It’s the kind of story that’s not supposed to happen anymore: Small-town girl makes good. Six years ago Deborah Yates, born and raised in the East Texas town of Jacksonville, was just one more unknown dancer who had arrived in New York dreaming of the lights of Broadway. She did land a job as one of the anonymous high-kicking Rockettes, but it seemed her career was destined to remain equally anonymous— until the fall of 1998, when she went to an audition for Contact, an experimental “dance-play” that was under development at Lincoln Center. Yates was chosen to play the mysterious, never-named “Girl in the Yellow Dress,” who, through her dancing each night at a swing club, gives a despairing advertising executive a reason to live. By the time Contact began having previews last fall, the buzz in New York’s theater community had already started. Deborah Yates was not only a beautiful blonde, five feet nine inches tall, with legs like Cyd Charisse, but she was also an electrifying performer. The New York Times described her as “a razor-edged Grace Kelly,” and Vanity Fair called her “the embodiment of erotic allure.”

“I knew that things were going to be different when I dropped into my corner deli not long after the show had opened,” Yates recalls while sitting in her small dressing room. “This man kept staring at me and staring at me. And finally he said, ‘You’re the Girl in the Yellow Dress!'”

Since then, an array of New York celebrities have gone backstage to meet her, including producers and directors who want to cast her in other Broadway musicals and even films. Not bad for someone who spent her childhood being, as she puts it, “very, very shy and very brainy.” Yates attended high school in Jacksonville and Austin, and every day after school, she took dance classes. She continued taking them at Southern Methodist University but had no plans to major in dance. “I felt the pressure to have a high-powered career,” she says. “I even quit dancing my junior year to study in England, but it was then that I realized that without dance, something very essential was missing from my life.”

After graduating from SMU, Yates trained in Chicago, performed in a show on a cruise ship, and then made the move to New York—”The old hope-and-a-dream story,” she says. She was nearly broke when she landed the Contact role. But once she put on the yellow dress and danced, her life was transformed. Yates, who like most dancers will not give her age, was nominated last spring for a Tony award for the best performance by a featured actress in a musical; she has appeared on such shows as Charlie Rose and Letterman’s Late Show and has been featured in numerous magazines, from InStyle to GQ.

Yates’s contract with the play ends this month, and she is undecided about what to do next. The offers are pouring in—”Inexplicably, I’m on the short list for leading roles in films, even though I’m a nobody in Hollywood”—but she just might stay on as the Girl in the Yellow Dress. “You don’t often get a chance to play a character like this, someone who represents love and life, sensuality and passion,” she says. “I could do this for a long, long time.”