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Graceful yet goofy: St. Louis-born Ailey dancer Antonio Douthit

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Like many artists, dancer Antonio Douthit hears a different drummer. But the drumbeat that changed his life at 16 wasn’t in his head. It wafted from a window on Washington Avenue.

Douthit followed the beat into a community center, where he found aTrek Dance Collective’s artistic director Angela Culbertson. She invited him to come back, and worked with him for a few months. Seeing his promise, Culbertson introduced to the Center of Creative Arts (COCA), which offered him a scholarship.

“Once I found dance, I knew that was something I had to do,” Douthit says.

As Douthit, 32, returns to St. Louis to perform in Dance St. Louis’ “Spring to Dance” May 23-25 with other members of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, there’s no question that’s he’s a serious performer. But he also has another side.

“I’m a big goofball,” Douthit says.

Fitting in

COCA instructor Lee Nolting recalls young Douthit as a fun-loving teenager who liked to tease.

“I’d say ‘We’re going to have a performance on Friday and I need everyone to be there,’ and he would be the lead,” Nolting remembers. “And he’d say, ‘Miss Lee, I’m not going to be able to do that show.’ Then he would say, ‘Just kidding!’”

Having spent much of his life in a homeless shelter, Douthit was from a family without resources for luxuries like dancewear. He took great care of his dance clothes and tried to avoid being seen as different from other, more affluent classmates, Nolting says.

“He didn’t want to be that kid in class with a hole in his shoe or his tights,” Nolting remembered.

Douthit's mother thought boys should play sports, not dance. He remembers how upset she was to discover his dance belt, a kind of jock strap for male dancers.

“She thought it was women’s undergarments, so she cut it up,” Douthit remembers. “From that day on my dance instructor kept my dance clothes at the studio.”

COCA provided a place to learn not only dance but about the world of dance. Not knowing he would one day star in the Ailey masterpiece, Douthit intensely studied Nolting’s video of “Revelations.”

“He had passion and desire and a great work ethic. You can’t teach that; you can only teach technique and for him that was easy,” Nolting says.

Just plane fun

Dancing all the while, Douthit moved forward in life. He graduated from St. Louis' Central VPA high school, attended University of North Carolina School of the Arts for a year, and joined the Dance Theater of Harlem. In 2003, Douthit was invited to join the Ailey Company.

But throughout his professional journey, he held onto his sense of humor, according to fellow Ailey dancer Alicia Graf Mack.

“When we take photos, he’ll be the one with his leg up up in the air and his tongue out of his mouth,” Mack says.

The two have been friends for 10 years, since their days at the Harlem company. They’ll perform together Saturday night in “Spring to Dance.” Mack, who hails from Maryland, taught at COCA and earned a master's degree from Washington University after she was sidelined by an injury in 2008. She returned to Ailey in 2011 and danced with Douthit again.

“It’s been an honor to see him grow over the years,” Mack says. “Now he’s one of the most senior members of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.”

Keeping his body in top dance form drives Douthit’s daily routine of going to the gym. He’s so far avoided any serious dance injury. Naturally thin, Douthit makes intuitive decisions about his diet.

“Sometimes my body knows it needs a salad; sometimes it needs a big juicy burger,” he says.

Meals are often taken on the road, far from the New York home Douthit shares with two Yorkie-Maltese mix dogs named Louie and Chancho. Some of Douthit’s fondest travel memories are of trips to China and Paris. Number-one on his list? Denmark. Why? Carnival rides.

“We performed at the Tivoli [Gardens] theater which is inside the Tivoli amusement park so we get all the rides for free,” Douthit says.

His favorite ride? “They have this airplane that goes backward and forward,” Douthit says. “It’s really scary but really cool.”

Paying it forward

Douthit dips into St. Louis for just one day for the May performance, adding on only a quick master class at COCA. 
But each January, he spends longer periods  in his hometown, some of it with family -- two brothers, several aunts and cousins, a nephew -- but much of it teaching dance to young children.

Now, at twice the age as when he was first inspired to dance, Douthit keeps his own eyes open for up-and-comers. A few years ago, he noticed 16-year-old Kelly Marsh of University City.

“One day he said, ‘I’m moving to New York, I want to train at the Ailey School,’” Douthit says. “So I opened my door for him to come stay with me.”

Now Marsh is finishing college in North Carolina. And Douthit continues to share his good fortune with others.

“So many people gave me an opportunity to perform, to live out my dreams. So I want to do the same thing for other young people,” Douthit says. 

In April 2014, Douthit will again return to St. Louis when the Ailey Company performs at the Fox Theatre. Eventually, he may come home to stay.

“I actually want to move back to the Midwest and do something where I can settle there and give back to the community,” Douthit says.

Does that mean St. Louis? “Perhaps, yes,” Douthit says.

But Douthit still has much more dancing to do before making that kind of transition.

“On stage is where I feel alive,” Douthit says. “I think I’m in my prime right now, and I’m going to dance until my body gives out on me.”

Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.