Talk to any dance teacher, choreographer or company director today and they will tell you they are worried about the future of dance. Many of them say a whole generation of choreographers have died from AIDS and with them new visions for dance. Others add that keeping the art alive includes not only the usual fund-raisers and promotions but also a battle to keep dancers alive.
Indeed, the dance world has suffered stupendous losses to AIDS in the last decade. One study surveying 1986-90 Dance magazine obituaries shows 305 deaths of male dancers, choreographers and teachers that the researcher attributed to AIDS-related complications. Add to that the March death of 23-year-old Joffrey Ballet dancer and choreographer Edward Stierle from AIDS and you are looking at a dance world haunted by a pall of fear and a sense of urgency to protect its future--particularly its male dancers.
"Something is killing young male dancers at an increasing rate, while sparing female dancers," wrote Diana Schnitt, who compiled the research for a journal called Medical Problems of Performing Artists.
Although Los Angeles area high school students get AIDS education in their health and sex education classes as early as the fifth and sixth grades (with parental permission), dance instructors at two local high schools for the arts have taken the subject onto the dance floor informally and unabashedly.
Don Bondi, 58, modern-dance instructor and chair of the dance department at Los Angeles County High School for the Arts, says that although discussion of AIDS prevention is not a planned part of his dance classes, he believes it is his responsibility to talk to his students about it.
"If I can say something to save their lives, I will," Bondi said. "I think that (informal) talks like these make (students) become aware, but more importantly, it makes them think. I don't know if they carry it over. I tell them I don't want them to die.
"And whenever there is a person in the news like Edward Stierle, I cut out the articles from the newspaper, pass them out and discuss it in class."
Keny Long, 42, who doubles as a dance instructor and a health education teacher at Hollywood High School Magnet for the Arts, said he talks about AIDS prevention in the dance class whenever it is appropriate.
"(AIDS) is something I take very seriously because I have had lots of friends who've died from the virus--dancers and choreographers," Long said. "Whenever young (dancers) die, or they're in the news, I do talk about it. I try to make sure they realize that when it is a young dancer who dies that means they contracted (AIDS) when they were a teen-ager and (students) usually say, 'Whoa.' "
A week ago, Bondi gave an emotional talk to his students about Stierle's death in the hope that their identification with his youth and aspirations would render a greater effect.
"(Stierle) found out in 1988 that he was HIV-positive," Bondi said to a group of attentive 16- and 17-year-old dancers sprawled out on the dance studio's wood floor. "And he talked (in a news article) about how much he was looking forward to the opening performance of his piece by the Joffrey. It opened in New York and it got wonderful reviews.
"Two days later," Bondi said, visibly moved, "he died.
"And if we believe that (AIDS) takes five to seven years to appear, that means he was your age when he got it--16 or 15.
"Somewhere along the line he didn't get the information," Bondi added. "Or he didn't apply it. I want you to have the opportunity to get it. Because you are young, don't think you are exempt. Right now the best precaution is abstinence or the use of condoms."
Heavy silence fell over the students sitting frozen and pensive while Bondi paced, pausing to study their faces. They stared at the articles about Stierle that had been passed out earlier, one about his promise as a brilliant choreographer, the other, his obituary.
After the 20-minute talk, one female student said of Bondi's personalization of AIDS: "The first thing that hit me is the guy is 23 and he died. In an academic health class (they say), 'This is how you catch it and this is how you prevent it,' but I need to know the reality of people dying and that I need to use a condom and I need to tell my friends to use a condom. And Mr. Bondi tells us that. It takes on more of an urgency because people are dying, people who affect our lives. It affects me more then."
In separate interviews later, two groups of dance students, ages 16 and 17, from both of the arts schools talked candidly about how much they know about AIDS and about the attitudes young people have today regarding prevention. They all knew the bottom line causes, but they argued that celibacy is unrealistic advice to proffer to most teen-agers. Say the word and watch giggling and whispering ripple through the group of young dancers.
One female dancer said of celibacy: "That's crazy."
Said another female: "For some of us, our parents don't even know that we are sexually active, so they are not going to talk to us about safe sex. All the information that I have now I've learned from my friends and teachers. It's really sad but I don't think my parents know me as well as they think they do."
On why some teen-agers don't use condoms, one young male dancer said: "They are just caught up in the heat of the moment. Or they think they know the person well enough."
A resounding agreement of "yeah, yeah" rumbled loudly through the group of cross-legged dancers--some stretching, others lying on exercise pads.
Two of the males said condoms were too expensive. One of them added: "I'd rather steal one than buy the whole package."
One student said that neither she nor all her friends always use condoms.
While all the students said they knew where to get anonymous HIV tests, most of them added that they would not ask a boyfriend or girlfriend to take the test and wouldn't take it themselves.
"Personally, I wouldn't ask my boyfriend to take the test," said another female student softly. "Just as much as he wouldn't ask me to take one. I know that sounds ridiculous with the way things are going right now, but sometimes you feel you know someone so well that you feel you don't need (the test) because you know everything about them."
Long and Bondi agree that putting a human face on AIDS packs a powerful punch for their ambitious students whose sense of invulnerability can sometimes be impervious to reason.
The question students ask most often, Long said, is: Have you ever watched someone die of it?
He recently answered that question for his students by reading excerpts from his journal where he recorded his feelings about his best friend's death from AIDS.
"I read excerpts to them and that lump got in my throat and they were spellbound," Long said. "I didn't hold back any of the facts because I knew how important it was for them to experience it through me as a warning. When you tell them about a personal experience and they like you, they share in your pain and identify with you. I tell them that ultimately AIDS ends in death because there is no cure."
Reflecting on recent losses, Bondi said, "Michael Bennett, Alvin Ailey and then Stierle. Yeah, someone else can fill in, but dance builds on other dancers and that gets lost when people die.
"All we can do is talk to the kids about AIDS and protecting themselves and hope that they do."