(Begin with the right foot) BRUSH-BACK-STEP,
(now the left) BRUSH-BACK-STEP,
(right) BRUSH-BACK-STEP-(now step on the left!) STEP,
(now right again!) BRUSH-BACK-STEP.
Thus began my dancing lessons, red-haired Miss Byrne calling out the instructions, and an ancient, stooped woman named Sylvia pounding an old, out of tune upright piano.
(Up a steep and very narrow stairway,
To the voice like a metronome,
Up a steep and very narrow stairway,
It wasn't paradise,
It wasn't paradise,
It wasn't paradise,
But it was home)
The place was the “Val Mates School of Dance,” up a long and very narrow stairway above a storefront on East Avenue. I was a very pigeon-toed, skinny kid, and my parents were hoping that dancing lessons would straighten out my feet.
(Dance: ten; Looks: three…)
True, Val Mates wasn’t paradise, but neither was it anything like my home. The man Val Mates, though seldom seen, looked like his painted portrait on the sign that hung in the window, albeit a bit older: an oddly (to me at the time) pretty fellow with very curly hair slightly longer than was the masculine style of that day. The rest of the faculty was made up of women unlike any of my friends’ mothers. Except for Miss Byrne and the grumpy-looking old pianist, they were bleached blondes, noticeably made up and wearing fishnet stockings, low-cut leotards and very short dance skirts. As young as I was (probably about eight), the prevailing lack of wholesomeness made an impression. This was a fascinating place.
(Give me somebody to dance for,
Give me somebody to show.
Let me wake up in the morning to find
I have somewhere exciting to go).
There was a small lobby with a curved black sort of desk/counter where you paid your money. The lights there were dim, and it was where The Blondes hung out when they weren’t teaching in one of the two maple floored, mirrored studios. It didn’t seem to me that pretty, freckle-faced Miss Byrne fit in there, and I must have been right, because one day she was gone. I arrived for my lessons, and she had been replaced by one of The Blondes.
Sylvia disappeared too. Her piano pounding was replaced by a small record player, one of those old 78 rpm portable models that looked like a small suitcase, the top unlatching and opening to expose the turntable and needle arm. Perhaps in boredom, perhaps for the shock value, The Blonde put a vinyl disk in place, turned it on, and proceeded to play the record using her long, red fingernail instead of the needle!!!
(Play me the music!
Play me the music!
Give me a chance to come through!
All I ever needed was the music and the mirror
And a chance to dance– )
Not long after that, Miss Byrne called my mother. She had opened her own dance studio in the basement of her home, or more likely, her parents’ home. I left Val Mates and resumed tap, acrobatic and ballet lessons next to a furnace beneath a low ceiling and neon lights, eventually graduating to “toe” (nowadays known as “on point”) and modern jazz. I thought I had talent, and maybe that was why I didn’t feel I needed to practice. (If I’m honest here, I guess I would have to admit to having more laziness than perceived talent). I’d gradually learn the numbers as new steps were added week after week, eventually suffering through each lesson as poor Miss Byrne must have suffered in teaching a student with little motivation. One day she announced that she was going to get married, and her underground dancing school closed.
My mother sought out other studios, and after a nasty encounter with a teacher who used my ponytail to yank me into a back-bend, I gave up all but the tapping and took dance in the home of a young man who was the nephew of our local town druggist. I’d ride my horse to his house for lessons, transforming from Annie Oakley to Bo Jangles and back in the space of an hour.
And then came hormones, Jr. High, and the realization that even if I wanted to be (which I didn’t), I would never be a dancer.
Hello love! )
It was time to let my tap and toe shoes gather dust.
(Everything was beautiful at the ballet.
Graceful men lift lovely girls in white.
Yes, everything was beautiful at the ballet.)
Well, not really everything. I had seen that.
There was no reason to continue. My pigeon toes (the reason my parents sent me to dancing lessons) had straightened out, maybe (as hoped) from those many weeks of forcing them into first, second, third, fourth and fifth position. Or maybe it just would have happened anyway as I grew.
The many “routines” I’d learned were soon forgotten, but I can still do the steps – and sometimes do. The beauty of having had all those dancing lessons is that to this day I can still punctuate a wise-crack with a shuffle-ball-change.
…..(And I can’t forget, don’t regret, what I did for love pigeon toes).