ARTS AND HUMANITIES: County museum exhibit features Aiken cultural icon

  • Posted: Friday, January 4, 2013 7:25 a.m.
    UPDATED: Friday, January 4, 2013 10:18 a.m.

To commemorate the life and legacy of the late Carl Crosby, the Aiken County Historical Museum has mounted a special exhibit in his honor. Entitled “Carl Crosby: An Aiken Cultural Icon,” the wall-mounted display features memorabilia from the man’s remarkable 60-year career in the performing arts in our community.

Crosby first set foot in Aiken in 1952 when he was hired by the Foster School of Dance in Columbia to open a branch in our fair city. For a time, the 28-year-old Orangeburg native would commute by bus from Columbia to Aiken to conduct local classes for beginners while still maintaining a performance schedule with the original Carolina Ballet Company, then under the direction of Margaret Foster.

By the end of the decade, however, Crosby decided to make the move to Aiken, open his own studio, which he named, appropriately enough, the Crosby School of Dance and grace the stage of the Augusta Ballet – for a time in the early 1960s he partnered with Betty Darden Witham.

In 1970, Crosby launched the Aiken Civic Ballet. The museum exhibit features the printed program from that company’s first production, “The Nutcracker.” It is fitting, in this regard, that the company that he founded, now under the able direction of Diane Toole Miller, is still carrying on the tradition of each year carrying out a performance of that seasonal classic.

The exhibit also features some of the many tokens of public appreciation awarded to Mr. Crosby over the years, including a plaque from the City of Aiken acknowledging the fact that his ballet company had performed at Hopelands in the summer concert series for 25 years and a 1994 certificate from the Governor’s School of the Arts touting his “meritorious contribution to dance and the artistic development, training, recruitment and support of exceptionally talented young dancers.”

Indeed, it is in the minds and hearts of his students that he will be most fondly remembered. Certainly the most touching tribute in the museum display comes in the form of a letter posted on July 19, 2012 by a former student upon hearing the news of Crosby’s death – he passed away earlier that same month at the age of 88. Therein, former Aikenite Jeffrey Hankinson, now a resident of Minneapolis, recalls how as a “young, chubby African American male,” he first got up the courage to enter the doors of Crosby’s studio. Fearful of what his parents and friends might think of his decision to study ballet, Hankinson took comfort in Crosby’s advice: “Jeffrey, if you want to, you can do this. You have the joy and the passion ... but you have to commit yourself. You can’t worry about what people will say, and you have to work harder than you’ve ever worked before.”

Hankinson avows that Crosby’s advice became his personal mantra. He did work hard, and eventually he gained admission to the North Carolina School of the Arts and subsequently went on to enjoy a long career as a professional dancer. He was a featured member of companies led by Alvin Ailey, Elisa Monte and Lar Lubovitch, and he also danced in six Broadway shows, including “Damn Yankees” starring Jerry Lewis.

In the final paragraph of the letter that he wrote in memory of his former teacher, Hankinson asserts: “You taught me not only how to dance but to never be afraid and to walk through the many doors one is faced with throughout your life.” No more fitting tribute could be given to any dedicated teacher.

The commemorative exhibit also includes a host of press clippings, spotlighting a number of Crosby productions and featuring other students that Crosby nurtured over the years. In the central panel devoted to his biography, there is also a quote from one of my earlier columns. The inclusion of that quotation prompted me to scan some of my files. I do not pretend to have copies of every column that I have written over the last 22 years, but I did find several devoted to various aspects of Crosby’s career. All of them brought back memories of conversations that I had with Carl over the years, most often during short breaks in his long, typically 12-hour workdays.

In February 1991 and January 1994, for example, I wrote about Carl Crosby as choreographer, noting how each new dance that he created was inspired by some piece of music, either culled from his own extensive record collection or heard on public radio. At that period in his life, and I quote, Crosby confessed to “listening to the radio on most nights as he drove home from his studio. Perhaps even a single musical sentence heard on the car radio can conjure up a combination of steps in Crosby’s mind. Sometimes he may tune in too late for the credits and thus miss the name of a particular composition that he feels may be a suitable subject for choreography. At these times, he often calls the station to get the title and continue his research.”

Crosby’s was a life dedicated to dance, and he spent nearly every waking moment in thrall to the beauty of that particular art form. “Carl Crosby: An Aiken Cultural Icon” is now on view at the Aiken County Historical Museum. For more information, call 642-2015; the museum is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from 2 to 5 p.m.

A recipient of the prestigious Carolina Trustee Professorship in 2008, Dr. Tom Mack holds the G.L. Toole Chair at the USC Aiken.

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