The Not So Private Dancer
By Sarah Campbell
If someone assumes that the life of a Philadelphia ballerina is mundane, after a moment speaking with Cynthia Dragoni, that possibility is immediately ruled out as you are bombarded by stories of travel from Italy, Russia, and Greece. She also manages to slip a word or two into our conversation about a romantic rendezvous.
Dragoni, 23, who performs and teaches ballet, seems bubbly. She has a short, jet black bob haircut, with a blunt bang across the forehead, an exotic hazel eye that sparkles green in the right light and porcelain pale skin make her appear fragile at times, like walking the streets of the city may be enough to do her in. But one smirk and all-knowing giggle tells you she’ll be alright – like she knows more that she lets on, and you wonder maybe that’s her plan.
We meet at her apartment in South Philadelphia, not far from her birthplace of Germantown, in northern Philadelphia. She would prefer to complete the interview before “we end up getting more distracted and looking for lovers,” she says over the phone with a giggle. I agree and arrive at her apartment at 5:00 p.m. on a Friday evening. The place is dark, loft-like, with wood floors, random pieces of artwork yet to be hung, and the smell of cigarettes and coffee linger in the air. I ask if it’s OK for me to smoke in the apartment, and she nods, yes.
We sit at a glass table, which seems to be in the breakfast nook. There’s a page of a newspaper and what looks like a days old coffee on the table, at which Dragoni makes light of: “I was meaning to clean, I don’t always live like this,” she says with a sigh. We sit at the metal chairs as she grabs a cigarette from my pack, a gesture one would only be comfortable making with a dear friend who’s more like a wingman. The funny thing is that we are not in that place anymore. In fact, as the interview goes on, we both seem to notice that we don’t know each other anymore, only who we used to be.
I tiptoe into the interview and grab for through my purse for something to scribble on. She inhales deeply then blows a line of smoke. “I don’t smoke anymore,” she says with a laugh, then adds, “no seriously, I quit. For most days anyway,” a big smile, she stares at me with what looks like a giddy excitement the kind a child must exhibit on Christmas morning after being told there is one more present hiding in back of the Christmas tree.
Dressed in her signature black pants and dangly earrings she must not have tried too hard to prepare for my arrival as she is still in her slippers and has obviously thrown a fleece sweatshirt over whatever outfit she intends to wear later. And, she does intend to go out after our interview, which she made perfectly clear when she heard I was coming to Philly. “Well fine, I’ll answer your questions but that means we have to actually see one another and have the rest of the night to catch up.”
There’s something about her that’s almost childlike. Maybe it’s the short hair or the way she jumps up from the table every time she gets excited. Maybe it’s her exaggerated hand gestures or her complete belief and sometimes even reliance in Tarot Cards, palm readers and psychics. Whatever the case may be, she is in fact 23, soon to be 24. So we pop open a bottle of wine and I begin the questions.
So, what was your childhood like? You have a big family, what was the household like?
“Well (she says in an exaggeratedly low tone accompanied by a laugh), huh? My youuuuth…” she sends me a look chin pressed to her chest, eyes staring up at my face like, ‘come on really?’ Then she seems to immediately remember that we had a deal and I had warned her about the process.
She quickly begins answering before I have the chance to remind her of why we are here. “My childhood…well I don’t know. My mom’s crazy, so is my dad, and sisters – whatever we all are. No, really. Um…Well, I grew up mainly with my mom, I have four older sisters, all half-sisters, and then of course there’s Andrew” (she says adoringly). I give her a look like ‘come on, who’s Andrew?’ – The dilemmas of interviewing someone you know).
“He’s my baby, well you know my baby brother, but he’s really mine. Any sanity he managed to grasp has got to be from me, that’s for sure. She takes a drag from what is now her second cigarette (because she clearly doesn’t smoke anymore) and gets lost in a moment as she stares out the foggy window, the rainy day seems to have grabbed a hold of all the people and the street one flight below looks vacant. She then jolts back into conversation: “God, can you believe he’s 17! Oh my god it’s scary.”
I can’t believe that. Wow time really does fly. Trying to stay on topic I ask: So back to your youuuth, you lived with your mom, so how was your relationship with your parents?
“Oh, well you know I mean I just couldn’t stand living with either one of them. They just didn’t get me. I was dancing and neither supported that financially or emotionally (giggle). I mean I moved out and in with Tessa (a friend) and her family when I was 15.” She laughs and sips her wine. “I mean God, it really does sound just awful doesn’t it? I guess at times it definitely was…you know pretty difficult, yeah… you know it’s funny to talk about because I guess I never do, because this was just my life then, but looking back with more perspective, I hope (accented in a low tone) it seems ridiculous, I mean like I should probably realize I’m lucky I made it through. You know at that time I was doing school and ballet fulltime, and waiting tables in order to have some living money. And to top it off, I was getting everywhere on a bike.”
She laughs at something that could only have occurred in her head. I ask for her to let me in on the joke and she responds: “Oh, I was just thinking of how I always joke about my mom as being this crazy lady riding her bike to and from work and then I just thought of me being the crazy bike kid, that’s all.”
So basically, you’ve lived on your own since you were 15?
“Well yes and no.” (Somehow, she seems to be in the flow of the interview and is now answering questions without hesitation, maybe it’s the second glass of wine). “I mean I kind of have this pattern, well you know, my restlessness. I get really antsy, leave the country for about a year and then return to Philly. Over the years I’ve lived so many places – I mean even since I was 15. I’ve returned to both my mom’s and my dad’s house for short periods of time…always short because I’m reminded of why it didn’t work the first time. I had the apartment in Philly for a couple of years (one of which I lived there with her), but you know that, then there was Ukraine, Siberia, St. Petersburg, oh yeah, Boston when I was a lot younger, maybe 17? I’m sure there’s more any you remember that I forgot?” (I can’t think of a thing, nor can I move my eyes from my paper or my hand from my pen as I’m still frantically writing).
So what stimulated all of this travel?
Well, absolutely dance - ballet. And the occasional need to get really far away from an ex-lover, but those are separate stories entirely.” She says with a gleaming eye and a giggle in her throat. “I was dancing with different companies in different places. You know, in Ukraine I danced with the Donetsk and then in Siberia and St. Petersburg with smaller lesser-known companies. But, the travel, actually I almost completely forgot, one of the times I wasn’t even dancing I had thought I had quit when I was there – that was in Ukraine.
Yeah I got there, worked really hard and performed all the time, got a great feel of the language and made some great friends and then I got terribly depressed. I don’t know I think it was the situation. Like I’m glad I had the experience, but the company itself just wasn’t uplifting in any way. It felt as if everyone was down and it brought me down. You know I was trying to leave a situation like that in a Philadelphia company I was dancing in and wouldn’t you know I end up in the same kind of thing over there. So I guess I kind of bugged out. That’s when I decided to come back. Cause if I wasn’t going to be dancing the struggle just didn’t seem worth it.”
What happened when you came back?
“Well, oh yeah, that’s when I decided I would focus on school, mainly language. You know I really did love Russian language and just because I came back here, I didn’t want to lose everything I had learned there. I wanted to continue…so I took some classes at Penn (University of Pennsylvania). It was all right. Actually, I was pretty disappointed. I just felt like everything was so rigid. There were so many rules and guidelines. I guess I just hadn’t operated in that type of a setting for a while and it just felt… I didn’t like it. I don’t know, I guess I felt the classes kind of worked against me or around me instead of for me.” (Dragoni home-schooled herself through high school, in order to concentrate on ballet). Eventually I realized that I really missed dance and I ended back at the studio.”
We realize that our interview is taking much more time than anticipated. I push towards the last questions so we can still make our dinner reservation.
So, what are you doing now?
“If only I knew,” she says with a giggle. “No, I guess right now things are alright. I kind of feel like I’m just in a transition phase now. No I know it. I mean I’m teaching at two studios and taking class every day. But this is kind of breather time for me. This is another one of my patterns I’m always in one of my phases. So currently, I’m in what I’ll call the regrouping phase. (laughs). I’m just trying to stay positive and take things one day at a time. I’m trying to not over think as much and kind of go with something before I rule it out. You know like Norbert? She jumps from the table laughing and then begs me to not bring that story up. All I’ll say is he was several years her senior and lived in Germany.
And where do you hope to see yourself going?
“Aaahhhh.” (She says with frustration, though not so much at the question, but more so at the fact that the interview has turned out to be very long and we are both feeling it. We share a laugh and I assure her this is the end. After she asks me to repeat the question again she answers).
“I guess I mean I don’t know exactly where I’m going, but if you give me a sec I can get my guy (psychic) on the phone and I’ll let you know. All I know at this point is what I like and dislike so far. I know I’ll always travel. I’m really interested in culture and language. I’m pretty sure ballet will always play some role in my life whether I’m performing or teaching. I do know that on Monday, I’ll wake up, hop on the subway and get my butt to class and then I’ll teach. And for right now that’s what I’m doing. Ask me again in a year and I’m sure you’ll get a totally different answer.”