Throughout the month of April, in celebration of Chicago Dance Month, SeeChicagoDance is publishing personal essays and stories about all aspects of dance submitted by our readers. This is the first of several that have crossed our threshold. If you have a story to tell, a personal essay about any aspect of dance, a rant or a rave to share, it's not too late. Send submissions to email@example.com. For details and submission guidelines, see Audience Architects Community News. --LCS
I Am a Dancer: Ruminations of an Old Ballerina
By Marie Grass Amenta
“This is the strange thing: Dancers don't age.” Twyla Tharp
I am a dancer. Descended from Chicago Dance Royalty, my father, Charles Grass, was Bob Fosse’s vaudeville partner and Ruth Page’s assistant. My parents met during an Opera Theater of Chicago production of “The Bohemian Girl,” when Dad served as stage director/choreographer and Mom was the Prima Donna. I’m not kidding when I say I’ve been on stage since I was a baby.
My feet hurt. This isn’t unusual, they always do. I’ve had arthritis in the joints of my big toes since I was 25. The bone spur on the ball of my left foot arrived to wish me a happy birthday when I turned 60 a year ago, remnants of my dancing years, and I suck it up.
I remember my first pair of tap shoes…white patent leather…and Mom scolding me for doing step-ball-changes on the parquet floor. Sissy and I took tap lessons with Dad’s business partner, “Uncle” Benny Smith. Our first routine was a cha-cha, “No Can Do,” and I still remember some of the steps.
My first ballet teachers were Ruth Ann (Koeson) and Johnny (Kriza). Very suddenly there was a place for me in their classes and there wasn’t time to get a pair of ballet shoes. I had tights and a leotard but Grandma Grass (an experienced Ballet Mama) thought it would be fine for me to take class without shoes. It felt strange that first day, but Ruth Ann assured me it would be okay. In fact, she called Johnny into class to look at my feet. I studied with them for a year before they decided I should move on to study with their teachers and Dad’s at Stone-Camryn School of Ballet. I rose through the ranks at Stone-Camryn, being told by my parents to never let my classmates know who my father was. Mr. Camryn outed me one day in class when he said I was “no chip off the ol’ block.”
I loved Mr. Stone but I adored Mr. Camryn. Years later, I learned he adored me too. He had a funny way of showing it, since he would continually mention my “pear shape” inherited from Mom, a coloratura soprano. I was 86 pounds but deemed too “fat” for a prima ballerina. I wasn’t beautiful or tall and long-legged, but funny, with an expressive face, a perfect character dancer. He called me Zasu Pitts when he wasn’t calling me “Grass.”
Mr. Stone was an enigma and I was terrified to take class with him. At first, I was shy and very tentative in my movements. After a few classes, Mr. Stone turned to me and bellowed, “Good God, Girl! Walter said you had spunk…where is it?!??!” I had a habit of “mugging” in class, especially if I was making a mistake and knew it; Mr. Camryn thought it was hilarious but Mr. Stone did not. I broke that habit.
When I was about 13, I realized Dad was teaching, and touring during the summers, but didn’t seem to perform a lot. I always wanted to be involved in dance somehow, but not necessarily as a dancer on stage.
One day before class, I told Mr. Camryn I wanted to be a ballet conductor. He told me I was being silly because girls didn’t conduct orchestras but I could probably be a choral conductor. I would first dance, then go to conservatory.
After I wrecked my ankle at the age of 16, I set course for music school, still taking class because I didn’t know I could stop. This is part of the work ethic from ballet class that has held me in good stead in my life as a conductor and singer; to continue no matter what. My character dance personality followed me to music school as I was classified a soubrette; a soprano with high notes who is a comedienne. Being funny has always made me feel powerful. I might not get the fella, but I got the laugh! Mr. Camryn saw it in me when I was 13 and nurtured it. It always seemed when I needed money, an opportunity to teach class or choreograph a show would fall into my lap; dance has been good to me.
I have poise my non-dancing peers do not. One of my voice teachers (I still study) says I have something special, something that makes people want to look at me. I think it’s because of my Camryn-Stone training. I learned things have a beginning, middle, and an end. I understand the need for practice, the need for consistency and the need for me to be the best I am able for my students and choirs. I try to bring those values from the dance studio to the life I now lead. I never expected to do what I do, but whatever I do, I bring a bit of The Barre with me. I have a dancer’s heart and will always be a dancer, no matter how old I am.
______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________ Marie Grass Amenta studied ballet and character dance at the Stone-Camryn School of Ballet. She attended the Chicago College of Performing Arts (Roosevelt University) as an undergraduate and for graduate school and was the graduate assistant to the Chair of Music Education and Director of Choral Studies. Currently, she directs a semi-professional chamber choir in the south suburbs of Chicago, gives pre-concert lectures as well as writes program notes for various performing arts organizations in the south suburbs and writes a weekly Blog entitled “Choral Ethics” for ChoralNet, the online community of the American Choral Directors Association.