Several days ago, Tony Bellissimo was part of a cast rehearsing in a New York City-area arena with Justin Timberlake. They were getting ready for Sunday’s Super Bowl in Minnesota, where Timberlake will perform the halftime show and Bellissimo will be one of his 30 backup dancers.
During a break, Bellissimo and the guys around him got to talking. From the arena floor, they looked up at the empty seats. Someone wondered aloud whether it was possible to run to the 200 level and touch the wall in less than 60 seconds.
Bellissimo, a lanky, hip-hop freestyler from Hamburg who always carries a bandana in his pocket (“It is like a security blanket,” he said), insisted he could. He made a quick $20 bet, and took off. Seconds later, his large foot missed a stair and —
He hit the floor – and not in the way dancers like to hit the floor – with Justin Timberlake watching.
Bellissimo has been there before.
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Bellissimo, 28, grew up in Hamburg as the youngest of four. His mother, Deborah, ran a performing arts program for children and had Tony in dance classes for 5-year-olds when he was only 2.
When Tony was entering first grade, doctors discovered that Deborah had a brain tumor. The prognosis was grave. The Bellissimo family moved closer to the lakefront in Hamburg because Deborah wanted to be by the water “so she could die in peace,” Tony recalled in a phone conversation in late January, one day before he flew from New York to Minnesota for the Super Bowl.
“People are going to school and having problems or whatever,” he said. “I walk in and I don’t know if I’ll come home and find out my mom died in the hospital.”
Deborah underwent several surgeries over multiple years; in all, she spent 297 hours in the operating room. As she recovered, Tony helped her eat. He held her hand. She had to relearn how to read and write. His mother’s fight taught Tony how to accept even the toughest of realities and push forward.
“I don’t run away from it,” he said.
Deborah struggled. But she survived.
Today, Deborah and Tony’s father David live in South Carolina. They have three grandchildren through Tony’s sister Elizabeth McKay, who still lives in Western New York, and his brother Jack, a former airborne Army Ranger, who lives in Indiana.
But there is a tragic void: Deborah’s son and the Tony’s then-21-year-old brother, Edward Foley, who struggled with drug addiction, died by suicide the summer before Tony entered sixth grade.
“To feel pain is one thing: a bee sting, a splinter, ‘I broke my hand,’ ” Bellissimo said. “But to see pain that you can’t fix, and it’s from your anchor – it’s from your mother – well, that’s serious. It’s real.”
Edward’s death stoked in Tony a sense of anxiety that is “bound up, wound up inside." As sixth grade began at Frontier Middle School that fall, Tony was in a daze. “I have very vivid memories of walking through the hallways and gray blurs of color are going by my head,” he said. “It was like walking through a mist. It was, like, not real. I didn’t know what was reality anymore.”
What he did have was dance.
Bellissimo was 7 years old in 1996 when Denise and Gino Vaccaro moved home to Buffalo from Los Angeles and opened Future Dance Center in Hamburg.
Deborah Bellissimo called them, said she wanted her two younger sons in dance lessons, and Tony was the first student through the door.
“He was really awkward and not a good dancer,” Denise Vaccaro recalled this week. “No rhythm.”
She laughed as Gino added, “He was your typical 7-, 8-year-old boy running around the room, bouncing off the walls.”
That playfulness never dissipated, but Tony learned to channel it. As he grew older, he became enraptured with choreography – Michael Jackson’s, in particular – and discovered an innate talent for dance.
“Muscle memory,” he said. “Anything that’s a motion, I can copy it. That’s something I have learned over the years is my strength.”
Future Dance become his second home, and the Vaccaros, his second parents. The Vaccaros taught him dance history, showed him how to make videos and edit music. Tony and his company dancemates traveled the country with the Vaccaros, regularly winning competitions.
They supported him through highs, such as successfully auditioning in 2009 for the television show “So You Think You Can Dance.” They helped him navigate the lows — like when he was the first of 20 finalists to get cut from “So You Think You Can Dance” on national television, a rejection that stings Bellissimo to this day.
When Bellissimo moved full time to Los Angeles in 2010, they helped him with contacts and career advice. (Today, the Vaccaros have 18 former Future students working in Los Angeles — a whopping number for a studio from a mid-size city.)
“He has two sides,” Denise Vaccaro said. “A really tough, strong side … then this super-sensitive, amazing (side). He’d carry you from here to China if you weren’t able to walk.”
He would probably pop some freestyle moves on the way. Bellissimo has become one of the top male commercial dancers in Los Angeles. His resume includes tours with Chris Brown and Rihanna, multiple award shows and movie and television credits, including the “Step Up” franchise.
“He has become one of the go-to people for every working choreographer in town,” said the director Adam Shankman, a longtime dancer and choreographer who recently hired Bellissimo to play a dance teacher on the series “Step Up: High Water,” which premiered Jan. 31 on YouTube Red.
Bellissimo is a real-life dance teacher, too. He’s travels the country most weekends as a faculty member for Tremaine Dance, one of the leading convention companies in the dance industry.
“Those kids worship him,” said Shankman, who said Bellissimo’s “unspeakable” work ethic surpasses nearly every dancer he’s worked with in the past decade. “He’s not just a great talent, but a great teacher. His dedication is just mind-boggling to me sometimes.”
That dedication is largely rooted in Bellissimo’s early bouts with tragedy. His mother’s near-death and his brother’s death have given Bellissimo a sense of urgency. He hates wasting time. He embraces the moment — the job he’s doing, the people in front of him.
“I can only move forward,” he said, “and be the best me.”
Even when he’s crashing in front of Justin Timberlake.
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Late last month, when Bellissimo got goofy during rehearsals for the Timberlake Super Bowl show, he knew it was OK. They have worked together several times: First came the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards, a performance that included a flickering reunion between Timberlake and his former *NSYNC boy-band mates.
One year ago, Bellissimo donned a tux and was part of a small crew that backed up Timberlake as he opened the Academy Awards with “Can’t Stop the Feeling.”
Bellissimo and Timberlake have shared laughs. One time in Europe, when Bellissimo was dancing for Chris Brown, Timberlake popped backstage after the show to say hello to the dancers. “Tone-Tay, what’s up, man?” Timberlake said, using Bellissimo’s nickname.
Bellissimo, soaked in sweat and wearing just his socks and underwear, tried to give Timberlake a hug.
“Yo, back up, dawg!” Timberlake said, before catching up with Bellissimo about some mutual friends and Timberlake’s young son.
“He thinks I’m a big goofball,” Bellissimo said. “He thinks I’m silly, that’s for sure.”
But he also knows that Bellissimo is a serious pro.
Timberlake and his longtime choreographer, Marty Kudelka, recently hired Bellissimo to be one of a handful of dancers who provided funky freestyle moves for the computer-generated robot in the video for his new single, “Filthy.”
For that gig, Bellissimo slipped into a suit with motion sensors all over his body and danced in front of a TV screen as Timberlake watched.
“You’re controlling a stick figure of yourself,” said Bellissimo.
When Timberlake, Kudelka and their director gave him notes – “Get progressively bigger” was one – Bellissimo’s self-imposed challenge was to implement them quickly and to near-perfection.
“I went and did another take and covered all their notes, and I thought Justin was pretty impressed, and so was Marty,” Bellissimo said. “Shoot days are expensive. You don’t want to sit there working over and over again.”
You want to keep moving, even when you slip. Bellissimo knows that innately; he applies it to life’s serious side and to moments of levity, too. During that Super Bowl rehearsal, when he had $20 riding on his ability to scale half the arena in less than a minute, he got up from the floor and kept running.
Even with his fall, Bellissimo reached the 200 level and touched the wall in 25 seconds. He raised his hands overhead and bellowed “Drago!” – a reference to the Russian antagonist from “Rocky IV.” His voice ricocheted through the cavernous arena as everyone – Timberlake included – looked up and laughed.
“I think I’m Rocky,” Bellissimo admitted later. “I love that story, the underdog.”