Sweat sparkles on spines and shoulders. Hair turns into damp wisps. Still, the eight dancers go on with their arabesques, jetees and ronde de jambes , driven by Bernard Spriggs.
Snapping his fingers, slapping his thigh, he's guiding the D.C. City Ballet through its second hour of rehearsal, in a small studio above a Georgetown restaurant, for a performance at Glen Echo.
Click. The tape of Prokofieff's "Concerto No 4 for the Left Hand" is shut off, and the dancers hope for a breather. But Spriggs says: "Let's take this entrance again."
"We've forgotten, after the pique turns," says Caroline Scott, an 18-year-old Georgetown University student.
"I know, I know. We'll work it out. Judith, don't turn so much," he adds to Judith Bailey, who works for a trade association and hopes someday to open her own ballet school. Sylvia Garrett, whose silky pink pointe shoes are obviously brand new, takes advantage of the brief interruption to dip the shoes' toes in a trough of ground glass.
The tape clicks on and the third movement of the Prokofieff fills the room, sending the dancers across the floor in fast, dizzying turns and lines that converge, then pull apart.
"This is modern ballet, neo-classical ballet," Spriggs says of his complex and abstract choreography when the troupe finally takes a break. "We're taking the classical ballet movements and turning them into something else. I break up the score into phrases. I tell the dancers what I want them to do and when I want it to happen, and their bodies remember."
"When I get to where he wants us to do something I just remember how the music sounds," confirms Linda Lord Green, an ad agency media-buyer who, unlike most other members of the company, has no plans to dance professionally. u"It's a serious hobby, but if I were doing it professionally I wouldn't be trying any harder," she sys, toweling herself in the dressing room.
Dancers must audition for a place in the company; they receive no pay, but do get free instruction. They buy their own shoes and leotards, but the company provides costumes for performances -- finances permitting.
"We made $170.25 selling chocolate chip cookies, fudge brownies and lemonade in front of the building last Sunday. We'll be able to buy costums with that -- maybe even some lighting," says Linda Colancecco, a dancer who also helps Spriggs with administration, paying bills and applying -- so far fruitlessly -- for grants. "When we performed at the Old Soldiers Home in June, we had a choice: paying the phone bill or buying costumes. We bought costumes, and the phone ws disconnected until Bernard got some money from the lessons."
Ballet lessons for children and adults generally cover the rent and the bills, but running a dance company is an uphill struggle, says Spriggs, who started out as a modern dancer.
"At that time -- in the '60s -- there was no place for black ballet dancers," he explains. After several years in modern companies in New York, he returned to Washington, his home town, and started the D.C. City Ballet. Now one of his biggest problems is the drain of dancers from Washington to New York. He also laments the lack of proper staging, lighting and equipment.
"If someone sits down and looks at my dance without the proper lighting, perhaps he won't see the design," he worries. "I don't want fame and fortune, but I want to be the best choreographer I can be. We do the best we can with what we have, but sometimes we have to invent the wheel."
The dancers are called back on the floor, and Dedra Allen, chilly from sweating and then cooling off by the open window, throws and undershirt over her leotard.
"I'd rather dance than do anything else," she says, explaining why she, like most of the other members of the company, works a fulltime job and dances every night and every Saturday and Sunday. Dedra has a question about a step, and Spriggs stands in her place, taking her steps and trying to figure out exactly what she should be doing.
"Ah, ha, ha!" he concludes, turning and stepping. "That, that," he says, picking up her foot and molding her body in an arabesque. "I'm like a sculptor," he says with satisfaction. "Only I do it with human beings."