By Vanessa Blankenship | June 4, 2019
From Broadway to the Swamp: Star gives up glitz and glamor to teach in Florida
Andrew Cao performed over 3,500 times on Broadway and received as many standing ovations. But now, he finds himself under a distinctly different light.
In a dance studio tucked away on this Florida campus, the glare of the stage has given way to the sun exploding through the windows and onto a tower of blue tumbling mats. Cao greets his students with a smile and teatime small talk. Then he plays the warm-up track: Ooh, sugar pie, honey bunch. You know that I love you. I can’t help myself. I love you and nobody else.
Of the dozen dancers, three are men and nine, women. Some are experienced. Others, novices. But, here in the middle of Florida, they are all eager to learn from a man who made it on Broadway.
This is Cao’s second semester at the University of Florida in Gainesville. The 38-year-old spent a decade performing in big theatrical shows and appearing on television before he decided to give it all up for a chance to teach. He turned his life upside down for a faculty position at the UF School of Theatre and Dance.
The school puts on its big benefit gala every spring. It will be a big moment for Cao’s students to shine on the stage. This year, the event has a 1960s theme that revolves around the Tony-award winning musical “Hairspray.” Cao wants his students to wow the audience of big-time donors.
With just three weeks left before the big night, Cao and his tap students form a perfect circle in the middle of the practice room. Their glossy shoes slide on the marley flooring in an improv exercise. They pair up; each thrives from the energy of a partner. Tap, tap, tap, their shoes click.
“Don’t worry what it sounds like. Just make music,” Cao says. “Just listen and say it back with your feet.”
Passers-by gaze into the studio; the intricate footwork mesmerizes.
It’s time for Gershwin.
The dancers face a vast wall of studio mirrors as they fall into formation. An uproar of fierce, jagged clicks echoes through the studio like crackling fireworks. And then, exhaustion. Flushed cheeks. Drenched t-shirts. Heavy breathing. But Cao has hardly broken a sweat.
“That’s Broadway,” he laughs.
Bright lights, big dreams
One afternoon in the middle of the spring semester, Cao’s students scatter across the floor like puzzle pieces on a kitchen table. They sit with their legs crossed, entranced by Cao’s lecture. Today, he’s talking about the tough business of auditions. The process can be ruthless. Rejection can be crushing.
That’s not a reflection of your dancing abilities, Cao tells his students. He’s been there. He knows what it feels like to not get a callback.
He went into auditions with no expectations. He reminded himself not to celebrate until the contract was signed, and even then, to do it quietly until he was in the rehearsal room. Acting for television was just as unpredictable. In the end, Cao landed appearances in several shows including “Blue Bloods,” “Iron Fist,” and “The Backyardigans.” He was once considered for the lead role as Johnny in ABC’s 2017 remake of “Dirty Dancing.”
Cao also knows firsthand the importance of guidance from an experienced professional in the high-octane world of entertainment. He knows how much hard work it takes to succeed.
He was a junior in college when he declared a major in dance and theater. There was just one problem. Cao had never been in a real dance class before, though his family was deeply rooted in music.
In small-town De Pere, Wisconsin, Cao and his identical twin brother Aaron grew up surrounded by music. Their mother played the French horn and the cello in the local symphony orchestra. Their uncle is a music theory professor at Colby College in Maine. Their oldest brother is a high school choir director.
In their childhood home, there were instances in which Aaron would be in one corner of the house and Andrew on the other. Unprompted, the twins would start singing the same song in the same key. Perhaps it was a cosmic coincidence. Or twin telepathy.
The brothers shared a birthday, of course, but also a room. They even shared the same friends. It was never just Andrew or just Aaron. Then came a day when Andrew just wanted to be Andrew. He wanted to break out and do something different. He chose dance.
Cao studied at Viterbo University, joined the Platinum Edition Show Choir in his freshman year and was mentored by Nancy Allen who serves as the director to this day.
Allen saw that Cao had raw talent after his first solo performance in the Halloween show in which he acted out the transformation scene from “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” He owned the stage. Soon after, at the young age of 18, he began choreographing dance routines for the school’s spring show.
Cao rose to stardom at Viterbo but the school did not offer a degree in dance and theater. So Cao transferred to the University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point, where he would have to start all over again.
He arrived his first day in ballet feeling hopelessly lost. While the other students practiced assemblé and arabesque, Cao could barely tie his ballet shoes. He tied a big bow, as though he were wearing sneakers. He felt embarrassed and insecure in front of the other students. But he was determined and slowly, Cao came into his own, inspired by his first instructor at Stevens Point. He’ll never forget day one with James Moore, who even showed him the right way to lace ballet shoes.
That’s the kind of teacher Cao wants to be for his students. They take their positions on the dance floor.
“Let’s try all of that from the beginning,” Cao says.
With only nine days left until the benefit gala, the next couple of lessons in his song and dance class will be spent practicing for the big night. The energy in the studio is electrifying; every step more powerful than the last. The dancers raise their right arm in unison as if they are reaching for the clouds and fall back with a thunderous clap.
Swinging their hips back and forth, while sliding on the balls of their feet, the students try to imitate Cao’s steps and sing along to the upbeat chorus with a twist:
Hey donors, welcome to the sixties.
Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh.
Hey donors, yeah, yeah, yeah.
The dancers are learning the steps quickly.
“Cool, you guys ready to rock ‘n’ roll?” Cao says.
The students are one step closer to their dream. It’s one that Cao knows well: a standing ovation.
Bye, bye, big city
Moving from New York to Gainesville is no easy task. But Cao and his wife, Sophie, craved small-town life.
Neither of them had lived in Florida before. Sophie saw it as a land of senior citizens, strip malls and palm trees. Gainesville surprised them. It was small enough to afford them a more intimate community and big enough that they could be left alone.
They fell in love with expanses of lush land where their daughters could connect with nature.
One afternoon, when winter’s chill is already a memory, the Caos pick up Lua and Esme from choir practice and decide to explore Kanapaha Veterans Memorial Park. They head toward a lonely playground but Lua, 7, the oldest of the two, can’t remember where she placed her beloved toy dragon.
“You didn’t take him to Disney, you’re sure?” Sophie Cao asks her daughter.
It’s plain to see how much a family man Cao is. He had always wanted to be a father but never met the right woman until Sophie. That was in 2006 when they were both working for a Shakespearean theater in Madison, New Jersey. The gig was gruesome and the performers were treated poorly. On some days Cao woke up at 4 a.m. to load trucks and set up the stages.
Sophie was an actress but there wasn’t a competitive bone in her. She didn’t have the drive to stay in show business. She was, in some ways, the opposite of Cao. But they shared one important thing: they had both grown up in small towns.
For Sophie, it was Aurora, Nebraska, a town with fewer than 5,000 people. She grew up playing in the dirt, running through the sprinklers on hot summer days and frolicking in the background unsupervised. She wanted her kids to do the same.
On this afternoon, she watches Lua trying to climb a live oak. Not something that might have happened in New York.
“Look at this tree,” Cao exclaims as he wraps his arms around the massive trunk. “It’s big, I can’t even get my hands around it.”
Esme can’t be bothered; she’s too busy enjoying the whole playground to herself.
“I don’t think our backyard trees will ever grow this big,” Cao says.
But at least they’ll have the backyard they never had in New York. The Caos are closing on their first house soon. Gainesville is starting to feel like home.
The big night
The weeks speed by and the big day for Cao and his students arrives much too quickly. There are only seven hours and 30 minutes until the school’s big 1960s-themed fundraiser performance. Cao’s students will take the stage in the school’s newly renovated pavilion. They must impress the 200 guests enough for them to feel generous with their checkbooks.
For the past few weeks, the dancers have been practicing their dance routine for “Splendor: Welcome to the Sixties.” Cao’s students will pay tribute to the decade that ushered in change in the way America thinks about everything from politics to clothes to music.
Dress rehearsals begin but Cao is nowhere to be seen. There’s no time to be lost and one of the students, Duncan Vanderberg, decides to take charge in Cao’s absence.
“Could we do the ladies’ first formation please?” Vanderberg yells.
Everyone is nervous. It’s daunting to perform in front of a crowd. But if Vanderberg has learned anything from Cao, it’s knowing when to shed his doubts. Show up. Work hard. Be a good person. That’s the code Cao and his students live by.
The students are into their “Hairspray” routine when Cao bursts into the room. He makes his way to the seventh row in the theatre to check out the acoustics.
“Really spit out those words so we have an idea of what it’s going to sound like,” Cao says.
Cao leans against the theatre seat, fiddling with a stage map on his lap. He watches his students practice and can’t help but smile from ear to ear. His infectious laugh fills the theatre like red wine pouring into an empty glass, bouncing off the sides and warming everyone’s insides.
Cao praises his students for how far they have come.
After 43 minutes, rehearsals are done. That’s all it takes to convince Cao that his students are ready to take the stage tonight.
Within hours, the pavilion’s towering glass atrium fills with people. Some have dressed like fashion icons Twiggy and Audrey Hepburn to pay homage to the ‘60s. They sip cocktails and feed off a swanky buffet. These are people who have the money to buoy the school of theatre and dance. Cao glides around a silent auction of baskets of chardonnay and seven-day stays at a waterfront house in Little Lake Santa Fe. He eyes a deal containing a $200 gift certificate for a three-hour limo ride and dinner at an upscale Gainesville restaurant.
“Oh, a night out in Gainesville. My girls would love that limo,” he laughs with the bartender. Soon his dancers will take the stage, but Cao appears as calm as bath water. He walks over to the dance studio to make sure all is well with his students.
They are dressed the part for a ‘60s show. One of his stars, Gabby Carballo, struts out wearing striped pants and a porcelain white blouse. Cao let his students pick their own outfits for the show, and Carballo was one of the few women who chose pants.
“Oh Gabby, yes queen,” Cao says as he chomps on peanut butter, chocolate chip brownies.
In Carballo, Cao sees himself, a young dancer who’s hungry to command the stage, hungry for someone to show her how. Cao never forgot his teacher Nancy Allen’s instrumental role in his career. He wants to make sure he’s there for his students.
“Start getting ready, they are packing the house,” Cao says, holding up a photo of an empty theater on his iPhone. But jokes can’t ease the anxiety in the room.
Finally, it’s time and Cao’s students put on the performance of their lives. They move effortlessly across the stage; bodies swaying to the rhythm coming from the piano keys. The music flows and shines through their powerful steps, twirls and leaps. Tonight’s fundraiser, Cao’s first for the college, is sure to be a success. He watches from afar, ready to embrace the next challenge ahead: a fall production of “Pippin.” Cao has agreed to take on the big production as both director and choreographer.
Cao watches his students bow before the cheering crowd but can’t help but to think how much joy teaching has brought into his life. There is always work to do, material that can be made better, planning and then more planning. He has the chance now to make a difference, to lead young men and women down the same path he danced toward years ago.
Cao always knew he had to succeed under the big lights before he could show others how to do it. In Florida, he has found a quieter success in teaching. The star who left the glamor of Broadway is now shining the spotlight on his students.