On Her Toes

For dancer Linda-Denise Fisher-Harrell, a dream job with Alvin Ailey means raising a child on the run while commuting to New York.

January 28, 2004|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,SUN ARTS WRITER

The Amtrak train slid into the station, snorting and coughing to a halt. Linda-Denise Fisher-Harrell was waiting in the wintry chill. She slung her bag over her shoulder, stepped off the platform, and began her three-hour, 170-mile morning commute.

For 11 years, Fisher-Harrell, 33, has been making the long trek from Baltimore to the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater rehearsal studios in New York. The journey represents a remarkable commitment to dance, and to raising her young daughter at the less frenetic pace of Charm City.

Her dedication has paid dividends, both with her career - she will be featured in several numbers performed this week at the Kennedy Center in Washington - and with her daughter, a happy, well-adjusted 10-year-old who has become the darling of the troupe. (When Adia turns 11 in a few weeks, the entire company will throw her a birthday party, as they have for the past several years.)

"It's been a crazy ride, trying to juggle all this," Fisher-Harrell says. "It's only because of my family and because I have an understanding boss that I'm able to manage."

And yet, Fisher-Harrell doesn't come across as harried. Small and lithe - she is 5-foot-4 and weighs 110 pounds - she resembles a human dragonfly. On stage, she seems, not relaxed exactly, but unhurried, so certain of her own poise and strength that she can take her time.

With her high cheekbones and tea-colored skin, she can look as exotic and remote as a princess from a faraway land. In rehearsal, Fisher-Harrell is as likely to end an elegant sequence of movements with a physical joke, to collapse laughing on the floor.

One dancer has affectionately nick-named her "Glinda" for the good witch in The Wizard of Oz. When the dancers in one room hear her distinctive cackle, they smile and say: "Linda must be here."

"Linda is the quintessential Ailey dancer," says Judith Jamison, artistic director of the Ailey troupe. "Her level of artistry is impeccable. All the choreographers want her. I have to beat them off with sticks."

Fisher-Harrell has to be a marvel of equilibrium on stage and in her real life. This is how she makes it work:

On Mondays when the company is rehearsing in Manhattan, Fisher-Harrell drops Adia off at Baltimore's Park School, then swings by Penn Station in time to catch the 8:10 a.m. train. She arrives at Ailey's rehearsal studio at 11 a.m., an hour after the dancers' day has officially begun. (She has permission to miss the companywide rehearsal on her commuting days.)

She remains in New York through Friday; Adia stays with her ex-husband, with whom Fisher-Harrell shares custody of the little girl. On weeks when the company tours, the schedule is more demanding. A late train or delayed flight or unexpected snowfall or school closure can smash her carefully laid plans to bits.

"It's tough, but Judy [Jamison] has been incredibly supportive and understanding of my family life," she says. "Sometimes, she'll let me go home from a tour a week early, or join it a week late."

Luckily, the Ailey contract is for 42 weeks, which means that the dancers have 10 weeks off each year. That's Fisher-Harrell's time to be at home, help Adia with her homework and bake cookies.

If Fisher-Harrell makes it all look easy, she has good role models.

Her parents, Dennis and Jacquelyn Fisher of Baltimore, have been blind since birth, but they haven't let it be an obstacle. They have mastered the public transportation system, Dennis Fisher had a long career as a social services administrator, and he is an athlete. The couple will be in the audience this week when their daughter dances at the Kennedy Center.

"My parents come to all my performances in Washington," Fisher-Harrell says. "They come with a friend, and she narrates this hilarious play by play: `Now she's on her back, and now she's kicking her right leg.'"

Their daughter's success is a reward for having raised two confident, adventurous girls.

"My sister, Lisa, and I were raised without fear," Fisher-Harrell says. "I remember being up on the roof with my father when I was about 6 or 7, helping him clean the gutters."

A tomboy, she didn't begin to dance until age 14 - quite late for a dancer - after she became hooked by the routines that she saw on MTV.

Fisher-Harrell laughs when she remembers her high school audition for Baltimore's School of the Arts, which she likens to a scene out of the 1980s movie Flashdance. "I knew nothing," she says, and emphasizes the word, "NOTHING. I'm sure it was really horrible. I don't know what they saw, but they apparently saw something."

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