‘Ten times better’: The extraordinary life of George Lee, an Asian American dance legend

‘TEN TIMES BETTER’ ­— Arriving in New York City in 1951, George Lee received a full scholarship to the prestigious School of American Ballet. photo from George Lee personal collection

George Lee lives an ordinary life as a Casino blackjack dealer, working in a pit at the Four Queens Resort and Casino in Las Vegas. But in his past lies a truly extraordinary career in professional ballet and performance.

Inspired by photos she saw in the New York Public Library dance archives, documentarian and director Jennifer Lin found Lee, uncovers his life to tell the story of his life as a ballet pioneer who danced professionally on stage during a time when Asians were not often seen or even welcomed on stage.

“Ten Times Better” shines the spotlight on Lee’s life path from childhood through his time as a professional dancer and up until now, his life full of vivid once-in-a-lifetime moments.

Son of a Chinese acrobat and Russian ballet dance teacher mother, some might have thought that Lee was predestined for greatness. But before Lee ever got his chance, he faced numerous hardships, losing his father at a young age to escaping the Chinese Communist Party and then spending two years at a refugee camp in the Philippines.

After being able to immigrate to the United States, he leaned on what he loved and knew best to make a life for him and his mother: ballet.

The film’s title derives from the mantra his mother drilled into him to persevere in the world of classical dance, that for George to succeed as an Asian ballet dancer he would need to be the best. But not just the best: she made it clear that for him to be able to dance in the white-dominated world of ballet in America, he would need to be “10 times better.”

Through focus and perseverance, Lee kept showing up to dance, eventually carving a place for himself in the School of American Ballet, which was the country’s most prestigious ballet school at the time. Lee became the first Asian to dance for the New York City Ballet, found himself working with ballet legend George Balanchine, and became the original performer of Tea in his original production of “The Nutcracker.”

Eventually expanding his performance repertoire to broadway performances, Lee was also cast in musicals such as “Annie Got Your Gun,” “Baker Street” and “South Pacific.” Gene Kelly even selected him to join the original cast of “Flower Drum Song.”

The footage of Lee dancing and practically floating in the air through his jumps has to be seen to be believed. Even the anecdotes of Lee’s double tours reveal the legendary status of his talent during that time.

Despite this illustrious career, Lee is grounded and humble. His work as a casino worker has continued for more than 40 years, quietly and steadily, and without attention drawn to his past. But with this film, Lin unearths the unexpected life story of a dance prodigy that is undeniably American.

Lee’s deep talent, perseverance and barrier-breaking work on stage have squarely earned him an undeniable spot in dance history. Whether you are a ballet or dance enthusiast or not, viewers can appreciate and be proud of the perseverance of immigrants, and the sheer extraordinary talent that George Lee brought to the stage.

Jennifer Lin’s “Ten Times Better” will screen May 12 at noon at the Roxie Theater at 3117 16th St. in San Francisco as part of this year’s CAAMFest. To purchase tickets, $15 general, $13 senior/student/person with disability $13, visit https://caamfest.com/2024/movies/ten-times-better/.


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