Lydia Abarca was on the subway when she came across the paragraph. It was in the New York critic Clive Barnes' story, and it described her as, yes, a major ballerina. She cried.
"I guess I couldn't help it," she says, as the other members of the Dance Company of Harlem begin to filter into the Warner Theater dressing room for rehearsal. "After all this time, someone was saying that about me."
She is 28, so time hasn't had a chance to do more than wink at Abarca, but she has been dancing lead roles in the company since she was 19. Already there has been time enough for a few dalliances outside the cloisters of the ballet world -- a few months in Paris touring with "Bubbling Brown Sugar," a part in the movie "The Wiz," a sprint as one of Revlon's Charlies Girls, a few TV commercials, a shot on "The Midnight Special" dancing disco.
Time has a special urgency for a ballerina who began in a Harlem housing project and proceeded en pointe to a profession where careers are measured in the same narrow time frame that confines the future of a Washington Redskin.
"Time is short," she says. "Ballet is like athletics; there aren't that many years to get what you want." And what is that? Big brown eyes, beautifully made up, light up with an audacious honesty.
"I'm just ambitious," she says. "I want to be a star."
And then she laughs in amazement at her unvarnished honesty.
Her ambition has drawn her into taking singing lessons and learning how to tap dance in two days for "Bubbling Brown Sugar."
The glossy little side trips into other professions, the touch of chic to her clothes, the perfectly arranged hair and makeup all seem at odds with the traditional image of the ballerina -- the dedication kept chastely within the demands of the troupe, the hair pulled tightly back, drab gray leg-warmers pulled over pink toe shoes.
But then, Lydia Abarca is accustomed to contrasts. She was married once to a member of DTH who left the company to become a truck driver. "As you can imagine, we had grown somewhat apart by then," she says with a small smile.
She loves ballet the best, lost in the music and the discipline, and in the heady mix of feeling "so regal on toe, and so sensual at the same time." But a beautiful black ballerina can find that her rarefied world brings its own burdens.
"There's a certain pressure to always be perfect, to always have your best foot forward," she says. "I think that's one of the reasons I like to do other things occasionally."
The dancing came naturally, and one of her earliest memories is moving in time to the classical music she would hear on the radio. "Lydia's going to dance for you all," her mother would say to family and friends, and Lydia danced. Her parents encouraged her -- a passion for dance would keep her away from the quick slide to the hard side of Harlem.
She was the oldest of seven children -- her youngest system is now 17. Her mother is a part-time telephone operator. Her father works at Brooklyn College as -- well, a recent magazine article called Abarca's father a janitor. Her mother was furious. Her father is a custodial engineer. She smiles. "That's what they call janitors now."
Abarca coils her long, thin dancer's body loosely in a chair. "One day," she says, "one day, I'm going to make so much money, and then I'm going to buy them land and a house and everything they want.They kept us off the streets. The minute any of us showed the slightest interest in anything, they went out and found us lessons in it. We never had time for hanging out and getting in trouble."
Abarca doesn't live far from her old neighborhood, and sometimes she will see the adults her childhood friends grew up to be passing on the street. "They're just on the other side now," she says. "Now they're the parents, and their kids are doing what they did, just hanging out on the street."
When Abarca was 10, her mother found out that the Julliard school offered scholarships to prospective students who could pass the audition. She still remembers feeling mesmerized by the music the pianist was playing, knowing somehow just when he would finish, when to do her split. They gave her a full scholarship.
Abarca went from Julliard and lessons once a week to the Harkness School and lessons every day with "lots of little rich girls who were taking because their mothers made them." She was 13 then, and the cound of the jazz that floated in from a room next door sounded more enticing than the classical music that accompanied the hours of rigorous barre work. Abarca's parents liked the idea that she was "studying at a place on Fifth Avenue and 75th," but she looked at the members of the Harkness Ballet, the ones who had made it. None of them were black."
Having decided that ballet was a dead end for a black, Abarca went back to concentrating on her studies at Mother Cabrini High School and, after graduating, took a brief and spectacularly boring turn working at a bank. She got a scholarship, at her mother's urging, to go to Fordham University. Someone told her about the dance classes at the Harlem School of the Arts. She thought it might be a good idea to take a few lessons.
What happened next sounds like the kind of moment that should take place on Hollywood and Vine, not Harlem.Arthur Mitchell, the New York City Ballet star who had begun his own company, the Dance Theater of Harlem, looked at Lydia Abarca. "Take off your shoes," he said. "I want to see your feet."
"I thought, 'This guy is really weird,'" says Abarca now. "But he looked at my feet and asked me to come audition the next day. I thought he meant for school. I didn't realize he meant for the company." Fordham fell by the wayside three months later.
As she began to glean recognition at DTH, her friends would ask Abarca if she thought about trying for a place in the New York City Ballet. "To me the point was not a matter of getting recognized at New York City, but that we would get recognized here as being one of the best," says Abarca. "I think it's happening. I hardly ever get asked about New York City Ballet now."
But yes, she does think she would have had more recognition by now if she had been white. "It makes me angry sometimes to think that, but all you can really do is to continue. If people won't come to me, I'll go to them." She stops suddenly and laughs, a little street wisdom sidling by the Mother Cabrini diploma. "Anyway, what's recognition unless it brings a lot of money with it?"
She dresses for the morning class that will precede the afternoon rehearsal, a routine similar to the one followed in New York where she lives with her fiance, singer-actor Ronald Smoky Stevens. The days leave her with little energy for anything more than a hot bath at times, and for that part of being young and talented that skates on hope and waits for The Big Break. "Hopefully," she says, "one of these days I'll be getting that one ballet that will knock everyone down. And then everyone will have to say 'wow!'"