By Chris Lane
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He's so dyslexic that he couldn't read three-letter words at the age of 15. He didn't know the months of the year until he was 18. Even today Pirtle has to put Hubscher's home phone number on speed dial at No tsu oH so that Hubscher won't infuriate unlucky residents with a barrage of misdials.
After an unsuccessful day at school, sleeping at the back of the class or getting suspended for beating up one of his tormentors, Hubscher would play by himself in an alley near his family's home in West Palm Beach, Florida. When the alley got boring, he started climbing the buildings that lined it. When the climbing got boring, he started leaping from rooftop to rooftop. When it seemed as if he had exhausted the alley playground's potential, he heard someone playing the piano.
He followed the music to the high window of a rinky-dink pink dance studio, and he watched, mostly because he knew he wasn't supposed to be there. He'd never seen pretty older girls in leotards, he'd never heard classical music, and perhaps most important, he'd never seen an adult devote so much time and attention to her charges. He liked the teacher's voice, the way it counted out the rhythm of the music and gave gentle instruction. He went back nearly every afternoon.
When Hubscher was 13, his father died of lung cancer. Richie had never been close to him; the elder Hubscher hadn't seen the use of his youngest son's interest in frivolous, artsy things. Almost exactly a year later, his mother died, too, of a brain aneurysm caused by a car accident with a drunk driver. "In a strange way," he says with no perceptible emotion, "it was the best thing that could have happened to me." The family had money now, from his father's life insurance policy and VA benefits, and his then-23-year-old sister, Donna, took guardianship of Richie and his twin brother. The yawning hole left by his parents' passing was temporarily boarded over with artistic possibilities. Donna remembered Richie plunking out songs on a hotel lobby piano and disappearing in the afternoons to watch dance classes. She enrolled him in a liberal arts high school, plus private art, piano and dance lessons, before he even thought to ask.
He was the only boy in the rinky-dink pink dance school, and his bulky underwear wrinkled his tights; he didn't know what a dance belt was. Then he saw The Turning Point. The cheesy Shirley MacLaine-Anne Bancroft movie from the late '70s cleared up a lot of issues for a boy in ballet class, not the least of which was the dance belt. More important, it was Mikhail Baryshnikov's film debut. The young Russian leaped like the earth had no gravity, turned pirouettes faster than you could count them, drank like a man and always got the leading lady -- in fact, the cad got several of them in quick succession. Baryshnikov was cool; Hubscher wanted to be just like him. The night after they saw the movie, Donna found him wearing leg warmers in the backyard, stretching on the chain-link fence.
To Hubscher, this was not just idol worship. He had begun to realize that dancing just might be his chance to get out of digging ditches, or going to clown college like his twin brother. "You can only go so far being a clown," Richie says in all seriousness. "They're the lowest on the totem pole in the circus." Either way, Hubscher knew he wasn't going to make it in the real world of public school and desk jobs. "Whatever life was supposed to be, I wasn't going to make it in that."
So when he was 17, he moved into an apartment next door to Ballet Florida, some 40 minutes away from Donna and West Palm. "I wanted to sculpt my body, I wanted to dance to beautiful music, I wanted to partner beautiful women, I wanted to be the guy in white tights," he remembers. He worked hard at it. The principal of the academy used to get angry with him about the electric bills: Hubscher came to the school two hours before class to stretch under the warm theater lights.
Then, Ben Stevenson came to town. The round Englishman had attracted the great ballerina Margot Fonteyn to perform in his very first production and had staged works for American Ballet Theatre and the Joffrey. Now, he was the artistic director of the respected Houston Ballet, and he was teaching a master class at Ballet Florida. Hubscher wasn't yet good enough to take Stevenson's class, so he stood on his tiptoes, peering through a high, narrow window for two and a half hours. Again, it was the teacher who captured the Peeping Tom's attention.
"Ben's kind of magical," Hubscher says. "When he teaches, you can feel he loves it, even when he's making a face, picking his nose or calling you an asshole." The fascination seems to have been mutual. Stevenson noticed those darting, dark little eyes at the window during his class, and when Hubscher later sneaked backstage to see the company, Stevenson offered him a scholarship to the Houston Ballet Academy having never seen him dance.