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Greensboro Marine inspires through gospel dance

(Reprinted from the, July 27, 2005)

AL ASAD, Iraq -- Lance Cpl. Troy Gray has a tough decision to make: follow his heart or his head.

One will lead him to the stage; the other, to a 20-year commitment to the Marine Corps.

For the moment, he's doing both. And he's found a way to inspire others, not only those living in a time of war, but who are on the front lines.

Gray, 21, an active duty Marine and 2002 graduate of Smith High School, is deployed to the western region of Iraq for a one-year tour. During the day, he keeps track of Marines -- their pay, entitlements, personnel records.

In the evenings, he choreographs and directs a gospel dance ministry that he helped create.

Gray was first introduced to dance at age 7 when he attended his mother's dance rehearsals. Sometimes when choreographing, they couldn't remember a move. Little Troy did and showed them where they went wrong.

"It came naturally to me," he says.

Later, Gray joined a group called Pizzazz Dance Co. in Greensboro and has performed with the company since, learning jazz, hip-hop, tap, African and liturgical steps.

During his last three years at Smith, he became the only male cheerleader, a distinction that still turns heads.

"I was home in a barbershop last October and they recognized me," he says, grinning. "They said, 'You were that male cheerleader, weren't you?' "

In Jacksonville, N.C., where he is permanently stationed with the HQ Marine Aircraft Group 26, Gray occasionally choreographs the dances for the Jacksonville Raiderettes, cheerleaders for the local semi-pro football team.

One glance at Gray's perfectly toned arms and chest and he could easily be taken for a dancer, or a Marine. Being both, he says, has earned him some "looks."

"They say, you're a dancer, you're a Marine, but Marines have that title of being hard," he says with a sigh. "I am hard, but I'm still a Christian."

It's a sentiment echoed by the members of the dance ministry he's helped build.

Sometimes they're late to practice. Sometimes they don't show at all. That's the nature of war.

When they do, it's hot inside this cavernous auditorium. There's no air conditioning to rescue the performers from the 118-degree heat outside.

A hot breeze, much like what it feels like to stand next to a vehicle's exhaust pipe, blows in and out of two open doors on either side of the stage. Often the openings are also their only source of light for rehearsal.

The dancers usually come straight from work. One performs in her camouflage uniform and dusty, tan boots. Under Gray's direction, she moves across the stage gently, silently.

"It's all about what you feel in your heart," Gray says. "Most people think you're just up on stage. But when I'm up there, there's music and a connection with God. That's the spirituality the crowd feels."

When his deployment to Iraq ends, Gray intends to return to Jacksonville and establish a dance ministry there, too.

But will he turn dance into the career he often dreams about?

At one time, he planned to attend the N.C. School of the Arts in Winston-Salem and then try his luck in New York City. Then again, he's fascinated with the struggles faced by Marine recruiters and thinks he might like to join their ranks instead.

"Recruiting means stability. A stable paycheck, stable job, stable everything," Gray says. "But dance, that's where my heart is.

"I'm still debating," he says.