Whenever I’m on the campus of The University of Alabama, it’s like a trip down memory lane.
Although the campus is constantly changing, there are a few buildings that still hold important memories for me, especially those that line The Quad along University Boulevard, and the area surrounding Amelia Gorgas Library, which along with our ever-expanding football stadium and a clock-tower known as Denny Chimes, is pretty much the centerpiece of a beautiful campus.
My college days hold a small, but important part of my dance journey. Moore Hall isn’t the most majestic building on campus, but it is a personal reminder of what it’s like for a boy growing up in the South who falls in love with an art form that isn’t considered “manly” in a culture where the sport of football is revered, and believe me, at the U of A, it is very revered.
I went to school at Bama not long after a coach with the nickname of “The Bear” died after achieving legendary status there, of which the current coach at my alma mater named Saban is well on his way to achieving that same status.
Don’t get me wrong, I love the football culture. When I was a child, I revered “The Bear” as much as I revere George Balanchine. Like many boys growing up, I dreamed of playing football for him at Bama, a dream that was crushed with the reality that I wasn’t a gifted athlete, and when I graduated high school was a mere 5-foot-10, 135 pounds.
But I also dreamed of being a ballet dancer, one that would seem to be a direct opposite of the other dream.
I ended up getting a dream job on campus. I worked as a student assistant in the sports information office. It was paradise for a sports fanatic, and it was the coolest job on campus for a student.
My yearning to dance brought me in direct conflict with not wanting to stick out in a culture where football is king.
Registration back in the old days meant signing up for classes in a basketball coliseum in an atmosphere somewhat like I imagine the way it is at the New York Stock Exchange. You went from table to table trying to sign up for the classes you needed after meeting with an advisor, and you hoped there were slots available. Today’s college students who register online have no idea the experience they’re missing out on.
You also hunted for electives that would be fun. And there was the table that called to me, the one labeled “Ballet I”. I got the courage to sign up for the class.
And then thought “Oh my God, what have I done?” after I did it.
As a teenager who danced in high school, I tried for as stealth of a dance experience as possible. I tried to hide the fact I danced ballet from as many people as possible. I didn’t want to be bullied anymore that I was already bullied.
And there was that fear of being thought of being sissy … or gay. I know that sounds horrible.
But despite all of that, despite growing up in a football culture. I loved ballet and wanted to dance.
Which led me to the top floor of Moore Hall, twice a week at 8:30 a.m. for a semester of what was probably the most boring ballet class known to man (yet I still loved it). Our teacher was a woman who could be best described as a British prude, Louise Crofton. We were taught the way she taught 5-and-6 year-olds at a local studio … it was after all, a “Ballet Fundamentals” class.
She told us we wouldn’t be doing any advance stuff, that we were too old to be even thinking about a professional career (I’ve met a few people who have proven her wrong). Being a Brit, she taught us from the RAD syllabus and demanded a strict dress code (for me that meant white t-shirt, black tights, black shoes, shirt tucked neatly into the tights).
To make my college ballet journey even more interesting? There were about 30 of us taking the course in that large studio at the top of Moore Hall. Twenty-nine girls, one boy.
“They will remember your name forever,” Ms. Crofton said on that first day of class.
It really surprised me to be the only boy in class. UA, despite its football culture, is a liberal arts school. When I went to school there, there were 19,000 undergraduate students (there are around 33,000 now). You would think there would have been another guy to take class, or two.
There wasn’t for this one. It wasn’t a new experience for me. I was pretty much the only boy in every dance class I took in my small, north Alabama hometown. But this was a big university.
Adding to my challenge was the fact that Moore Hall was the home of health and some physical education classes. That meant I would be coming on contact with some of the athletes and other students I worked with on my super-macho athletic department job.
Talk about trying to come up with creative ways to “stay hidden” and still take ballet.
The girls I danced with where a unique bunch. They were nice. Some wore cutoff blue jeans over their leotard and tights on the way to class. The vast majority wore clothes that identified them immediately as taking a dance class.
Me, I wore the tights under the jeans, and a shirt over the t-shirt, and brought a towel that concealed the ballet shoes. I peeled off the layers once we entered the studio at the top of the building.
I know it’s horrible to say, but I constantly thought, what if someone I know sees me? Once we were locked out of the room. We were all seated on the stairs, and I’m sitting among girls dressed for class, and I was trying to figure a way to stay somewhat hidden from people that knew me on the sports side of things.
I tried to huddle as close to the door as possible.
I was for the most part able to keep the “dance” side of me hidden from the “sports side.”
Other than in other dance classes (I took modern), I really didn’t have other classes with the girls I was in the class with.
I was in Campus Crusade for Christ with a couple of them. And one was a cheerleader I saw frequently when I did my athletic department duties (I also worked basketball in addition to football).
I loved talking about class with them when they were around. I just didn’t speak about it loudly when other people I knew were around.
There was a day, though, I couldn’t stay hidden. The modern dance teacher, who was head of the dance department, brought her dance appreciation class to see us give a demonstration.
This was a surprise demonstration. Ms. Crofton did not clue us in on the basic ballet steps we were performing in a dance from the court of Louis XIV were actually going to be performed in “front of people.”
There were a few athletes in the dance appreciation class that I knew. It was an easy A, which is why they took the course. But they never said anything about it later.
Later that afternoon, I had to go pick up some forms from the financial aid office, and a guy working the front desk happened to have been a student in the appreciation class.
“Wow, you’re in there with all those girls?” he said. “That’s pretty cool.”
I wished a lot more people had that attitude.
But I would find out otherwise. A couple of years later, I had to drop a modern dance class because of an injury. One of my fellow communication school students worked in the advisor’s office and I had to give the drop slip to him.
Talk about ridicule. I felt about two inches high.
I loved my dance classes at Bama. Modern dance class was held at a cool studio in Gothic looking Clark Hall.
But that experience was one reason I kept the dance side of me hidden.
And when I returned to ballet at the old age of 39, I tried to keep it that way.
Being cast in The Nutcracker in front of thousands of people changed all of that.
I do hope the culture has changed. At Alabama, the dance program has evolved from a modern dance-leading program to one of the top ballet schools in the country.
I hope there aren’t many male students taking dance classes there now who feel they need to stay hidden.
I’ve posted photos from my yearbook of a ballet class at Moore Hall (not the one I was in). But yes, the teacher posted is Louise Crofton.
And I didn’t really mean for this to end up being a short story.