“Can I have everyone on stage, please?” I shouted loud enough for all of my dance students even those in the dressing rooms to hear. “That was a great dress rehearsal, I mean a bad dress rehearsal, which as you know means you all will be fabulous tomorrow at the show. I am looking forward to seeing your best performances tomorrow night as are your parents and family. Go home now and get some rest. Kathy, do you have any words of wisdom for the stars of Western Pennsylvania?” “Not really.” Kathy laughed. “I am sure you all will be great tomorrow night. See you all tomorrow at 5:30. Don’t be late.”
The third week of June in 1972, a week after school let out, Kathy and Marlene’s Theatrical School of the Arts was busy rehearsing at the Moon Township’s High School auditorium. We reserved the stage for three nights in a row, two for rehearsals and one for the show. This formula worked well for Nancy Lee’s performances in which I played a part for the previous 14 years. We did as she had done all of those years before. The first night was to give the younger students experience on the stage, learning about green rooms, wings, and stage direction. It was also for the experienced dance performer to get a feel for how long she/he had between numbers. Most first timers had only one or two dances to perform. Those experienced dancers had many more, sometimes including solos. It was critical for them to know the order of their dances. Costume changes would have to be planned and help might be sought for those quick 3 minute changes.
“Now you all will enter from stage right. Does everyone know which side of the stage that is?” Kathy coached her little tap dancers. “I do, I do,” Dana excitedly yelled out. She didn’t remember how loud her voice sounded from the stage until that very moment. Dana, a 7 year old who had performed two years ago under the direction of Nancy Lee, was one of the few veteran performers in the show that year. Nancy’s years of experience gave many of her students’ confidence to perform their best on show night. That is just what Kathy and I wanted for our students. Novices that we were at producing dance shows; somehow we didn’t worry a minute about our ability to convey confidence to our students.
“Do you see the yellow tape on the stage floor?” I asked all of the students now gathered at the back and wings of the stage.
“Every dancer will need to learn where their mark is so that everyone can be seen from the auditorium. Your parents and relatives want to see you. Make sure you begin your dance on your mark. Does everyone understand?” I look at all of the dancers now to see if there are any confused looking faces.
“Ok, then, let’s begin at the beginning. Please be ready in the wings halfway through the dance before yours. The order of dances is posted in all dressing rooms. Ask an adult if you don’t know when your dance is to go on. And please remember, no gum and no talking on stage. Listen for your cue. You don’t want to be standing on the side or still in the dressing room when you hear your music and realize you’re supposed to be dancing onstage.” A loud roar of laughter erupted from the students, especially the younger ones.
“Stay in your dressing room until you are called to the wings. Let’s have a good rehearsal.” Kathy and I wanted this to go perfectly. Our age and inexperience allowed us to have this undeserved confidence.
Being 17 blinded me to anything that didn’t have anything to do with the dance performance. I diligently worked on getting all of the dancers, sets, lights, and stage direction without a bit of hesitation. Oh to be young and without fear again.
As far back as I can remember I took dancing lessons from Nancy Lee. Dance became just as much a part of my life as going to school, studying for finals, swimming, boating, and reading books. I would have never predicted that in my Junior and Senior Years of high school I would be running a dance studio and putting on annual performances. Yet here I was. Getting here involved many people and much practice and sacrifice. I was a child during the 1960’s who didn’t watch Saturday morning cartoons. It seemed to me that everyone watched Saturday morning cartoons on television except me. We had a nice television. We even had a color television. But I was always at dance classes on Saturday mornings. As the years rolled on, I found myself taking more and more classes which took up more and more of my free time. But I loved to study dance, especially under the direction of Nancy Lee. I met many of my best friends in dance class. If I had ever stopped to think about it during those last two years of high school, I might have become intimidated. But I was so busy with school and teaching dance that I didn’t have time to think about it. As mom would say, “it is better you don’t think too much about it, just do it.”
Growing up on Neville Island, I was sure there was some place better. Some place you could live out your life without the neighbors knowing everything you did and didn’t do. I felt as if the entire world judged my every move. The moment I took a step off my yard, I was fair game. There were even times when the neighbors knew what I did inside my home as well. I remember a time when Della and Mack Burton, our next door neighbors, came over to my house to see if I was alright. They heard me crying in my room. Mom had given me a spanking. She and I were surprised that they had heard this episode, her yelling and my crying. I think that might have been the last time mom spanked me. The close community of the island and the concern we had for each other was a blessing sometimes and a nuisance other times. This particular time, I was glad that I had someone on my side. My mother, of course, felt otherwise.
As I look back now, the tight knit island community seems much better than any other place I have ever lived. The Islanders were for the most part law abiding neighborly folks. I suppose we all like to think of ourselves as neighborly, loving and caring about our neighbors. Soon selfishness creeps in and it always does. Do we ask ourselves whether we should help our neighbor or ourselves? I guess our answer is decided by our perspective. Those who are Christians learn that we need to love our neighbor as ourselves. This is a simple thought, yet it is the most difficult thing to do. Yet, my next door neighbors truly had my interests at heart when they chose to intervene. Their actions had two opposite results. It endeared them to me forever and caused my mother to look at them with suspicious eyes.
I remember many things about the Burtons and other Viviana Way residents that shaped how I learned to see my world. I was particularly intrigued by their stepping out of their comfort zone to help me. They didn’t care about criticism from other neighbors. They seemed to be unaffected by disapproving neighbors. Confident, they knew what Jesus commanded them to do and they did it.
Everyone on the island had their own religion. My Viviana neighbors were Roman Catholics, Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans, and Baptists. The Burtons were Presbyterians but they seemed to know something no one else did. There was something very special about this couple; they were happy and had everything they wanted. Coming to the island from West Virginia must have given them an advantage. Many folks immigrated to Neville Island bringing diverse cultures from vastly different places during different period in their lives. Eventually, their identities merged together like ingredients in a melting pot. Soon after, they simply became known as Islanders.