The Revelations of a Master
While she was a natural-born dancer, Dianne Maroney Grigsby didn’t always plan on dance as a career. As it turned out, dance found her. Lucky for us Grigsby’s passion is our reward through her choreography set on area companies.
article by MichaelDeVault | Photography by Brad Arender
She’s tall, a bit lanky, and she leans into each step with an anticipating, lurching gait that lends the impression that she’s arrived before she’s arrived. When she reaches for something or someone, and it’s almost always someone, her hands remain neutral while a slightly cocked elbow leads the way. Each movement is the next careful, choreographed step of a master, which, at 63, she is every bit of.
Dancing came early to Dianne Grigsby, who today serves as choreographer, dance line coach and professor at Grambling State University, where she has worked for more than 30 years. She didn’t start out with a plan to teach at university. She didn’t plan on dancing at all. It began when she was in elementary school, in the projects in Norfolk, Virginia.
“When I think back, the first thing that comes to mind was our babysitter, Vivian,” Dianne tells BayouLife. “We used to call her Olive Oil, because she was so skinny.” Vivian was with Dianne outside, playing on the steps of the apartment, and Vivian was intent on teaching the child how to dance swing. Clearly, Dianne was a natural. “She said to me, ‘How old are you?’ I was six, maybe seven. ‘How can you do this?'”
By the fourth grade, she was dancing the cha cha, and she knew she could follow any dancer’s steps. A few years later, Glynn White, a principal with Joffrey Ballet, visited her neck of the woods. “He came to Norfolk to set Westside Story,” Dianne recalls. “He said, ‘That girl is a natural.’ It was the first time I’d heard I was a natural.”
Even still, dancing wasn’t her plan for the future. Dianne focused on music, and she played the viola. Later, she took up the French horn. “Everything was music. Over the summer, there were workshops at Virginia State to study that French horn. I carried it everywhere.” Dancing never strayed far from her mind, and she continued to practice ballet. She had the opportunity to audition for Norfolk State Dance Theatre, which put her again in the spotlight of a nationally renowned master.
This time, it was Inez Howard, founder of the National Black College Dance Exchange. The experience was transformative. “Inez Howard was the person who opened my eyes,” Dianne says. “I thought I had been dancing until I met her.”
Howard took Dianne to see a performance of Alvin Ailey’s dance company. She also introduced the young dancer to Dan Wagner at the American Dance Festival in Richmond, the last Virginia step she would take to pursuing a life of dance. Wagner arranged a scholarship to study in New York. There was just one problem.
“When I think about my high school yearbook, me in high school, I was 200 pounds,” Dianne says. She was a large girl, too large for the hardwood floors of a New York dance studio. She puffs out her cheeks to illustrate. “I wore a size 18 suit.”
Howard made her aware of her limited prospects as a dancer if she remained large. She committed to eating healthy, eating less and losing weight. She also took massages at a weight loss clinic. A few months later, she was a size 14, and she scored her first evaluation with staff at Alvin Ailey Dance Studio, an evaluation conducted by Delores Jefferson. Alvin would love Dianne, Delores told her, but she’d have to drop weight or go back to Virginia. “Teachers were crazy for me, but I didn’t look the part,” she says.
She may have been a large woman, but Alvin would love her. Those words were encouragement enough to want to continue, but life was tough. She was a single black woman in New York, dancing on scholarship, and life was expensive. While she had an apartment in Alphabet City, on Avenue D in Manhattan, she was struggling. Things weren’t going well, and it seemed like her only choice would be to return to Virginia. She phoned her mother with a question: is it possible her father would help? Her mother was unsure, but she recommended Dianne reach out to him.
Dianne’s relationship with her father had always been furtive, intermittent. She had met him when she was four, then again when she was ten. Now, she was 23 and in need of financial assistance. She tracked him down and was shocked to find he was just a few blocks away, living at 135th and Lennox Avenue. She called, then went by. “He peeked his head out the door. I peeked at him. He said, ‘Dianne! Is that you?'” Those first words began a relationship that would build–and thrive–over the rest of his life. It came easy enough, she says, because her mother had always spoken highly of her father and frequently commented about similarities between the two. “He looked at me, in that apartment in New York, and smiled. Said, ‘Well, I can’t deny you. You look just like me!'”
She may have been a large woman, but Alvin would love her. Those words were encouragement enough to want to continue, but life was tough. She was a single black woman in New York, dancing on scholarship, and life was expensive.
Diane told him why she had come to see him. She was living in New York, struggling to become a dancer, and she was wondering if he could help in any way. Of course he could, he said. She would move in with him, live with him, and he would help support her. She never spent another night in her Avenue D apartment. “I left all the furniture there and moved in with my dad. He gave me his bedroom, and he slept on the sofa.”
She continued to dance, continued to lose weight, continued to practice and take classes. She read about an open call for auditions at Alvin Ailey. Now a thin, lithe dancer, she took another shot. It was 1973, and Alvin Ailey American Dance Center was at the top of its form. Two companies–the 1st and 2nd companies–frequently toured, played sold out shows, and were growing a national awareness of African-American dance traditions and forms. The audition call was for the 2nd Company. While a spot in the 1st Company was the ultimate goal for any young dancer at Ailey’s school, a spot on the 2nd Company was nearly as good. The 2nd Company toured nationally, and it was frequently an entrée to the first company.
She danced the best she’d ever danced before, and the audition ended. “After the audition, they called the names of the dancers who they wanted to work with,” Dianne says. Her name wasn’t one of them. But Ailey’s staff wasn’t finished. In addition to the two companies, Ailey also offered a dance school under the direction of Denise Jefferson. Jefferson said they had an additional set of numbers and, if a dancer’s number were called, the dancer was asked to wait in the corner.
“She called my number,” Dianne says. “There were six girls.”
The girls were offered scholarships to study at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Center. After just ten months in New York, Dianne had her foot in the door at Ailey. “I had to start from the beginning. They gave me my schedule. Everything was level 1. And that was good.”
In retrospect, and after years of teaching young dancers, Dianne understands that introductory placement at Ailey. “At the age of 23, I wasn’t technical. But I had showmanship. I had a lot of heart.”
She would go on to spend ten years with Alvin Ailey, dancing in the 2nd Company, 1st company, and eventually teaching at the school. She toured Europe, Asia and North America. At that time, Ailey was choreographing for the likes of Mikhail Baryshnikov. Judith Jameson–who Dianne still calls Judy–was a principal in the 1st Company. Two shows had electrified the nation, and they became a standing part of the Ailey repertory. One of those shows was Revelations.
When the first low, thumping bass lines of “Wade In the Water” begin to fill the cold, quiet studio at Grambling University, Dianne leans into the music, her face is blank. She’s picking up on the rhythm. By the time the full chorus is singing, she’s smiling and on her feet. She stands and poses, legs forward, head tossed back, her right arm arching gracefully behind her. When the soloist begins to sing, she begins to move. Then, she stops, turns and laughs. “You could turn on that music, and I can still remember the choreography!” she says. “That is a dancer’s dream. You’re a scholarship student and, oh my Lord, if you could just join one of the companies!”
Today, Dianne Grigsby fills her time as the head of a growing dance program at Grambling. She’s hard at work on “Dances I Praise 7,” a dance extravaganza held annually at Grambling. Though it’s a Sunday, twenty dancers are on the floor in her studio. She addresses them as Boo and Shug, and it quickly becomes clear. These dancers are craftsmen, but she’s the artist, molding into the performance her vision as the choreographer and director. She’s got good materials to work with, but some of those materials arrive at her door very raw.
“I had no dance experience before coming here,” says Corey McKenzie, who joined Dianne’s company in 2010. Under her guidance, Corey has developed into a graceful and powerful dancer. It’s easy to see him on Broadway or in a ballet. That’s all Diane, he says. “She’s very hands on. She has a way of describing it,” he says. “She speaks the language of dance in a way that’s easy to understand it.”
Without warning, Corey vanishes back onto the floor. They’re dancing to “The Impossible Dream” and he has an extensive solo. The final notes of “The Impossible Dream” end, and she waits, head poised for a moment, for the dancers to finally break and breathe a sigh. “When you come in on the diagonal, at the soutenu, knees together! I should see no space between your knees on the soutenu.”
She steps up to a pair of young women, lifts one’s chin with the blade of her hand. “Heads up on the arabesque.” Another dancer, another correction. Then another. Standing near the back of the room, at the very far reaches of the second line, Dianne takes a moment longer with a young dancer–this one, she says, has only been in class a few weeks.
She demonstrates a move to the young woman, and in the space of a movement, it’s too easy to forget that Dianne is old enough to be the young woman’s grandmother. She’s still nimble, still ready to step up and pique her way through “Take Me to the King.”
There’s a story behind every dancer on her floor. Every student a treasure. This one came from a rough background. That one came from Twin City Ballet. J’aimé Griffith is from New Orleans, and she danced in Dallas before meeting Dianne in Shreveport for a workshop.
“I just fell in love with the Horton technique and with her as a teacher,” J’aimé says. She wants to share more about dance, more about her work with Dianne, but today’s a work day and she prances back to the floor and takes her position. After the closing bars of “Mary Don’t You Weep,” J’aimé is panting.
Dianne has watched her closely the entire dance, followed each step, each movement. Though J’aimé isn’t looking at her teacher, she knows where her teacher’s focus is. Dianne lets the last notes linger in the air. She stands, ready to deliver another round of notes. And, to J’aimé, she smiles. “Nice job, Shug.”