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Broadway veteran shares love

of dance with South Mississippians

T
TEXT BY VALERIE WELLS
PHOTOGRAPHY BY BOB HUBBARD

Percell Rivere St. Thomass what happens in between. It’s the


moves constantly. He stands tall, feeling,” he said. “It’s a shame 80
walks with purpose and uses his percent of ballroom dancers and
arms to punctuate his speech. competitors will dance the rest of
He’s a peripatetic teacher who their lives not knowing what it
travels from town to town in the feels like.”
South teaching want-to-be He empathizes with pioneers,
dancers how to glide gracefully like his grandfather David
across a ballroom floor. “Showboat” Thomas, the first
The joy of dancing can belong black player to try out for Major
to anyone open to the experience, League Baseball. By comparison,
he insists. He brings that poten- St. Thomass contends his grand-
tial experience to as many father was the more fascinating
Mississippians as he can find. person.
This isn’t about training competi-
tors for the Olympics or making SHARING PASSION
a fortune quick. It’s about bring- St. Thomass moved to the
ing the general public into the Hattiesburg area four years ago,
studios and clubs already exist-
fold. right before Hurricane Katrina
ed, he saw a larger community
St. Thomass shrugs at his cos- turned South Mississippi upside
yearning to dance and curious
mopolitan history. Neither being down. He initially came to work
about getting caught up in the
born in Paris, France, nor danc- with a studio that has since
romance, the physical exertion
ing in Broadway hit shows seems closed.
and the expressive routines.
that impressive to him now. His “Other places wanted me - a
Helping to rebuild a communi-
passion is teaching dance to school in West Palm Beach, Fla.,
ty for ballroom dancing follow-
average folks. wanted me. But I was needed
ing Katrina has become his mis-
“Dance is not the steps - it’s here,” he said. Although a few
sion. It’s not been without its

38 a cc e n t s o u t h m i s s i s s i p p i
frustrations. One of the largest was a personal desire to share his personally confronted the produc-
challenges St. Thomass faces is a love of dance. Then, he and his ers of the film and asked why they
notion that ballroom dancing is a business partner started another ignored “Showboat,” the response
methodical science boiled to down studio in Hawaii and nurtured was pretty simple. No information
to a straightforward syllabus. another community of dancers. about him could be found.
Another aspect that bugs him is He sees the same opportunities St. Thomass has spent time with
what he sees as an overemphasis now in the Gulf South. While he’s cousins asking about pictures,
on competitions. Seeing newcomers not interested in owning another newspaper clippings, mementoes
dance with confidence and laugh studio, he wants to spread the mes- of his grandfather’s contribution to
on the floor thrills him. sage of dance to as many communi- civil rights and to baseball. For
Yet the technical aspects of his ties as possible. He divides his time years, nothing was found. Then a
exacting art don’t escape him. The between Hattiesburg, Gulfport, cousin was doing some remodeling
National Dance Council of America Covington, La.; Baton Rouge, La.; in his Mobile home and discovered
lists St. Thomass as a professional and Fairhope, Ala. He stays in a treasure trove of documents long
competitor and an adjudicator as motion. forgotten. “Showboat”’s brother
well as a teacher. He’s a choreogra- Jesse had kept the papers and the
pher, a performer, a coach, a judge ‘SHOWBOAT’ ROOTS memories. The family wants Ken
and a world traveler. While St. Thomass sees this Burns to do a follow up film about
He also was a successful actor region as new land for ballroom the baseball player from Mobile.
and dancer. After spending years dancing, his roots run deep in the St. Thomass doesn’t know what
in Paris and New York performing South. his next step will be. He still feels
in shows like “West Side Story,” His mother’s family is from needed in South Mississippi but
“Ain’t Misbehavin’” and “Cats,” Mobile. He shrugs about being an can’t deny the desire to travel
he realized he wanted something international man of dance because again, to make new discoveries and
different. He had some good roles, he feels the really fascinating fig- dance with the world.
too - Simon in “Jesus Christ ure in his family was his grandfa-
Superstar” and the Scarecrow in ther, David.
“The Wiz.” It just wasn’t what he While sports fans and historians
wanted in life. remember Jackie Robinson as the
“I was having fun performing, first black to join Major League
but I wasn’t really excelling,” he Baseball, his grandson wishes they
said. would remember David
He was one of the first blacks to “Showboat” Thomas. A baseball
win ballroom competitions in the player from Mobile, “Showboat”
early 1980s. He felt pulled during played in the Negro League and in
that time to become a coach and a 1945 was the first black chosen for
teacher of dance teachers. the major leagues. He tried out for
“At the time, people said to me, the Dodgers one year before Jackie
‘You don’t win and quit. Blacks Robinson made the majors.
aren’t making it in this business. “Showboat” went as far as training
You are. Don’t quit.’” camp before getting cut. St.
Despite that pressure, St. Thomass said it was because his
Thomass felt compelled to go to grandfather was ill. A 1977
new lands to learn and to teach. Associated Press story suggests it
He traveled to Argentina and was “Showboat”’s age and not his
studied tango and Latin dance. race that led to the end of his major
He visited a relative in Alaska in league career before it started.
the early 1990s and discovered the St. Thomass was outraged when
huge state had practically no ball- award-winning documentary film
room dance community. He helped maker Ken Burns ignored his
create and nurture one. Some of it grandfather’s existence in the PBS
was a business decision, some of it series “Baseball: A Film.” When he

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