Augustus finds dance a great steppingstone

Leonard Augustus is a man on the move — quite literally.

He’d barely taken off his dancing shoes after his performance in the Baton Rouge Ballet Theatre’s “Nutcracker, A Tale from the Bayou” before he was lacing them up again to begin rehearsals for the Arts Council of Greater Baton Rouge’s annual Laurel Street Palooza Flash Mob performance. About the same time he started rehearsing for “Dancing for Big Buddy.”

“This whole dance thing is crazy,” says Augustus. “It’s been a platform for a lot of things.”

And, while the 51-year-old hoofer is now seen in just about every major dance event across the area, he actually started dancing on a dare.

His girlfriend at the time was a dancer and he thought he could probably do the same moves, — maybe even better. Put-up-or-shut-up time came when the couple and a group of fellow Southern University actors tried out for Baton Rouge Little Theater’s production of “West Side Story” in 1982.

At the time, there weren’t a lot of black actors and Augustus says he was the least trained, least experienced of the group. He says he was a shocked when then-BRLT director Henry Avery gave him the part.

“Leonard’s talent was obvious from the very beginning when he auditioned for ‘West Side Story,’” says choreographer Molly Buchmann, co-artistic director at the Baton Rouge Ballet Theatre. “I encouraged him to come take my Tuesday/Thursday night adult ballet classes at the Dancers’ Workshop, and he did for several years. Then we danced alongside each other in BRLT’s first ‘A Chorus Line’ in 1985.”

“Dancing is something I never would have considered doing were it not for my mentors Molly (Buchmann), Renée Chatalain and Emelie Hunter,” adds Augustus, who has gone on to become an award-winning actor.

“I was the first African-American to dance the Arabian in BR Ballet’s Nutcracker. That’s a major role,” he continues. “Then they asked me to come back and do it again the next year. I was the first African-American Uncle Drosselmeyer and my race doesn’t matter. I’ve had a lot of luck in being asked to do roles based on what I can do, not my ethnicity.”

Aside from BRBT, Augustus also dances with Of Moving Colors and liturgical dance groups at several local churches.

“I like to think I’ve been able to bring diversity, inclusive Christian values, hospitality and community building efforts to fruition through my dancing,” he says.

Eight years ago when the Big Buddy Program began its Dancing for Big Buddy, one of the first people to step up was Augustus. The fundraiser pairs professional dancers with local celebrities.

“While Leonard’s work is most visible in the variety of community events for which he performs, what many people don’t get to see is his incredible commitment and deep understanding of how his gifts and talents are used to further the mission of the organizations he serves,” says Gaylynne Mack, Big Buddy executive director. “In the case of Dancing for Big Buddy, the passion for the youth this event benefits is evident in the time, energy and choreography he dedicates each year to the success of the show.”

“Big Buddy allows these kids to meet people, to be inspired, to see the way others live,” explains Augustus, whose day job is with the state Department of Education’s Nutrition Support Divison. “It allows them much more of an opportunity and growth than what my culture was offering (when I was their age).”

From his winning performance in that first year with now good friend WBRZ’s Whitney Vann, “Team Leonard” was born. Enlisting several of his professional dance friends, Augustus choreographs the performances for them and their Star Dancers. Usually those routines are recycled for Community Opportunities, The ARC of East Ascension’s “Dancing for a Cause” event, in which the Team Leonard professionals also participate.

Several years ago, the Arts Council called on Augustus to create the city’s first flash mob for its Laurel Street Palooza street party.

“I took a community service approach,” he says. “I wanted to choreograph something everybody could do … from 7 to 70. The little kids get so excited and the older folks, too. Last year we had a 90-year-old dancing, so I guess I have to change it to from 9 to 90 … now I’m known as the ‘Flash Mob guy.”

“He is so loving and generous and willing to share the spotlight,” adds Buchmann. “He likes to make the people around him look good, and he’s very good at it.”

Both Mack and Buchmann are Flash Mob members. In fact, Augustus did a mini mob for BRBT’s “Dancin’ in the Streets” fundraiser April 12.

But not all of his community efforts involve dancing. He also volunteers for the Greater Baton Rouge Food Bank, Sexual Trauma Awareness & Response Center’s “Hunks in Heels” and “Walk a Mile in Her Shoes” events, Susan G. Komen cancer walk, HAART AIDS service organization and the ALS Association.

“I follow where God leads me,” says Augustus.