Artist Date 60: It’s In The Genes

The first thing my birth father told me was that we attended the same university.  The second thing was that he wouldn’t have gone there if timing were different.

It was the late 1960s.  The United States was fighting in Vietnam.  School kept him out of the draft.

Given his druthers he would have gone to New York to be a dancer.

I gasped.  My secret-private-fantasy-if-I-could-do-it-all-over career was to be a choreographer.

“It’s in the genes,” he said.

I am walking down Lincoln Avenue to the Old Town School of Music for First Friday – a monthly event of music, dance and community.  Tonight’s feature is a series of dance performances by students and instructors – tap, modern, Go-Go, Bhangra.  Artist Date 60.

I dance here every Sunday at noon.  Josh, Don and a couple of musicians whose names I can’t recall drum us through Idy Ciss’ nearly 90-minute West African class.  My church.  My masochistic joy.

I have been a consistent presence here for more than five years, and yet, I am nervous tonight.  Sixty solo dates consciously chosen, and, at times, I still feel conspicuously alone.

This is one of those times – coupled with self-conscious questioning if I’ve earned my seat at the table, or, on the waxed wood floor, as it were.  If I really am a dancer.  My musings seem self-absorbed and displaced as I am not performing today, only watching.  And yet, something is stirred in me.

My first dance performance.
My first dance performance.

A boy and a girl, about 9 or so, tap their way across the stage.  They are dressed to match in grey trousers and lavender shirts.  The boy is skinny and awkward and sweet.  One day he will know how to swing a woman around the floor, showing her who’s boss.  Quite possibly the sexiest gesture ever.  But not yet.

A group of tween girls perform a Bollywood dance, waving colored scarves.  The tiniest one slides into the splits.  Like when I was a cheerleader – too small to be on the bottom of the mount, too big to be on the top.  Kind of.  She is completely present and at ease in her body.  Each move seems effortless.  I am certain I neither looked nor felt that way.

I think about my single year of ballet lessons, taken in first grade with Mrs. Gantz, Who Likes To Dance.  That is what she called herself.  I don’t know why I didn’t continue.  Perhaps I didn’t like it.  It wasn’t easy.  Or I wasn’t that good.  Maybe I got bored.  I quit, setting in motion a pattern – with me opting out of piano, gymnastics and cheerleading later.

No one told me that only a few are truly, naturally brilliant.  Geniuses.  That the savant is rare.  That most of us mere mortals toil toward mastery.

The girls remind me of “the popular girls” I knew in junior high – the ones that took jazz and tap with a woman named Miss Barbara.  Strangely, I was talking about them last week.  About the time they invited me to the movies.  Just once.  In seventh grade.

I still remember the film – Young Doctors in Love.  A spoof on soap operas.  It was rated R.  And my mother didn’t allow me to go to R-rated movies.

Except this time she did.

Post-run, swing dancing.  Another cool moment with my mother.
Post-run, swing dancing with my mother.

I am fond of saying my mother’s “coolest moment ever” was when she took me to see Prince, The Time and Vanity 6.  It was pre-Purple Rain, when Prince was still dirty.  And I was in the sixth grade.

But the movie exception was pretty cool too.

I find myself thinking about nurture over nature.

About swing dancing in the kitchen with my mother.  And her jumping rope to the Pointer Sisters Jump!  About me wearing a pill-box hat with a feather and a veil to high school and her asking if I think that I am one of the Pointer Sisters.

I think about her childhood in Saginaw, Michigan, raised essentially by her maid, Mother Flora Hill.  About her Sunday mornings spent at Mount Olive Baptist Church – where she was almost baptized – and her summers at the congregation’s camp.  There is a photograph of her and my uncle – two toe-headed Jewish kids – in a sea of dark-skinned, smiling faces.  My mother loves sweet potato pie and knows all the words to Leaning on Jesus.

With my dance "partner" in Rwanda.
With my dance “partner” in Rwanda.

I think about her taking me to see Saturday Night Fever when I was in fourth grade because she wanted me to see the dancing.  (Her no R-rated movie rule conveniently overlooked.)  And about skating with my parents to Peaches and Herb on Tuesday nights at Bonaventure Roller Rink while most of my friends were tucked in at home.

I think about dancing with a troupe in Rwanda a few summers ago and their recognition that I could dance.  About the beautiful, bald man who gave me the eye that said, “Follow me.”  And I did.

Maybe the dance is in the genes.  Maybe it is inside a 1977 Thunderbird with an FM converter box – my mother’s car for as many years as I can remember.  It doesn’t really matter.  What does is, at the end of First Friday, when the brass band calls the audience up to dance, I go.  I quit quitting.  So I claim my space on the waxed wood floor.

In The Weeds

2013-07-17 17.22.57I like to think I am aware of my surroundings.

I’m not.

Out on a morning walk, I wander into the native planting section of Winnemac Park.  There are wood chips on the ground, soft landing for my feet.  A low wooden fence.

I’ve been here before.  But it’s been a few weeks.  Months.  I’m not sure.  I lose track of time.

Today the planting is as tall as my head. Taller.  Green stalks, some with yellow flowers and brown centers.  Purple flowers and greenish centers.  What we used to call Queen Anne Lace when I was a child.  I have to push my way through it, clearing the way for my next step.  Jungle-like.

I am smiling.

I walk through it again on my way back home, as the morning grows hot and humid.  This time I pull out my ear buds.  Right after Labelle’s Lady Marmalade.

It is so quiet. Right here in the city.  I hear the birds.  The dogs.  The cars passing by on the perimeter merely a hushed vibration.  It immediately feels different.

I don’t know why I’m surprised.

My ex always had music playing.  And while I love it, I often found it overwhelming.  I craved the quiet.

And yet, now living on my own, music is very much a part of my background.  Perhaps the quiet frightens me now, alone with my thoughts.

But now it feels like a respite.  A great, big exhale.  As if I am on an entirely different walk.  As if the walk just moments before had never been.  The change is palpable.

I look to a weeping willow and think, “I need to come here every day.  Even just for 10 minutes.  To walk on the wood chips.  To get lost in this “forest” of native planting.”

Ah.  That still small voice.  I couldn’t hear it over the Donna Summer Pandora Channel (which, by the way, is excellent for walking…except when you are trying to hear that still small voice.)

I greet a big, black lab on the path.  He is off-leash.  I am afraid for a moment.  I peer around the corner looking for his owner.  “Is he friendly?”  I ask.  He is.

His owner had been lost in his own world –his nose tucked into one of the tall purple daisy-like flowers.

2013-07-17 17.23.53I feel a tinge of sadness leaving.   I always want more.

Walking home I admire the beautiful teak wood furniture on the porch of a brownstone.  Its pads noticeably missing.  The greenish brass elephants flanking it.

Wooden flower boxes hang off the window of a multi-unit brick building.  The only ones – obviously installed by the tenant.  His joy.  Her contribution to the neighborhood.

Tiny gardens are planted in the small open spaces outside of single-family homes and brown-stone three-flats.  Shady spaces, lush with green leaves and plantings, moist rocks and black earth.  A burgundy Japanese maple.

I smile, sort of wistfully, at the sad attempt at yarn bombing on the trees outside of the church across the street.

Arriving home, my mind is noticeably still.  I could hear Pandora playing in my bag, I had forgotten to turn it off – The Weather Girls, “It’s Raining Men.”  Miracle.  I hadn’t been thinking of them at all.