The job of Dunwoody’s top planning official doesn’t call for athletic leaps or pirouettes. But Richard McLeod danced his way to the position after a career jump from the world of ballet, where his international tours led him to fall in love with city planning.
When McLeod was about 11, his mother suggested he and his two brothers take ballet lessons.
They were all playing soccer at the time and she knew professional athletes, including wide receiver Lynn Swann of the Pittsburgh Steelers and UGA Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker, were taking up ballet to help with coordination and balance.
When their lessons were completed, his brothers were done with ballet. Not McLeod, who danced as lead in “The Nutcracker” when he was 13.
“I found my career. My first career,” he said.
McLeod, now 50, is the development director for the city, a post he’s had for nearly a year. Before coming to Dunwoody, he worked as a planner and director of Community Development for the cities of Woodstock and Alpharetta.
Before any of these jobs, McLeod danced professionally. First he was with the Atlanta Ballet when he was 16. Then he danced for another eight years with a modern dance ballet company in Ohio. He was with the San Francisco Ballet before retiring from dance in 1997 due to a back injury.
He readily acknowledges his love for ballet was not all about the leaps or the grace or the athleticism.
“I hated getting up early every morning, I hated practicing six days a week for six hours a day,” he said. “But those 20 minutes on stage were the best time in the world to me. Thousands of people are watching everything you do.”
On May 13, 1988, the day he turned 20, McLeod made national ballet news. He was dancing in the first act of “Romeo and Juliet” at the Civic Center when he was accidentally stabbed by another dancer during a fight scene. The serrated knife was supposed to be stabbed into a protective shield sewn into McLeod’s costume, but the dancer missed.
The show, of course, went on.
“It was a freak accident,” he said. “We didn’t do that trick again.”
McLeod said he loved dancing the classics including every role in “The Nutcracker” and “Romeo and Juliet” with the Atlanta Ballet, but moved to Columbus, Ohio, to dance with a group there for the opportunity to do modern and contemporary ballets. There he danced for four years before auditioning in New York for a chance to perform with the San Francisco Ballet.
“Over 200 men auditioned and only two got contracts,” McLeod said.
His love of dance, he said, was about boosting his ego and being in the spotlight. He said not being a great communicator through speech made him want to communicate through dance.
He does have a favorite moment from his first career. In 1988, he danced the lead in “Romeo and Juliet” in front of a packed house at the Atlanta Civic Center.
“There were 5,000 people in the crowd and then when I’m dying at the end, the music is so wonderful, and I could hear people crying,” he said.
He danced and toured internationally with the San Francisco Ballet, one of the top three dance companies in the U.S., and learned a love of cities and how they are made. Walking down the streets of London, Paris, Brussels and Spain he noticed small things like the width of roads, how far buildings were apart from each other, the proximity of buildings to traffic.
All these European cities, he noticed, were hundreds of years old and worked fine, yet his hometown of Atlanta was tearing down and rebuilding at an alarming pace. “I noticed all these dimensions that make those places great and I loved the way these cities worked,” he said, “so I thought I go back and do something about it.”
When he retired from dance, he knew he had to find another career. He came back home to Georgia, enrolled at Kennesaw State University and earned a master’s in public administration and a bachelor’s degree in geographic information sciences.
He got married, started a family and got a job in real estate. One day he was driving to his home in Woodstock and noticed a billboard going up along the highway. He made a point to complain directly to the mayor. The mayor then appointed McLeod to the Planning Commission.
After learning more about planning and development, he got a job in Woodstock as its planner and director of Community Development. He eventually took another development job in Alpharetta.
One day in 2014, during a City Council meeting, he had the worst headache he could imagine. He went home, went to bed and had a stroke.
McLeod said his exercise regimen halted abruptly after he retired from dancing. When he had his stroke, he weighed 240 pounds. He learned while he was in the hospital that damage to the veins in his neck, likely caused from years of rapidly turning his neck as a dancer, contributed to his stroke.
As part of his rehabilitation, his doctor suggested walking. McLeod quickly became bored with just walking and began running. He ran some 5Ks with his son, liked the sport and decided he would run a marathon before he was 50. This year, he ran three marathons. He turns 50 on May 13.
He’s already signed up for several more half-marathons and said he could probably be talked into running one more full marathon.
His love for European cities remains and he also has a deep love for Savannah, where he said he’s been known to pull out a tape measure to study alleys, garages and buildings. Cities are made from tiny little details, and those details in themselves are art, he said.
“All these dimensions are what makes a city great,” he said. “I like creating space.”