Newspaper article Sarasota Herald Tribune

SUNDAY PROFILE: SHaring Your Stories Life as Both Turtle and Butterfly

Newspaper article Sarasota Herald Tribune

SUNDAY PROFILE: SHaring Your Stories Life as Both Turtle and Butterfly

Article excerpt

Lonetta Gaines' life has run along parallel tracks. One was shaped by her mother, a longtime teacher, and father, a postal worker who appreciated the security of a government job with good benefits. The other came from a creative impulse deep within, one still finding expression as she approaches her eighth decade. One gave her a protective shell; the other, the freedom to fly.

"People say I'm a people person, but I'm not, I'm a turtle," says Gaines, a retired educator and professional modern dancer. "I like being tucked inside my shell, but I am enticed to poke my head out from time to time. I think I'm a combination of a turtle and a butterfly."

The turtle formed during Gaines' early childhood in a segregated African-American neighborhood in Mobile, Alabama, where the Zion church was the center of family life and countless cousins swaddled an only child. There she learned the value of faith and the security of community.

Her family moved to Louisville, Kentucky, when she was 12, where a friend convinced her to try her first dance class. It wasn't structured or serious, but it was enough to shake her cocoon. She danced "recreationally" in high school and during her years at Fiske University, where she also became immersed in the black power movement. But shortly after she graduated, a teacher stepped on her budding wings.

"It's too bad you didn't start when you were young," she said. "You could have been a dancer."

Gaines lowered her expectations, but she didn't stop dancing. In Atlanta, where she moved to work at an African-American think tank, she met a group of modern dancers, some of whom had danced with her idol, Eleo Pomare, a choreographer known for his political depictions of the black experience. "Don't ever let anyone tell you what you could have been," one of them scolded her, so she dreamed big and set a goal to join Pomare's New York company one day.

Meanwhile, the turtle began a steady progression toward becoming a teacher, as most of her female ancestors had been.

At "a time when we all wanted to change the world," Gaines was convinced early childhood education was the place to make a difference.

But that didn't mean giving up her dance dreams.

A romantic interest that drew her to Baltimore put her one stop closer to New York; an offer of free tuition put her on the path to a doctorate.

When she showed up at a workshop given by Dance Theatre of Harlem, the company founded by Arthur Mitchell and Karel Shook, the woman at the registration desk sniffed and said, "I won't take your money yet. If Karel Shook doesn't put you out, I'll get it later." This time, Gaines paid no heed.

"I didn't have the training, but I had the spirit," she says.

Within three years, she'd joined Pomare's company, performing many of his signature works. …

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