Verla Flowers Dance Arts
I asked for dancing lessons when I was nine.
My mother-I called her Maxine-used to take me to see various touring companies at the Seattle Opera House, a series called Sol Hurok Presents. On one of these outings, we saw the great flamenco dancer Jos Greco, a gorgeous New Yorker with a big nose and a big basket. Flamenco excited me-it was sexy, virtuosic, stylized, and very alone-and, perhaps inspired by my mother's love for all things Spanish, my immediate reaction was "I want to do that!" My sister Marianne, nine years older, may also have been influential. She'd had some ballet lessons, doing jazz numbers to boogie-woogie, and was just starting pointe classes, which was also when she stopped. But that technique caught my eye. After one of her classes, I crammed my feet into Tupperware juice glasses so I could imitate her by walking on pointe in the front room. My sister thought I was going to die.
So my mother, seeing I was serious, opened the phone book and found a teacher, Verla Flowers, who taught Spanish dancing. Verla-always just Verla-was from the old school, the Depression era. She'd danced on the vaudeville circuit and studied with famous people, including Matteo, the American-born choreographer, a master of Spanish dance (who only recently died at ninety-two). There's a Verla Flowers in every single town in America, but her school wasn't just "Dolly Dinkle," the term embarrassed dancers use for their hometown dance school, a phrase I've never liked. Verla was well connected in Seattle, with friends who ran Cornish College of the Arts, the preeminent performing arts establishment.
Verla had an amazing beehive that was loopy and tall-it wasn't one big puff-bold, big, and auburn. Her hair was done fresh once a week, and you could tell what day of the week it was by how far it had collapsed. She wore comfortable muumuus-this was a long time ago-and had different shoes for every dance: black character shoes for Spanish class and big silver tap shoes with jingles. She'd taught herself a lot of the classic repertoire on the piano. Her daughter taught also, and there was a devoted husband, Ted, who did odd jobs and drove people around.
She seemed old to me because I was young (she was fifty-two when we met, older than my mother), and we were friendly in that intergenerational way. Though flamboyant, she was old-fashioned, big on manners like a strict mother who makes her children wear neckties to church. Above all else, however, she needed to keep her students, so she couldn't afford to be one of those vicious ninety-year-old classical ballet teachers from Russia, the kind you can't ever get rid of. There aren't a lot of the crazy ones left anyway, because you can't touch the students anymore, let alone hit them with your walking stick.
She taught all over Seattle in satellite studios, church halls, and so on, but her own studio-Verla Flowers Dance Arts, where she taught hula, tap, and "toe dancing" (as people used to call dancing on pointe)-was north of the zoo in the Greenwood area. At my very first lesson, a private lesson, we learned a well-known flamenco solo form called a farruca, traditionally performed only by men, a dance of intense footwork and quick steps. I learned a couple of phrases a week. I still know most of them, and thirty-five years later, some of that very first dance made it into my own dance Four Saints in Three Acts, to music by Virgil Thomson.
Verla's Spanish dancing lessons, every Saturday for an hour and a half, were so exhilarating, so much fun, that I couldn't stop practicing on my own time. I'd do a move forever until I got it down. Immediately, I was a full-on committed perfectionist, purely because I was doing something I really liked. Verla saw something in me right away and quickly picked me out. I was new, I was eager, and I was a boy. Basically it was pretty much free-and it often is if you're a young male, because there's a paucity of dancing boys, partly because you're required to wear tights and therefore everyone thinks you're a sissy. And I was a sissy, but I was bolder than everyone else. I was also gifted, a quick study, good rhythmically, and smart, and she soon tricked me into taking ballet classes to keep me interested and busy. There was also some kind of arrangement with my mother for making and sewing costumes, the barter system in action. And as soon as I was old enough to know more than the other students, Verla had me teaching. She didn't teach ballet herself; she had other young ballet dancers for that. And if there was a ballet number in the recital, I'd get the only boy's part.
The fact is Verla saw in me a prodigy, someone worthy of her extra attention and time. While my mother was working, I spent all day at the studio; I'd help Verla teach, take classes myself, or simply wrangle the younger kids. At the end of the day she'd take me to the greasy spoon around the corner for a grilled cheese or a patty melt. Somebody told me there was always a secret bottle of vodka in her desk. I never saw her take so much as a sip.
There had been earlier performances.
In kindergarten, we did a production of The Three Billy Goats Gruff-my first performing experience. I was a Billy Goat, but I did something naughty and found myself relegated to Troll under the Bridge (which I would now consider a better part). This was the first in a litany of humiliating theatrical demotions.
In another show, a journey quest, I played the part of a wise old owl. Someone asked me, "Are you my mommy?" My line was "No. Please go over there and ask them!" But instead I improvised a joke: "Scram, Scrambled Eggs!" I got in terrible trouble and ended up recast as a rock. Not until the third or fourth grade did I manage to keep a part: the unnamed narrator, the victim, in The Pit and the Pendulum.
So I started putting on entertainments of my own, improvising scenes and doing shows in the living room or the backyard. I cast all the neighbor kids and forced my parents to watch. I was very bossy: that was me.
My sisters remember a big hit when I was about ten, at Franklin High, the school down the street where my father taught and that I was later to attend, for some kind of international dinner-these were the days of pancake breakfasts and spaghetti feeds-at which they'd fix different foods and present some examples of "international" entertainment. I was quite good at Russian dance by then, and I think Dad, who'd been with the family to see me dance and play balalaika at the local Russian center, suggested that his son represent Russia. Grandma and Maxine sewed me a costume with balloon pants, and I kicked my legs very high, to my parents' pride.
By the age of ten I must have had the requisite ballet chops, because Verla drove me down to Portland, Oregon, to audition for a bit part with the Bolshoi Ballet, the legendary Russian company that often visited America. During their tour, the Bolshoi would come to a town and audition local children, a good public relations idea to this day. The particular piece I was auditioning for, Rehearsal, starts at the barre in the studio with little kids, progresses through training, and, as if in time-lapse, ends with the adult professionals from the company. The real draw would have been Swan Lake; Rehearsal would have been part of a repertory show.
It was a big trip away from home, and I was in Verla's charge, which my mother wouldn't have worried about for a moment, even though it was my first time out of town without family. We shared a room-Verla was strict with lights-out and said her prayers, which I didn't like-and she took me to the audition. I got the gig; we rehearsed for a week and then performed.
I've since met dancers all over the world of every age who were in Rehearsal. Richard Colton, a great dancer with Twyla Tharp, did exactly the same part somewhere else in the world via precisely the same audition process. And it was a very big deal for me at that age-a professional performance, probably two or three shows-simultaneously thrilling and terrifying. Everyone was speaking Russian, giants wearing weird clothes, makeup, and perfume that couldn't mask the smell of sweat. Some of them must have been famous, but I don't remember their names. The performing was magic (one of my roles in Rehearsal was pretend sprinkling with a watering can, which is how they kept a wooden floor from being too slippery in the old days before rosin), but I don't remember much about it, and I don't remember the music at all. My family drove down.
A year or so later, Verla took me to another audition-the cutoff was fifteen and I was underage, by far the youngest-with the result that I was chosen by Jos Greco, the Jos Greco, my original inspiration, to go on his own two-week workshop in, of all places and names, French Lick, Indiana, a strange derelict resort at a hot spring where they'd rented a scary old hotel for cheap. My mother and I flew: my first time on a plane.
French Lick, which didn't observe daylight savings, was hot and humid like I imagined the South to be, with mosquitoes and fascinating fireflies. I have no idea what Jos Greco was doing in French Lick, but it certainly wasn't for the money. He was simply trying to get people interested in his kind of dance on the basis that you don't know what you hate until you've tasted it. He wasn't performing a clich of flamenco passed down to him. Jos was the original from which the clich derives.
It was dancing all day-I studied flamenco, ballet, and jota with the older kids-and I was in heaven. Everyone around me spoke Spanish, though it wasn't required of me, and there was a wonderful ballet master who taught classical comportment. My mother probably watched some rehearsals and read a lot. My memory of the other kids is hazy, but I made one friend, a girl of fourteen. She played the accordion and wrote me letters afterward, always signing off with "Accordionly yours." I remember begging my mother to buy me finger cymbals on the pretense that I needed them for a particular kind of Morisco dance, a zambra. It was a lie; I just wanted the cymbals.
I left French Lick exhilarated. I'd been fully challenged. And I'd started to get crushes on boys there, so that was part of the exhilaration. And I went back home, and back to Verla's. I was eleven, and dancing was already all that mattered, at the expense of almost everything else, even my own well-being.
Nothing hurts when you're a teenager, and if it does, you recover fast. It doesn't matter whether you're dancing on a hard floor or outside. It's only later, when dancing starts to feel bone-shatteringly difficult, that you get the Princess and the Pea Syndrome. There was, however, a serious early problem, supposedly career ending, from which only chemical intervention saved me. When I was twelve, I was trying too hard without understanding quite how things work, and I developed incredible Achilles tendonitis from overuse and underarticulation, from abusing my body by dancing too much. In ballet training, and in fact in all dance training, the tendency, when learning something new, is toward endless repetition, and the accompanying mentality is "if it hurts, it's good for you."
The nurse told me straight: "You should do something other than dancing; you don't have the Achilles tendon for it." The doctor gave me cortisone shots directly into the tendon. The problem with cortisone is that though it cures whatever ails you immediately, you then have to use ever-greater quantities to get the same result (as with heroin), so it's very damaging. Nowadays a doctor probably wouldn't prescribe it for a twelve-year-old. Luckily for me, no one thought twice about it back then.
By the time I was fourteen, Verla was encouraging me to choreograph when I really had no right to. She wouldn't even ask what I was going to do; she'd just give me a place on the recital, and I'd make up whatever dance I wanted. These recitals happened annually-three hours long-with two hundred six-year-olds, a few of them peeing on the stage, older students (who were even worse), and then the better ones to finish the show. She'd allow me about fifteen minutes, for which she'd give me carte blanche, not to mention the time to rehearse with people I was taking class with.
Verla was my sponsor, and later she sweetly referred to me as the son she'd never had. I never lost touch with her, and she saw all my early dances. One of her daughters took over, and to this day whenever I perform in Seattle, Dance Arts alumni show up: "Remember us from Verla's?" They're sixty-plus now. Go figure.
My own school in Brooklyn, the School at the Mark Morris Dance Center, is meant to be like Verla Flowers Dance Arts, a dancing school rather than a conservatory. We teach you to dance from the ground up.
Seattle had very distinct neighborhoods back then, but Mount Baker, where we lived-south of downtown, past the baseball stadium, before the airport-had a little bit of everything. This was before Òmulticultural,Ó and our neighborhood was constantly changing, though slowly becoming predominantly African American. My best friend (from second grade) was Peter Tudor, whose parents were Barbadian, strict Episcopalians. His father, Winfield, with his beautiful lilting accent, was a countertenor in that glorious compline choir at St. MarkÕs.
In the seventies, there was a huge influx of Thai, Cambodians, and Lao, refugees from the Golden Triangle, and the signs in the grocery stores became much more exotic. I remember my mother standing at the bus stop, like the Queen Mother, the white lady with a purse, with five or six young Hmong women on the ground around her with their incredible needlepoint and their hats, babies tied to their backs, as though Mount Baker were a village in the Mekong delta. One particular apartment complex had been derelict for years-home only to junkie squatters-until these families moved in. They turned the blackberry patch into a terraced garden where they grew their own vegetables. We'd comment on the beautiful poppies. Then the news broke that they'd been busted for raising opium. The grandmothers sat outside with their long-stemmed pipes, smoking, right by my sweet mother's house.