Walking along the beams of a 10-story building is as natural to Harding Wescott as doing a plie at the barre -- two activities that he manages with the greatest of ease.
The 45-year-old Columbia resident is an ironworker who spends his leisure time practicing his tendues and battements at the Ellicott City Ballet Guild under the direction of Caryl Maxwell.
Although beams and ballet may seem an unusual mix, the 6-foot, 175-pound Wescott is proof that it is possible to have rugged strength and graceful movement -- two elements that mix well, especially when lifting a 100-pound ballerina into the air.
Dressed for manual labor in denim overalls and a T-shirt, Wescott sat in the office of the Main Street ballet studio on a recent Saturday morning. He had just removed an air conditioner from the third-story office window, one of his jack-of-all-trade chores around the studio and office.
After answering a few phone calls, he got down to the business at hand -- keeping his 1-year-old son, Parks, occupied at the toy box nearby. As Wescott talked about ballet, his 12-year-old daughter, Jessica, kept a watchful eye on her brother.
"Male dancers are hard to come by," Wescott said. "I don't consider myself a good dancer." He does, however, have upper-body strength, which he said is uncommon among most male dancers; they usually have strong legs.
Wescott attributes his strength to his physical labor. About 23 years ago, he first took a summer ironworking job between college semesters. He graduated with a bachelor of arts degree in education in 1969 from Shepherd College in Shepherdstown, W.Va., and shortly after graduation, he began an ironworking career.
"My parents were teachers and they wanted me to get a degree," he said.
"I went to school to play ball," Wescott said.
Wescott admitted he wishes he had pursued dance rather than football at an earlier age. However, his interest in football, while a student at Chowan Junior College in Murfreesboro, N.C., led him to ballet.
"One of the schools we played against required a semester of barre. I decided it was a good idea; I took a class and enjoyed it," he said.
But he didn't resume his dancing until about 13 years later, when he had been living in Columbia for five years with his wife, Claudia, and their baby Jessica.
He took several adult ballet classes at the Stonehouse community center.
Within a few months, instructor Nancy Wire referred Wescott to Caryl Maxwell, who had just started the Ellicott City Ballet Guild.
"I remember his first performance at the Lakefront," said Maxwell, the founder of the decade-old guild. "His daughter was about a year old and just beginning to stand. She spent the whole performance, with her mother holding her up by her hands, saying, 'Daddy, Daddy, Daddy.'" Several seasons later, Wescott is the only student of the original company who is still actively dancing. He has performed in all but one of the guild's productions, including "A Christmas Carol Ballet," and "Cinderella."
"The audiences love him," Maxwell said. "He prepares himself emotionally for every entrance and exit. For example, when he played Bob Cratchit from the 'Christmas Carol Ballet,' he was racing back and forth in the wings to acquire the hurried persona of the character. He thinks about every character that he works on," she said.
Wescott believes that his late start in dance has limited his expertise. "My dancing is not that good; I am more of a character," he said. His legs aren't straight -- a weakness, he said -- but noted that "Once I learn something, I work on improving it."
"I love to dance," Wescott said. "I didn't hear much classical music in my life. Ballet can never become mine -- but I can learn; I can enjoy it; I can appreciate it; some aspects of it, however, will always be a little foreign to me."
As Wescott's appreciation for dance has developed, so has his love for music.
"I never really listened to music before. Because of my dancing, I have learned to hear the music by counting (beats)," Wescott said. He often listens to tapes from the ballet productions while he is on the job.
Such appreciation is strange to Wescott's mother, who still lives in rural Virginia. Wescott explained that growing up in Massawadox -- where it was "70 miles before you got to a stop light" -- was very different from urban living. "You didn't mention ballet," he said. "My mother still doesn't talk about it."
Sometimes Wescott is viewed as a role model for young male dancers at Caryl Maxwell/Classical Ballet in Ellicott City.
"Two years ago, Harding worked with our first group of young male students who were 7, 8, and 10 years old; they couldn't wait for him to show up for class," Maxwell said.
Wescott said he would like to see more youths take up ballet.
Wescott said sometimes people in Columbia are taken aback to discover that the ironworker is a ballet dancer. But, he noted, "Nobody's ever teased me much about it." Co-workers and their families occasionally attend one of his performances.