by Jeremy Craig
Patrick Turner kept his passion for ballet a secret for years. Now he uses the lessons he learned from dance to help first-generation college students find their way in the world.
Growing up in a public housing project in one of the most crime-infested neighborhoods in Birmingham, Ala., Patrick Turner saw violence as a simple fact of life.
"You knew violence, drugs and the like were going on," he said. "But you never thought of it as that."
But Turner found an unlikely avocation to keep him out of trouble: dance.
It started when the movie "Fame" caught his eye, captivating a youngster who—under a strict religious upbringing—wasn't allowed to dance in his own home.
"I would sit and watch BET, and see the latest steps, the latest music," he said. "I just kind of picked up the steps and realized it was a talent I had. I would listen to this stuff over at my friend's house or in secret."
Searching for a way to express that passion, he began playing trumpet in band during elementary school and stuck with it through college. With the tightly orchestrated choreography that's a prized tradition of marching bands at predominantly African-American schools, the steps he learned blended in.
"You may have a great football team or not, but it's all about the halftime show," Turner said.
But he started keeping a secret from his friends and family, one that would put him in an unusual spot in the world of dance. As a tall, muscular, African-American 18-year-old, Turner started basic lessons in classical ballet.
He had been turned down for a professional position as a dancer for a minor-league basketball team's half-time show, but a choreographer for Janet Jackson gave him an important piece of advice.
"He said, 'you dance very well,'" recalled Turner, "but when we put you next to trained dancers, I can tell the difference. I recommend you get into dance classes."
Turner found basic training through the YMCA. He had a plan: get as much training as he could afford, become a professional, return and make it to the dance squad, then quit to get back at the decision makers for not selecting him.
"After a while, though, I started developing a love for ballet, and it just kind of grew from there, pushing hip hop to the side," Turner said. "The dream of dancing became so much more than coming back and getting 'revenge' on them."
He went on to Kentucky State University on a band scholarship, perfecting choreography for the marching band, but still pursuing classical ballet on the side.
Friends and family eventually discovered his secret and were impressed. After graduation, he danced for various companies for nearly two decades, and is now performing with Festival Ballet in suburban Atlanta.
The uninformed might consider ballet some sort of frou-frou hobby requiring far less effort than an Olympic athlete would put into a sprint, swim or hurdle. Turner would beg to differ, with sometimes bloodied shoes as Exhibits A and B to the strenuousness of classical ballet. When he's not at work, you can find him in a home studio in his garage. Dancers need constant training to achieve a level of precision that can be physically painful.
"You use every inch of your body," he said. "Ballet is so calculated. When you see people on stage and they're performing, it looks graceful, but it is a discipline where every inch, every hand, every foot must be in a precise position."
'I was pretty much on my own'
Successfully transitioning from high school to college can require a similarly intense dedication.
It's something of a passion for Turner, who's now an administrative specialist in the School of Accountancy at Georgia State's J. Mack Robinson College of Business. His parents hadn't gone to college, and he had to learn to navigate that new world on his own, much like many of the first-generation students at Georgia State. Turner's brothers and sisters went to college, but didn't talk much about it.
"My mom's highest education level was the 11th grade," he said. "I filled out my own paperwork, financial aid, all of these different kinds of things. I was pretty much on my own."
He draws on that experience as an instructor for students in first-year programs at Georgia State, which are designed to help freshmen make a successful leap into college life. He often imparts some of the lessons he's learned through ballet.
For starters, for a freshman who gets his/her first essay marked bloody red with an editing pen, or who earns an F on a math test, there's learning how to take criticism.
"I think that's a big one—realizing that when a person is criticizing your work, they're not criticizing you personally," Turner said. "When I was younger, I wasn't able to process that information."
He cited a summer where a choreographer tore him down with constant criticism.
"After a while, I just started questioning, 'If I’m that horrible, why am I even dancing?'" Turner said. "But then I went to another group, and they just praised me to death."
And what's absolutely critical for first-year college students to learn? Another thing hammered into Turner's head during his years of dance: discipline in study.
"I tell my students," he said, "that if you really love something, then you want to learn everything you can about it. You can't tell me that you love fashion or you love art or something else, but you don't know anything about it.
"That's why I have my students interview someone in the field they're interested in," Turner said. "Because sometimes after you hear what their life entails in that major or field, it's not what you think it is."
With a realistic outlook, discipline and passion for whatever field someone chooses, the result is worth it, he said.
"Excellence requires some type of sacrifice," he said. "But once you get the reward, you will see all the good in what that sacrifice is for."