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From the Observer archives: In 2002, Mel Tomlinson was dancing for the glory of God

Mel Tomlinson, in a 2005 Observer portrait made by Mark B. Sluder.
Mel Tomlinson, in a 2005 Observer portrait made by Mark B. Sluder.

This story was first published Jan. 13, 2002.

The day Mel A. Tomlinson lay dying in Room 6 of the House of Mercy, his nurse sat by his bed and wept.

It was late summer in 1999 and Tomlinson’s kidneys were failing. AIDS had wrecked his muscular body, a dancer’s body. He seemed at peace, ready to die, eager, he told the nurse, to see his father again.

But Tomlinson didn’t die that afternoon. Or the next. Or the next.

On a recent Saturday morning in Charlotte, 18 months after he was supposed to be buried, Tomlinson, 48, clapped his hands to the beat of “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” shouting “One, two, three, four,” as he directed six members of The Hallelujah Dance Corps of St. Paul Baptist Church.

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In 1996, Mel Tomlinson performs to the song “No Trouble at the River” during “Out of Africa! . . . Into the Bosom of Jesus” on a Sunday night at St. Paul Baptist Church in Charlotte. Observer file/CHRISTOPHER A. RECORD

“It’s about him,” Tomlinson told them, raising his hands toward heaven. “Get ready for Jesus. Jesus is coming.”

Step. Step. Step. Step.

“How about some hips?” Tomlinson said, swinging his, encouraging the dancers to swing theirs.

Finger pointed, he singled out a young dancer. “Girl, light a fire in your butt!” She tried her steps again. Still too slow. “Girrrrrrrrrl. Do it like it’s not a question. Do it like it’s an exclamation point!”

Sweat dripped off his face and soaked the underarms of his blue T-shirt. He danced; the women followed. After 90 minutes, Tomlinson stood back, hand on chin, silent, watching. Step. Step. Step. Step.

“We got something,” he shouted. “We got a dance!”

Shirley Stowe, director of nursing at the House of Mercy in Belmont, doesn’t know why Mel Tomlinson is still alive. A patient must be in the final stages of AIDS to be admitted to one of six rooms in the House of Mercy, a ministry of the Sisters of Mercy order of Catholic nuns. Tomlinson arrived on Dec. 8, 1998, and Stowe expected him to die within six months.

“At one point, I called all his family around him and they all came from Raleigh,” Stowe said. “He knew it and was preparing for imminent death.”

A huge stone blocked his kidneys. Tomlinson refused surgery. He was dying anyway. Why suffer more pain? He couldn’t eat. He vomited. When there was nothing left to vomit, he gagged. Poisons built up. He became confused.

Stowe sat with him on what she thought would be his last day. She cried because she knew it was goodbye.

But just as gradually as he had been fading, Tomlinson began to recover. Day by day. Week by week. Month by month. The kidney stone disappeared. The AIDS virus became undetectable in his blood. He moved out of the House of Mercy on Sept. 10, 2000.

Preaching through dance

What do you do when you’ve said goodbye, written a will, enlisted a former high school teacher to write your eulogy? How do you live when you were so prepared to die?

“I got so close to death, not only did I see the light, but I saw the light fixture,” Tomlinson joked. “Anything like that is life-altering. My mission in life now is to the church. God will tell me exactly what I’m going to do. I don’t have time to waste. I know I’m not going to live forever.”

He is working on a Ph.D. at Carolina University of Theology in Stanley and has applied to be a chaplain at Carolinas Medical Center. He regularly visits AIDS patients at the House of Mercy.

“Through that life-altering experience I’ve been drawn into ministry,” he said. “One on one, I know I have the compassion to help people in their transitions.”

He said he formed The Hallelujah Dance Corps, which performed at the church on New Year’s Eve, because he also wanted to “preach through dance.”

“I believe in celebrating, uplifting God’s kingdom, not only through the written word, but through movement. When I made the plea before the congregation, I said I was looking for anyone willing to be part of this new dance ensemble - to move and praise and give glory to God’s almighty name.”

A new beginning

LaTanya Johnson danced for Tomlinson when he was at the House of Mercy.

“He was in a wheelchair,” she said. “He was much thinner, very sick, very weak. But his spirit was incredible. He encouraged me.”

Johnson is dancing for him again, with The Hallelujah Dance Corps. “He just touched my heart,” she said, “knowing God touched him and healed him.”

For Johnson, who studied dance in Philadelphia, working with Tomlinson is a chance of a lifetime. Before AIDS, before the wheelchair, before the House of Mercy, Tomlinson was famous worldwide as a dancer.

Choreographer Agnes de Mille called him “the most exciting black dancer in America.” His body was celebrated on posters and postcards - regal neck, double joints, long, sensual torso. He performed as a soloist with the Alvin Ailey American Dance theatre, the Dance Theatre of Harlem, the New York City Ballet, the Boston Ballet. After he retired, he became a principal dancer with the N.C. Dance Theatre in Charlotte.

His mission now, Tomlinson said, is God - not dance. But as he said it, he stretched his leg straight up, impossibly, until it was parallel to his chest.

“I keep my cane by the front door and my wheelchair in my bedroom as reminders that this is a second chance. I want to be very productive. I ain’t through.”

Mel Tomlinson is rehearsing for at least one more encore.

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