His body moves like water, as though each limb is pouring itself into a lithe, graceful position.
So when he displays the kind of strength it takes to lift up a dancer, grasping her at the back of her waist and transporting her over his shoulder, it is effortless and seems, somehow, impossible.
David Ingram, the only company dancer at the Fort Wayne Ballet, has been dancing since he was 14. Company dancers are employed full-time at the ballet.
He got into ballet dancing at his mom’s suggestion, he says. He grew up with a speech impediment, and she wondered if dance would help.
(Dance was) a nice way to not have to talk, a way to express myself and communicate in some way, he says.
It didn’t hurt that, at that time, Michael Jackson was the coolest thing ever. And there’s that perennial reason a teenage boy does anything.
To be honest, he says, I guess I was just trying to impress girls.
But his motivations changed before too long.
At some point, it’ll just hit you. You’ll fall in love with dancing and moving, and you understand that this is what you’ll be doing forever, he says. But yeah. Girls.
It must have worked, at least a little: Ingram met his wife when he was a dance performance major at Butler University, where he graduated in 2004.
I still ask her, Did I look good in rehearsal today?’ Ingram says, laughing.
Passion over pay
Ingram is slim, but muscular, with short, curly dark hair and an easy grin. The stutter that made his mom suggest dance in the first place comes and goes.
His love of his profession is evident when he talks about it. This is not a paycheck – it’s a passion. Ingram is animated when he describes his work day, his history with dance and how he first became involved, back when he thought maybe he’d be a tap dancer instead of a ballet dancer.
Ingram, now 30, saw Tap, the Gregory Hines movie, when he was younger and said, I want to do that.
Karen Gibbons-Brown, the artistic and executive director of the Fort Wayne Ballet, told Ingram, you can dance tap, but only if you dance ballet, too.
She’s always kind of looked after me, Ingram says.
Gibbons-Brown has known Ingram for more than half his life. The two met when she taught at the Kingsport Guild of Ballet in Tennessee, in Ingram’s hometown. She was his first dance instructor at 14, and two years later, Ingram moved to Fort Wayne, following his mentor and teacher to continue his training with her.
She was the only training ground where I was from, he says. If I wanted to keep dancing, he had to leave Tennessee. He graduated from South Side High School in 2000.
From the beginning, Gibbons-Brown noticed Ingram’s passion. She recalls a time when he was about 16. The company was in the midst of a photo shoot for the ballet, and he was off on his own, lost in the moment, moving through space with his own contemporary choreography. And I knew then this young man was going to be something special and have the potential to change the face of dance.
If Ingram has his way, that’s exactly what he wants to do.
Aside from dance, Ingram loves art, and he speaks knowledgably about his favorite artists, like the American musician Daniel Johnson and the painter Francis Bacon.
He had a regimen. He would paint eight to 10 hours a day, Ingram says of Bacon. At night, he was a compulsive gambler.
Bacon’s studio was a chaotic wreck; it was covered in trash, but in that chaos, the artist would find his art, Ingram says.
This love of art – the messy kind, the experimental kind, the bold kind – extends itself into Ingram’s dance. One fixed element of dance, he points out, is the staging: Dancers are on stage, and the audience sits in one spot, seeing one view of the performance. Ingram enjoys experimenting with that norm, pulling dancers into other arenas so the audience can move about and gain different angles and perspectives.
Consider Fort Wayne Ballet, Too, the ballet’s yearly performance that blends traditional with non-traditional. It has taken place in parking garages and in the fountains of Freimann Square, which Ingram choreographed.
The idea, he says, is to create a moving art museum that the audience can walk through and view. Maybe they are especially moved by one painting, or dancer, and they linger. Maybe other art works garner a glance.
I love that the audience can have options, he says. (In a traditional performance), the audience sits here. The dancer dances here. I feel like that aspect of what the audience gets needs to evolve.
Ingram’s typical day starts around 6:30 or 7 a.m., with pain. He remembers a Bulgarian dancer he knew in college who used to say, If you’re a professional dancer and you wake up in the morning and your body doesn’t hurt, you’re dead.
He begins with a workout – yoga, pilates or gyrotonics, a circular form of movement that rotates the spine. Ingram will rehearse for the ballet’s upcoming show for about six hours and move into teaching until about 9 p.m. – unless it’s the week of a show, in which case he’s working until 10:30 p.m.
In fact, this past summer was his first summer off in a long time. Usually, the season is spent at summer residencies while the Fort Wayne Ballet takes a break. A summer intensive might last six weeks, working dancers from 9 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. with lunch and dinner breaks.
At the conclusion of his first summer off, Ingram and wife Alexis welcomed the couple’s first daughter, Clementine – the only person Ingram still tap dances for.
The girl is three weeks old, Ingram said last month, and we haven’t slept for three weeks.
He does not look tired when he announces this. He looks, in short, happy.
The emotion is one that seems consistent with Ingram. When he dances in a rehearsal for the Fort Wayne Ballet’s Carmina Burana, his face is pure joy. Even when he’s not leaping about the rehearsal floor, when he’s simply milling about the back of the room, he looks happy.
When he speaks about being one of the few males in the ballet – during rehearsal, he is one of five in a room of more than 30 dancers – he is good-natured.
Sometimes, you’re around pink tutus all day, and you keep a catalogue in your head, he says, grinning. I need to watch nine hours of ESPN to fight this, (or) I need to find a guy and go start a fight club.