What makes Marion County thrive? Passion for your calling

By CHARLIE SMITH,

Here is Henry Danton, knocking on doors during the London blackouts of World War II, asking for lodging while on tour. And he’s inside the Royal Opera House in 1946, soaring through the air during the premiere of what continues to be considered one of the great classical ballets in British history.

And now he’s sitting at the feet of the Russian masters in Paris and performing for audiences in the United States, South America, Australia and Europe. Then he’s developing the national ballet in Venezuela and training professional dancers for the top companies and Broadway shows in New York.

And just a few weeks ago, at the age of 99, here he is again, standing before a group of dancers in Columbia, Mississippi, and sharing his lifetime of knowledge with them.

Back against a wall in a downtown studio, he demonstrates positions to the youth and adults, stepping forward at times to move a dancer into the right spot. At the end of the class, two young girls come up and give him a hug.

He smiles.

Now this wasn’t any sort of special event; the Englishman with his long, gray hair slicked back teaches the classes every Saturday.

He’ll turn 100 on March 30 and has no plans of slowing down.

Actually, to be more correct, he has no plans at all. That, it appears, is one of the secrets to Danton’s longevity: He takes life as it comes rather than trying to bend it toward himself.

“I never plan anything. I just let it happen. My whole life has been that way. Things happen. I have nothing to do with it. I’m very fortunate,” he says with a laugh.

And there’s no arguing with his results. How many people live to be 100, much less are able to travel across the Atlantic for their centennial celebration? Danton is traveling for his birthday to London, where he grew up and danced during World War II. Friends from throughout the world will gather, go to the theater and have a big party in his honor. It’s something he’s done every year for the past eight years.

That’s the story of him traveling from his new home of Mississippi back to his old home in England. The converse – how he got here from there – is equally filled with a sense of artistic freedom and serendipity.

He was born Henry Down (he adopted Danton as a stage name early in his ballet career) on March 30, 1919, some six months before the end of World War I. His father was killed in that conflict, and as a return the British government paid for his education in a military school. He remained there until age 21.

At that point he had never danced ballet, although he had seen one performance of a ballet company.

“I just knew that up until then every time I heard ballet I wanted to move,” he said.

The terrible toll of World War II, though, actually provided a break for him getting a foot in the door.

“It was lucky for me because there was a scarcity of male dancers, so I got grabbed immediately. With very little training, I got my first job,” he said. “The most interesting thing during the war, people were having such a hard time that the ballet was a complete release. … That’s where ballet became popular in England. It really blossomed during the war.”

He had done a lot of ice skating, which proved advantageous to learning ballet, but still had to catch up at 21 at an art that most start by 8 or 9. Still, Danton moved up the ranks quickly. He spent one year with the International Ballet and then moved to Sadler’s Wells, which later became the Royal Ballet.

During the war, they toured England, moving from city to city via train but were often delayed by troop movements. Danton said they would arrive in a new city at night during the blackout, which was done to keep the city dark so German bombers couldn’t see their targets, and go door to door asking if they would take in lodgers. Their food was rationed, and the landlady would get their food stamps and serve them only what she wanted.

Although a trying time, it was also a period of excitement in ballet.

They had several very successful ballets in London, particularly the debut of “Symphonic Variations” in 1946. Danton was one of the six original dancers in the cast, three male and three female. Written by Frederick Ashton, it stripped away the plot, putting dancers on a dark stage in simple, white costumes, for the purpose of putting all the emphasis on the movement of the dance. Critics have hailed the work for years, with the New York Times calling it “one of the purest, purse-dance classics ever made.”

“It’s become a sort of touchstone of British ballet, and it was made at the end of the war. It was only six people. That was a big thing. And I’m the only one of the six left now,” Danton said.

The best teachers were in Paris and he headed there after World War II, staying for two years studying and working. He then went back to England and danced with another company before deciding he wanted to see America. With only about $500 in his pocket, he traveled across the Atlantic in 1949 on a migrant’s visa.

“I had no idea what I was going to be doing. I just wanted to see what was happening here,” Danton said. “But I was very fortunate. The company which I had worked with in Paris came to the United States to do a season here, and the principal male dancer they had got sick, had to go back to Paris and I got that job. I was so lucky.”

They toured the United States and Canada and after years of deprivation in war-torn Europe, it was a welcome change to see the plenty in America. He recalls New York as being wonderful at that time, “peaceful and not overbuilt like it is now.”

He was again doing what he had always wanted.

“You have some kind of feeling that nobody else has because you fly through the air. It’s something which normal people don’t experience at all. It’s really extraordinary. We are different people. Dancers are different people,” he said.

Danton had engagements in Australia for one year as a guest artist and did a long tour of South America. At age 35, he received an offer to go to Venezuela to teach.

Oil prices were rising and the oil-rich state had a dictator, Marcos Jimenez, who began a rapid modernization campaign using that cash.

That included supporting the arts, and it was a wonderful time for Danton. He went for six months and stayed three years. A ballet he helped start grew into the national ballet of Venezuela. However, a coup forced out Jimenez in 1959, and Danton left. He later returned and started another school there before getting an offer to teach in New York at Ballet Arts inside Carnegie Hall. He taught there for eight years and was quite successful, eventually getting four jobs, including the Martha Graham Dance Company, the Julliard School and the Washington Company. Danton taught professional companies and Broadway show dancers. He loved teaching.

“You can make people do things. The thing they can’t do, you can make them do it. It’s really very satisfying,” he said.

But he wore himself down and had a physical breakdown. So he quit his teaching jobs and went to Columbia in South America for two years and then again to Venezuela.

He would return to the United States to teach a course for ballet instructors in the summer at Western Kentucky University, and that’s where Danton’s path coincided with Columbia, Mississippi.

The ballet teachers had to attend for four years before receiving certification and received training from an international faculty of top masters. One of his students beginning in 1984 was Yvonne Bergeron, a lifelong ballet dancer who had decided she needed more teaching training after beginning to do classes at her sister’s studio in Columbia. She continued to attend refresher courses for seven years after graduating.

“During those years Henry and I developed a close relationship, with him making week-long visits to Columbia two times a year to work with my students,” Bergeron said. “Each time he visited he expressed how much he enjoyed the slower-paced lifestyle, the open friendliness of the people and most of all the work ethic of the students, regretting having to leave.  My farewell eventually included ‘maybe one day you won’t have to leave.’”

He did so in 1996, moving to Columbia, and teaching with Bergeron in Columbia, Hattiesburg and Laurel. They staged many full-length ballets two to three times a year. He left for a year to care for his sister in Canada but returned after her death, not having any other immediate family.

“In 2010 I turned the Hattiesburg studio and Pine Belt Ballet (now South Mississippi Ballet) over to one of my former students and her husband. Henry continued to teach in Hattiesburg and also at a former student’s studio in Laurel,” Bergeron said. “I remained ‘retired’ for two years but eventually started teaching a small class of students one day a week in the Columbia studio.  That grew to two days a week and now three days a week with Henry teaching a Saturday class to intermediate-level students, right back where it all started over 30 years ago.”

Danton said he made the transition from professional dancers to people who just want to dance.

“I’ve actually found that the people here, the girls, have a natural talent for dancing. I don’t know why. I’ve had a lot of good students that I’ve enjoyed working with,” he said.

There are no plans to stop – well, make that no plans at all.

“I don’t make any plans. As long as I can teach, I’ll go on teaching. When it stops it will stop. It’s better not to make plans and end up disappointed,” he said during a February interview. “I don’t think about age. I’m going to be 100 next month, and I don’t feel any different. It’s ridiculous.”

With that, a smile crosses his face, and Danton laughs. After all, it’s good to celebrate a century on this earth doing what you love.