Back in the spotlight

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Back in the spotlight

Fixture of local arts scene returns to action after spending a year recovering from a spinal cord injury
Justin Paprocki
Published Monday, July 11, 2011   |  1017 Words  |  

A question is asked in the musical "A Chorus Line" that cuts to the heart of the show: What will you do when you can't dance anymore?

It's a reality that many of the auditioning dancers in the cast prefer not to face. Someday, they will not be able to do what they love.

That time came early for Don Hite.

Hite has been on and off Hilton Head Island for the past 20 years. When on island, he's produced musicals and taught theater to students, perhaps being best known for staging elaborate musicals at Hilton Head Preparatory School. When off island, he's had a career in the music theater industries, even becoming involved in Broadway productions.

Just more than a year ago, his life as a dancer, so to say, came to a halt. A spinal cord injury rendered him all but bed-ridden. He became removed from what he loved the most, not by choice, but by happenstance. He faced a life away from everything that he's known. The question from "A Chorus Line" kept coming back to him. But it didn't discourage him. It made him fight back.

He's made a return into theater. Even if he can't dance like he once did, he's going to find a way to do it anyway.

"There's no question about what I was meant to do," he said.

Hite, a Virginia native, arrived on Hilton Head Island in 1990 shortly after graduating from Furman University. He performed dinner theater in Port Royal Plantation and worked with the drama program at Hilton Head Island High School. He joined the staff as a music teacher at Hilton Head Prep and built up its drama department. He left for New York City in 1996, and, among other accomplishments, served as a musical director and conductor for the Broadway production of "The Wizard of Oz" with Eartha Kitt. He toured the country on productions such as Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Music of the Night." He also spent time in Los Angeles as a producer for a Disney record label.

He had found success in the business when he began looking to get back into arts education, and Prep head of school Sue Groesbeck persuaded him to return to the island in 2005. He became known for his large-scale productions at the small private school. He brought in L.A. choreographer Dante Henderson, added multimedia aspects to musical revues and sent students sailing through the air on harnesses in productions of "Aladdin" and "The Wizard of Oz."

He stayed at Prep nearly four years and left again, keeping a homebase on the island. Then, it all came crashing down.

One day, he went numb in his leg. Then, in his forearm. "What's going on?" he remembers thinking. His condition quickly worsened. It affected his body to the point that picking up his left leg without tripping on something was an achievement. As a pianist, he couldn't play because his fingers would shake.

"I was frightened. I couldn't perform," he said.

A neurologist in Savannah determined that the myelin sheath that protects the nerves in the spinal cord were damaged. Hite said he is unsure what exactly caused it. He is unconcerned with the particulars of where it began but rather where it will end. It's a permanent condition, but rehab can make it better. He's sought treatment at Johns Hopkins University and the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore.

He does aquatic exercise every day in the pool of the house where his friends are letting him stay. He goes to the gym for strength training several times a week.

He walks with a limp, his leg supported with a metal brace. Physically, he combats the near constant pain with medications. Spiritually, he combats the pain with music. His fingers are once again steady enough to play piano. There's nothing like the familiar melodies of Stephen Sondheim to get through a tough time, he says.

At a time when he was unsure how he'd be able to perform, he threw himself into volunteer work, playing piano and helping organize the music at the American Heart Association's Hilton Head Island Heart Ball in January. It went well, giving him confidence that despite his condition, he could still perform.

He's giving private singing lessons to children and is serving as the musical director for a production of "Cabaret" at The Bay Street Theatre in Savannah. He's also working with the Main Street Youth Theatre to develop and teach several musical theater summer programs for kids.

"He brings a lot of professionalism and a world of experience to the Main Street Youth Theater," said Harry Culpepper Jr., a board member who works to develop educational programming.

His schedule recently has consisted of long days teaching and directing, a test of his endurance. But so far, he's found he can keep up in the theater world once again. He'll produce and perform when he can. He wants to teach more, deciding that no matter what happens to his body, he will always have his knowledge of performance.

"I've decided I've got to pass it on," he said.

He wants to pass it on here on Hilton Head. For all the time he spent off it, the island feels like home. That feeling especially rang true in his recovery. For a time, he couldn't dance. And it was those around him who helped put him back on his feet.

"When you hit the ground and there are so many people there to pick you up, that means so much in the healing process," he said. "I believe in this arts community. I'll do as much as I can here."


Main Street Youth Theatre