from my memoir Beautiful Mountain
As an alternative, I was allowed to switch to jazz lessons. I could still wear my pink ballet slippers, but black tights and leotard. Mother told me even then I reminded her of Shirley MacLaine. “Shirley MacLaine, that’s who you are like,” she said. I perked up. Shirley was a big movie star and that’s what I was going to be someday. An actress like the personalities I watched all week at the Gaylynn on the huge screen.
“She’s not that pretty and neither are you,” she went on. I was a bit deflated. I knew I was no knockout, but still, I wasn’t ugly. Mother looked at me with her full mouth and radiant auburn hair. Her soft brown eyes that could tun mean on a dime. “You know how to make the best of your looks. Like Shirley.”
At the time, at around eight, I wasn’t doing anything to improve my looks. I had a standing appointment at the beauty parlor on North Street courtesy of Dody. My hair was in a tight perm and Mary, the proprietor of the shop had cut bangs. Short ones.
I wondered if Shirley had been a plain child. If her parents had made comment about her looks. If she’d faced a bit of shunning by the kids in her school. Well, somehow, she’d managed to rise above it and become one of those big stars I adored so much onscreen. So, I figured, if Shirley could do it, so could I.
I threw myself into the jazz. Something about it lit in a fire in me and I connected to the music. When I was dancing, I wasn’t me anymore. I was something else. I felt something like I’d seen on an old school film in the auditorium. Native people dancing over in Africa. Wild painted faces. Jungle beats that touched me way deep inside and caused a response.
The song that brought it all together for me was “Sunny.” I first heard it at the Ruth Nolan School of Dance on Calder. I’d started taking jazz from Mrs. Nolan sometime around the fourth grade. She had a dark studio with barres all around the large room. Shining black tile floors you could slide across for a mile. The entire space was mirrored and you felt like you must be in New York City. That was where all the big time dancers went. I was going there, too, someday. I’d seen it in movies and it was for me. New York.
Mrs. Nolan was a character right out of one of those jazz movies. She had short bleached platinum hair she wore in a severe bob. Lots of black eye make-up and false eyelashes, also black. She wore cork platform heels with gold spikes she slipped in and out of at whim in her thick black tights. She’d kick her shoes aside to show us the move we were to learn. If we messed up, she’d correct us in her thick German accent. She had a very deep voice. And she loved an animal print, leopard being a favorite.
The first time she played the song, we formed a circle, something rather unusual. Generally, she taught us in formation, but I could tell this song was special to her. It immediately touched something deep inside me. It was a moment I first found that music can surpass things like human pain and sorrow. The song made me want to be alive.
Later on, I found out the writer, Bobby Hebb, had written the song about JFK being assassinated along with the fatal stabbing of his older brother. Harold. There was such a joy to it and something that felt like what jazz was to me. What I was learning jazz was.
I liked the bass in it. Like I said, I connected with it. There was a primal feel it that I responded to. I wanted to learn the dance steps so I could really let myself go. I enjoyed learning the moves like never before. Mrs. Nolan called out in her deep and throaty commands as the song played through the mounted speakers. “Chasse,” she called out. I knew many of the steps which had been lifted from ballet. In jazz, it didn’t seem to matter so much the length of my legs. And, what was rather funny, the reason for leaving the ballet, my legs, had suddenly grown and took up almost half my frame. But, I didn’t miss ballet. I loved jazz.
“Pose turn,” she clipped out to us. Then, “en dedan,” which meant circle inwards. Mrs. Nolan clapped sharp to enforce the quick change and one girl ran into the potted Schefflera in the corner.
“Come, girl, back to the circle!” I was lost, though. To the music, to Bobby Hebb. I'd finally found something in my life that pulled me out of it. The insanity and meanness were gone, maybe just for a minute or two. That's what jazz did to me.