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A Prodigal Son--and Prodigious Artist--Comes Home

Reunion: Arthur Bell fled a family who forbade dancing so that he could study ballet, becoming a black pioneer. Now homeless and ill, he rejoins siblings after more than 40 years--reunited by press clippings about his plight.

April 19, 1998|VERENA DOBNIK | ASSOCIATED PRESS

NEW YORK — Arthur Bell was uncertain about seeing his siblings again after more than four decades--but not because he was a homeless, 71-year-old man paramedics had found disoriented and half frozen on a New York City street.

"I was afraid my sisters might be like my mother, who was too strict with me. My spirit is free; I need to express myself," he said during a reunion last week with his 51-year-old brother, Dale. "I want people to accept me as I am or not at all."

Arthur fled his religious home in a small town near Tampa, Fla., 57 years ago and went on to become a pioneering black ballet dancer on some of the world's premier stages. Then came the hard times; age forced him to give up his career, and he became homeless and alone.

In March, Arthur landed in a hospital where he was visited by social worker Maria Mackin, a former ballet photographer who checked out his tales of ballet life and discovered they were true.

Then, on Easter Sunday, a minister in Florida spotted an Associated Press story about him and pointed it out to one of Arthur's five sisters.

After affectionate phone conversations with the family last week, Arthur agreed to meet with Dale, who lives in suburban New Rochelle, and later with the family.

"I'm proud of him and of my family," Arthur said tearfully. "Now I know I'm all right."

"I still can't believe it," Dale told his brother. "You know, I never stopped looking for you all these years. I looked on the streets, even in Paris, and thought I might see you."

The siblings' preacher father and their mother reviled dancing--the thing Arthur, the eldest son, loved best of all.

"Daddy was a Pentecostal minister, extra-fundamentalist," said Dale, an IBM project manager whose job has taken him around the world. "There was no worldly music at home, not even the blues--only spirituals. And we couldn't dance.

"But there was a lot of love," he said.

Arthur yearned to be a dancer and fled to New York in 1941. In 1950, Frederick Ashton, the great British choreographer, chose him as a guest soloist in the New York City Ballet's world premiere of "Illuminations." He moved to Paris in the early '50s, dancing with the Ballets de la Tour Eiffel while studying with Olga Preobrajenskaya, the retired Russian ballerina.

Dale had seen his brother for the first--and last--time in 1955, when he was about 9 and Arthur visited when their father was ill. Their father died in the late 1950s, their mother in the 1980s. Another brother died last year.

The reunion with Arthur ended decades of searching by the family.

"The first thing he said was, 'Dale!' And I said, 'Hello, my brother. The prodigal son has come home. That's what your mother would have said to you,' " Dale said.

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