Tony Williams grew up in Jamaica Plain in the 1950s and 1960s and returned to start the Tony Williams Dance Center, now one of the JPNDC’s anchor tenants at The Brewery. In between, he traveled the world as a principal dancer for the Boston Ballet, the Joffrey Ballet and other major dance companies. We’re talking to Tony today about his roots as a “project kid,” his path to acclaim, and his mission to help urban kids move from a passion for dance to professional success.
S: Tell me about your roots in JP.
T: We moved to the Bromley-Heath projects in 1954, the year Bromley Park got completed. We had lived on Quincy Street on the Roxbury-Dorchester line. My father had bought a house there with a GI loan. My father being African-American and my mother Italian we were a mixed-race family, and we were the landlords. There were Irish families on the 2nd and 3rd floors. Unfortunately we lost the house. I was 8 and I was excited to move to Bromley-Heath. There was lots of heat, there was a shower, hot water, and there were people around in the building. Tons of kids!
JP at the time was so different. It was blue-collar. Bromley-Heath then was mostly white people. You had all these Irish and Italian families. My gang was mostly white kids with one black kid and me, biracial. We all got along well. In the ’60s the white families left.
Canada Dry was down on Heath Street. We used to go in and steal soda… They chased me and I got caught one time. We did some stupid stuff like that. I remember four or five kids got caught for breaking windows at the barber shop. The families had to pay $75 to replace the window. I went to juvenile delinquent court and my mother was really pissed off—I got spanked for that for sure!
I went to Blessed Sacrament Church and did my confirmation there. We were so poor we couldn’t afford the suit. The poor kids went with the priest to the Forest Hills Factory Outlet, which was down the street here, and he got us the suit for $10 apiece.
S: How did your parents meet?
T: I was born in Italy and came here when I was 10 months old. My mother says my father was the first black man she ever saw in her life. My father was a Sargent with a trucking division that was all black troops, and they had an encampment outside of where my mother’s tenement was in Naples. It was the fall of ’45 and the war in Europe was just over, but my father re-enlisted so he could stay with his new wife and son. But in 1946 when my mother was pregnant with me my father had to move up the boot with the American soldiers who were pushing the Germans out of Italy. So he said goodbye to my mother and she didn’t know if he was coming back.
My grandfather said to her something like, ‘you should have an abortion, he’s not coming back.’ You can imagine. My mother told me, ‘I was going to have you, don’t worry.’ My father did come back and marry my mother when she was 7 or 8 months pregnant. We came to the United States in ’47. My father had grown up in Florida but he couldn’t bring my mother and me down there, because miscegenation was against the law. We came up to Boston and crashed at my aunt’s apartment.
We were nine kids by the time the last was born in 1959. It was sort of unusual that we couldn’t really talk to my mother, because she didn’t master the language. And my father didn’t speak Italian, so the kids were all raised speaking English. But it was a multicultural home, my mother would be cooking spaghetti and meatballs and my father would cook fried chicken and grits. I would hang out with my aunts and uncles who were all African American. There were like four or five uncles from down south who had moved to Boston.
Later when I first went to Italy in my 20s, it was like a culture shock that I had cousins there. It was a whole other side for me. My grandma was alive and she was so happy to see me. It was like, ‘she loves me!’ I’ve been back to Italy 5 or 6 times since then.
S: What do you remember about JP?
T: JP was a lot of fun. Every summer on July 4th at Jamaica Pond the fireworks were going on and the whole of JP would be swarming up Centre Street, all the families. It was really something. People would be camped all around Jamaica Pond for the 4th. I remember going to the Children’s Museum
My whole life was sports. I was really good at baseball and I had a good fastball. I wanted to be a baseball player—that was my passion. But I was kind of wild. There was no coaching then to help me improve.
S: How did you get into dance?
T: At the Curley school there was this teacher, Mr. McClure, who liked me. He was into Shakespeare and was in charge of the Glee Club. My first time on stage was in the chorus in the Christmas Show. You had to study the lines and it was a big deal. That’s when I sort of knew there was an artistic side to me. But my mother didn’t know to take me to piano lessons, or acting lessons, or dance lessons. Boys? Dance? Forget it!
There was this Boston Young Men’s Christian Union on Boylston St. near Tremont. It was like the YMCA—they had an old-fashioned gym, a social room upstairs, there was a library, you could shoot pool, there was a chess club, photography classes, and they had an auditorium on the top floor. I went there with a friend from the project, Paul McEachren, when I was 13. I was attracted to the gym because I was an athlete, so I started going every day right from school. I really got into gymnastics and I won a gold medal at the Charlestown Boys Club on the trampoline.
The guys there would talk about the Russian gymnasts—this was like 1961, ’62—and how ballet really helps your gymnastics. Some of them were sneaking out to take ballet class. They said, ‘don’t tell anyone.’ I went with them and I got kind of fixated with it. I saw these girls in tights and leotards. I loved the girls. And I got in my head that I wanted to do ballet.
I saw this whole other world there at the gym. That’s when I cut my link to the projects, to my street gang. And my gang was upset. We used to wear our belt buckles on the side—that meant you were like a tough guy, a ‘ruggie.’ And when I started to go down to the club, I realized, ‘oh, everyone else wears their belt buckles in the front.’ And I remember one of my friends, Bobbie, saying, ‘you’re either a ruggie or a fag.’ That didn’t mean you were gay, it just meant you were a square. One kid, Ritchie, hit me on the head with a basketball. They were really mad.
One Saturday afternoon at the gym I was bored and I followed people who were going up to the auditorium. There was a dance couple, he had a tunic and purple tights, she was in a tutu. And there was this other guy who did mime. I still remember him miming flying a kite. I learned his name was Billy Barnum and later I would see him walking around Copley Square. He’s still alive, in his 90s now. He looked like an elf—he was short and had long hair. I would see him walking with other actors and I thought, ‘that’s what I want to do.’
When I was 16 I took my first ballet class ever. I didn’t know what I was doing but the teacher thought I had talent. I loved the jumping part. I had been doing trampoline, I could do flips. I was all set to quickly pick it up and catch up. And I enjoyed it.
I had a job at a coffee house called the Unicorn across from the Prudential Center–before the Prudential was built! People like Bob Dylan and Joan Baez would play there before my time. But I got a chance to hang out with older people like the late Robert J. Lurtsema, former radio host of WGBH and the old WCRB. I also hung out with Tim Hardin, the late singer who wrote the song “If I were a Carpenter.” I also loved the Mandrell Singers, with Charles Austin, Fred Griffeth and Red Top Thomas. I got paid in tips and free coffee and snacks and hung out with all these college kids, which was kind of cool for me. One day I told the owner, George Papadopoulos, that I took a ballet class and he said, ‘boys don’t do that!’ So I stopped.
I left the projects at 17. I moved out and lived on my own. It was about getting out of an apartment with nine kids, two parents in four bedrooms—you can imagine—and I wanted freedom. My parents let me go although they were freaked out. I was a senior in high school and I would rent rooms here and there. I had a room in an apartment on Symphony Road that I rented for 10 bucks a week. They were these beatnik types and were smoking grass. I had a Honda scooter that I would ride around town. In the morning I’d go on the scooter from Symphony Road, on the Jamaicaway to Roslindale High School in Roslindale Square. Park my scooter without a lock. Go to my senior year. After school, I would get on my scooter and go to work.
One day I went to the Hayes Bickford cafeteria at the corner of Mass. Ave. and Boylston to get coffee or something. There were these two interesting guys sitting there. One of them was Billy Barnum, and the other was a black guy, Clay Stevenson, who was an actor with this beautiful voice. He played the part of the sailor in the Broadway play, “A Taste of Honey.” I asked if I could sit there and they said, ‘oh sure.’ We started talking, and I told them I took a ballet class and my boss had said it wasn’t for boys. They said, ‘nonsense!’
Because of them I went to take a class with Tania Babushkina and I just fell in love with her. She took me under her wing. After work I would take any class she had. I would mop the studio in exchange or go out and shop for her. Her husband was this Lithuanian character dancer with a beautiful straight back and they lived in South Boston. I was 6 feet and muscular and strong, so they said ‘oh you’re going to partner this girl.’ So we did a show at the Lithuanian Club. I remember the music, Aram Khachaturian’s Gayane Suite, to this day. I was so nervous.
Tania said I should go to the Boston Ballet School on Mass. Ave. and Virginia Williams [founder of the Boston Ballet] took me in. She gave me a scholarship and private lessons. So, inside of a year, I could sort of dance. I was raw and rough but I knew the steps, I knew how to move, and I could partner.
In 1964 I danced in the Boston Arts Festival, a big arts festival they used to have in the Public Garden by the swan boats. It was my first time in a professional company. I joined the union and we got paid, although some of us had to sign our checks back to the company because they couldn’t afford to pay us. But I didn’t care, I just loved to dance.
In ’66 I went to Copenhagen with this other guy to audition for the Royal Danish Ballet. He got in but I didn’t. Unfortunately I had a ticket that wouldn’t let me fly back for two weeks. I had barely enough money to live. I bought a pastry in the morning and a hot dog in the afternoon. I couldn’t wait to get on the plane to London because you got a hot breakfast! That was my first time auditioning for another dance company.
My first big role was George Balanchine’s Scotch Symphony, dancing with Kay Mazzo, a soloist in the New York City Ballet. And that was a big deal. Pretty fast acceleration. I got good a good review in the New York Times. I was still 20. It was a big deal and it all went to my head.
Being a biracial kid was psychologically hard for me as I got older. Up until that point of realization I had never thought twice about being biracial. I remember when I first started to feeling a bit different was when, at around 10 years old, a black girl said, “well, at least I’m not a zebra like you!” Around that time, my white friend Artie, when meeting my father for the first time, said that he did not know I was “colored.” He said I was mulatto. I didn’t know what that word meant at the time.
So, when I first entered the ballet world I was struck by how everyone, I mean everyone, was white! I felt like a fish out of water. One of the guys I befriended at the studio said I should pass for white because I would have an easier time fitting in. So I went along with his advice by identifying myself as Italian and Native American. My father said he had Indian blood in him. So I simply dropped my black side.
A couple of years after that, when I joined the Joffrey Ballet in New York, I was both pleased and astonished that there were four other black guys in the company! I had never danced alongside black guys. As a result of this, I was free to express my whole identity.
S: Why did you come back to Boston?
T: I did very well in New York, and I was being groomed to be a star. I had a great experience. I mean the Joffrey Ballet was the top of the world. But I was still a little bit raw around the edges and there was the pressure of New York and of being in that company—it was high stakes. And I missed Boston, I missed my mother and my friends.
Virginia, my director in Boston, would come down to see me dance at City Center. She sort of lured me back to Boston because she could sense that I wasn’t happy. She said, ‘I’m going to make you the Jacques D’Amboise of Boston.’ He was the big star in New York City Ballet.
I went back to Boston but from there I went to Lisbon with my girlfriend Bonnie to dance with the Gulbenkian Ballet. Right after we got there we were invited to audition for the Royal Winnipeg Ballet. We had a great experience in Winnipeg. The Canadian people really support dance, opera, symphony, theater and we toured around the world—Cuba, Mexico, South America. In Israel Yitzhak Rabin came and shook our hands on stage.
Then of course, being a gypsy, after three years I came back to Boston and danced as principal dancer with the Boston Ballet Company. I missed my mother and father, that’s probably why I came back. Then I danced with a little company for 2-3 years but when I turned 35 I said, ‘oh my gosh, I’ve got a couple years left, I want to dance with another major company.’ I went to Norway and took a job with the Norwegian National Ballet in Oslo.
In the ’80s I came back to Boston, retired from dancing and started to teach. I taught at the Boston Conservatory, Wellesley College and various schools. My second wife and I had three sons and we had moved out to Acton to raise the kids.
I really came back to Jamaica Plain in the 90s. I had wanted to find a way to bring dance to inner city youth to dance, kids like me, so I founded a nonprofit at Roxbury Community College called BalletRox. We offered free classes but were always struggling to find space. I was friends with Anne Ribolini, the owner of Copper Beech [Montessori preschool on Amory Street] and when she redeveloped that space I was able to use part of it as a studio after school was over in the afternoon, and I had a tiny office. Then I started the JP School of Dance in 2000 at Hope Church on Seaverns Ave. I placed an ad in the JP Gazette and that first year I got 55 families. So I thought, ‘gee, there’s a real need for a dance school in Jamaica Plain.’
S: What’s your approach to teaching?
T: I’ve been teaching since the late 70s, but when I would ask the people who taught me to dance, ‘how do you do teach kids?’ they would say, ‘I don’t know!’ They just knew how to teach professionals. That’s easy. Teaching kids is hard. It’s like having a firm fist with a soft glove on the outside. But I had found that this 6-foot guy could sit down cross-legged, make funny faces and teach kids 3 or 4 years old. And the kids love the fact that you’re acting like a kid!You always have mostly kids who are beginners but there’s always someone that’s very talented. So how do you juggle keeping everyone moving at their own pace? The sign of a good teacher is someone that can have a telepathic sense of where those kids’ consciousness is. One has to be pushed more because they can do more, they want more, they’re hungry. But the kids that aren’t so hungry need to be pushed too, you still want to keep them lifted up. And there’s a practical side to that, because it’s a business and you want them to come back.
S: How did the Urban Nutcracker come about?
T: The Urban Nutcracker started when I got to the Hope Church. I had about 85 parents and you need parents to help put on The Nutcracker! But the traditional one had been done. And while I taught ballet, I had these two guys teaching hip hop and tap for me. And they attracted about 20 boys, which is amazing. So I thought, how can I incorporate hip hop and tap?
It sort of follows the Nutcracker scenario but with my take on it. We start with the Prologue, a contemporary street scene, recalling Downtown Crossing or Quincy Market, people dancing and singing. There’s point work and tutus and a Christmas tree and a lot of humor too. I use Duke Ellington music intermingled with Tchaikovsky and hip hop. It’s taking something old, something new, something borrowed and putting it all together.
[You can click here to buy your tickets for this year’s Urban Nutcracker! Performances start December 16.
Also, check out the Urban Nutcracker’s Facebook page to see the moving piece Tony wrote for the Metro after the election, “Arts in the Aftershock.”]
S: How did you get this space at The Brewery?
T: JP School of Dance moved here in 2006 and we became the Tony Williams Dance Center. I saw the floors being put down, the steel girders 30 feet down. JPNDC was a lifesaver for me then. We worked for months on a lease. Alison [with JPNDC’s Small Business Program] was fabulous, helping me with my financial stuff and how to run my business, doing a business plan and getting me two loans. It hasn’t all been easy but it’s worked out.
So now I’ve been here 10 years and I just signed a new 5-year lease with JPNDC. I’ve had opportunities to move into other space around here, but you know what would happen is they’d give you good rent for five years and then they’ll triple or quadruple the rent and put in Starbucks and you’re out. So I’m sticking around. Even though it’s hard to find a parking space now!
There are so many connections for me here at The Brewery. I remember as a kid when they would boil the hops at the Haffenreffer. It was pungent. It would permeate the whole area.
Maybe the strangest connection is that the wife of Hugh Haffenreffer, the son of the last Haffenreffer who ran the Brewery, was a major patron of the Opera Company of Boston that was founded by Sarah Caldwell. My first really big show on a stage was in 1963 in The Magic Flute as a monster. And when the Opera Company needed a place to store all its scenery stuff we ended up being able to store it here, because of that connection. It was stored where Bay Cove located now — right below my studio!
When you think of me being a project kid in the 1960s, and all of a sudden I’m in an opera, and I’m going to parties and meeting rich blue-blood Boston Brahmins, the Cabots, the Lodges–it was fascinating for me. I also had the exciting experience of working with the world famous Arthur Fiedler, the conductor of the Boston Pops Orchestra. I remember conversing with him about the tempo for my solo in the Nutcracker. He conducted the Nutcracker back in those days, in his dressing room, at the old Music Hall (now Boch Center) while he sipped on a glass of whisky!
All that saved me. So I want to pass on the torch to other kids like me. Last year I started the Tony Williams Ballet, so I can really help inner city kids, black and white and brown, all colors, to have a dance career. There’s a lot of outreach for early entry into the arts, but there’s not a lot for kids who are really talented dancers and who could go to the Joffrey, or Alvin Ailey, or Boston Ballet or the Bolshoi Ballet.
That’s going to be my legacy.