Young Dancer Melds Ballet, Martial Arts, Gold Medals

Great talent is ageless. And every now and then some young wonder comes along to prove it. Dancer Rasta Thomas is now 17, but he first hit the spotlight at 14, when he beat Mikhail Baryshnikov's record for winning the gold at the Varna International Ballet Olympiad (Baryshnikov was 18). And he became the youngest dancer in the world to win the senior men's division gold medal at the 1998 USA International Ballet Competition in Jackson, Miss. Jay Leno, David Letterman, and Teen Magazine have already spotlighted the boy wonder, and public television aired "The Rasta Thomas Story."

And what a story. He has already danced with the Kirov Ballet as a star, the Joffrey in Chicago, Le Jeune Ballet of France, and the Inoue Ballet of Japan. He leaps high, and he moves like silk on glass. Thomas is a certified martial-arts expert, who is often described as a combination of Baryshnikov and Bruce Lee, His dad began teaching him tae kwon do when Rasta was only 3. When he was 7, he was a bit too rambunctious and rude, and his father made him take ballet lessons to shape up his behavior.

"I think my father saw the bigger picture," said Thomas in an interview after rehearsal at the Vail International Dance Festival this past summer. "I think he always appreciated how dancers carry themselves and how graceful they are, onstage and off."

Thomas liked ballet and stuck with it, though, he says ruefully, he didn't take it seriously until a few years later. "My mind wasn't there, though naturally I picked up the lessons. Then at 12, [I saw that] they complemented each other. I had opened up so many different categories for every activity: There was baseball, basketball, soccer, then ballet, jazz, modern, lyrical, hip-hop, and classic karate, tae kwon do, copoeira.... Then one day they all went fwoop - there was just movement, and they all blended into one another."

These days most ballet companies need versatility - athleticism in dance can be a major asset, he says. And as much as he still loves sports, he finds dance more demanding. "It's a perfect art," he says. "It's a never-ending process to try to achieve perfection."

Thomas's parents are both physicians and have traveled widely, taking their son with them. He has spent time in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. Has exposure to other cultures helped his dance career?

"Of course," he says. "It has made me more open-minded about movement and about what people have to offer. In ballet, there is a vocabulary of X amount of moves. Once a dancer memorizes that, they can rearrange the alphabet in any order. But nowadays, you have to go outside your comfort zone. The vocabulary keeps growing. Just yesterday I learned 10 new moves...."

He will soon begin shooting the film "Without a Word," with Patrick Swayze - about dance, naturally. "I have a lot of goals," he says. Among them, to have his own dance company, a career as a choreographer, to write a book, have a family, run for president (a bit of a twinkle on this one). And he wants to write songs and cut an album. "I sound really good in the shower," he smiles.

* M.S. Mason's e-mail address is: masonm@csps.com

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