It’s not hard to guess Bernard McClain had something to do with the performing arts. He is tall, standing at 6 feet 2 inches. He speaks with a resonating voice and moves elegantly along the corridor of the Bed-Stuy apartment where he lives with his wife and two children.
Observing his manner, you might not be surprised to learn he trained as a classical dancer, and led a life full of adventure for more than a decade travelling around the world. The surprise is that a man with his air of success and prosperity, and a college graduate, has been unemployed for the past four years.
His story not be typical, but he’s one of the tens of thousands in the city who are unemployed. He’s a stay at home father who is coming back to the labor market just as the country tries to shake the worst economic situation in decades, after he voluntarily quit his job to be with his family. But even with an education, experience and talent, Bernard can’t find a job.
Now, at 54, he is searching for work in a new field, but dance is his first love. His first connection with dance happened when he was just sixteen, growing up in Pasadena, Southern California. He walked into a room he thought was empty and saw a Black man, dressed in a red leotard, guiding the steps of about a hundred girls, all of them eager to follow him.
“I was standing there and thought, God, if one guy can have so much control over all of these ladies, I should try it out,” he said.
He started taking classes at a dance studio in South Pasadena, California, where he was told he had a natural facility for dance, even though he was too tall for classical ballet. “I had good legs and good feet,” he said.
Ballet became an important part of his life, and his talent began to flourish. At 19, he began training with Phillip Fuller, at his studio in South Pasadena. It wasn’t long until another teacher, who took his talent even further, discovered him.
Arthur Mitchell, founder of the Dance Theatre of Harlem, the first African American classical ballet company, wanted Bernard in his troupe and brought him to New York City.
At 22, dancing professionally under Mitchell’s guidance, Bernard began travelling all over the world. Stamps from Australia and the countries of Europe filled his passport. At one point he had been outside the United States for 26 weeks. His income, about $35,000, was good for a dancer at the time.
For a young man, having that kind of life is a dream come true. Bernard sums up his life of dance and travel as “the best experience I ever had, seeing new places and meeting new people.”
But dancing is most often a short-lived profession. Dancing was taking a toll on his body, and in 1991 he retired.
“Your legs and hips take the strain. Your legs in ballet turn out, when they’re designed to be in parallel. Your ankles and inner thigh are always turned out, because you show off your body,” he said. “It’s a vain profession, because it focuses on the body and showing it off, but I would have never done anything else.”
Through dancing he met his wife. She had a briefer career at the DTH. Her build, muscular and strong, was better suited for track competition. She quit dancing. They dated, then married in 1993 and had two children, a daughter, now 11, and a son, now 8.
She went to medical school at Johns Hopkins, specializing in gynecology and obstetrics, and worked at Beth Israel Hospital, before securing her private practice. And while she went to Medicine school, Bernard had a series of jobs that moved him farther from dance.
Between 1991 and 1993, he was a personal trainer at a sports club. Then, in the same year, he worked as an usher at Radio City Music Hall, promoted to house manager in 1994, and worked there for six years. After that, he was at the United Nations, catering and learning about food and wine. He then secured a job as a suite attendant in Madison Square Garden, catering to the people in the most expensive boxes.
In 2007 his wife asked Bernard to quit his job. The children were still quite young and she was making more than enough to sustain the household.
He wakes up at 5 a.m. to get his children ready for school, and lets his wife sleep a little more. The children are ready at 8 a.m, and he takes them to school. The rest of the day he spends grocery shopping, cooking and taking care of his mother-in-law. She owns a couple of buildings along the street, including the one he and his family live in, and there are always things to be fixed.
“My skills in other areas have gotten better,” he says. “Plumbing, drywall. And it’s better to do a job yourself. If something needs to get fixed, it’s less expensive than hiring someone. You just have to buy the materials.”
Bernard feels it’s time to find a full-time job again: his children are old enough to walk to school by themselves, and he wants a change of scenery.
“I’m getting ready to go back to work. I need to have my own income. It can be boring, having a routine: you want to do more. And it’s just a guilty feeling for a man. I feel the need to pay a bill.”
He’s applying for a job at the Brooklyn Nets Arena, one that will allow him to do the kind of work he enjoyed at Madison Square Garden. He wants a job that will be flexible on his time so he can spend time with his children.
McClain is a determined man, and his future looks bright. Even though nobody can tell what will happen tomorrow.