Elkey Love was spending his first summer in Durham studying dance when he walked out of a class one day and found 11 missed calls: eight from his sister, three from his father.
His mother had died.
That night, he went to an empty studio and danced for hours.
“My mom loved Mariah Carey,” Love said. “Her favorite song was ‘We Belong Together,’ and her second favorite song was by Amy Winehouse, ‘Valerie.’
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“I put those two songs on, and I danced. I danced until I couldn’t move anymore. I wanted to cry, but I can’t. I sweat instead.”
Love, now 21 and in his third year at the American Dance Festival, is quiet and focused in the studio.
Every Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday morning, ADF Dean Gerri Houlihan leads him and other students through a warm-up in the sunlit Ark Studio at Duke University. The class then works through a series of “phrases” – movements that convey meaning, much like a phrase in language – before breaking into groups and moving more freely across the floor.
ADF began in 1934 in Bennington, Vermont, as the Bennington School of Dance. The program moved to Connecticut and operated as the New York University-Connecticut College School of Dance for 30 years before moving in 1977 to Durham.
The festival, founded and fostered by some of the most important names in modern dance – Martha Graham, José Limón, Doris Humphrey, Merce Cunningham – draws international talent.
Now in its 82nd season, ADF is hosting nearly 400 students in its six-week intensive program, with 69 faculty members. Students and instructors come from 23 countries and all over the United States.
Most of Houlihan’s students cross the classroom once, then rest and chat as the other groups work. Love often goes twice.
His dance instructors use verbs like “throwing” and “attacking” when describing Love. He’s a “risk-taker,” “committed,” “full of heart.”
Gregory Maqoma, a choreographer in the upcoming “Footprints” performances, added Love to his cast at the last minute. Only a handful of students were chosen to perform in the pieces, which will premiere 8 p.m. Tuesday and run through Thursday.
“Gregory saw something that made him want to work with (Love),” Houlihan said, “and I think that speaks volumes. (Love) won’t just give it a shot, he’ll give it his best shot.”
Tarik O’Meally, a graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University, has been friends with Love since their first year at ADF in 2013. Love said O’Meally and another student, Johnnie Mercer, have always been ready to help him and answer questions.
“Right now, Elkey is on the cusp of a transition,” O’Meally said. “I’ve been watching him. He has a difficult time remembering movements, but the more he does it, the more he gets into it. His heart is in it.”
Love said it would feel like a failure if he didn’t make a career out of dance.
Only a small percentage of dance students manage to make a living as a dancer. Many enter choreography, criticism, education or management.
Mercer, who spent the 2013 and 2014 seasons with Love, moved to New York City two months ago to work as a dancer and choreographer. He said ADF gave him a strong professional network.
“I’m living in New York as an artist, and I came into the city with jobs,” Mercer said.
Love initially faced resistance from his father, who felt he was giving up music for dance. He faced resistance early in life from the street culture of Queens, New York – and later, Miami – that discouraged self-expression or achievement. He’s faced resistance from his own body.
But Love said dance has become his way of expressing the emotion he learned to hide early in life, a way to deal with pain and loss that he otherwise couldn’t find the words for.
Love, the youngest of seven boys, has lost his mother and both grandmothers. A brother, Clifford, died when he was very young, caught in the crossfire during an armed robbery of a corner store in the Bronx.
He’s quick to dismiss sympathy with a shrug and an “It’s fine.”
In high school, he was suspended frequently for fighting. One morning, just after getting off the school bus in ninth grade, Love said a boy called him “gay.” They began to argue and the boy stuck a finger in his ear.
Love punched him in the face. He was suspended for 10 days.
“The only thing I knew was anger,” Love said. “In high school, my mom worked. My dad wasn’t really there. I would beat myself up about it.”
His father was part of the family – six boys, three girls – until Love was 14. He taught him how to play the drums, guitar and bass, but left shortly after Love’s family moved to Miami.
Love ran track and marched on the drum line during high school. He then enrolled at Miami Dade College and intended to study music education, but skipped many of his freshman year classes.
He said music in college was disappointing. Playing in the orchestra, Love had to stand still – a tall order for someone who’s been an athlete from an early age.
“I wanted to move my feet,” Love said.
He discovered modern dance when a college adviser told him to take an elective credit that would keep him in shape: Modern Dance I.
“At first, I didn’t get it. I wasn’t as flexible as the other kids,” Love said. “But when we did across-the-floor work, the jumps – that’s when I really liked it.”
A late start
Love’s roots are in hip-hop – the only socially acceptable form of dance for young men in some circles, he said. He said he still gets called “ballerina” by his older brothers, who he talks to regularly and visits when he can.
His late start and background give him insights that other dancers don’t have. Houlihan said Love’s work with drums has given him a strong connection to rhythm. And Love uses parts of his own history to tell a story on stage: he picks a name and invents a character.
“Elkey” is 5 feet 6 inches tall, goofy, enthusiastic and explosively athletic. But on stage this year, “Elkey” becomes “Jonathan,” a 6-foot-5-inch dancer with powerful stage presence and “the longest limbs.” In the past, he’s been Kyle and Carlos. Once, he was Peña for a role that needed femininity.
“I embody their pains, the stuff they went through,” Love said. “Sometimes I have to make (up) these other characters, because I haven’t completely dealt with (my own) pain, and the loss of some people. It’s really deep, very buried in there. Sometimes I refuse to deal with that.”
This expression and history help make a great dancer, Houlihan said.
“You are the sum total of all your experiences,” Houlihan said, “and you have to be willing to be vulnerable, to show the audience your weaknesses as well as your strengths. Those are the dancers I find really compelling.”
Love keeps dancing partly because he feels like it was his mother’s last wish, he said. She had breast cancer when he left for his first year at ADF. She was diagnosed only six months before she died, during his senior year of high school. The cancer had spread by the time it was discovered.
Love said she encouraged him to leave probably because he was the most emotional of their family.
“My first time coming to ADF, my mom sent me,” Love said. “She would tell me how she sees me on a big stage, in a big company. She’d say, ‘If you keep working how you work now, you’re going to make it.’”
See Love Dance
“Footprints” is the world premiere of three pieces commissioned by ADF and performed by its students. Performances begin at 8 p.m. in the Reynolds Industrial Theater at Duke University, July 21-23. It will feature work from Wynn Fricke, Gregory Maqoma and Anna Sperber.
Tickets are $34.50 and can be purchased through the Duke University box office, (919) 684-4444 or email@example.com. ADF has a number of programs to reduce ticket cost:
- The Kids Night Out program lets children ages 6-17 attend most performances for free with the purchase of one ticket or program subscription. A limited number of these tickets are available.
- The ADF Go program, for 18- to 30-year-olds, allows audience members to purchase tickets for $10 to most performances with the presentation of a valid ID.
- All full-time students are eligible for one half-price ticket with a valid student ID. Availability may be limited.
- Groups of 10 or more, Duke employees and senior citizens are also eligible for discount prices.