You would never guess that the slender kid whirling himself into a glistening blur hasn't danced these steps in months. Over and over he spins out the combination: half a dozen turns with one leg thrust out at hip height, level as a tabletop, then he pulls it in for four tight pirouettes, then -- boom! -- he rockets into the air, legs slicing open in the splits, lands neatly and -- boing! -- pops up again for a double air turn, spiraling like a turbocharged screwdriver.
Preston Dugger III is a hyper-energetic young man, even for a dancer. So hyper that a few months ago he started passing out in rehearsals and in March ended up under the knife, having twisted a blood vessel in his groin.
He had been training too hard -- after all, he started dancing in earnest only five years ago, and here he is, 20 years old and a corps de ballet member of the Dance Theatre of Harlem. What's more, back in January he had just gotten his first solo part, anchoring the full-throttle finale of a funk-and-soul ballet called "Return," choreographed by company archivist Robert Garland. Dugger will perform in this and other works throughout the company's week-long engagement at the Kennedy Center Opera House (which starts Tuesday with the full-length ballet "Giselle"; the repertory program begins Friday).
So, being really, really happy about how his life had turned out, having made the jump from Prince George's County to international travel with the ballet company he idolized, and wanting nothing to impede his good fortune, Dugger had been proceeding the only way he knew how. The way he had gotten to this sunlit studio at 152nd and Amsterdam in the first place.
By working himself until his veins nearly popped.
He is only now coming off the disabled list and rejoining the routines of rehearsal.
Dugger is used to making up for lost time: He got a late start on his early rise in ballet. Growing up in Fort Washington, he had focused on sports. Boxing came first, then football, which he played for the Oxon Hill Boys and Girls Club. But his parents pushed the arts -- his father is a pianist, performing at church events and parties, and his mother sings -- so Dugger followed his older sister to the Thomas G. Pullen Arts Magnet School in Landover. There he took drama, chorus, trombone -- and his first dance classes.
Ballet, however, is a jealous mistress; shaping a loose, long and strong body and acquiring the technical skills takes years of rigorous work. Most girls who dream of being ballerinas must start training at 7 or 8. Boys can start a little later -- they don't need to form their feet for toe shoes -- but Dugger was a teenager before ballet claimed him.
It was in eighth grade. It happened on a lark. A friend from Pullen dragged Dugger along to audition for the Kennedy Center/Dance Theatre of Harlem Community Residency Program -- a series of weekend ballet classes leading to further auditions and classes that, over the years, has given DTH a chance to shepherd promising students toward a possible professional career.
"It was real crazy, 'cause I had two left feet," Dugger recalls, washing down a ham sandwich with two Sprites between rehearsals one recent afternoon. He has pulled on an olive-green T-shirt and jeans over his tights; his almond-shaped eyes light up over high cheekbones as he talks about his swiftly progressing career. "I never would've thought that I'd get into anything at all."
Perhaps it was his energy -- his natural propensity to move, and move well. Dugger got in, one of several dozen from hundreds. Suddenly, the boy who barely knew a tendu from a tennis shoe was taking classical ballet from DTH faculty and former dancers -- and even the redoubtable Arthur Mitchell, the New York City Ballet star who founded the primarily African American company more than 30 years ago. Dugger won't exactly call the residency a boot camp, but there were some similarities. Namely, the sanctity of the uniform: white T-shirt, black tights, white socks. (And woe if you ever let those socks slouch when Mitchell -- that's Mr. Mitchell to you -- is around.)
Dugger piled on more dance classes at Suitland High School the following year, in the visual and performing arts program. He had fallen in love with the physical demands of dancing. It was structured bouncing off the walls; what could be better for a boy who, by all accounts, never stopped moving?
Dugger says it was finding himself the center of attention that sealed his fate as a dancer. "Having friends and family cheer for me at the end of the performance -- screaming my name -- that was the turning point," he says. "And I've always had a competition thing, being in sports. I hate losing. I'm a winning person. But in dancing there is no win or lose. It's all you, and how you can put yourself into it. I can put my whole me, Preston Warren Dugger III, into dance and have somebody like it. It's just, like, I cannot turn my back on this."
He couldn't get enough of ballet, taking after-school classes at the Washington School of Ballet (where he was the first black Nutcracker Prince), the Dance Institute of Washington and other local studios.
Dugger had to work hard. He had to reprogram nearly every muscle in his body.
"He didn't have a lot of natural turnout," says Barbara Marks, chairman of the dance department at Suitland High, referring to the ability of the legs to rotate outward in the hip sockets; this flexibility is fundamental to ballet technique. "He wasn't as stretched out when he came to us. But he really did develop. He worked hard and he never sloughed off."
But along with the sweat and soreness came the larger challenge of being a boy who danced. Especially being a small boy who danced. Dugger, who weighs 148 on a frame of between 5-8 (according to his mother) and 5-11 (according to him), had always been undersized as a child. Even in high school he could be mistaken for a preteen. Throw in the dance slippers and you had a recipe for ribbing.
"My friends, they were like 'Hey, you're in tights, ha ha ha,' " Dugger says, laughing at the memory. "I remember my first day at Suitland, and I'm intimidated to begin with -- high school and all. I guess I forgot to close my dance bag, and my dance belt" -- the equivalent of a jockstrap -- "was sitting on top of my bag. Someone grabbed my bag in the hall, and my dance belt falls out and my tights fall out, and I'm trying to stuff them back into my bag. I definitely suffered a little humiliation."
That time was equally memorable for his father, Preston Dugger Jr. "He was this tiny kid who had these big T-shirts on, hanging down to his knees -- you'd hardly see his tights underneath," he recalls. "He did feel paranoid when he first started doing it. But I said, 'Preston, you've got to get comfortable with what you do. It doesn't matter what anyone else thinks. Just realize that those people who are trying to make you feel bad about what you like to do are going to have to pay 60, 70 dollars one day to see you perform.' "
That day has come.
Manly Art Anyone who thinks ballet is unmanly need only watch a few moments of rehearsal. After nearly two hours of company class and a few hours passed practicing other ballets, the cast of "Return" gathers in a bright, brick-walled studio at DTH headquarters. Garland starts the ballet's taped musical score, pulsing with Aretha Franklin's honey-and-whiskey and James Brown's howl.
One section starts as a duet for Kip Sturm and Tanya Wideman. The solidly built Sturm is trying to spare his legs for a full load of roles, so he is walking through his part. Except when he has to act as a human sawhorse for Wideman, a tall, leggy woman whom he totes across his back, catches in midair, arches over his shoulders, presses overhead to the ceiling.
Dugger stays in the back, going over the steps with a female dancer who is just learning the ballet. When Sturm has finished his run-through, Dugger approaches him and company veteran Donald Williams to show them his spin-and-jump. They watch him, nodding somberly, offering a few tips.
Dugger's eagerness to learn is what most impressed Mitchell, why he ended up asking Dugger to join DTH's junior company, the Dancing Through Barriers Ensemble, two years ago.
"When I gave corrections he would apply them, and when I came back I could see he had worked on them," says Mitchell. "With ballet, a lot of people like it and can do it, but when it comes to the discipline it's another story."
Just as important, Mitchell continues, "He's a good dancer. In the process of achieving technical perfection, people are forgetting what it's all about. The technique is a means to an end. Either you make the magic when you hit the stage or you don't make the magic."
Dugger received summer scholarships to study with the Joffrey and Houston ballets (boys are in great demand in ballet, and tuition is frequently waived to get them in), but his heart remained with DTH. After graduation he moved to New York to join the junior troupe. He had been here two days before being chosen to dance with the main company on its tour to Spain.
This led to an apprenticeship, then full-time status less than a year ago. In the meantime, Dugger's passport has been filling up with stamps from company tours to Austria, Australia and China. Life is busy in the off-hours as well.
"I do the club thing, you know. I'm 20 years old, and I'm in New York City -- wow, you know, Big Thing," he says, laughing. "You work hard and you play hard."
But now that he has been out with his very first injury, and has experienced the pain of enforced calm, Dugger does not take his position for granted.
"Every time I get too high on my horse, thinking 'Oh, I don't want to go to work today,' I remember that first day I walked into the residency program and I didn't know what I was doing," Dugger says. "I worked too darn hard to stop and act like I'm this and I'm that. I'm going to be in every rehearsal, no questions asked."
He packs up his half-eaten sandwich, chugs the rest of his soda. And with effusive apologies for having to cut the interview short, Dugger slings his duffel bag over his shoulder and hurries out the door, back to the studio. He's scheduled to rehearse "Equus" (inspired by the play); he's one of the horses. He's excited about this. In ballet as in acting, there are no small parts, there are only small dancers.
And Preston Dugger is large.