A Saving Grace

A bullet cut dancer Bran Pace's promising career short, leaving him paralyzed from the chest down. But he's not letting the final curtain fall on his life.

October 04, 1999|By Lisa Pollak | Lisa Pollak,sun staff

At Emily Adams' ballet studio in Greensboro, N.C., Bran Pace stood out. Not just because he was one of her few male students, or because he was a college-aged beginner, or because of his angelic good looks. He stood out because at the end of class, when all the other students went home, Bran stayed.

"Let's do it again," he would say.

So Emily Adams would stay late too, watching Pace do the steps over and over until he got them just right, working long past the point when other students would give up in frustration, finishing a dance combination only to start it all over again. "Sometimes I would say, `Bran, it's late, and I'm really getting tired. I have got to stop,' " says Adams. "And he just wouldn't."

He didn't have the perfect body for ballet. His back buckled, his hips didn't turn out, he struggled to control his long, broad-shouldered torso. But Adams didn't stay late because of his body. She stayed because he pushed his body to its limits. Because he was energetic and upbeat and determined. Because he understood that the journey would be slow, the progress incremental, and because he found joy in it.

The teacher stayed, not just because of what she saw, but what she saw was possible.

After several years of study, Pace left his teacher's studio and moved to New York City. He earned a master's degree in dance from New York University. He found steady work as a singer and dancer, including roles in the touring companies of two Broadway musicals. He worked with Richard Chamberlain and John Davidson. He danced at Lincoln Center.

The student with potential became a full-fledged professional, hired last year to perform in the American premiere of "Jolson: The Musical." Adams never saw him dance in that show. She didn't know how exuberant and polished he looked, tap-dancing in the first act, tossing his partner in the air in the second, how beautiful he sounded, singing backup to the actor playing Jolson, how clear it was that Pace had found his place in the world, doing what he loved. And she didn't know it was the last time he would dance.

The production arrived in Baltimore last November. On the Friday after Thanksgiving, the musical was performed twice at the Lyric Opera House. Before the first show, Pace went to the gym. Before the second, he gave himself a ballet class. When the day was over, he walked back to his hotel. He was almost there when the two men approached him. One put a gun to his neck. He remembers getting shot, but not falling. He remembers lying on the ground, knowing he was paralyzed.

When Adams got the news, she felt the blow as if it were her own. A few months later, she traveled to a rehabilitation center in Atlanta. When she entered Pace's room, the bed was empty. But she had a hunch where to find him.

Working hard

There he was, in the center's gym, sitting on a mat, trying to move himself sideways using his arms. Paralyzed from the chest down, he was barely able to control his body, let alone travel any significant distance. But he kept trying, again and again, working long past the point when other patients would give up in frustration, shaking his head, struggling but not stopping.

"Most people look at the clock and say, `I've been here an hour. It's time to go,' " one of his physical therapists would say later. "And he wanted to stay and work, and work, and work ..."

Today a Baltimore man is scheduled to go on trial, accused of robbery and conspiracy to commit murder in the shooting that left Pace, now 29, paralyzed. It is the sort of milestone that puts a long-forgotten story back in the spotlight, and it is a reminder that, behind the scenes, the story never stopped unfolding.

That day in Atlanta, for 20 long minutes, Adams stayed there in the gym, watching her student. The work was slow and grueling. The progress was minuscule. But to the woman who had taught him how to move the first time, the sight was every bit as powerful as watching a young man learn to dance.

"Later Bran said to me, `Emily, all of that work that I did with you, all those years, when we'd work and work for hours and hours and hours, it all prepared me for this challenge.' "

Extra effort

In the past 10 months, Pace has gone from being unable to sit up by himself to living on his own. He uses a manual wheelchair, pushing himself literally and figuratively, since many people with an injury as severe as his use a motorized chair.

He recently got his license to drive a van equipped with hand controls, took a computer course, bought a house and appeared in a documentary to raise money for spinal cord injury research. He misses his old life very much. And yet he speaks of finding a place for himself in the world that will make him as happy as dance did.

Adams isn't surprised. Training someone to move means knowing his mind as well as his body. Which is why, when she got the horrible phone call last winter, she sent Pace a tape recording of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, written when the composer was totally deaf. If such majestic sounds can come from a man without his hearing, the teacher was saying, imagine how far a man of drive and passion can travel without his legs.

Pub Date: 10/04/99

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