By PAUL A. BARRA
LAKE CITY – Twenty-five years ago he danced with Baryshnikov, today he dances with Lachaunsky; Lachaunsky Jones, that is.
Karl Singletary danced ballet in Europe and across the USA as a young man after training for decades under the world’s greatest Russian classicists. He was the first African American to receive a scholarship to the American Ballet Theater in Manhattan. That was in 1967. By 1971, Singletary had given up the stage for the gym. He founded the Buffalo Inner City Ballet Company in western New York State. It was immediately successful and Singletary’s fame as a teacher of classical dance began to spread. Since then he has dedicated himself to teaching, going international and national once again as demand for his educational talents grew. He taught workshops in places as dissimilar as Perth, Australia, and Moscow; he taught on four continents and today still teaches in nine cities in Brazil.
Most of Singletary’s students outside of his ballet company in Buffalo were the children of the well-educated and well-off, but in Santo Antonio de Jesus in Brazil, the Missionary Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy introduced the dancer to the potential of slum children in the notorious warren called St. Magdalena.
“Since 1986 I have had wealthy patrons in Brazil who pay for my tickets and hotels. I train their kids, then I go to the Sisters and train their kids,” Singletary said.
The Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy have big plans for Singletary’s talents.
“It is one of our desires to have a dance troupe of children so well-trained in ballet, in modern dance, that they will be able to travel around the country giving artistic performances to earn their support,” said Sister Mary Catherine DeSousa. “We are very pleased with Mr. Singletary’s skillful ways of instructing our youth. He loves the children.”
Singletary would like to see a version of that goal come to fruition in the home missions too, where the poverty may not be as intense as in St. Magdalena, but where the spirit to learn is everywhere as close to the surface.
“My wings are being spread more and more,” he admitted.
That wingspan dipped slightly less south of Buffalo than Latin America a few years ago when Singletary made a journey to his roots. Although he calls Buffalo home, he was born in Lake City. One of his former pupils was running his non-profit school in Buffalo without help, so Singletary was looking for new talent to cultivate. No sooner had he visited South Carolina than he realized that the same children who blossomed under his tutelage in New York and Brazil lived in this tobacco town in the Pee Dee region. Before he could flash his winning smile, he was being subsidized by an artist-in-residence grant and was teaching Lachaunsky Jones, 6, and a couple of dozen of his older friends how to pirouette and jump to the strains of classical music.
Not that Singletary’s students see much of that smile during practice. The two-hour sessions in a local community center make football two-a-days look almost easy. The kids get no rest, stretching, jumping, holding arms and legs at impossible angles until the strain is etched on their lean, dark faces. Following ballet lessons, the boys and girls launch into high energy modern dance routines, including their award-winning “Strollin'” And in their midst through it all is Singletary.
Hard muscled and incredibly flexible himself at 55 he sits on the floor with his legs straight out in front of him and touches his forehead to the floor, and that’s just to warm up Singletary is impressed with the abilities and determination of his charges.
“This little town is full of talent,” he said. “We took first place in a dance competition in Myrtle Beach in February and hope to learn more at the Ballet Etude of South Florida in Hialeah (in July).”
Last year, the team qualified for competitions in New York and five of them danced the Nutcracker Suite with the Florence Ballet Company last Christmas.
The dance teacher raises money to support himself and to transport his students by training seniors in flexibility exercises three times a week, by picking up odd jobs such as choreographing a local church’s Gospel production in June, and by asking people for money.
“I’m a good one for begging with dignity,” he said.
One of his patrons is the now-retired pastor of Singletary’s home parish, St. Louis, in the Diocese of Buffalo. Msgr. William A. Schwinger called Singletary a great Christian humanitarian.
“Karl could have stayed here, but he took it upon himself to go down there to help others. He makes sacrifices and lives frugally. He wants only to enlarge the cultural horizons of those kids, to lift their spirits. He’s doing an admirable job,” the priest said.
The kids in his classes in Lake City appreciate the effort he makes on their behalf. They also appreciate that the dance training helps them in sports.
“If your muscles are tight, you can’t play baseball as well,” said Seneca Davis, 12.
The boys in the class admitted that they had to put up with peer scoffing when they began dance classes, but said that the smirks quickly disappeared when the results started showing. Derrick Woodberry, 11, said that even his Karate teacher was impressed with his new-found strength and flexibility.
“They thought it was sissy stuff at first,” Woodberry said. “They got no idea how tough this is.”
For all the work, however, Singletary’s students love Mr. Karl for his attachment to them and for his sacrifices on their behalf. Adriane Smith, 12, said he would be home watching TV or playing Nintendo if it wasn’t for dance practice. And, said Alex Antonio, the hard work leads to travel and recognition. Singletary dancers made the Lake City daily The News and Post at least a half dozen times last summer alone. And even a week at the beach in winter is more adventure than most would ever see otherwise. Plus, there’s always the possibility of trips to New York and Florida dependent only on the amount of money Singletary can raise, since the talent and skills are there.
Singletary’s pastor at Lake City’s St. Philip the Apostle, Father Art Dalupang, said that the teacher is a daily communicant as well as a social minister in the best traditions of the Catholic Church.
“We all admire him because he is so willing to share his time and talent,” Father Dalupang said.
That’s all Karl Singletary wants to do with his life, share the gifts God gave him with others less fortunate.
Patrons of the arts can reach him through St. Philip Church or at 220 Kelly St., Apt. 32, Lake City, S.C. 29560.