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Dancer who was once lost to family is buried

Social worker Maria Mackin hears about them all the time. Homeless men who die alone on the streets of New York and wind up in anonymous graves.

Not this one. Not Arthur Bell.

Saturday, Mr. Bell's family was to gather in Tampa at the College Hill Church of God in Christ to tell him goodbye.

This privilege _ knowing the whereabouts of a loved one lost _ they never took for granted. They owe it all to Mackin, who, six years ago, did more than her job required.

"She was Arthur's angel," marvels Ann Stubblefield, one of Mr. Bell's four sisters.

"It was just glorious."

Mr. Bell landed in Mackin's unit at Kings County Hospital in the winter of 1998, after police found him with frostbitten toes on a Brooklyn street. He had been living at the Bellevue Men's Shelter in Manhattan.

He seemed disoriented.

"I think he had early Alzheimer's and had taken the wrong train," Mackin says.

She listened to his piecemeal memories, as she had listened to those of others.

But this time the names stopped her.

Pierre Lacotte. Fredrick Ashton. Olga Preobrajenska. Jacques D'Amboise. Talley Beatty.

Of all the social workers he might have found.

Of all the trains he might have taken.

"He could have taken a wrong train to any hospital, but he came to ours," she says.

"And it happened I had a sister who was a ballerina."

Mr. Bell had grown up in Palmetto.

He was an aspiring ballet dancer from a Pentecostal family, the eldest son of a minister who considered dancing to be sinful. His father had founded Palmetto's Church of God in Christ, before moving the family to Tampa.

Arthur Bell graduated from Middleton High School in 1941 and didn't linger long.

He fled to New York City, where he studied dance at choreographer Katherine Dunham's school. In 1945, he appeared on Broadway in Dunham's Carib Song.

He was the first black man to perform with the New York City Ballet, in the 1950 premiere of Illuminations. He studied in Paris with choreographer Preobrajenska.

Back in Tampa, the Bells learned of his life only through dispatches from a New York aunt. When the aunt passed away in the 1970s, they heard no more of Arthur.

"He could have died and we would never have known," says his sister, Patricia Bell Coleman of Tampa.

Mr. Bell quit dancing and took a New York City government job, before becoming homeless, his brother later learned.

They aren't sure why he didn't contact them.

One sister, Mrs. Stubblefield, says a doctor speculated that Mr. Bell suffered a series of small strokes, even as a young man.

Mackin, a mother of three, saw herself in Mr. Bell. She had left Pittsburgh to become a photographer in New York, before turning to social work. Like Mr. Bell, she was drawn to the arts world.

"He was the black sheep of his family and so was I," she says.

She dug around until she could make sense of his stories, and then she put hospital protocol behind her.

She called the New York Times, which published a piece about a pioneer black ballet dancer found desperate and homeless. The Associated Press carried the story.

In Tampa, the Bells' minister saw it and contacted Mr. Bell's family.

The attention won him a place at the Actor's Fund Nursing and Retirement Home in Englewood, N.J.

He lived there for more than five years, sharing his stories with fellow entertainers until poor health made that impossible.

Early on, Mackin visited him, before turning her attention to others who needed her more.

Mr. Bell's brother and sisters came, too.

He died Jan. 23, at age 77.

Six years of knowing.

That is what Mackin gave them.

"It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," she says, looking back.

"You either seize it or you don't."

_ Arthur Bell's survivors include his brother, Dale, of New Rochelle, N.Y., and five sisters, Patricia Coleman, Evangeline Kennedy, Ann Stubblefield and Sharon Greene of Tampa, and Martha Riley of Bradenton.