Dancing to Work
By ALEXANDRA FENWICK
On a recent, cold February morning a few days after a fresh snowfall, Olivier Heuts was dressed for the weather. He wore a fur lined bomber hat over earmuffs and a huge pair of mittens that looked like oven mitts designed for the sub-Arctic. He stepped out of his Upper West Side apartment and walked right past the corner of 86th and Broadway where, one by one, everyone else on the sidewalk disappeared into the subway below.
Heuts, 52, is a dance teacher at the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts in Long Island City. Every morning he walks from the apartment he shares with his wife and their dog on the Upper West Side to the school across the East River in Queens. The extreme commute takes him an hour and 15 minutes, about thirty minutes longer than taking the subway but even in bad weather, he never takes the train.
“I technically could probably get an extra half hour of sleep but I prefer the walk,” Heuts said. “I know exactly how long it’s going to take, there are no surprises. I used to take the subway years ago but you never know when it is going to get stalled and make you late and you ending up biting your nails.”
Most of the students at Frank Sinatra School of the Arts, an audition-only arts high school founded by Tony Bennett in 2001, value their sleep very highly and find such willingness to wake up earlier than necessary to be unthinkable.
“He’s just that extreme in everything he does,” Nathaly Luna, a senior fine arts student said of Heuts. “You’ll see him in the hallway doing splits. It’s a way for him to keep skinny. But it’s not for me. I take the train.”
Heuts’s walk takes him downtown, ziz-zags through Central Park, where he encounters dog walkers and joggers who offer nods of recognition, down Lexington Avenue, past the corner of 64th Street, where Bernie Madoff lives and where Heuts has noticed news trucks have been parked on the corner for months hoping to catch a glimpse of the swindler, past the tram cars that glide through the air toward Roosevelt Island and over the 59th Street bridge into Long Island City. He doesn’t know whether he’ll still be able to walk next year when the school moves to its new home in Astoria.
Heuts like order and routine. Before he leaves his apartment he eats the same three open-faced sandwiches for breakfast every day: one with almond butter, another with tahini and a third with jelly. This fuels him until lunch, which is an oat bran bagel he purchases every morning at a deli on Amsterdam Ave. If the line looks too long, he skips it and eats something from the food carts outside the school for lunch instead.
“Everything is timed by the minute, especially on my shaving days,” Heuts said.
He grew up in Heerlen, a small former mining town in the south of Holland near the Belgian border, where pension fund and insurance funds are now the main industry. As a boy, he says he was “unathletic” and didn’t take up dance until he was 19 years old when, as an art history student at Utrecht University, he was required to pursue some form of exercise. He chose ballet.
“I always liked movement and elegance and was interested in how to move across a room gracefully,” Heuts said.
He flourished in a ballet class taught by a strict, matronly woman in her seventies. At first he considered it a hobby, but inspired by the style of New York-based modern dancers Merce Cunningham and Paul Taylor, who both started dancing at an older age, he decided to pursue it full-time. Heuts first came to New York City in 1983 for a four-month scholarship to study modern dance and never went back. After years of dancing with the Battery Dance Company, Heuts realized that dance would not sustain him as he grew older, so he enrolled in the now-defunct dance education program at Columbia’s Teacher’s College.
“In my thirties I was thinking, ‘I can’t do this forever,’” he said.
But after four years at his first school, the Washington Irving School in Manhattan, he was looking for a change. Washington Irving didn’t have a very dance-friendly student body or a proper dance program, instead dance was treated like another physical education class. Then, he got “excessed,” his job position was cut and a women 10 years his senior took over. Heuts retained his salary while serving as a permanent sub. With 12 years in the school system, Heuts is now tenured and secure in his job, but when he was struggling in substitute limbo, the news of Frank Sinatra opening up was a godsend.
“A friend told me about this new school and I thought it was great. Here’s a school that’s serious,” he said.
Heuts’s morning walk is full of personal landmarks. The skinny, filigreed facades and pointed roofs of the townhouses on 74th Street remind him of Amsterdam. The profile of the Sheffield building, where he and his wife lived as newlyweds, is visible past the treetops of Central Park. His favorite statue in the park is a bronze called The Falconer, which he passes every morning as cuts across the 72nd Street transverse. A man who operates an impromptu newsstand, selling stacks of papers from a bench on the corner of 72nd and Central Park West, is another the landmark — the only person he encounters every single day, no matter the weather.
“He’s there every day. I can’t believe he sits here in freezing weather. It’s one thing to walk, because you are moving. It’s a different decision to stay in one place,” Heuts said.
He also notices little things, like the burgeoning daylight as spring approaches.
“You become very attuned to astronomical data when you walk every day,” he said.
As he walked over the bridge, past the familiar criss-crossed ironwork pattern of the struts, he remembered the time a transit strike crippled public transportation and he found himself walking against a tide of people walking from home in Queens to work in Manhattan. Most days, Heuts is one of the few pedestrians on the bridge, especially in winter months. On the day of a big snowstorm about five years ago, he didn’t encounter anyone at all.
“I didn’t see a soul and on my way back, I saw my own footprints,” he said.
“Nothing stops him,” said his fellow dancer teacher at FSSA, a Juilliard-educated ballet dancer named Ani Udovicki. “I don’t think he has ever taken public transportation in bad weather.”
The only day each year that Heuts takes public transportation to the school is audition day, which begins too early in the morning to allow him to walk there. The yearly audition for hopeful students usually falls on Marathon Sunday. So on his return trip, he joins the straggling runners that are still crossing the bridge late in the afternoon and enters First Avenue to cheers.
“I sneak into the runner’s path and sort of run with them,” he said. “I’m the only one without a number.”
As he finally arrived at school, he grabbed his time card, punched in and pointed to a cluster of 10 or so timecards left in their slots that represented teachers who had called in to use sick or personal days. Heuts is sort of the Cal Ripken of his co-workers at the school. He never gets sick and in 12 years of teaching he has only taken two days off — once when he was sworn in as a U.S. citizen and another time when he and his wife moved apartments.
“The kids say, ‘Why are you never absent? Leave us alone for a day,’” he laughed.
Senior dance student Renee Rosenberg has spotted Heuts walking to school in the morning from the window of her mother’s car. She gets a ride to school every day.
“It’s the type of person that he is,” Rosenberg said of his walking habit. “He’s very active, very fit and he doesn’t really take any of our messing around. He makes sure we get work done. It’s not a boring class — with Mr. Heuts, it tends to be more rigorous.”
As Heuts arrived in his shared office, he threw his bag down, disappeared down the hall to
change and reappeared in navy sweat pants, gray socks and an American Ballet Theater/Frank Sinatra School of the Arts T-shirt, balancing a tambourine and a stack of VHS tapes of ballet performances in his arms. He strode into the dance studio, where students in pale pink tights and black leotards chattered before class, clapped his hands and the day began.