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He sits in a wheelchair, a wrinkled bathrobe hanging on his ravaged body. Suddenly, his hand sails into the air in a graceful arabesque that tells another story - of the beauty he once created.

In his memories, Arthur Bell is still dancing in Paris, London and New York.

The 72-year-old was found homeless and disoriented on a New York Brooklyn street recently, barely standing. A pioneer black ballet dancer, his eyes shine when he remembers being on stage in Manhattan with British dancer Margot Fonteyn, as an extra in Sleeping Beauty.

"It was 1949 - and Margot Fonteyn. Oh Lord! ... she was an angel," says Bell, now recuperating at a Queens nursing home.

Though he was no star, Bell left an artistic mark on the 1940s and '50s "when there was no place for African-Americans in classical ballet," says Medeline Nichols, curator of the dance collection at the New York Library for the Performing Arts.

That Bell and his history have been rediscovered is a stroke of luck: The social worker who came to his bedside at a Brooklyn hospital was a one-time ballet photographer.

"I was trying to find out where he had health insurance - and he started talking about dancing in Paris," says Maria Mackin.

"It was just amazing to me that one of my patients was among the first black men in ballet. And he was still incredibly graceful, getting out of bed, slender, sleek."

Bell had been rescued by two paramedics driving by in an ambulance who noticed him stumbling on a sidewalk, unable to keep his balance. He can't remember how he ended up on the street for months in the dead of winter, "my feet frozen," he says.

His last temporary residence was a Manhattan men's shelter.

Bell has forgotten many fragments of the past three decades. But when it comes to his art, he speaks with a lucid passion that awakens his frail, 180-centimetre body. His head arches above his long neck, which retains the toned strength of a dancer, and his long fingers punctuate his remarks with lively elegance.

His legs, the muscles still sculpted, once performed arabesques "every time I got a chance," he says with a smile. "I love arabesques. You're on one leg, and the other one is behind you, extended."

Dancing "was life itself," he says, erupting in infectious, irreverent laughter.

Mackin checked Bell's story with the Performing Arts library at Lincoln Centre, which confirmed that in 1950, Bell was a guest soloist in the New York City Ballet's world premiere of Illuminations. He had been chosen for the role by British choreographer Sir Frederick Ashton.

"It's a romantic work, about a poet encountering love, both sacred and profane," says Dawn Lille Horwitz, who teaches dance history at the Juilliard School. "It's an attempt to make some sense out of life's chaotic disorder."

Bell appeared in a section called "Being Beauteous," based on a collection of French poems called Illuminations by Arthur Rimbaud.

On a recent sunny afternoon in Queens, the former dancer lifted his right hand into the air as he hummed the usic by Benjamin Britten that had accompanied that piece. He remembers every note 48 years later.

His voice floats through the disinfected air of the Oceanview Nursing Home, where he shares a bare, tile-paved room with another man. He is waiting for his application for government-paid medical assistance to be processed, and then he wants to move, if possible, to "somewhere where I could be near the theatre most of the time."

He had once sacrificed everything to dance.

"What I liked about New York then was, you walked down the street and you could say, 'Good morning, Miss Crawford' - Joan Crawford," he says in a soft Southern accent, his eyes shining. "Or Bette Davis. She was my favorite."

Bell moved to Paris in the early 1950s, dancing the part of a voodoo priest at the Theatre des Champs Elysees. In the French capital, he lived in the same rooming house as author James Baldwin, he says. He landed various ballet parts while studying with the retired Russian ballerina Olga Preobrajenskaya, "The teacher of the time."

Bell returned to New York in the 1960s, giving up his career as he approached 40. He did clerical and odd jobs to earn a living until 6 years ago, when he started collected social security money, Mackin says. Bell may still have siblings in Florida and Georgia, but he doesn't know how to reach them.

Not being able to dance anymore doesn't faze him, he says, "because when you love something, the love for it just goes beyond anything ... Dancing is in my soul."

by Verena Dobnik for Associated Press, published in the Bangkok Post.

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