He Knew He Would Be a Dancer, But Not Where It Might Lead
One of Alfred Gallman’s earliest memories is seeing “Cinderella” performed at Public School 75 in the Bronx when he was in the third grade. “She sang the lyrics, ‘In my own little corner, in my own little chair, I can be whatever I want to be,’” Mr. Gallman recalled. “In that very moment I started to understand that I could use the arts to go anywhere my imagination can take me. I could escape the trauma and hardship of the Bronx, and go to another place in my mind. That made all the difference in my life.”
Mr. Gallman, 66, describes the Bronx of his childhood as “the rough side of the mountain.” His mother raised him and his five sisters while she struggled with alcoholism. Money was always tight and Mr. Gallman remembers moving from one apartment to another at least 22 times. “My mother told me I was a king and I could be whatever I wanted to be,” he said. “And she gave me safety at home so when I went out I was prepared to ignore the chaos.”
Mr. Gallman made the most of that sense of safety by turning the living room into a dance floor. He would invite friends and family over to watch him perform; sometimes they’d give him a few dollars. “I knew I was going to be a dancer,” he said. “I just didn’t know exactly how it was going to play out.”
From one apartment to the next, Mr. Gallman received support all around him. A aunt offered to pay for an elite dance school. A choreographer who saw him perform offered to train him. “That ignited something in me,” Mr. Gallman said. “He had my shoes, my socks, my jazz pants, my dance belt, my T-shirt — all ready for me. It was like I had an angel watching over me.”
Then his mother woke him one Saturday when he was 17. She told him to get up and get dressed. As he rubbed the sleep from his eyes, Mr. Gallman noticed the apartment was nearly empty, except for the bed where he lay.
“She said, ‘We’re moving to Chicago,’” he recalled. It was just weeks before the start of his last year of high school. “My mind went back to this idea of my own little corner where I could be whatever I wanted to be.”
So, he told his mother he couldn’t leave. He had to stay in New York and become a dancer. “She said, ‘Well, if you think you’re grown enough and you can make it on your own then we’re going to leave.’ I said, ‘OK,’ and watched them drive away in a station wagon with all their belongings.”
For the past 49 years, Mr. Gallman has done nothing but dance, choreograph and mentor others just as he was mentored. He founded Gallman’s Newark Dance Theater, which performed his choreography for decades. He performed in Washington at the Kennedy Center and the White House, in New York at Lincoln Center’s annual outdoor dance festival, at the Joyce Theater, as part of a series of performances featuring work from male choreographers, and in other major venues across the country from Dance St. Louis to the American Dance Festival at Duke University.
His piece “Mother’s Prayer” was performed at the White House, and Mr. Gallman has worked at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and throughout the world in South Africa and Jamaica, Japan and Switzerland, as well as with such luminaries as Alvin Ailey and Fred Benjamin.
“My prayer was, ‘Jesus, let me dance,’” he said. “And all my life I’ve done nothing other than dance.”
$883 | Long Island City
Alfred Gallman, 66
Occupation: Dancer and choreographer
On healthy living: Mr. Gallman said he was exposed to nearly everything, growing up in different neighborhoods in the Bronx. “But throughout my life,” he said, “I never smoked, I never drank, I never did drugs because my family was so rough. My mom had a drinking problem and so did my dad. I just couldn’t go down that road.”
On meeting the neighbors: Mr. Gallman said it’s not easy getting to know people in a building with 300 units. Recently he met six people at bingo night, and he’s become friendly with the doorman. “At first he knew me by my apartment number,” Mr. Gallman said. “But then he asked if he could call me by my first name. So now I’m Alfred.”
When he performed in the national tour of “The Wiz” in his early 20s, he flew his mother down to New Orleans so she could see him perform professionally for the first time. “She wept,” he said. “She said, ‘I always knew you were going to make it.’”
Even with the professional success, Mr. Gallman often struggled to hold on to reliable housing. Over the years he has experienced inconsistent income and pay rates that don’t keep up with the cost of living in New York — dynamics that are familiar to many who work in the performing arts.
In 2018, Mr. Gallman received a lifetime achievement award from the Newark branch of the N.A.A.C.P. At the time, he was living in his cousin’s one-bedroom apartment in Co-op City. The cousin unexpectedly moved back in, booting Mr. Gallman from the bedroom. “I was getting these kinds of accolades,” he said, “but I was sleeping on a couch. And it wasn’t a converter couch; it was just a regular couch. I was saying to myself, ‘I’ve done all of these things and now is this going to be the rest of my life?’”
Mr. Gallman, who also was having health issues, realized that he was in his 50s and still looking for his own corner of tranquillity.
In 2020, a case manager from Mr. Gallman’s health insurance company, who was helping him with his care after two strokes, suggested he enter a housing lottery for a new TFC Cornerstone Development in Long Island City, Queens. At first, he was hesitant, having lived his whole life in the Bronx, but the case manager showed him pictures of the luxury high-rise that was holding the lottery. There was a spacious lobby and a doorman, a rooftop terrace and a gym. “That was it,” he said, laughing. “I was convinced.”
He completed an application in April of 2021 and one year later he got a call to tell him he’d been selected. He moved into the apartment on July 1.
“When I walked in, I thought, ‘Is this a prank or is this real?’ I never expected to be living in a luxury high-rise. Everything is state of the art. And the wood floors were so shiny you could see your face,” he said. The bathroom, he noticed, was outfitted with grips and handrails that make it much easier for him to safely use the facilities.
The monthly rent for the one-bedroom was $2,600, but because he qualified for subsidies, Mr. Gallman was told he would pay only $883.
Furnishing the place would have taken much longer if not for Selfhelp Community Services, a help center for older adults, on the ground floor of the building. A staff member there found out Mr. Gallman was sleeping on a cot, so she helped him apply for funding to get a bed. After he received that support, he also received funding for a table and chairs.
Finally, he has a place to sit in his own little corner. “I’m truly happy,” he said.
When he ventures out of the apartment he’s often at the Kelly Temple Church of God in Christ in Harlem, running a youth dance program. “We try to build people up in the neighborhood,” he said. “I try to empower them, to find the young kings and queens inside of them.”
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