pioneering black ballet dancer found homeless in NY FWD

Tom Boland (wgcp@earthlink.net)
Tue, 14 Apr 1998 13:26:51 -0700 (PDT)


http://search.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/WAPO/19980410/V000055-041098-idx.html

HOMELESS MAN'S BALLET TALE NO LIE

  By Verena Dobnik
  Associated Press Writer
  Friday, April 10, 1998; 2:15 a.m. EDT

NEW YORK (AP) -- Arthur Bell, a 71-year-old man, was found homeless and
disoriented on a Brooklyn street last month, barely standing, his feet
frozen. He told paramedics that he was once a ballet dancer in Paris.

``And they went, `Yeah, yeah, yeah,''' recalled social worker Maria Mackin.
Bell's medical chart, after all, noted possible signs of dementia.

But during the days that followed, Bell would tell Ms. Mackin tales of
Paris and London, Frederick Ashton, Margot Fonteyn, Olga Preobrajenskaya,
Katherine Dunham and James Baldwin.

``He started telling me things that only someone who was really in the
dance world would know. And I thought, `This is not dementia,''' said Ms.
Mackin, who happened to have been a ballet photographer at one time. She
also saw that Bell was ``incredibly graceful ... slender, sleek.''

The accuracy, the richness of detail and the clarity with which he spoke
led her to the New York Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center.

Bell's story checked out.

He had been a pioneering black ballet dancer. Though he was no star, he
left his artistic mark on the 1940s and '50s, ``when there was no place for
African-Americans in classical ballet,'' said Madeleine Nichols, curator of
the dance collection at the library.

Bell worked odd jobs after his dance career ended, but can't remember how
he wound up on the street, where he had been living for months in the dead
of winter. His last address was a men's shelter. He would have been sent
back there had Ms. Mackin not intervened.

Now he's in a nursing home, recuperating from frostbite on his feet and
legs. Slowly, he's learning to walk again with a cane. He uses a wheelchair
most of the time.

``I convinced them that he needed a higher level of care,'' Ms. Mackin
said. ``I said, `This is a guy who was a pioneer in the dance world. He's
special, he's an important part of African-American culture. We should go
out of our way to help him.'''

Before she became a social worker, Ms. Mackin was a photographer for
Capezio, the dance shoe company. She took photos of dance greats such as
Rudolf Nureyev and Bob Fosse.

When Bell was rescued off the street, ``the very first thing I asked was,
`Do you have Medicare?''' Ms. Mackin recalled. ``And he said, `Oh, I'm not
really sure. We didn't have to worry about these things when I lived in
Paris and London, it's a different medical system.' And I thought, oh, this
is a very sophisticated man. That was an awakening from my usual clients.

``I asked, `What were you doing in Paris?'''

And his story began to unfold.

``I was absolutely thrilled,'' Ms. Mackin said. ``I thought, oh my God,
this is incredible, if this is true. And I really believed it was true and
that the world had let this man slip through the cracks.''

Bell speaks of dance with a lucid passion that awakens his frail, 5-foot-11
body. Sitting in a wrinkled bathrobe, he arches his long neck and uses his
long fingers to punctuate his remarks with lively elegance. The muscles in
his legs are still sculptured.

The eldest of a Florida preacher's nine children, Bell finished high school
and got on a bus to New York. He quickly found a job in the garment
district and started taking dance classes with Dunham.

He moved to Paris in the early '50s, where he said he lived in the same
rooming house as Baldwin, the writer. He danced with the Ballets de la Tour
Eiffel while studying with Preobrajenskaya, the retired Russian ballerina.

In 1950, Ashton, the great British choreographer, chose him as a guest
soloist in the New York City Ballet's world premiere of ``Illuminations.''

Bell returned to New York in the '60s, forced to give up his career as he
approached 40. His life slid away.

Bell, who receives $400 a month in Social Security, is waiting for his
Medicaid application to be processed and wants to move to ``somewhere where
I could be near the theater most of the time.'' He also wants to establish
a scholarship fund for struggling young minority dancers.

Not being able to dance anymore doesn't trouble him, he said, ``because
when you love something, the love for it just goes beyond anything. Dancing
is in my soul.''

Ms. Mackin and her husband visit Bell twice a week.

``It makes you think about the judgments you make -- like reading the
chart,'' she said. ``We have to listen to what people say instead of
reading charts.''

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