Don by Tom Caravaglia, 1982.
It was a few months ago. I wanted to tell the story of someone who would inspire dancers, a person coming from the Graham family and with a very unique and atypical profile.
Pretty specific, right? If you've read my previous article, Is it too late to Dream Big? I believe in the Law of Attraction, so I sent my wish into the universe while writing this blog.
That is how shortly after, the fantastic Don Prosch came into my life.
Born in 1952 in Birmingham, Alabama, Don is an American Dancer, Choreographer, and Dance teacher, who was a member of the Martha Graham Dance Company in the late 1970s.
His father was an ironworker "who learned to smoke, drink and lived dangerously in the U.S. Navy," His mother was a waitress in a local restaurant. Don lived with his parents and his two brothers in Detroit, Michigan, for several years, before moving back to the South with his mother and brothers to escape their alcoholic and abusive father.
His mother worked hard to raise her three boys. They were comforted with support from their relatives, frequently living with them.
Don and his family lived in poverty most of his childhood. At one point, they lived in a tiny house in the backwoods with no running water, just a pump they had to prime to have water and heat it on the stove to cook or bath. After they moved out, it became a part of a pig farm.
A few years later, Don left a segregated elementary school in coastal Mississippi as the family moved back to Detroit and went to a 95% black ghetto Jr. High School at the height of the Motown music scene, which he still loves today. Luckily, he won a 4-year scholarship to private boys boarding school in Niagara Falls, NY., funded by the "A Better Chance" programme, designed to give kids in poverty areas a better chance to go to college and enhance their futures.
First in his family to go to college, he was determined to succeed despite his background. After two years in a small college in Ohio where he played football and baseball, he transferred to the University of Mississippi when his dad was terminally ill at 46 years old from cirrhosis. The family had moved there for his final year.
Freshman year in college at Wittenberg in Springfield, Ohio 1970.
Don graduated with four majors in Psychology, Philosophy, Sociology, and Anthropology to be a teacher/coach in a private boarding school.
But then, his mother died unexpectedly at 47, and he became the legal guardian of his younger brother still in high school. They ended up living in a trailer, and Don sold encyclopedias door to door.
A significant change in his life happened when he visited a girlfriend at another university who took him to the first real dance concert he ever saw. Blown away with the physicality, the music, and the gorgeous dancers' bodies, he decided that dance was his future challenge.
Don got his brother a scholarship to a private school in Buffalo, NY, where he worked as a maintenance man and started taking ballet and modern dance classes with Pearl Reynolds and the Dunham technique at the Black Dance Workshop studio.
He was mesmerized by this new world before him; he auditioned for an acting job that paid salary and benefits for a year and got the job without any background in acting!... He got a scholarship to Jacob's Pillow and was selected by Norman Walker for a lead role in the Pillow dancers' final performance.
Don in Myth Maker, The, by Norman Walker. Jacob's Pillow, Lee Massachusetts 1978.
Following these brilliant adventures and with just a few years of dance experience, Don decided to go to New York City at 26 to see if he could make it as a professional dancer.
"My mother's enduring love was at the core of my being. The only good things I got from my father were good genes, both physically and intellectually. He wasted his, and I was determined to make the best of mine."
Don joined the prestigious Martha Graham Dance Company one year later at 27.
P.M: Thank you so much for your generosity Don, it's a privilege to share your incredible story.
Please could you introduce yourself to us?
D.P.: To be clear from the start, I was but a flea in the Graham cosmos, a chorus dancer for two years. Name is Don Prosch, just a good 'Ol boy from Alabama that loved to boogie.
P.M: Well, Don, you were a dancer in the Graham Company when Martha Graham was in charge, so the legendary Martha Graham picked you and directed you for two years... I don't call that a flea but an incredibly talented and lucky dancer. Everyone will agree with that!
How did you exactly end up in the company?
D.P.: Almost by accident. I was visiting NYC for three weeks and wanted to study at the same recognized school with a dance company. My plan had to be at the Nikolais/Louis school, but its Christmas program was filled, so I went to the Graham school instead.
I would take 2-3 classes a day and braved an intermediate class with a couple of company members in it on my very last day.
As it ended, our beloved Bert Terborgh asked me if I was hoping to be a professional dancer and, if so, would I be interested in the Graham Co. I said yes, of course, and he said if I could come back on Monday, he would try to get me a scholarship, and sure enough, Linda Hodes offered me the scholarship.
Don (end of the bow line) with The Martha Graham Company in Frescoes, The Met, NYC 1980.
P.M: Wow, that's amazing...
What was your biggest challenge when you started learning the Graham technique?
D.P.: Getting comfortable in 4th position on the floor. I had massive quads from both sports and living in a 4th-floor walkup as a kid many years in Detroit and a limited range of motion in my hips.
P.M: Who were your teachers?
D.P: Teachers? So many. Pearl Lang, Armguard, Bert Terborgh, Maryanne Bachman, Stuart Hodes, Linda Hodes, Peter Sparling, Tim Wingerd, Peggy, the original Yuriko, Sophie Maslow, May O'Donnel, and more.
I never experienced Martha teaching a class, but she was wonderful to observe in rehearsal, along with all of the other great dancers.
P.M: How do you think this technique has helped you as a dancer?
D.P.: As an older dancer, taking my first formal dance class at 23 was perfect for me. I had ugly feet but a strong athletic build and dramatic acting background.
The technique really stretched me in ways I never had before, and the floorwork gave me the stability and range of motion I needed to develop as a dancer. I also always loved the jumping and crossing-the-floor sequences.
P.M: Thank you! I can't agree more, and this is why we are so fond of the Graham technique at M-Intensive.
Graham is an incredible technique, and it is essential to any dancer; I will go even further. It's a game-changer and a must for any artist.
P.M: You have lived hundreds of lives, like a Hollywood movie; how did you do all that?
D.P.: The pure discipline and physical demand that it takes to be a dancer lasted with me my entire life.
My knowledge of human anatomy and physiology also helped validate me as a representative of a concurrent business I developed with human-sized GyroGyms.
My performance and stage experience helped make me comfortable appearing on national television programs such as Good Morning America and The Drs. T.V. show.
Don is performing with his human-sized GyroGyms.
P.M: What did you learn about yourself while working along with Martha Graham? How has this experience affected your personal life?
D.P.: I gained a lot of self-confidence from straying away from a career as an educator and coach to take a chance to challenge myself to satisfy my love for dancing at such a late age.
I also come from a background of poverty, southern bigotry, and homophobia, so to emerge from that to dance in one of the greatest dance companies in history is my most satisfying lifetime achievement.
Living in midtown Manhattan just below the Empire State Building for a decade, teaching dance, P.E., and coaching baseball at an elite private school, and getting a Master's at Columbia U. in Dance Ed. were all the direct result of a professional career that started with the Martha Graham Dance Company.
P.M: How did you feel when you performed the Graham repertoire on stage for the very first time after just a year at the Graham school?!
D.P.: I was flabbergasted and humbled to be in the company, performing at the Met in Manhattan with so many great dancers and historically significant artists, including Martha, Nureyev, and Liza Minelli especially considering my youth in the South, coming from a poor and dysfunctional family.
I never looked at the audience while performing, so when I took my first bow and was able to look out into an audience of such well-to-do New Yorkers, I was simply blown away and so proud of myself.
P.M: I love that Don and your words will encourage many dancers to take more risks and just go for it! There is no coincidence, you were at the right place at the right moment, but you did what we've been telling all along in this blog; you took inspired actions, and that changes a life.
How was it to work with Martha Graham herself?
D.P.: Humbling! I was so in awe of her and her legacy, I practically bowed down to her and cherished every second in rehearsal with her.
Her creative process was mystical to me, trying to fathom the meaning and symbolism of her work.
P.M: She seemed very charismatic; I can imagine how humbling it was...We are in love with her technique and her repertoire. I am in adoration; Graham is so unique and powerful. These are memories you can't forget.
Was she like a mother to her dancers?
D.P.: Yes, she was, and I have her Christmas wishes on me on a card she wrote and signed.
I also lucked into getting a photo of her in her autobiography Blood Memory, which I could be seen in the mirror behind her.
P.M: What is your favourite Graham piece?
D.P.: Judith, because in my very first rehearsal with the company, I was selected for a special small role as a guard, entering with a big leap and soldier stance. A lovely Judy Garay ran onto the stage, and I had to grab her and go into a lunge with her in my arms.
Martha had a specific image she wanted. She actually stood up from her director's chair, walked to me, leaned into my arms, and looked me directly in the eyes.
I think she was testing me, and I was simply blown away by the moment. It was the closest I ever got to her as an individual dancer, and I will never forget that moment.
Judith was also costumed by Halston, and we got to go to his midtown studio for a fitting.
P.M: I have goosebumps right now! You have held Martha Graham in your arms. I am speechless and a bit jealous, to be honest! Did you say you were just a flea in the Graham Company?! What a life Don. WHAT A LIFE!!!
What did you like about Acts of Light? One of my favourite ballet!
D.P.: It was fun as an abstract dance, very fast-paced and lots of leaping, which I loved.
P.M: It is pure dance and love!...
How was life on tour? How many countries did you visit?
D.P.: Unfortunately for me, only Mexico, Canada, and the U.S. I absolutely loved touring. I am well-traveled, but all the details of travel, hotels, and dining to be taken care of in so many great cities and beautiful theaters were fabulous.
Then we would always have some off days where we could explore local attractions with fellow friends. Traversing through airports with 24 beautiful dancers was also fun, with people wondering who the hell we were.
Don with The Martha Graham Company, featuring Peggy Lyman Hayes leaning into the fabric, Mexico 1981.
P.M: Who was your best partner in the company?
D.P.: I never did a lot of 1-on-1 partnering but enjoyed the two taller women Peggy and Susan McLain.
P.M: I am a big fan of Peggy Lyman Hayes, both as a dancer and teacher! She is excellent, there are some brilliant videos of her on YouTube, and I adore her class and everything she says. She is an icon.
Do you reckon any funny souvenir with Martha Graham?!
D.P.: A funny, not so funny moment occurred on Tour in Mexico when I crossed the stage doing cartwheels and because I had a bit of turista from the food and water, hurled onto the very famous bed from Night Journey designed by Noguchi thankfully off stage in the wings.
P.M: What?! Hahaha, this is hilarious, Don! I can't wait to see the reactions of all the Graham Company members who danced on that bed after your special moment in Mexico!...
Yes, indeed, you are so lucky, Don, but not only, you genuinely had something special. Martha Graham seemed to appreciate you; you had this strong presence and a powerful way to express yourself, which we can see in your photos. You also have this athletic build; as you said, you remind me of her husband, Eric Hawkins.
That is not just luck, it is talent and passion, and according to Martha Graham, she loved that in a dancer.
P.M: Why did you leave The Graham Company?
D.P.: I actually left the company willing after a confrontation with a male administrator at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City and danced and toured Europe with Murray Louis several times.
I really loved Murray Louis and his quirky, humorous wit, and he offered me an unsolicited scholarship to prepare me for his company while I was still in the Graham Co. I said I could not leave a job for a scholarship, but I would be interested when he had an opening in the company.
So he did offer me a 4-week European tour that did not conflict with any Graham scheduling; I accepted it and rehearsed with both companies simultaneously. Then I did go on a tour with Graham to Mexico without having decided on a permanent switch to Murray. But when I had that confrontation with the Graham male administrator, I decided to leave Graham for Murray Louis.
Don (standing upright) with Murray Louis Dance Company, NYC 1982.
P.M: How was it different?
D.P.: I did love Martha and had started understudying some more significant roles, and I was told that I had a bright future in lead roles. Murray only had eight dancers, and I was the designated big guy, so I got many more opportunities to play significant roles right away.
Sadly, his quirkiness was not as good for my body, and I suffered a knee injury, the very first 2 minutes on stage with him in an outdoor Greco Roman stage in Greece and even had surgery in Stockholm.
I rehabbed well enough to do three more tours with him, including London and the British Isles, before another knee injury on a raked ballet stage in Dublin.
Murray had a New York season coming up and could not rely upon me, so that was the end of my pro career, i.e., getting paid to dance.
P.M: Reflecting on your career, is there anything you would have done differently?
D.P.: I regret not sticking with the Graham Company because I missed the opportunity to perform some of those historical roles.
But the opportunity to tour Europe with another great Company mandated the move.
This is the role that I was really looking forward to:
P.M: I do also love Errand into the Maze; what a powerful ballet! So unique and creative, and I am sure you would have been perfect for this role. By the way, we can appreciate Lloyd Mayor with the gorgeous Charlotte Landreau in the brilliant video you shared. Don, what a talented dancer, and she is also a beautiful human being.
Thank you for sharing your feelings Don, it is so interesting to hear because it is also crucial for dancers to pick what is best for them at the right moment, and this is what you did.
The genuine regret would have been not to go to NYC to make it as a professional dancer. Don, you danced in the Graham Company when Martha was alive, and this is priceless to me.
You were pretty fearless and curious to experience as many things as possible in the dance world, and this is because you also started late, and I agree with that.
P.M: When did you officially retire from dance?
D.P.: After losing my pro career as a dancer to two knee injuries, both while on tour, I decided to take a year off from dance to figure out what was going on with my body.
I became a Certified Movement Analyst in the Laban/Bartenieff tradition, studied Tai Chi, and allowed my body to rest from strenuous activities.
I did not really retire from dance until my late 50s.
I taught for four years of a high school dance and got an M.A. in Dance Ed. I married Candice, a gorgeous dancer/choreographer, my favorite dance partner, and my wife of 31 years. I love partnering, and though I am not fond of ballet technique, I have performed it and love ballet partnering. We also teamed up to have two separate dance companies.
Don and his wife Candice in Woodstock, Vermont 1993.
I also act and sing a bit, so I have been able to do numerous musicals after that.
I performed as Larry, the dance captain in A Chorus Line, in Dames at Sea with Russ Tamblyn from the original West Side Story, and the scarecrow from the Wizard of Oz. I even did performances on my human-sized GyroGyms in theaters with full lighting and live music.
I was so lucky to keep dancing into my late 50s. Sadly, back issues in my mid-60s led to spinal fusion surgery in 2018, greatly diminishing my activities and health.
"I miss dancing terribly. It is in my soul."
P.M: Don, your profile is so unique. Do you ever get funny questions?
D.P.: The craziest questions came after my dance career when people sometimes had a hard time believing I ever became a dancer in the first place. At an event, I overheard a young dancer ask her friend who knew me, "You mean he was a dancer?" She quickly replied, yeah and with Martha Graham too.
Another one I get now is when they know I danced with the company while Martha was alive is "Wow, you must be old"...!
Forty-one years later, how do you feel right now?
D.P.: Mostly retired and living in a nice, mortgage-free home with a lovely wife, an adult son living twenty minutes away, a dog and a cat, and new friends like Patrice online, content and at peace with myself.
Proud of my achievements as a late-blooming dancer and especially proud of my experience with one of the absolute greatest dancers and companies in the history of modern dance, Martha Graham. Merde!!!
P.M: haha, and you can be; it's prodigious! And we will finish this interview with your words Don, any piece of advice for the young generation of dancers and anyone new to the Graham technique?
Follow your heart, work hard, and give it your best shot in whatever technique or style of dance you may enjoy. Carpe Diem!!
Don by Tom Caravaglia, 1982.
I don't know how to start, Don; I am so grateful and admirative of both your life and your breathtaking career. But also, your talent, courage, tenacity, and your humility it is exceptional. You are a remarkable human being.
Thank you for this interview and for answering with your soul; your generosity truly warms my heart.
Thank you so much again for this precious gift Don, it is truly empowering, and I feel very honoured to be a part of your extraordinary life.
And finally, I wanted to thank Leila Moniz for her invaluable assistance with this article, and on this blog, your support is highly appreciated.
Thank You For Reading; please share with your friends and family!
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