Nat Horne at home in New York City / photo by Mark Bergin
My Enchanté column from August 13, 2015
Part 1: Dancing despite the odds
In his New York City Hell’s Kitchen home, filled with reminders of a dancing life, 86 year old Nathaniel (Nat) Horne lives with Princess, an older and large black lab. There’s also Bosco, a mostly black cat with some white patches. Princess holds the role of greeter of guests. Nathaniel Horne is recovering from spinal cord surgery and moves slower than normal.
As a show of welcome, Princess brings visitors her plush toy stuffed human. It’s a sign of respect for all who enter the realm of Nat Horne.
Walking into Nat’s living room, a Bette Davis musical is playing on his large screen television.
“I love musicals,” he said. “Nothing can make me happier.”
Surrounded by a sense of elegance, I’m sitting in a room with a man who worked with Matt Mattox and Alvin Ailey and played a significant role in the development of modern jazz dance.
Oversized hand fans decorate the walls. They’re from the Cotton Club, and not the new revamped version. Nat Horne taught jazz dance to performers in the revered Harlem jazz setting.
Horne has seen it all. Born in 1929 in Richmond, Virginia, he didn’t set out to become a famed dancer of an era where race determined much in life.
“I have been very lucky, extremely lucky,” he said.
It’s a statement that could be easily argued against. Horne’s life is based on far more than luck.
Born into a devout Baptist family, his father a minister who did not believe in dancing, Horne always knew he wanted to dance.
He held his arms out straight at about waist level and said, “Since I was that high, I knew. My father asked me one day what I wanted to do. He was in a leather rocking chair and I was on his lap. I told him I wanted to be a dancer. The next thing I knew I was on the floor.”
From then on, Horne never stopped dancing, except when his father came home.
“In my heart I knew that’s what I wanted to do. I danced around the house all the time, but, when dad walked in the house, everybody was religious. I came along at a time when you didn’t smoke, drink, play cards or do anything but go to church on Sunday and crowd meetings on Wednesday.”
Nat talked about the Bible being the best book ever written.
“But the stories have all been interpreted wrong. Too many religions have taught people to live in fear. Everything we do is out of fear, not out of love.”
Growing up in Virginia, churches for Blacks were in isolated locations, out in the woods.
“It was a wonderful time, going to church with my father, the minister. But it was also a dangerous time coming back from church at night. The Ku Klux Klan liked to ambush Blacks. I was taught to respect everybody, which is good. But I was also taught to be passive; that’s why I don’t like to make waves. I saw the movie Twelve Years a Slave, and I understood how some Blacks were brainwashed to be passive and how others became militant.”
The Ku Klux Klan was responsible for ongoing and organized terrorism aimed at Blacks, Catholics, Jews and the Civil Rights Movement. The organization thrived on bombings, especially at Afro-American churches, and lynching of Blacks, especially men. Reported (there were probably many more) lynchings included 3,500 African Americans and 1,300 whites in the United States between 1882 and 1968.
Horne doesn’t mention any of this, aside from calling it “a dangerous time.”
“I always respect people, which is good,” he said. “But I know now that you have to always understand yourself before you can understand another person.”
So how did this natural-born dancer follow his dream, despite a father who disapproved and a culture which oppressed not only creative expression but the very existence of Black Americans?
“My aunt would take us to see musicals,” he said. “I loved dancing by instinct. I made up my own routines.”
Then, in a scene that could just as easily have been written for Billy Elliott, a young Nathaniel Horne happened to be playing basketball at the YMCA when a Miss Carver, who held dance classes in the building, was looking for male dancers to be partners to the girls in her classes.
“I said I’d come up,” said Horne. “I always attributed my dance experience to Miss Carver.”
Like most devoted students of dance, Nat still calls his first dance teacher Miss.
But Nathaniel was still officially not allowed to study dance.
“My mother allowed me to slip out every Saturday night to rehearse,” he said. He laughed, holding up his arms. “I got all my muscles by lifting girls.”
During high school, he performed as the prince in Beauty and the Beast, dressed in gold lamé and knickers. His father saw the show and liked it.
“It was fun for me,” said Horne. “I thought my father had adjusted.”
After high school, Nat’s father sent him to theological school. Nat ended up with a Bachelor of Science degree. Around 1950, he was drafted into the army.
“I wanted to go into special services and entertain with my dancing,” he said.
Again, no go. The Army didn’t agree. They were looking for well-educated Black officers.
“I did not want to be an officer,” said Horne. “I wanted to dance. I’d been rejected so many times, I wondered if I would ever be a dancer.”
He finally got a break, in the oddest of places, in a region known as a stronghold and centre of Ku Klux Klan activity.
While stationed at Camp Breckenridge, the hostess of the officers’ club told Nat that performers were needed for club entertainment. Horne assumed he would be performing with the hostess.
“I had a St. Louis Blues 12-inch platter (vinyl recording) and prepared a dance for us,” said Horne. But there was to be no duet. The hostess was white and could not be seen performing with a Black man.
“She told me to make up a dance. I did and she thought it was great, but said I had to have a costume.”
He laughed again. He enjoyed recalling this event. In hindsight. It wouldn’t have been so funny at the time.
“I had to have a costume. She gave me sailor’s pants, one of her blouses, along with a tam, and tied a scarf around my neck,” he said.
Then he had to get through a large number of soldiers to get to the stage.
“This was not going to work,” he said. “I knew the cat calls, or worse, that I was going to get.”
He’d seen a movie where Gene Kelly did a belly slide across the floor. He used that scene to his advantage. He asked the band’s drummer to play a drum roll and not start playing the record until his got to the stage.
“I backed up and started running,” he said. “I dropped down and did a belly flop and slid to the stage. I came up on my knees and there I was. Then they wanted an encore. I ran off the stage and said ‘No more dancing.'”
Next week: Part 2 / Nathaniel Horne’s life on Broadway, teaching, and a Kingston dance connection.
Mark Bergin on Twitter @markaidanbergin