Gladys Gale Dancing School

Posted on 21 November 2004

Wenda asked me the other day why I never write about dance and I remembered an old piece of writing and dug it out:

Sometimes when I’m happy, I find myself doing a grand jete across the living room carpet or a soft shoe on the kitchen tile floor. Sometimes after a glass of wine, I can’t contain myself and dance wherever I am. In my fifties I enjoy dancing in ways I never could in my teens.

“If it doesn’t hurt, you are not doing it right.” I heard this refrain countless times during my years as a dance and theatre major at university. I spent half my days at a wooden barre that ran the circumference of a huge gymnasium. Head held high, chest forward, bottom tucked under, I followed the classical exercises developed to force my body beyond its natural limits. Often, after several hours of fighting myself, I would sit in the change room and cry, feeling like a circus animal being trained to perform unnatural acts to amuse an audience. But I knew I wasn’t. A caged animal doesn’t have a choice. I was there willingly.

I’d wanted to be a dancer since I was eight years old. That summer an aunt of the Tilley kids next door came to visit. She was a ballet mistress with the New York City Ballet. Each morning, she organized, on the small plot of grass in front of their brick bungalow, dance lessons for her nieces and me. When she left, she told my mother that I should be sent to ballet school: I was a born dancer. My mother, a frantic young woman of twenty-eight, who was trying her best to raise four daughters, did not have the means to pay for classes.

I was inspired to dance again in my mid-teens when I fell in love with the choreographer of my high school play. His mother owned the town’s only dancing academy. Although my mother was still frantic – in the meanwhile she’d had two more children – she didn’t object because money was freer and the dance studio was within walking distance.

Within two years, I was competing against other dancers my age. As well as dance classes four times a week, I frequented dance spectacles to observe professionals in action. By the end of each performance, my muscles ached from tensing and releasing in unison with those on stage. This didn’t happen however when I saw Martha Graham give one of her last performances. I forgot the mechanics of dance. I forgot the rest of the audience. Nothing registered except the presence of the grand matron of modern dance.

The curtain opened. Graham stood centre stage, her tall figure shrouded in brown cloth, like a mourner in Giotto’s “Lamentation.” As if painted by the master himself, she confronted the viewer. For two minutes, she did not move a muscle. Suddenly, her head dropped forward, one arm, out of the folds of fabric, shot upwards, and she began to dance. Every movement spoke of despair. Like a sorceress, she bewitched the audience.

I did not aspire to Graham’s magic. I simply wanted to master technique and express myself through an art form I love. After two years of university, I knew that I had neither the attitude nor the body to perform professionally.

I left school and found myself in the advertising department of a major newspaper. Years passed. I married, moved across the country, produced three children, and continued my university education. As I had once expressed myself through dance, I now express myself through writing. Sometimes when I am happy, I can’t contain myself and words dance onto paper. More often, I despair for I know that writing can never express what Martha Graham could with one simple thrust of her arm.

Gladys Gale Dancing School
Originally uploaded by Barbara Y.

I’m in the front row, first on the left. The long-haired fellow in the back row was my first love.

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