Last night I fell down a Youtube rabbit hole. One of my Facebook friends posted the Mikhail Baryshnikov/Gregory Hines dance scene in White Nights. This led me to Gregory Hines dance videos, then Sammy Davis, Savion Glover, Nicholas Brothers, Bill Bojangles, Sandman Sims….. The virtual dance party went on until three in the morning. Dance is an integral part of my life and continues to be part of my workflow. I don’t do well in offices, because breaking out in a dance performance is generally frowned upon. It’s weird, but it helps me concentrate and control my ADD.
I started classes at the Pelagie Green Wren Academy of Dance when I was 6. Mrs Wren was the first African American dancer in the chorus at the Municipal Opera of St. Louis. During her first year, she received death threats and had to have police protection. (The police protection would eventually become her husband, Mr. Wren.) She was tough as nails, but as graceful and beautiful as a bird.
I still remember my first class. I was so excited, I could barely contain myself. I probably didn’t contain myself. My mother dressed me in my dance uniform. Mrs Wren’s school was strict, we wore black leotards and very pale pink tights. When I arrived at the studio, I put my bag in the dressing room, waved goodbye to my mother and sat in the studio with the other girls. We were between the ages of 4 and 6 and all a bit nervous. It was the first dance class for most of us. I was a fan of Fame and hoped Debbie Allen would walk through the door with a stick and do a speech.
But then Mrs Wren came in and what happened next was so much better. The room was full of tiny girl chatter, until she yelled “Quiet.” The room went silent. First lesson learned, when Mrs. Wren yells you listen. She took attendance, calling each girls name. Then she told us to place our tap shoes against the mirror. “Quickly and then come back and stand here.” She stood in the front of the room and with her index fingers pointed to the floor. We did as we were told. Then one by one she placed us in lines shortest to tallest across the studio. There were numbers on the floor so we would remember our lines. She put on some music and stood in front. She said “Follow me.” She took us through some stretches. A couple of the girls lost focus and started talking. “Young Lady in the back.What is your name? Stop Talking.” The girl stopped talking. Normally, I am a chatterbox. I regularly got in trouble for talking to much in school, but not in Mrs Wren’s class.
We moved on to the ballet positions. “Watch me. Stand up straight. Look at my arms and my hands.” Do you see what my feet are doing? Mrs Wren walked around the room and inspected our feet and arms in each position. She corrected bad foot placement and lazy arms. After that we moved to the bars for plies. Somehow I wasn’t paying attention and ended up behind a tall girl, so as Mrs Wren was demonstrating the plies, I leaned out from behind the tall girl. I jumped back in once we started to do the plies. Mrs Wren noticed, but I didn’t notice she noticed, so as I was practicing my plie, I felt her hand on my shoulder. I was moved quickly to the front of the line. She said over here and moved me in front. She kept teaching while moving. No one missed a beat and I was back to my plies in seconds.
After plies we started tap. Shuffle. We did shuffles for ever, then shuffle step. Do you hear what my feet are doing? Do you hear that? She went through the lines and had us demonstrate a shuffle. If a girl didn’t get it she would make the sound until she did.
It was the early 80’s and Fame was a hit show. I envisioned Debbie Allen walking in the room with a stick and saying
adore tap dancing. It used to be a major part of my life. I took dance lessons from the ages of 6-18 at the Pelagie Green Wren Academy of Dance in St. Louis. Mrs Wren came into my life at age 6. She was a star. Tough as nails, but as beautiful and graceful as a bird.
Mrs Wren was tall, kind of looked like a bird and she always wore her hair in a bun. She was also fierce and didn’t suffer fools lightly, even 6 year old fools.
I really wanted to dance. I was obsessed with the movie Fame.
My writing process includes dance. Not shaking my butt a little bit to the beat. I mean full scale performance level dance. It helps me clear my head, so I can refocus. Dance has been a part of my life as far back as I can remember. Coco from Fame was my girl! I wanted to be her. I knew I could be her. I hadn’t yet figured out that my shortness was terminal and the world wasn’t ready for a tiny dancer. (See what I did there.)
My parents being supportive gifted me with a light blue leotard and matching stockings for my fifth birthday. They did not enroll me in a dance class. This unfortunately gave me license to roam the neighborhood in my leotard, stockings and tennis shoes. Coco walked around like that, why shouldn’t I? A year later, after many arguments about the appropriateness of leotards and stockings as playwear, my parents signed me up for dance class at the Pelagie Green Wren Academy of Dance.
Mrs. Wren was the first African American accepted into the chorus at the Muny (Municipal Opera of St. Louis), the largest outdoor theatre in North America. While she was there, the theatre had to provide her with a police escort for fear of racial attacks. I didn’t know any of this at six. I was just excited to have somewhere to go in my leotard.
Mrs. Wren’s school had a uniform. Black leotard with the lightest of pink stockings, pink ballet slippers and black patent leather tap shoes. I was nervous on the way to class. I had no idea what to expect. Fame was really my only frame of reference for dance class, but those were big kids. It probably wasn’t going to be the same.
When I walked into Mrs. Wren’s studio, I immediately knew I was in the right place. It looked just like the Fame set. But the best part was Mrs. Wren. She dressed just like Debbie Allen, but her voice and looks were more striking. I could tell immediately she wasn’t playing. This was the first dance class for many of us; some of us were barely in elementary school, so imagine the chaos. Mrs. Wren yelled “Quiet!” The room went silent. First lesson learned, when Mrs. Wren yells you listen. One by one she placed each girl in lines shortest to tallest in five lines across the studio. There were numbers on the floor, so we would remember our place. She started with the positions.
Then she yelled “Head to the bars quickly, shortest to tallest!” Everyone scattered and headed for the bars. I was so caught up in the scattering; I ended up in the middle of the line, (Behind a very tall girl.) Mrs. Wren demonstrated first position and said “Everyone watch and copy.” I leaned out from behind the tall girl to get a better look. Then Mrs. Wren said, “Second Position.” I was still leaning out, when I realized Mrs Wren was looking directly at me. I quickly jumped back in line, but it was too late, she grabbed me by the shoulder and walked me to the front of the line. Although it was a relief not to strain, I noticed something in the mirror. I was a half foot shorter than the next shortest girl. I knew I was short, but that’s really short.