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CHAPTER 1

Introduction - Early Years
Mark Twain once remarked that the older he got the more vivid his recollection of things that had never happened. Most people, and probably you too, can remember details of childhood and early life even more vividly than what happened a year ago.

The early struggles and sacrifices endured by dancers, actors, composers and such, and their striving for success in their careers, always interested me far more than their later lives, that is, after they had found success - and particularly if they came from lowly beginnings as I did. Even so, that didn’t prevent me from becoming a dance soloist with the Metropolitan Opera in Lincoln Center and a member of the leading ballet company in the USA (American Ballet Theater) as well as many other dance companies. But, here’s the skeleton truth: it’s not at all easy for a boy who wants to dance to get even that far.

In this society, boys, as a rule, do not become ballet dancers and it’s absolutely amazing when some actually do. In addition to acquiring a dance technique equal to or exceeding the strength, stamina and abilities of an athlete, a boy too often has to also deal with society’s assumption that a boy who dances must be, well, gay. After all, isn’t ballet only for girls?

I have no idea where that idea started. Men have always danced. Perhaps their dancing is not as aesthetically pleasing as that of a trained ballet dancer but exciting and vigorous all the same. Ted Shawn, considered the Father of American dance, toured his all-male dance troupe all over America through the 1930s. It was very popular. Their dances were based on the natural movements of men; plowing, chopping wood, building houses, yet they all required ballet training.

Let’s say a boy has parents who, oddly enough, are artistically aware and start him in a ballet class. This boy may have to endure so much teasing in school, he will eventually drop out of ballet classes, or else keep it a secret. One problem is, the average American family, unless part of a regular ballet going public, has never actually seen a genuine ballet. Perhaps they once saw their twelve-year-old daughter staggering around in toe shoes (too big and wrongly tied) in a local ballet studio recital and thought that was classical ballet. They would never have seen, for example, the Bolshoi Ballet’s full length "Spartacus” with muscular, powerful male dancing that would put the world’s top athletes to shame.

The highly paid and publicized dancing stars like Nureyev, Baryshnikov, Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, besides being extremely talented, happened to be in the right place and at the right time. Gene Kelly, though a wonderful tap dancer was basically trained in ballet yet there was never anything effeminate about him when he danced. Like Fred Astaire, he was a primary component in bringing male dancing out of the closet so to speak and no one ever thought of them as being gay.

I know, I’ve only mentioned male dancers. There are Makarova, Cyd Charisse, Plisetskaya, Dame Margot Fonteyn and the list goes on. But you see, it’s far more difficult for boys to become dancers. They have so many of these obstinate hurdles to overcome.

In case you are wondering about the title: “Dancing On A Greyhound Bus”, it comes from the many hours I’ve spent sitting on busses, as well as on trains and airplanes, visualizing and plotting dance steps in my head. In other words, choreographing. Entire ballets of mine have been created and notated that way.

Anyway, this is my story...

On 34th Street in Manhattan there was once a Greyhound Bus terminal. That’s where I first arrived in New York City – a sixteen-year old boy carrying all my belongings in a cardboard suitcase bought at Woolworth’s and with $20 in my pocket. I had come to New York to seek a career as a dancer, knowing no one there and with no connections. Would my dream eventually lay shattered at my feet? Or, could it be I was not meant to be a dancer after all?
As I stepped out onto 34th Street, looming above me to my right was the Empire State Building, its top barely visible in the evening mist. To my left was Sloane House YMCA. Little did I know then that this bastion of tiny, cell like, door slamming rooms was to be home territory during many future New York City comings and goings.

I had come from Boston – well, from a town outside of Boston really - a town named Braintree, where I grew up in unrelenting poverty and abuse.

Two Presidents were born and buried in Braintree; John Adams and John Quincy Adams. Their homes, very familiar to those of us growing up in Braintree, are still kept as shrines in nearby Quincy, which in the 17th century was all part of Braintree.

Photo above: John Adams’ Birthplace in Quincy, MA

 

 
My mother had already been abandoned with four children to raise all by herself when she brought me into the world, illegitimate and unwanted. By then, my three half brothers and sister were already teen-agers and about to leave. When they had gone there was only my mother and myself left.

I grew up in surroundings of unrelieved poverty. The smell of it lingered with me all my life. “The dark brown taste of being poor” was the way famed actress Ruth Gordon characterized it. As a matter of fact, Ruth Gordon grew up nearby, of course long before I was born.
 

Photo: My mother, Ethel Mae Grover

The first thing I can remember was my Mother sitting me on a park bench and telling me to stay there while she went off to work as a seamstress. I did exactly as she had told me to do; sitting there quietly all day long, never moving, never wandering off until she came back to collect me five or six hours later. I must have been three or four years old. What was I thinking of to be so obedient? No one came to ask why I was alone, or was I lost or abandoned? I had no toys. I didn’t know what ice cream or candy was. I just sat and looked at the railroad tracks and an occasional train passing by.

Photos: At about age 3 or 4 years

The many Braintree homes we lived in were invariably near railroad tracks. I spent a lot of time on those tracks, learning to balance on the rails, walking and running to and from school on them, playing in the railroad yards and dreaming of the day when I could get on one of the trains and go to someplace, anyplace away from Braintree and the miserable life I was born into.

My siblings knew of my mysterious origins long before I did. Having a different father than they, I was treated already an outcast to start with.

 
School Days
Returning to my the third grade class after Thanksgiving Day, the teacher asked each of us to stand and tell the class about our holiday dinners. This of course was a very insensitive thing for her to do. Each child described their
Thanksgiving dinner in detail – the turkey, the pumpkin and mince pies, the fruits and nuts, none of which I had ever tasted. When my turn came, even though I was an unflinching truth-teller, I couldn’t bring myself to reveal that I had nothing remotely like that. I simply repeated what the others had told and even at seven years of age I could sense the teacher suspected it was all a pack of lies.

Photo: Monatiquot School

When my mother told me when that there was no Santa Claus it was the first time I’d ever heard of him anyway. She was making sure I wouldn’t expect any presents that she couldn’t give me.

Poor, fatherless, wearing rags and hand-me-downs I soon became painfully shy. All this naturally made me a target for the bullies at the Monatiquot Grammar School, grades one through eight. When it was one on one I could defend myself but not against a gang. I dreaded the two days each week that had required periods of outdoor sports and I would be subject to their taunts and punches. Winter was a relief as it was held in the gymnasium with structured calisthenics. To me, that was more like dancing. And there was the radio with after school programs like Captain Midnight, The Lone Ranger, Superman. These fifteen-minute dramas aimed at young boys sparked the imagination, filled in my loneliness.

The First Dance Lesson
A man living in the single Braintree hotel was giving a dancing class. I don’t know who he was or how and why he rounded up about five of us ten year old boys. He was hoping to teach us tap dancing though none of us had any idea of what he was trying to do. It was possibly a basic class given to introduce local children to dancing. Or more likely, this retired man wanted to teach some children the tap dancing he knew, merely for something to do. It left no impression on me and certainly no inner call to dance.
 

During one summer there came a ray of happiness. Two weeks spent with my mother by the ocean at Brant Rock in a house trailer my brother had built. It was like paradise playing among the rocks and watching the tides of the New England coast. I was about to turn thirteen when I had the experience of puppy love for the girl in the next trailer, holding hands and going for walks along the beach together. After the two weeks ended we parted with undying love and I sent her silly, boyish love letters, actually post cards with all my grandiose plans about someday becoming a movie director or a Walt Disney animator. She never answered. It was soon forgotten.


When I became fifteen my Mother finally told me the truth about my origin; that the husband who abandoned her was not my real father after all and I had a different father than my brothers and sister. I was an accident and unwanted. Could this be the reason I felt so different from my family? Why my Mother had once abandoned me in the park, unguarded? Who was he? Where did he come from?
How did they meet? All I managed to learn was that he was Canadian, possibly French Canadian. In later years all these questions arose but the secrets had died with her. Although I kept the name, there is actually no Holden blood in me at all.

Photo: Braintree Movie Theater

These painful memories of an unhappy childhood are best forgotten, but I found a well-worn path of escape and it led to a sanctuary; the local movie theater. The Braintree Theater could hardly be called a grand movie palace but to me it was a portal to another world. Beginning as a twelve year old I went as often as I could and sat alone among adults as the stories of adventure, mystery and excitement unfolded before my eyes. Then walking home late at night along deserted streets to a silent and cold house and a corner cot.

The Braintree Theater had no stage, only curtains that opened and closed for each of the double features. The Dead End Kids, popular movie stars of the period, once stopped off in Braintree on a personal appearance tour of some kind. With no backstage area available, they played baseball with us local kids in the parking lot until time to come out and stand in front of the curtains. I’ve long forgotten what they said or did but every kid in town must have been there and the manager had to sit us two in each seat.
Truly, movies shaped my life. There was a saying at the time that movies should be more like real life. I thought life should be more like the movies. They taught me history, ethics, how to deal with adversity and propelled me through those difficult years.
 

Photo: About 12 years old

High School - With Music
About this time an encounter with scarlet fever left me nearly deaf. While in classes I would strain to hear the teacher who would often send me to the Principals’ office to get a scolding. They thought I was either stupid or just being troublesome. The awful truth was that I was just too shy to tell him, or anyone, that I simply could not hear what they were saying.

When the final, eighth grade of grammar school arrived, there was no one to guide me as to what High School subjects I should elect for the coming year. I simply copied what someone sitting next to me had written on the questionnaire which were all subjects for a commercial course when I would have been more suited to a liberal curriculum.

I entered High School with remedial English. Apparently I had failed that subject though I instinctively spoke grammatically correct English picked up from all the reading I had done. Still, the rules of grammar and correctly diagramming sentences continually eluded me. The teacher wanted to see my Mother about it but my Mother never appeared. I had to deal with it alone.

Be that as it may, during my Freshman year the English teacher praised me for a piece I wrote about the Moldau River in Czechoslovakia. What on earth would I know of Czechoslovakia? I just felt inspired to write it after hearing the music by Smetana on the radio. There was not much classical music on the radio in those days except the New York Philharmonic on Sunday afternoon and the Metropolitan Opera on Saturday that I listened to devotedly, despite my mother’s hatred of it. She went out of the house when it was on.

What distressed me most during my first year of High School were not the subjects I had chosen. It was the gym period. The reason: each student had to supply his or her own gym outfit which for boys meant a pair of gym shorts, a jock strap, t-shirt and sneakers. I had no idea where money was to come from for such a luxury. I think the school eventually supplied me an outfit.

I remained an outcast. My only friend was another outcast. He was a Jehovah’s Witness and was shunned due to his not saluting the flag, a requirement of his faith that believes allegiance should only be given to God. We would stick together during gym periods and warn each other against approaching onslaughts of the school’s bigger bullies.

Then I began listening to the Metropolitan Opera radio broadcasts more avidly. Not only listening but following along with the vocal scores that I got from the public library. My knowledge of classical music grew by leaps and bounds. In musical appreciation class I was the only one who could identify selections the teacher played, an accomplishment that certainly didn’t endear me to any of my classmates!

Being nearly deaf, the only thing left for me to do was to leave school. I thought I could continue my education at home alone with home study courses and not have to face the ordeals of school everyday. Home then became my own private school and I seldom went out. I ordered a book of high school subjects by mail and created a daily schedule for my self-taught classes that I rigidly followed just as if in public school. How is that for self discipline?


Somehow, probably from odd jobs, I acquired a broken down, out of tune upright piano from the Salvation Army and began to learn how to play it.

Photo left: An image I drew at the time
Photo right: Quincy Conservatory was in this building

Every Saturday I pedaled my bicycle into Quincy where there was an actual Conservatory Of Music. The piano teacher came there every Saturday to give lessons. He himself was a student at the New England Conservatory in Boston. My weekly lesson was fifty cents, a sum I earned by delivering papers, picking blueberries or weeding gardens. I soon became the Conservatory’s star pupil and was saved for the last in their annual recital. I played a watered down version of the first movement of Grieg’s piano concerto followed by Gershwin’s “Rhapsody In Blue”, reduced. It’s hard to believe no one from my family came to listen or give me support of any kind. Seeing this, my teacher was obviously saddened as well as a gentleman and his wife in the audience who must have felt so sorry for this pathetic, neglected boy they took me afterwards for an ice cream soda, a treat I remember to this day.

Photo: The Thomas Crane Public Library, Quincy, MA

Quincy had other attractions, like four movie theaters and a public library with private booths where you could listen to their collection of music records.

Books That Can Change Lives
Then something happened that caused a complete about face – a total shift in consciousness. It was a book on a shelf at the Thomas Crane Public Library in Quincy that mysteriously caught my eye. A book that was to set my course in a similar but different path than music and would turn out to be my life’s endeavor.

It was the biography of the Russian ballet dancer, Vaslav Nijinsky, written by his wife, Romola. I couldn’t put it down and read it three times in a row until it dawned on me that perhaps I could be a dancer too, even a dancer like Nijinsky. At least it was a wondrous dream that could possibly lift me out of my wretched surroundings and perhaps find a place for me in this newly discovered world of dance. There were so many parallels between Nijinsky’s life and my own. He came from a poor and dysfunctional family. So did I. He was painfully shy. So was I. I decided then and there that I would be a dancer too, like him, ignoring the all-important fact that he became grievously insane by the time he reached thirty!
 

Photo: Nijinsky as Petrushka - the puppet with a soul

But this Nijinsky was a Russian and a graduate of the Imperial Ballet School in St. Petersburg. I was an American boy with absolutely no one to help and no one I could talk to about this newly found ambition. I had found refuge from my unhappiness in dreams of becoming a dancer but I would first have to contrive a world of my own and fit into it. So I quickly and totally forgot all about the piano and my unrealistic dream of becoming a concert pianist to pursue dancing – a beauty I must know. Though I had never even seen a ballet, I became entirely intoxicated by this fantasy and started to refashion reality to create a new identity for myself.

There was a text-book on ballet by Kay Ambrose, the only one available at that time in Quincy. It was not a proper text-book but an introduction to ballet technique written for ballet fans but had charming illustrations of body positions and some basic ballet steps. I spent spend ours trying to imitate these drawings of dancers with my own body.

I began to comb my hair in the Nijinsky 1910 fashion. I faked the turned out walk of a dancer and imagined I was Nijinsky himself. Day by day the picture crystallized into an idealistic metamorphosis. I found a Russian grammar at the library and began to learn the Russian language. Soon I was able to read, all too haltingly, Tolstoy’s “War And Peace” in Russian, with the aid of a Russian-English dictionary. (In later years, Russian was to become my second language).

I didn’t feel I was ready to start my ballet lessons right away. For one thing, I needed to get my teeth fixed. Growing up as I had without milk or proper nourishment, my teeth were fragile. I had already lost several and the rest were in bad shape. I also had a small case of teen-age pimples.

There was no chance of help from my family. in fact there wouldn’t be even the slightest encouragement. If my love of classical music was scorned by them, how would they accept me as a dancer, let alone a ballet dancer. In New England at that time, and possibly still, boys simply do not dance. Even interest in classical music was considered odd for a boy. It all had to be kept secret.

Finishing High School was not as important as extending my life away from Braintree. I had outgrown it and also Quincy. Now my destination would have to become the not too distant city of Boston.
During one of my lonely train trips into Boston I found a teacher, a kindly Russian gentleman - Senia Russakoff. He and his wife, Regina, were Russian Jews from Petrograd. In America they had danced in a vaudeville circuit. They actually lived in their studio on Boylston Street in downtown Boston, sleeping on cots but they were ashamed to reveal this, telling anyone who asked that they lived on ‘the hill’, meaning the nearby, very exclusive Beacon Hill. In the distant past Russakoff had been the teacher of none other than Ray Bolger, then already long famous for his role as the scarecrow in “The Wizard Of Oz”.

I pretended the Russakoffs were my Russian parents and their shabby studio was really the Imperial School Of Ballet in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Photos: A drawing I made and a picture of Senia Russakoff

My first lesson was private, or ‘prriwat’ as Senia Russakoff would say in his heavy Russian accent. In fact he only gave private lessons as they did not have enough students for regular classes. As I already knew the basic positions from the Kay Ambrose book which I could show in an approximation, I began to realize this was no proper ballet lesson. I was not at all surprised when the lesson ended with perhaps the most spectacular and well-known step in all of Russian character dancing. “Prisyadki” is a movement from Russian folk dance where you squat down and alternately kick the legs out. I must have shown a natural talent for this particular step as Russakoff had me doing hundreds of them. The following day I could barely walk!

Image: Animated dancer demonstrating prisyadki kicks

 

I could only afford one lesson a week, but I went into the studio every morning as if it were my real home, staying there all day either practicing or helping Senia write his dictionary of ballet terms on his typewriter. This must have really been his idea to keep me occupied and out of their way. Both Senia and his wife Regina suspected, and once even asked me if I came from a broken home. Why else would I want to spend so much time with them as if they were my family? Little did they know!

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