Dance Is the Answer
By Genevieve Scandone
I started taking modern dance and ballet classes 40 years ago, when I was 22. For most of those years, I had a great time, doing something I had only dreamed of as a kid.
The exception to this idyllic picture is that from 1991 to 1999, I pretty much couldn’t walk. For no apparent reason, my knees stopped bending and straightening. They had a range of motion of only a few degrees, which made walking and just about everything else difficult. I also was in quite a lot of pain. As an added wrinkle, I couldn’t lift my right arm above shoulder height. For two years I went from one chiropractor to another, one masseuse to another, in addition to MDs and an osteopath, and I tried a dozen prescriptions. Nothing helped much, or for long. Finally, in 1993, I had arthroscopic surgery in both knees. I had expected to be able to run, play tennis, certainly walk! But that was not the case. I still had a long road ahead.
I know this sounds impossible, but during the year before my surgery I was dancing at Astoria Dance Centre in Queens, New York. The school’s owner, Maureen Gelchion, had started an adult tap class with Rhonda Price—a “hoofing” class, so I didn’t have to move around too much. I performed in the first recital of my life in June 1993.
Over the next two years, my mobility got worse. My motto was “I can’t walk, but I can dance!” The doctors thought I had rheumatoid arthritis. I was terrified that I would be using a wheelchair by the time my 10-year-old daughter entered high school. I’ve always been good in an emergency; I just never imagined that an emergency could last for years.
What gave me hope was that although I was barely able to shuffle to class, after dancing for an hour I would bounce down the stairs and sashay home as if there were nothing wrong with my knees!
I refused to stop dancing. I would creep the five blocks to the studio, pull myself up the stairs by the banister, and take tap class with Debbie Frye. What gave me hope was that although I was barely able to shuffle to class, after dancing for an hour I would bounce down the stairs and sashay home as if there were nothing wrong with my knees!
This unbelievable but undeniable fact convinced me that I could and would get better. For the 1995–1996 season, Maureen hired Paula Bentivenga to teach tap and modern. Of course, crazy person that I am, I signed up for both, even though, among other things, I still could not lift my right arm. Paula’s release technique involved a lot of arm swinging. My shoulder started to loosen up, and my whole body started to get stronger. And when the tap number in that year’s recital called for us to raise our arms overhead, I could do it! I was happier than I’d been in a very long time. My husband and my masseuse were cheering from their sixth-row seats.
After that I kept taking class—mostly tap, some ballet—but I did not have the opportunity to perform again until 2004. And then last year, at the age of 61, I fulfilled a childhood dream—I performed in my first ballet recital.
Was it the loose-limbed movement of tap and modern? The “be here now” of dance class? The fun? My refusal to be sick? Endorphins? Some indefinable combination? Whatever it was, I don’t think I could have recovered my mobility without dancing. At Astoria Dance Center I never heard a word of criticism or complaint, was never made to feel that I was a burden or too out of commission to participate.
I still can’t do a grand plié in first, and I doubt that I’ll ever again do a grand jeté en tournant, but I can do a passé (even a pirouette!), several kinds of time steps, and Graham spirals and sparkles.
These days, I have a new motto: “Dance is the answer!”
Walking out of that studio that day, I felt like nothing could take me down.
By Samantha Rueter
I was 3 years old when I stepped onto a stage for the first time, dressed in a red tutu and tiny ballet slippers, covered in glitter, with my hair in a perfect bun. Since then all I ever wanted was to be the perfect prima ballerina, to sparkle and shine.
I continued taking classes, juggling sports with dance until I realized that the soccer field or softball diamond just wasn’t where I wanted to be. All I wanted was to be in that studio. The music could take me anywhere I wanted to be, could make me whoever I wanted to be.
Dance became a serious part of my life. At age 10 I was dancing and performing with 18-year-olds. Not only was it hard being with them due to my lack of maturity, but knowing that they had so much more talent and experience discouraged me. Then the director of my studio, The Dance Emporium, explained that a teacher from New York City would be teaching our summer intensive workshop. I was terrified. Little did I know that this one week of dance would change the way I saw things for the rest of my life.
Kristin Sudeikis was small framed, with blonde hair and freckles. She was beautiful, in her early 20s, and her smile gave off so much energy that you couldn’t help but smile back. She pushed us harder than I had ever been pushed before. Nothing was easy. The steps were intense; our muscles were tired, our bodies weak. I remember going home that night in shock. Barely able to walk because I was so sore, I told my mom I didn’t think I could go back. I felt like a nobody. I lay in bed wondering why I began dancing in the first place.
I still don’t know what made me go back the next day, but I can’t imagine how my life would be now if I hadn’t. The rest of that week was grueling. Seeing the girls I had looked up to for so long struggle was difficult for me. Kristin never lost her patience. The last day of the week rolled around and she told us how much we had improved.
Then Kristin asked to see me alone. My heart raced as I walked over to her. “Sam,” she said, “I am so proud of you and all you’ve accomplished this week. Being in here with all these girls so much older than you can be challenging. But you’ve stepped up to the plate and haven’t been afraid. Keep it up and you’ll do big things.” I smiled. Walking out of that studio that day, I felt like nothing could take me down. I had worked all week to improve, and someone as talented as Kristin had noticed it. From that day forward I never looked at dance the same way again.
It’s been seven years since I first took class from Kristin. Each summer she pushes us, giving us more challenging choreography and steps along with more confidence. Every day she reads an inspirational quote for us: “If your ship doesn’t come in, swim to it”; “Never leave lonely alone”; “Work through it.” Those are some of the quotes that kept us going when we felt too weak to take one more step.
I have never heard Kristin raise her voice, even when we misbehave or lose focus. If we don’t understand something, she’ll show us how to do it until we have it down perfectly. If we lose confidence or focus, she’ll remind us why we love to dance. And sometimes when you’re down or too tired to make another move, that’s really all you need.
At competitions I’ve taken classes from some of the most talented people nationwide. I’ve learned amazing things from them, but Kristin has inspired me the most. She has taught me how to free my emotions, release stress, and get through emotionally challenging times in my life through the gift of dance. I’ve learned to forgive, to forget, to breathe, how emotionally straining life can be on the heart, the head, and the body, and how you should never let it keep you from following your dreams.
Kristin has changed me more than anyone, because class is never just about dance to her. She has taught me that dance lessons aren’t just about learning to dance. They’re about life.
By Barbara Bensman and Uma Valluri
When you are 80 years old, you could feel that your life is almost over and that you should slow down. Not I. I feel that I need the social time with younger people and the physical benefits that dance creates.
I have danced ever since I was a young child. I didn’t appreciate my lessons at the time, and my mother felt that she was wasting her money. I never was going to be a famous dancer or ballerina. But once I had graduated from college and was able to pay my own way, I started dancing again. I loved it. I enjoyed the excitement of performing but was too embarrassed to ask my friends to purchase tickets to my recitals. Instead, I treated them, and I even coerced my future husband and his family to attend one of my recitals.
For a while after I was married I was able to continue dancing; then, as my family grew, I had little leisure time to continue taking lessons. But all three of my children took dancing lessons. I enjoyed seeing them gain self-confidence through dance as they matured. They learned to never be afraid when confronted by large audiences.
You would think that after my children had grown up I would be happy to sit back and relax, but I still wanted to dance. I searched and searched for a teacher to fulfill my needs. I wanted to dance, I wanted to compete, and I wanted to perform. I wanted to feel young again.
I had a few obstacles along the way. In 1998 I had both knees replaced at the same time. Even though my recovery was slow, I never lost that desire to dance. I also lost my husband and moved from Michigan to Florida to be near my sister. All the while I kept searching for a teacher to fulfill my desire to dance and to help me improve upon what I already knew. I tried out a few classes but felt that the teachers were not for me.
I finally heard about That’s Dancing, in St. Petersburg and the Sarasota-Bradenburg area. The owner, Bonnie Gray, only taught adults and her bio seemed to cover all of the aspects of dance that I was looking for: a learning experience with some performances and competitions. She takes beginners and makes dancers out of them. I am amazed at her ability to do this. I have met wonderful people of all ages with the same interests. Our tap class of eight students ranges in age from 25 to 80, but that does not matter when you are dancing.
When my class is over, I feel great. I don’t feel my age. I don’t feel that my knees are artificial. I just feel exhilarated and thrilled that I am able to fulfill my desire to dance. I will not be a famous dancer or a ballerina, but who cares! I love dancing and all the perks it has to offer. —BB
Just as my family was getting into a routine of school and after-school activities last fall, a neighbor mentioned that she was planning to try a beginner adult tap-dance lesson that was being offered at the Commonwealth Dance Academy in Walpole, MA, where her daughter and mine attend dance lessons. She asked if I would like to give it a try, and while I mumbled a response, another neighbor who was familiar with the dance school walked up to us, and the rest is history.
After my family got over their initial shock at my decision to learn to tap dance, we worked as a team to fit an extra activity into our already busy lives. I cannot forget how they initially reacted—my son, who at first thought that I had completely lost it, soon added, “Go for it, Mom!” and my daughter became speechless for a few minutes and then said, “Now I can teach you.” As for my husband, he did not hear me correctly and assumed that I was planning to register our daughter for a fourth dance lesson. So he started a monologue about the downside of over-scheduling our children. Eventually he calmed down—but just for a minute, since he then had to get used to a bigger “issue”—his wife wanting to learn to dance!
It was also funny how my daughter and I both blurted out, “Another costume!” at the same time. At our house we have always joked about the length of the costumes our daughter has worn for her dance recitals. Now we had yet another costume to talk about. But we brushed that thought aside and sat down to discuss how to incorporate Mom’s weekly dance lessons into our family schedule.
When it was time for classes to start, mixed emotions took over. I was both nervous and excited, but somehow it felt good. Roles had changed; for once I was not chauffeuring the kids to their activities. And I found that my childhood urge to dance was rekindled. Growing up I had ventured in learning classical Indian instrumental and vocal music, but I never had the opportunity to learn Indian dance.
Once classes started, many doubts arose in my mind. The realization that the director of the dance studio, Bettijane Grey-Robinson, or “Mrs. Robinson,” always looked for perfection dawned on me. It had been easy to tell my daughter to always try her best in class and to follow the teacher’s directions, but now it was my turn to follow instructions. And my daughter never misses an opportunity to enforce the same rules on me. I see Mrs. Robinson in her when she says, “Finish your shuffle,” or “Don’t bite your lip when you dance.” I have learned to swallow my pride and hear her out, and now I enjoy showing off my beginner tap skills. In the process we have seemed to bond. Of course, she thinks I push my luck when I suggest that we flap ball change our way to the bus stop every morning. But I shuffle while cooking and flap in response to my children’s singsong, “Mom, I really need you here.”
As recital time approached and my dance buddies and I tried to perfect our dance routine, we reminded each other that doing something for ourselves has been a lot of fun. The whole experience, from learning how to wear a tap shoe to actually dancing, has been thrilling. While I still have a long way to go in terms of confidence, rendering clear tap sounds, and not missing steps, I am very happy and grateful to have had the opportunity.
As for our costume, it was decided that we should go with something conservative and “not short.” Having worked out our attire details, and possessing a little more confidence than when we first started, our group learned not to be nervous when experienced dancers or parents waiting for their children would watch us dance. At first my heart would skip a few beats and I would turn red when Mrs. Robinson said, “Come and watch them,” or when she asked us to individually demonstrate our tap skills. But these experiences have helped me to shed some of my inhibitions.
Of course, something that always helps is hearing Mrs. Robinson’s stern but assuring voice: “You will do fine.” So I guess it is really never too late to try! —UV
We welcome submissions of students’ essays on their dance experiences. Send them to Cheryl@rheegold.com or to Editor, Dance Studio Life, 10 South Washington St., Norton, MA 02766. Please put “SSO” in the subject line or on print submissions.