DANCING WITH THE STARS
Here’s a chance to dance our way out of our constrictions.
- “One Nation Under a Groove,” lyrics by George Clinton,
Walter Morrison and Garry Shider
Our feet are planted in the real world, but we dance
with angels and ghosts.
- John Cameron Mitchell
It’s mid-May, 2012, and I am sprawled on a leather sofa in the wood-paneled family room of a comfortable home in suburban Atlanta, Georgia watching Dancing with the Stars. My cousin, Kathy, confessing to the show as a “guilty pleasure,” has made the viewing choice. She knows the contestants, their names, their life stories, the judges, the rules of the competition. When she announces that we’ll be watching this, it’s a decree, not a request.
This family room belonged to my uncle and aunt. My uncle Ray died in February of liver cancer, which he’d battled, along with bladder cancer, for seven years. My aunt Marilyn, who was the primary caregiver during his prolonged illness, was diagnosed with cancer of the pancreas and breast, with diabetes, and with Alzheimer’s Disease just two weeks before my uncle died. There is no one who can provide her the kind of care she needs at home, and she has been moved under great protest into an assisted living facility.
It’s my belief that my aunt wants to die; her entire adult life she was wife to my uncle. She’s not interested in going on without him. I expressed this to my mother when I first learned about my aunt; she didn’t disagree but is never comfortable with my bluntness about harsh realities. I haven’t seen my cousin Kathy, the youngest of Marilyn’s three kids, in over 20 years, so I don’t presume to share this observation with her.
My aunt’s decline is the reason I’m in Georgia. I’ve brought my mother, whose mobility is limited by two back surgeries and two hip replacements, to see her only sister for what will be the last time. My cousin Randy, the oldest of my aunt’s three children, has said to me, “Come sooner rather than later,” and so we have.
“My sister loved to dance,” my mom chimes in as we watch the program’s opening number. “She was really good, too. In high school, there was always a dance after the Friday night game. Or she’d go dancing at the Armory or the Walled Lake Casino.”
Under another circumstance, I might protest this enforced “entertainment.” I don’t even have a TV in my home in Los Angeles. But Kathy lost her father just a few months ago and is on the verge of losing her mother. My mom is on the verge of losing her only sister. I’m not unfamiliar with the medicinal effects of mindless TV watching, so I settle back into the worn leather and keep my mouth shut.
For the uninitiated, on Dancing with the Stars, actors, singers, sports figures and politicians are paired with professional choreographers. Each “star” undergoes several weeks of training with the choreographer to develop a series of routines that they perform as a duo. New routines are performed each week before a panel of judges. Like so many of these “elimination” shows, the judges deliver witty critiques and assign a score to each pair. The television audience also votes, either online or by telephone. At the end of each week, one duo is eliminated in a scoring system that combines the judges’ and audience’s assessments. The judges have to justify their scores; audience members do not. [Hint: the best dancer does not always win.]
When I watch, it is already week nine of ten weeks. Of the 12 initial stars, eight have been eliminated, including Gladys Knight and Martina Navratilova. I can’t tell if I’m more bemused at the idea of the openly gay Martina performing ballroom dancing with a male partner or outraged that Gladys Knight would be voted off anything.
My mother, Ruth, is four years younger than her sister, and they were close growing up. Their father was bipolar and had a bruising temper, and Marilyn would try to protect my mother from getting hit. My mother recalls, “She’d get it even worse because she got between us.”
Of the two sisters, my aunt Marilyn possessed a willful vivacity, a relentless cheerfulness that rarely acknowledged anything wrong, a sociability well suited to her husband’s lifelong career in sales for General Motors. They knew prosperity, belonging to a community, the rewards of white, upper-middle class, suburban existence.
My mother possessed a general hopelessness made worse by her insistence on marrying men who make her unhappy. She knew divorce, financial worry, alcoholism, domestic violence. I’ve sometimes believed each sister inherited an aspect of their dad’s bipolar illness.
Since I did not grow up inside the “American dream,” I find myself skeptical of everything that reeks of it. Unquestioned assumptions. False promises. The notion that people get what they deserve.
Marilyn’s daughters would have likely been taken to dance lessons Not me. I must have first seen dancing on television, perhaps on the Lawrence Welk Show, which played on my grandparents’ television every Saturday night. I have a memory of standing in their hallway in my pajamas, no more than three or four years old, a song on the record player, “Talkin’ to the Angels in the Sky,” dancing in front of a mirror. Up on tiptoe, stretching my chubby torso, swinging my arms in time to the music, watching myself perform. I felt glamorous, transcendent. Even as a child I longed for those qualities.
Dancing with the Stars does not showcase regular folks, unlike singing shows such as American Idol. Dancing intentionally works with “stars,” some admittedly more luminary than others, and persuades them to take on an art form for which they may or may not have aptitude. Performers are asked to become proficient in many different styles of ballroom dancing—the waltz and the samba, the foxtrot and the tango. Undoubtedly the name recognition of performers draws viewers and sets Dancing apart from other shows of its kind. Still, the slight sting of humiliation—someone lauded and well paid in his or her chosen field performing an activity they haven’t entirely mastered—must be part of the show’s appeal to viewers. Some part of us likes to see those who have been successful stumble, fall.
My aunt and uncle’s house had been a hub for their family—my three cousins and their spouses and children and stepchildren—for nearly four decades. It has sheltered an embodiment of the American family—robust, affluent, sports minded, civic minded, churchgoing. There are bookshelves stacked with albums of family photos; walls hung dense with plaques; cabinets lined with trophies from golf tournaments, football championships, sales awards.
Despite their lives diverging, my mom has stayed close to her sister. She’s spent a lot of time in this house over the years, visiting with two of her three husbands. I’ve only been here twice before.
I am, by both nature and breeding, suspicious of the American family and what one must give up in order to belong to one. I grew up in urban Detroit; my mother worked as a secretary and my stepfather at a gas station. We were nothing like the families I grew up watching on TV.
I took pride in living in the city, convinced it made me tougher and cooler than my more sheltered and affluent cousins. Had they ever stepped over a wino to walk into high school? I thought not.
As a teenager, I once went with my parents to visit and was stunned to enter the room of my middle cousin, Sherry, just a year or two older than me. Not only was the room preternaturally tidy, it held not one item that indicated the personality of its occupant. Not a book, an album, a photograph, not a paper flower or a psychedelic poster, not even a hairbrush atop the dresser. The navy-blue bedspread matched perfectly the navy-blue curtains.
My own room in Detroit had books spilling off the shelves—Soul on Ice and Mary McCarthy’s The Group; jewelry and knickknacks littered every horizontal surface. A record player was surrounded with albums by Leonard Cohen, Marvin Gaye, Joni Mitchell, the Moody Blues. My best friend had painted a Peter Max-inspired mural in Dayglo colors on the wall. Although our house was much more modest, I had space to express my individuality. My cousins and I might as well have been raised on different planets.
Ballroom dancing has been traced back to the 1600s in France. Originally the term, which comes from the Latin ballere, meaning “to dance,” referred to partner dancing practiced as entertainment among the social elite; it was considered distinct from folk dancing, which was associated with the lower classes, although many of the most popular dances had been appropriated from those same lower classes.
Although I love to dance, I can’t follow a pattern of steps to save my life. I might be able to intuit the rhythm in the music or surrender to a partner’s strong lead, but the minute I hear “left foot, right foot, turn,” my brain short circuits. I couldn’t “do the Hustle” or the Texas Two-Step. Trying to reproduce a pre-determined combination of movements results in graceless and random footfalls, spasmodic gestures or utter paralysis. I cannot accommodate the rules. It’s free style or no style for me.
In between performances, Dancing shows video clips of stories from the stars’ lives. Always there are tales of hardship. Actor/model William Levy escaped Cuba (his real last name is Gutierrez); former pro wide receiver Donald Driver was raised by a single mom. TV journalist Maria Menounos’ parents worked several jobs to send her to college; soprano Katherine Jenkins lost her father to lung cancer. While the judges evaluate things like posture, timing, body alignment, floor craft and control, I’m guessing the at-home viewers root for the stories as much as for the exacting footwork of the dance routines.
Perhaps I was ten. My best friend’s older sister was home from college on a Friday night, and in their living room, she taught us to dance the Frug and the Pony before she disappeared out of the house on a date. These dances were neither glamorous nor transcendent, but they contained the secret knowledge of college girls, and it made us feel connected to the world of young adults we yearned for. Although there were gestures, these dances did not demand the perfect execution of particular steps. My friend and I kept practicing, playing our 45s over and over again.
On Monday we implored our PE teacher to let us do these dances instead of the stupid square dancing she was supposed to teach us. She might have even given in for a minute, but the sight of suggestively wriggling 5th grade girls made her change her mind, and it was back to swing your partner, do-se-do for the remainder of class.
On this episode of Dancing With the Stars, Donald Driver and his partner Peta dress all in white to perform a waltz. The waltz evolved from peasant dances of 16th century Germany, and initially scandalized upper-class Europeans because of the close contact between partners. Tonight, blonde Peta’s flowing, snow white gown is nothing short of angelic; Donald’s pure white, sharp creased suit heightens his muscular frame and gleaming, dark skin. They move together seamlessly, “One, two, three, One, two, three.” I think about my aunt and uncle’s marriage, how it lasted sixty years, until death did them part.
William and his partner Cheryl, both dressed in black, enact a steamy tango. This dance, which borrows from the candombe ceremonies of former slaves. Tango emphasizes the skills of leading and following, the push-pull of tempestuous relationships, the knife-edge of desire and cruelty. It reminds me of my mother’s marriages. It reminds me of my own history of coupling, uncoupling.
I was nineteen and I went to visit my childhood best friend in her dorm room at college, along with her younger sister and a couple of other friends. It was the 1970s; we dropped acid and stayed up all night. As the sky began to lighten we were still awake. I’m not sure how we ended up in the laundry room but there was a juke box among the washers and dryers; I fed a quarter in and punched “Fire” by the Ohio Players, with suggestive lyrics and a heavy funk beat. The LSD having stripped away any inhibitions, we began to dance. All five of us from Detroit, a city that does not sit still for music. When the record ended, we were just getting started, so I played it again. And again. Countless quarters plunked into the machine. We weren’t the least bit troubled by the parade of student who began to make their way past the laundry room on the way to breakfast; we were seized by the need to move to this groove and we did not stop until we had each exhausted our stock of coins.
As I came of age, I left my mother’s home. I declared my feminism, then my lesbianism. I identified with the movement, embraced the politics of revolution. I was determined to smash the middle-class complacency I felt my aunt and uncle and cousins represented. They had never seemed to notice or take any action to stop the abuse going on under our roof when I was growing up; how could I feel allegiance to them?
I moved to California. It was easy to not come back. There were years I did not even see my mother, and I had my reasons.
My aunt and uncle would sometimes invite me to join them for family vacations, but I couldn’t imagine anything more alienating than trying to perform in lock step a dance of family I had renounced.
In 1976, I moved to Los Angeles to attend the Feminist Studio Workshop, a multi-disciplinary art school located at the Woman’s Building. At the end of my first year, I had published a book of my poetry on the printing presses at the Building, and a friend offered to host a publication party in the backyard of her once-elegant house in a dilapidated part of town. In those days my hair was cropped short and I was more likely to be found in army surplus pants, but for this occasion I unearthed a dress I had brought with me from a former life. It was yellow linen with a print of huge red hibiscus, ankle-length, bias cut. I had a wide-brim red straw hat to go with it. After I greeted the guests, sister artists from the FSW, I gave a brief reading of my poems; then the music came on. Katja, a choreographer in the program, asked me to dance. She wore a long, flowing dress of lavender lace. I forgot my self-consciousness, all the “I don’t know how to dance” excuses I might have made, and allowed her to lead me around the brick patio, finding my footing, our skirts swirling like petals, invoking an enchantment on that Sunday summer afternoon.
As I became aware of my mother’s aging, I began trying to spend more time with her. In 2002, I took her on a cruise to Hawaii; in 2004, we traveled to Italy. I made the effort to visit her more regularly.
My cousin Sherry, Marilyn’s middle daughter, still lives in Michigan with her husband and child. I’ve learned to be grateful to her for the regular visits she’s paid to my mother, the invitations for holiday meals, occasional excursions to the theatre—things I can’t do often enough from across the country.
As my mother’s mobility decreased, she could no longer travel without assistance. After my uncle Ray was diagnosed, he and Marilyn could no longer travel either. In 2009, I flew to Detroit, picked up my mom, and traveled with her to Atlanta.
During that visit, my uncle’s health seemed to be on the upswing; he was optimistic and felt more energy than he had in a while. My aunt, still relentlessly upbeat, was buoyed by this turn in him, despite the necessity of doing multiple loads of laundry every day to keep up with the leakage of his bodily fluids. I remember her looking skinny and rugged as a bantam rooster, going up and down the stairs to basement several times a day with loads of sheets in her arms, never complaining.
On this trip, I did my best to perform as a member of the family, a daughter and a niece. My uncle and I took a walk around his neighborhood and looked at all the spring flowers. I shopped and made lunch and cooked dinner. We played endless rounds of gin rummy, though I couldn’t begin to keep up with their card playing skills, honed over decades. I didn’t need to protest their lifestyle, or to assert my individuality. Perhaps I was finally growing up.
My mom slept in a room with her sister, each on a twin bed, and stayed up talking late into the night. It was almost like when they were girls.
Now, three years later, my mother wasn’t sure she wanted to make this trip. We’d been following the emails from my cousins, my uncle’s death, my aunt’s rapid decline. My mother fretted, “It’s going to make me feel terrible to see my sister like this.”
“The question to ask yourself,” I said, “is how are you going to feel once you can never see her again?” I didn’t want her to have regrets when it was too late to do anything about them. Eventually, this reasoning was persuasive to her, and she asked me to go ahead and organize the trip.
My aunt and uncle’s house seems to retain its life, even now that its longtime occupants are gone. Everything is the same as it was before Ray died. The refrigerator is filled with food; the paper is delivered every day; the decks of cards are in the drawer of the hutch, ready for the next game. Kathy has been sleeping here a couple nights each week to be nearer to where her mother is staying.
But it’s more than that. Standing alone in the kitchen, I can hear the echo of Thanksgiving dinners, post-golf cocktail parties, birthday celebrations. That life still thrums through these rooms, as palpable to me as if these were my memories.
As much a fantasy as it might have seemed to me; for them it was reality.
It will be the pancreatic cancer that kills my aunt, but the Alzheimer’s Diagnosis makes sense; Marilyn had never wanted to look at what she didn’t want to see. After my uncle died, she often asked where he was. Initially my cousins would tell her that Ray was dead and she would experience her terrible grief all over again, as if for the first time. Eventually, they learned to say, “You’ll see him soon.”
When we first arrive at Belmont Village, my aunt is in the midst of a group activity designed to stimulate memory. Each participant is asked to describe his or her family. Marilyn is mostly unengaged but, when pressed by the cheery facilitator, reports to the group that she has a brother (she does not.) She wanders away from the activity before it is over, but becomes more animated when she sees Kathy and my mother.
Even within the damaged brain there is still the desire to perform normally. Social graces can remain when other cognition has dimmed. My aunt greets me warmly when she first lays eyes on me; it’s only when she asks me, “How’s your husband?” that I see she has no idea who I am. I’m not offended; why should she know this elusive niece who’s largely held herself apart? I see that she does know my mother and of course her children.
Marilyn is pretty adept at appearing to be with it. She carries on a conversation, following social cues, laughing when we laugh. All her adult life she was an accomplished hostess, charming Ray’s business associates from one end of the country to the other. She knows the steps to this dance.
If she talks long enough, though, she goes off track. She’ll talk about what we will do when Ray comes home, or she’ll talk about her middle-aged children as if they are still in college. She conflates time and place, the deck of her life reshuffled by an unseen hand.
No matter what the topic, she returns to the same refrain: “Let’s all go home and I’ll make us some dinner,” or “Let me just get my purse and we’ll go home.” And with a patience she probably does not feel, Kathy will respond each time with one bit of reality, “No, mom, you’re going to stay here. This is your place now.” My aunt is never convinced.
It’s no longer news that reality TV is highly scripted, each element assembled to move the audience to engage by picking up the telephone or going online to vote. Over the ten-week season, viewers become involved in the story of each star, whether it’s their humble beginnings or their current challenges. Their personal lives are mined for dramatic detail; the night I watch, there is a video clip about Katherine’s recent break-up. In it she is walking alone through city streets; she looks gorgeous, pensive but upright. She is brave and optimistic about the future. We don’t see her home in a messy apartment, wearing stained sweats while eating a carton of ice cream and ripping in two every photograph she has of him. So, it’s not reality reality.
We applaud when someone improves their moves and suffer with them when missteps occur. We gasp when someone falls. We cheer or rail when someone gets voted off the show, or when someone survives the next purge. I will confess I even tuned in the next night to find out who ultimately won.
“My sister loved to dance,” my mom repeats as the closing credits roll.
My cousin tells her that Belmont Village will occasionally bring in musicians, and even there, Marilyn will dance.
On the day I will fly my mother back to Detroit, then fly myself back to Los Angeles, we go again to Belmont Village, sit with my aunt in the dining room and try to persuade her to eat some lunch. She is distracted and fussy; I think she knows we are saying goodbye.
As we get up to go, my aunt says to my mother, “Please, don’t leave me here.” And of course, this breaks my mother’s heart. But there is nothing to be done.
My cousins, whose lives at one time seemed so perfect, so easy, will have lost both their parents in a single year. I will begin to imagine the reality of a day when I will be without my own mother and how bereft I will be. No matter how one has lived, death and grief are great equalizers.
My aunt does not last much longer. By early August that same year, she dies, perhaps rejoining my uncle, her inseparable partner for so many years. And despite my skepticism, I find it comforting to imagine them laughing in the beyond, beyond the beyond, dancing amidst the stars.