Her body is wrong for a dancer. She is too tall (5’8″), too heavy (128 pounds) and too ample of bosom and hip. In a field dominated by washboard-ribbed seraphs, Donna Wood is obviously—and gloriously—made from this mortal clay. But all that womanliness hasn’t stopped her from bounding barefoot to the top in the Alvin Ailey Dance Company, a Manhattan troupe officially without stars but with acknowledged standouts. “She is,” says her friend, Ailey graduate Judith Jamison, “one of the best dancers in the world. I don’t mean black dancers. I don’t mean modern dancers. I mean dancers.”
Since Jamison’s defection to the Broadway musical Sophisticated Ladies, the breathtakingly statuesque Wood, 27, has taken over her roles. Most tellingly, she has stepped into Ailey’s masterwork, Cry, the wrenching solo about the agony and hope of black womanhood. The Ailey company does not designate its principal dancers, but when Wood solely inherited Cry, the dance world knew she had arrived. Wood, among the more popular and least neurotic first ladies in dance, learned the role in Jamison’s living room. Recalls Wood: “We just pushed aside the furniture and got on with it.”
In Europe she’s all the rage, having performed Leonard Bernstein’s Mass in Vienna and two Ailey pieces with the Royal Danish Ballet. On home turf, recognition has taken a little longer. But there are signs. “Everybody now calls me Miss Wood instead of Donna,” she says. “At first it made me blink. I thought it was kind of cute. Then I realized younger members of the company were actually looking up to me. That’s when you suddenly realize that you’ve grown up in your profession.”
Like so many overnight sensations, Wood has been working hard since childhood. Living outside Dayton, Ohio, the fourth of seven children in a middle-class family, Donna tagged tirelessly behind her three big brothers from gridiron to baseball diamond. “But,” says her mother, Erma Lee, “the boys didn’t want to be bothered with her.” Instead, Erma enrolled her oldest girl in dance class to work off her energies in a ladylike way. Donna kept on playing football (and still enjoys a quick touch scrimmage with the stagehands on tour) but kept dancing too. At 11, she began studying with the Dayton Ballet on weekday afternoons, and during high school she spent six summer weeks with the Dance Theater of Harlem. After Donna’s graduation at 16, her father, Frederick, now a vice-president of General Dynamics, gave her exactly two weeks to find a dance job in New York. The Joffrey and the American Ballet Theatre turned her down as too tall, but Alvin Ailey actually cast her in a ballet before telling her she was hired. Her father moved Donna to Manhattan with all her worldly goods in the back of his Rambler.
Trained in classical ballet, Wood had to learn jazz, modern and ethnic dance with Ailey and had so much fun she would forget to pick up her $100 weekly check. “I couldn’t believe they actually wanted to pay me to do this,” she says. Ten years later that glee is still evident in her performances. Onstage Wood is outstanding for the strength and passion she brings to Alley’s repertory of highly emotional roles. “If you’re just doing steps,” she says, “all meaning is lost.” Job satisfaction, though, is crucial, since as an Ailey dancer Wood makes only $18,000 a year, while superstars like Cynthia Gregory are raking in some $250,000. “I’m comfortable,” maintains Wood.
She has no serious beaux (“I’m tired, and I just don’t have time for anything steady”) and devotes herself almost obsessively to fussing over her five-and-a-half-room West Side apartment. After a performance, where she is cheered and pelted with roses, Wood unwinds by scrubbing the bathtub or vacuuming, with jazz playing on her headphones. When everything is clean, she rearranges the furniture. “When I come home,” says her roommate, dancer Robin Becker, “I never know where I’ll find anything.”
Every morning Donna drinks hot water with lemon juice and downs home-cooked bran muffins made with bone meal and brewer’s yeast. Then as a warm-up she pedals the 50 blocks downtown to the Ailey studio. For energy before a performance, she drinks a half cup of hot water with a tablespoon of molasses in it, and if that doesn’t work, she does it again. “There are no formulas,” she says of her regimen. “But I don’t believe in killing your body or hurting yourself, because you only have yourself once. Once you kill it, it’s gone.”