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Chi-Lives: dancing uphill

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It took Anthony Foster six years to learn that the thing he was best suited for--the one thing he did phenomenally well--wasn't going to pay the bills.

He got the kind of breaks most aspiring dancers only dream of. When he was 14, he learned how to break-dance from an Elgin group called the Boogie Down Masters. That was back in 1993, long after break-dancing's 1980s heyday. Within a couple years he'd formed his own crew at home in west suburban Glendale Heights, Boogie Down Masters Chapter Two. They were asked to perform in a recital at the studio where they rehearsed. It was the first time Foster had ever seen other forms of dance performed. "People were doing ballet, jazz, lyrical jazz, and other things I had not been exposed to before," he says. The studio's owner, impressed by his talent and his enthusiasm, "on the spot offered me a job and a scholarship." In exchange for cleaning bathrooms and sweeping floors, Foster got to take as many dance classes as he could, and his high school gave him credit for them through its work-study program. Foster took "no less than three classes a day" in ballet, tap, and jazz.

After graduation he won a partial scholarship to study dance at Barat College in Lake Forest. A friend got him a job teaching a hip-hop class at a studio in Libertyville. "I was 17 years old and had only been dancing one year," he says. "I felt kind of honored." But he went home after only one semester. "I don't really think I was ready for school yet," he says. "I wasn't too sure that was what I wanted to spend all my time doing, or if it was there that I wanted to be training."

Another friend suggested he look into the scholarship program at the Gus Giordano Dance Center in Evanston. Foster studied there through the summer of 1998. "I was on the Metra at 6 AM to take a 9 AM class," he says. "I wouldn't get home until midnight. That was my whole summer."

That fall he got a job backing up a Giordano dancer at the Miss Gay America pageant in Little Rock, which he says "was really wild." Soon afterward he rented a studio apartment in Chicago and got a gig as a dancer in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's annual Christmas show. But he was lonely and realized that he was out of his depth. "I was doing just classical jazz style, but my body hadn't developed well enough to be executing jazz steps properly without a ballet foundation." He visited Ballet Chicago, asked some questions, and landed yet another scholarship--his fourth. "Many guys get lucky because there are not enough male dancers out there," he explains.

He began training at Ballet Chicago last winter, moved in with friends on the northwest side, and made money teaching and working as a dancer and DJ for an entertainment company. It wasn't much. "I literally survived on pasta, rice, and bread and water for a little while," he says. "I lost a lot of weight." By the summer he realized he couldn't keep it up. "I hated starving," he says. "I was expecting too much of my body--I couldn't even nourish it properly."

Reluctantly, he quit Ballet Chicago, got a job at the Gap, and moved to Elmhurst with his girlfriend, where he continues to teach and choreograph.

He hasn't given up his day job, but last month he and three other dancers of varied backgrounds performed a "hip-hoppy jazz piece" of his at Dance Chicago '99 under the name Dazzle Dance Dynamics.

And this Monday he'll lead a break-dancing workshop at the Old Town School. Foster insists that the form is still popular. "It's more underground today; people still do it at hip-hop bars and underground parties, but it's not like you're going to see it on the streets anymore. But it may come back again. It gets its spurts. It's almost like a pregnancy, with contractions. When they come, they come hard and they hurt and you notice them."

He says anyone can bust a move. "It's just whether they choose to or not. Like when people say they can't dance. Everybody can dance, but do they choose to?"

Foster's class is on Monday from 6 to 7:20 (and again on March 6) at the Old Town School of Folk Music, 4544 N. Lincoln. Tuition is $20. Call 773-728-6000 to register and to confirm the location and time.

--Cara Jepsen

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.

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