Girl smiling wearing sunglasses and being interviewed with four microphones in front of her
Art by Dave Clegg

Girl Can't Dance

Emma dreams of being famous. What will she give up to make her dream come true? 

By Lisa Yee

Learning Objective: Students will analyze how the main character changes throughout the story as she gains—and then loses—fame.

Lexile: 600L-700L
Guided Reading Level: U
DRA Level: 50


As you read, think about what is important to Emma and how this affects her. How does she change through the story? 

At first sight of me, I guarantee you’d want my autograph. Well, maybe not now. But there was a time, not so long ago, when that was true.

It’s not that I am crazy beautiful, or talented, or tremendously smart. In fact, I’m pretty ordinary, which is why what happened was extraordinary. My twin brother, Theo, said that I should thank him. 

“For what?” I asked. “For making my life miserable?”

“You made your own life miserable,” he said. “I just happened to be there.”

Maybe I should start at the beginning . . . 

My best friend, Aubree, and I were obsessed with celebrities. You know: boy bands, movie stars, anyone on that TV show Immediate Access. Plus we’d spend hours watching YouTube, especially videos starring my favorite singer, Jackson Jax. One time, Aubree’s mom took us to his concert, and I swear, even though I was one of 15,000 screaming girls, Jackson Jax pointed to me and said in his signature whisper, “Girl, this song is for you.”

So, a couple of months ago, Aubree and I were watching videos when she asked, “Emma, what’s the most important thing to you?” 

“Fame,” I said. “What about you?”

“Friends,” she replied. “If you ever got famous, you’d still be my friend, right?” Aubree and I had been friends since first grade.

“Of course!” I answered. “And I’d also go on the Gary Larry Show and ride in a limo.” 

As it would turn out, I would soon do two out of three of those things. 

It started with the karaoke machine my Uncle Roger gave me for my 13th birthday. For the longest time, it stayed in the box—and for good reason. My singing is so bad that when it’s someone’s birthday, it’s best for everyone if I just mouth the words. 

One Saturday night, Aubree and I opened the box. 

“Karaoke!” Theo exclaimed as he barged into my room. “Can I try?” 

“Go away,” I said. 

“Please . . . ” he begged.

“Go away!” I shouted.

“You’ll be sorry,” he warned.

I started belting out Jackson Jax’s mega-hit, “Girl, It’s Gotta B U,” then began to dance. 

I looked like a cat trying to cough up a hairball. Aubree laughed so hard she couldn’t even breathe. “Emma,” she cried, “please promise me you won’t ever do that in public!” 

“Oh, right,” I said. “Like that would ever happen!” 

On Monday, Theo was eager to get to school. That should have been a clue that my world was about to turn inside out. I have P.E. first period. Being as uncoordinated as I am, I hate P.E., and I think it’s fair to say that P.E. hates me. We were lining up to play basketball when suddenly a bunch of boys started singing a horrible rendition of “Girl, It’s Gotta B U.” Everyone was laughing, including me. But when they started dancing, I felt like I had been punched in the stomach. 

The boys were imitating me! 

But why? 

How . . . ? 

“Hey, Emma,” Julian said as he dribbled the basketball. “You’re a star!”

All through middle school, I had hoped that Julian would notice me. I had even practiced talking to him in front of the mirror. “Oh, hello, Julian,” I’d say in a sophisticated voice.

Julian was waiting for me to speak.

“Whaaa . . . whaaa . . . whaa?” I stammered.

“ Saw your video on YouTube,” he said, grinning. “You know, ‘Girl Can’t Dance.’ ”

Julian pretended to spit up a hairball.

Things only got worse after that. It seemed like the entire school had seen my “Girl Can’t Dance” video. 

And then I knew: Theo. It had to be Theo. When I spotted him at lunchtime, he started running. He was fast, but I was faster. “You creep,” I yelled, “you’re going to pay for this.” 

Just then I noticed Serena Malik and a bunch of popular kids laughing. A couple of them did the hairball dance move, while one sang horribly off-key on purpose. I let go of Theo’s shirt and ran to the bathroom to hide.

Mom and Dad grounded Theo and took away his computer privileges for a month. But it was too late. “Girl Can’t Dance” had received more than 500,000 hits—and we had only 600 students at our middle school. Even after Theo took the video off of his YouTube account, it kept showing up on other people’s. Then the strangest thing happened. Some kids started being nice to me. And one day someone I didn’t even know was wearing a “Girl Can’t Dance” T-shirt with my photo on it!

My video had gone viral. 

“You’re a celebrity,” Aubree gushed. “Emma, you’re famous!”

“Yeah,” I admitted. “But I’m famous because I can’t sing or dance. Because I humiliated myself. This is not how I imagined it.”

“Enjoy the ride,” Aubree said. “Everyone knows who you are.”

It seemed like she was right. The day “Girl Can’t Dance” surpassed a million views, Aubree and I jumped up and down and hugged each other. By the time it hit 14 million views, I was on Wake Up A.M. and even Immediate Access. When I got the call to be on the Gary Larry Show, the producer said they’d send a limo for me. As the studio audience looked on, Gary Larry asked, “Emma, how many people have seen your video?”

“Well, Gary,” I said, turning to wink at the camera, “I stopped keeping track when it passed 20 million.”

Gary Larry grinned. “Emma, we have a surprise for you.”

The curtains parted, and out came . . . Jackson Jax!

He sauntered up to the microphone, looked straight at me, and whispered, “Girl, will you join me?”

The crowd went wild as Jackson Jax sang “Girl, It’s Gotta B U,” and I did my famous moves from “Girl Can’t Dance.”

I was a star.

Everywhere I went, people asked for my autograph. Total strangers would do my dance when they saw me. Everyone wanted my photo. I started wearing sunglasses to hide from my fans. 

“Hey, Emma,” a boy said at lunch. He held out a piece of paper. “Can you sign this for my cousin?” 

I took off my sunglasses and asked, “Do I know you?” 

“It’s me, Julian,” he answered. “We have P.E. together.”

I let out a sigh and then scrawled a giant “E” on the paper. 

“Thanks, Emma!” he said. “You’re amazing.”

“Whatever,” I said.

“You’ve changed,” Aubree commented as she bit into her cheese pizza.

I looked at my fingernails. Maybe I’d try deep-purple polish next. 

“How so?” I threw my head back and smiled as someone took my picture.

“Well, you’re sort of . . . and don’t take this the wrong way, but you’re kind of . . . stuck up,” Aubree said softly. 

I put my sunglasses back on. Aubree just didn’t get me. 

“You’re jealous,” I told her. “Maybe I need a new best friend—someone who can deal with all of this.”

“Maybe you’re right,” Aubree said, her voice cracking. I thought she might be crying, but it was hard to tell since my sunglasses made the room so dark.

Theo walked past us and muttered, “I’ve created a monster.” 

I stopped eating lunch with Aubree and started sitting with Serena Malik and the popular group. A couple of weeks earlier, they had made fun of me. Now they wanted to hear about Jackson Jax, and the limo, and Gary Larry. 

After a while, though, I learned that you can tell the same stories only so many times before people get bored. My YouTube hits began to dwindle to only a few thousand a day, then a few hundred, then a couple, until it seemed like no one was watching my video anymore. The new top trending video was called “Betty & Herman.” It was of a dog and a duck who’d become best friends. 

“Your 15 minutes of fame are up,” Theo said one night.

I was sitting alone in my room, watching “Girl Can’t Dance” on YouTube. I looked like an idiot. A happy, clueless idiot.


“Andy Warhol said that—that everyone will be famous for 15 minutes,” Theo explained as he stood between me and the computer.

“Who’s Andy Warhol?” I asked. “Does he do karaoke?”

“He’s an artist,” my brother told me. “You’re hopeless.”

As quickly as I had become a celebrity, I had turned back into a pumpkin. A pumpkin with no friends.

“Hi, Julian!” I said. He was at his locker. “Did your cousin like the autograph?”

He looked like he didn’t know who I was. 

“It’s me, Emma,” I said. “You know, ‘Girl Can’t Dance.’ ”

I did a couple of hairball moves.

When he cringed, so did I.

Even though I still sat with the popular kids, I was pretty much ignored. After several days of this, I picked up my tray and walked to where Aubree was eating with a bunch of kids from our English class.

“Hey,” I said, motioning to an empty chair. “Mind if I join you?”

When Aubree shrugged, I sat down. No one said a word. It was beyond awkward. After 10 minutes of silence, I got up and left.

As I ate alone, I thought about how I wasn’t famous for something I could do. I was famous for something I couldn’t do—sing or dance. I was famous for not being talented. If that was my 15 minutes of fame, I had wasted it.

It took 3 minutes for me to do “Girl Can’t Dance,” 16 minutes for Theo to upload it to YouTube, and 14 million views to make me a star. And what did that all add up to? I lost the one friend who really counted.

I owed Aubree an apology. Maybe even 14 million apologies. Fame wasn’t important to me anymore. Friends were. I tossed my sunglasses in the trash and then headed back to Aubree. I had something to tell her. 

This story was originally published in the December 2020 / January 2021 issue.

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Can't-Miss Teaching Extras
Watch a Read-Aloud

Invite students to watch this video of author Lisa Yee reading an excerpt of her book Millicent Min, Girl Genius.

Learn Online Safety

The internet can be a lot of fun, but it’s important to use it responsibly and remember that what you share is permanent. This lesson plan from Teaching Tolerance will help your students learn how to stay safe online by introducing them to the concepts of privacy, security, and digital footprint.

Watch a Video About Cyberbullying

Your students have probably learned a lot about bullying, but what about cyberbullying? Posting embarrassing photos or videos of someone online without their permission—like Theo did to Emma—is actually considered a form of cyberbullying. Teach your students to identify and prevent this type of behavior with this two-minute video from Common Sense Education.

More About the Story


vocabulary, author’s craft, comparing characters, figurative language, foreshadowing, inference, plot, compare and contrast, interpreting text, theme, narrative writing

Complexity Factors

Levels of Meaning

The story explores themes of fame and friendship through the experience of a middle schooler who becomes an overnight YouTube star.


This realistic-fiction story is told in the first-person voice and in the present tense. The story is chronological. Some inferences are required.


The language is casual and includes a lot of dialogue. The story has some challenging vocabulary, such as rendition and sophisticated.

Knowledge Demands 

Familiarity with YouTube and celebrity culture will be helpful.

Step-by-Step Lesson Plan

1. Preparing to Read

Engage Students, Preview Text Features, and Set a Purpose for Reading 

  • Either as a class or on a shared Google doc or slide, invite students to share some of their favorite YouTube and 
  • TikTok stars. Ask: What are they famous for? Do you think they deserve their fame? Explain why or why not.
  • Prompt students to read the Up Close box to set a purpose for reading.
  • Preview the questions in the margins of the story with students.
  • Distribute or assign our Vocabulary Skill Builder (available in your Resources tab) to preview five words. Students will also be able to add other unfamiliar words from the story. 
  • Vocabulary words include rendition, sophisticated, surpassed, sauntered, cringed

Remote-learning tip: If you are teaching remotely, make a brief video of yourself giving students the above information and instructions.

2. Reading and Discussing

First Read: Get to Know the Text (20 minutes)

  • Have students read or listen to the audio of the story independently at home. 

Second Read: Unpack the Text (30 minutes)

  • Put students in small groups in your classroom or in video breakout rooms. Ask them to discuss the close-reading questions in the margins. Circulate among the groups to listen to discussions. This can be a good way to informally assess where students are. Answers follow. (In some cases, you’ll need to refer to the story to see the context of the question.) Then have them discuss the critical-thinking questions. 

Close-Reading Questions

  • Why do you think the author starts the story this way? (author’s craft, p. 15) The author probably starts this way to grab the reader’s attention. The line makes you want to find out why the narrator was so famous that people wanted her autograph (and why she isn’t famous anymore).
  • How are Emma and Aubree different from one another? (comparing characters, p. 16) Aubree values friendship more than anything, while Emma seems to mainly value fame. Although Emma says she would stay friends with Aubree if she were to become famous, you can tell that she cares more about getting to go on a talk show and ride in a limo.
  • What does this comparison tell you about Emma’s dancing? (figurative language, p. 16) Cats don’t look very graceful when they’re trying to spit out a hairball—so this comparison tells you that Emma’s dancing looked awkward and ridiculous.
  • What clues in the story so far tell you that things are going to turn out badly for Emma? (foreshadowing, p. 16) In the opening of the story, Emma talks about how something happened that made her life miserable. Later, when she doesn’t let Theo do karaoke with her and Aubree, he warns, “You’ll be sorry.” And in telling what happened the next day, Emma says that her “world was about to turn inside out.”
  • What did Theo do? How does Emma feel about it? (inference, p. 17) Theo used his phone to secretly film Emma doing karaoke and posted the video on YouTube. Emma is embarrassed and angry that her bad dance moves and singing are online for the whole school to see. 
  • How is this a turning point in the story? (plot, p. 17) As Emma’s video goes more and more viral, other kids stop making fun of her and start treating her like she is famous. Emma likes this new positive attention, even though she wishes she’d become famous for something she can do instead of something she can’t do.
  • How have Emma’s feelings about her fame changed? What details tell you this? (character, p. 18) Emma has begun to enjoy her fame—and even feel like she deserves it. When she’s invited on the Gary Larry Show, she winks at the camera, dances with Jackson Jax, and talks about herself as a star.
  • Compare this conversation between Emma and Julian with their previous conversation. How are their attitudes toward each other different? (compare and contrast, p. 18) In the first conversation, on page 17, Julian makes fun of Emma’s dancing. She is humiliated, and also surprised that Julian even knows who she is. But in this conversation, their roles are switched. Julian calls Emma “amazing” and asks for her autograph. And Emma is so caught up in her own fame that she doesn’t even recognize him.
  • What does Theo mean by this? (interpreting text, p. 18) Theo means that he started something that has gotten out of his control. He meant to embarrass Emma by posting her video on YouTube, but he accidentally made her famous. Now her fame has caused her to act stuck-up and cruel to her best friend.
  • What is Emma beginning to realize about fame? (theme, p. 19) Emma is beginning to realize that fame doesn’t always reflect a real achievement. People (or animals) can get famous for silly or random reasons. And this kind of fame often doesn’t last very long—people quickly lose interest in one viral video and move on to the next.
  • What does Emma have to tell Aubree? (inference, p. 19) Emma has to apologize for treating Aubree meanly and giving up their friendship. She probably also wants to tell Aubree that fame wasn’t everything she thought it would be. She has learned that friendship is much more important.

Critical-Thinking Question

  • Would you want to be the star of a YouTube video that goes viral? How do you think you would react? Explain using details from the story and your own experience. (critical thinking) Answers will vary.

3. SEL Focus

Building Empathy

In this story, Emma takes her best friend for granted while she pursues her own fame. But by the end, she realizes how valuable her friendship with Aubree is. Although it’s unlikely the students in your class have actually had a best friend become famous (or become famous themselves), at the core of the story is a familiar experience: being neglected by a friend, or like Emma, suddenly dropping a good friend. Discuss this with students and ask: What do you think it takes to be a good friend? Answers will vary, but students might say that friends pay attention and listen to each other; they notice each other’s feelings; they have special things they do together; they understand that each may spend time with other friends, but without making each other feel less important.

4. Skill Building and Writing

Featured Skill: Character

  • Distribute or digitally assign the Character Skill Builder(available in your Resources tab), which will help students analyze how Emma changes over the course of the story. Our new Skill Builder slide decks will walk students through learning the skill and make teaching easier if students are working asynchronously or independently. After students complete the Skill Builder, ask them to use their answers to respond to the writing prompt on page 19 in their magazines or at the bottom of the digital article.
  • Pair this story with the poem in the issue, “Fame is a bee” by Emily Dickinson. Ask: How does this poem apply to the experiences that Emma went through with fame?

Great Ideas for Remote Learning

  • Put students in pairs and have them create a video response to the writing prompt, which asks them to imagine the conversation between Emma and Aubree at the end of the story. One student can film himself or herself saying what they imagine Emma would say, and the other can do the same for Aubree. Then the students can email each other their videos. Alternatively, the students can collaborate to create a short script for the conversation and film themselves reading their respective lines. Then they can use a video editing program to edit the lines together into a back-and-forth conversation. 

Differentiate and Customize
For Struggling Readers

Ask students to read through the story with a partner. For each section, they can discuss then jot one or two short bullet points describing what Emma is like in that section.  (Explain that each section begins with a big pink letter.) Then they can use their bullet points to write a short paragraph about how Emma changes from the beginning of the story to the end.

For Advanced Readers

Have students rewrite this story from Aubree’s point of view. They should include details about how Emma changes as she becomes famous and how Aubree feels about those changes. 

For ELL Students

Film a video of yourself reading the story out loud, then share it with students. Seeing your lips move as they hear the words will help with comprehension.