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Dancer Jock Soto Looks Back on a Life in Tights (and Fishnets)

Photo: Gwendolen Cates / ITVS

When Jock Soto retired from the New York City Ballet three years ago, he’d spent a quarter-century becoming one of the most celebrated male dancers in the company’s history. Half Navajo and half Puerto Rican, stocky and athletic, Soto didn’t fit the danseur noble mold, but his grace and strength as a soloist and fame as the surest of partners (famously to iconic ballerinas Heather Watts, Lourdes Lopez, and Wendy Whelan) cemented his reputation as one of the most universally beloved dancers in New York. PBS’s Independent Lens today airs Water Flowing Together, a documentary about Soto’s career and rediscovery of his heritage. Vulture caught up with Soto, who now spends his days running a catering business with his partner, and talked to him about the dances in his past and the cooking show in his future.

Now that you’re retired, is it strange to see all this footage from your career?
I first saw it in San Francisco at the gay and lesbian film festival there, and it was kind of shocking! I felt like I was watching somebody else. It was quite emotional.

There’s a funny story in the film about your dad taking you to your first ballet class…
My dad, he didn’t know what to do. My mother told him he had to buy me ballet slippers and tights, and I had a little T-shirt or something. I took them out of the little bag, I was changing in the backseat, and he had bought me blue fishnets! He sort of didn’t look at the package. I was like, Oh, God, what am I going to do with these? But I had to wear something! I think I probably put shorts over them.

When you first came to the city, what were your first impressions?
We lived on a reservation outside of Phoenix, so we didn’t have big buildings, and all that is here. It was such a bigger scale of everything, I was just in awe. You think back on a situation like that. It’s like you walked into Alice in Wonderland. I just remember the doors at School of American Ballet were huge; the studios were huge. I’d been dancing in a strip mall outside Phoenix. I didn’t know what I was getting myself into.

In the film, we see how you appeared on Sesame Street, in People … it seems like another era, in which dancers really were stars.
Well, I never considered myself a star, I was just someone who worked and worked and worked and did my job every day. And there were times we were slammed by the press too. I would think of Suzanne Farrell and Peter Martins, when I was sneaking into the theater, starting at the top fifth ring and sneaking down. By the time Chaconne was being performed and I saw those two, they were stars.

You’re also one of the most choreographed-on dancers in the company’s history. Did that make you feel like you were abandoning the company in any way when you retired?
You know, it was time for me to leave. I felt it was a good time. I was 40. Everything started to hurt in the last few years. I wanted to be able to leave the stage, put on a pair of shoes, and go out and have a nice dinner, you know? Without sitting there and having my knee hurting or my back throbbing. And of course it’s a big loss. But it’s not brain surgery; anyone can do it.

Well, you’ve mentioned a dream of having a cooking show. Any chance of that soon?
Still workin’ on it. If anyone has any ideas, they can contact me! The dancing chef. I’ll do anything.
–Rebecca Milzoff

Dancer Jock Soto Looks Back on a Life in Tights (and Fishnets)