom dancers in the world. Yeah, they have worldwide competitions for that sort of thing. His was in London, but dancing has taken him all over globe, even at the amazingly young age of 22.
But I feel like something’s missing in this story. I feel as though my Chemo-brain has left something out. Once he dropped all that weight and somehow got over his mother’s drowning, life was golden for him, right? His father abandoned him, did I tell you that? But there was something even worse.
I don’t want to disturb him to ask; he’s still napping. Professional dancer’s need their sleep. So do cancer survivors. Oh yeah, that’s it. At age 20, this incredible kid—this future star of stage and screen—suffered through The Big C, testicular cancer.
God, I swear life couldn’t have been any more shitty for him. But he made it through Hell, became a world-class dancer then there on national TV, his former dance partner and one-time girlfriend dumped him just before the biggest competition of his young life. His coach had to scramble and within mere days, my current seatmate on this bumpy cross-country flight appeared on national, network TV vying for the ballroom title on Dancing With The Stars.
Oh, and then—he won. After all that, yes, he won.
I think any of his struggles should have qualified him for a life on Easy Street. He told me, before nodding off, that cancer changed him. Immediately I was the jealous one. Even though people around me say I’m changed, I don’t always feel as though it’s for the better. Allen’s change most assuredly is for the better, even though I didn’t know him back when things were rotten and am definitely not an authority on his life, even after we shared this flight. His desire to one day open a dance studio to help kids like him is proof positive that this guy deserves all the amazing things life has in store for him.