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City Folk

Barroom Baryshnikov

Local bartender had illustrious career in ballet

Photo: Jefferson Jackson Steele, License: N/A

Jefferson Jackson Steele

Bartender and dancer Jeff Watson with dance partner Justina Prince


As Jeff Watson cruises up Charles Street in a red 1996 Pontiac Grand Am, he has something of an epiphany: The Fresh and Green’s supermarket he is passing used to be the venue where he first saw Sylvester Campbell, an internationally acclaimed ballet dancer known as “the black Nureyev” and a teacher at the Baltimore School for the Arts in the late 1970s.

Watson’s story starts and ends with ballet. It is his calling, his purpose. He has performed professionally on major stages in New York and even landed a spot as a dancer on tour with Aretha Franklin.

But chances are you haven’t seen Watson onstage around town; more likely, he has poured you a beer at Dougherty’s, the Irish pub on West Chase Street, where he has worked for the last decade. And you might not be able to tell that, behind the wide smile and jovial manner, there was a time, about when he started working at the bar, when feelings of loss and displacement almost became too much to bear, the steps harder to take.

Watson initially auditioned at the Baltimore School for the Arts to join the singing program but was rejected, he says, because he was too shy. He had seen the disco-era dance flick Saturday Night Fever three years before his mother took him to watch Campbell dance. When he saw the way Campbell lifted and twirled the female dancers, he decided to reapply: Ballet dancing would be a great way to meet women.

“Seeing that, I was just like, ‘Now that’s partnering,’” he says.

Seeking an audition, Watson began sliding notes under Campbell’s door—so many, he says, that Campbell later told him he almost slipped and fell as he entered his office. Campbell gave him a try-out, asking him to attempt several basic poses, and discovered that Watson was a natural.

It took some lobbying and maneuvering, but Watson was one of the last students admitted to the school before it opened in 1979. “If he hadn’t done that,” Watson says,” I don’t know where or what I would have been.” Watson did well in school and enjoyed himself there and throughout his post-graduate career, describing himself as a “bad boy of ballet.”

“I would always joke, I was always playful, I would always flirt with the girls,” he recalls.

Even at 47, a few days shy of his 48th birthday, he still moves with fluidity and grace as he mimics the motions of a pirouette or an Evita pose with his upper body while sitting at a restaurant. Watson is incredibly fit and toned, his face youthful and animated. It looks like he hasn’t missed a step, but Watson, perhaps, sees things differently.

After his mother was diagnosed with gallbladder cancer, Watson passed up an opportunity to join the Ballet Estable del Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and began performing with the Ballet Theatre of Maryland so he could be close-by as she received treatment at Mercy Medical Center. When it came time for him to leave for his summer residency with the Bermuda Civic Ballet, Watson’s mother insisted he make the trip. She died while he was away. Their last interaction was a phone call in which she could not form words and simply moaned in pain.

“A friend of mine put it best: I lost my rudder when my mother passed away, and there were moments when I would go around in a circle,” he says. “And sometimes the wind would blow me back in the right direction, and then the rudder would get jammed or it would drop off, and I would find it floating somewhere.”

Watson returned and continued performing with the Ballet Theatre of Maryland under Eddie Stewart, a friend of Campbell’s, who helped Watson cope with the loss of his mother. Nine years later, Stewart died of lung cancer. The resulting changes in the company’s direction after Eddie’s passing were reason enough for Watson to leave. As he was rehearsing for a role in 2001, he broke a bone in his foot.

He found himself in a cast, uninsured, unemployed, with no idea how he was going to pay his medical bills, and still beset by the remaining anguish he felt over the loss of his mother and the passing of one of his best friends. Compounding things, he had to move out of his place at the time so it could be lead-abated. After falling into a deep depression for several days, during which he did not eat, he crushed up some of his pain pills and put them in his coffee. After a few sips, he accidentally knocked the cup over with his cane.

“Once that cup shattered, it was just like I was the cup. I was every little piece of everything,” he said.

A friend rushed from White Marsh with a Bible and a cheesesteak to hold his attention while she read him verses.

Now Watson is a man of faith who participates in church groups. He opts out of working lucrative Saturday shifts at Dougherty’s so he can be ready for church the next morning, leaving his bartending fortunes during the remaining days of the week to what he refers to as “bar karma.”

To be sure, it is a job he enjoys and is grateful for. Unlike dance, it doesn’t offer the regimented structure of practice and repetition. You’re never quite sure who will come through the door.

But about a year ago, a friend put him in touch with Arabesque Dance Studio in Columbia, and he began filling in as a teacher. He now teaches classes regularly, passing on the lessons of his instructors, like Sylvester. “I told the kids: ‘You all are my little pieces of paint, and this is my palette, and we’re about to make a masterpiece.’”

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