“…..Twenty-five miles from home, girl…..my feet are hurtin’ mighty bad…”
Maryanne’s ample buttocks shake and bobble. Her dark black satin skin glistens with sweat, and her teeth flash extra white against it. Her smile is infectious and spontaneous. She is immersed in the music. I am captivated. She dances with pure abandon, with a total lack of self-consciousness. She struts and shimmies with the other five girls, but I barely see them. She isn’t the prettiest one, but I can’t take my eyes off of her.
“…….I gotta keep on walkin’…..walk on…….walkin’…….walk on…….”
Many young women have a similar story to Maryanne’s here at the Women’s Job Corps Center in Astoria, Oregon; she is barely 18 years old and poor, and has a toddler back home in Georgia. We are told that most of these women had babies at 14 or 15, haven’t had more than a fifth-grade education, if that, and have little to no way out of a life of more babies and more poverty. They are plucked out of their dead-end lives, put on a rickety bus, and shipped a thousand miles away from home to this Job Corps Center, where they are to learn some basic job-ready skills such as typing, sewing, bookkeeping, and cooking. Then they can go back home and find a job. Their mothers are watching the babies while they get some education. The fathers are generally absent.
“….I got fifteen miles to go now………”
Maryanne can barely read, but she has something I want; she can move. She can dance.
Don’t get me wrong; I can dance. I am 12 years old and one of Mrs. Schumacher’s shining examples of a young ballerina with great potential. I am skinny and flat-chested. And I’ve been en pointe for three years already. I can do pirouettes and grand jetés, I have already assumed that ballerina affectation of a high-held head and that lifted chin that makes ballerinas look a little arrogant, and black leotards and pink tights with pink ballet slippers are like a second skin to me. I dance to classical music every day. My dance classes begin with plies at the barre, the pianist leads us through the introductory “arms one-two” as we pull into Fifth Position, and every class ends with a reverent bow of respect to our teacher, the elegant and noble Madame Schumacher.
But Maryanne shakes my world, my sensibilities. In the ballet studio, my body strives for mastery of angles; Maryanne is a vibrating mass of ripples and undulations. I haven’t reached puberty yet, and I am sheltered and unworldly and uninformed about sex, but I am suddenly aware that there is sexual energy in these girls’ moves. There is something visceral under the surface that is just out of my reach. They are smiling and radiant and having fun, and I think of the strained looks on every ballet student’s face as we grind our hips for turnout and tremble with effort to lift our legs higher in extensions and wince with pain from the bleeding blisters inside our toe shoes.
I sense that in Maryanne’s world there is something earthy, whereas in mine there is something lofty. Maryanne knows something “dirty,” and I am unsoiled. Maryanne is a little plump and large-breasted and full of curves; I am being groomed to find female roundnesses unsightly, but Maryanne exudes sex, and her body pulsates with it. Physically, Maryanne exemplifies everything antithetical to a ballerina’s body. But she pulls the rock right out of the music and rolls it right through the roof. I know that I have neither the capacity nor the womanliness nor the body to move like this. Within my own kinesthetics, I cannot even begin to replicate what she does. I can only think of how it feels to set myself up for step/pas de burre/glassade/ assemble/tendu right/ set up for a double pirouette, run off stage left…..
“….Walkin’ for three days……two lonely nights…….”
Hips shaking, arms popping, hands clapping, fingers snapping, breasts bouncing, laughing.
It is 1969, and my dad has been hired as the music professor here. He teaches piano, directs a chorus, and holds classes in music theory and ear training. After 13 years as a music professor at Portland’s small Concordia Lutheran College and organist and choir director at the affiliated St. Michael’s Lutheran church, he resigns from that job. A year later he finds this job in Astoria, a 2-hour drive from Portland, where he works Monday-Friday, coming home only on the weekends. Meanwhile, two years earlier my mom had gone back to school to get her Masters Degree in Music Education, and as luck would have it, she gets approval to do her student teaching right before graduating, right here at her husband’s side in the Music Building at the Job Corps Center. My brothers are older,15 and 18, and are busy with jobs or music opportunities and can take care of themselves in Portland. But I am too young to stay home for seven weeks without my parents, so I am dragged along. I go begrudgingly, whining about missing my friends for the bulk of the summer, figuring I’ll be bored to tears in a strange place with strange people. I want to ride my bike and go to slumber parties and run through the sprinklers in my new two-piece swimsuit, not sit around the faculty cafeteria in a hick town dominated by the lumber mill industry. Downtown Astoria smells like sawdust.
Yet, as one-week blends into the next and the next, I form deep attachments to these “older” girls. They are kind to me and treat me sweetly like a kid sister. Most of these girls are black, or if they’re not, they are what is derogatorily considered White Trash. They are predominantly Southern, from Kentucky, Mississippi, Alabama. Many of them are terribly homesick, missing their babies and their mamas, trying to make sense of this foreign land in the Pacific Northwest. And then there is me: white, 12-year-old shy and introverted ballet dancer girl with two high- level graduate -degree parents from large and progressive Portland, thrown together with 18-21-year-old poor girls from the Deep South. My eyes are opening to lives far different from my own; I come from an insular, sheltered, artists’ home and these girls come from their own insular lives, driven by poverty and lack of education.
It is music and dance that draw us together.
My mom wants to teach Music and Dance Education in the Portland Public Schools (and does indeed go on to do so for the next 20 years), so she decides to integrate music and dance right there at the Job Corps Center, as her teaching project. She encourages girls who wanted to dance to choose music that moves them, to use their own styles and choreograph in groups, bring to life in northern Oregon what makes them come alive down South. And they deliver. I watch their rehearsals for hours. I operate the record player as they practice, carefully picking up the needle as they work out a section of their dance, then easing it back down to the same track countless times. I am part of it.
And as I watch, I hear Soul Music for the first time. My dad, who had studied and taught Liturgical, Religious Choral, and strictly Classical music for 45 years, is himself suddenly awakened to and mesmerized by Aretha Franklin and Dionne Warwick and the new “Popular” music, and as the lid of his own limited musical world pops off, so does mine. My mom, raised in the Lutheran Church as well, in Worthington, Minnesota, is discovering this new culture herself. I share this awakening with my parents. And yet, it is the dancing that changes me most. This is not like watching through the glass screen of a TV; I feel the pulsation of the music. I smell the heat that the dancers generate. I feel the vibrations of their feet. Maryanne reveals a world that I am strangely attracted to, but I know that I cannot enter it.
At the end of the summer, my mom and I must return to Portland. Her student teaching stint is up, and I have to go back to school. I must say goodbye to these women who taught me more about the world in 7 weeks than in my previous seven years of life. I am about to enter the seventh grade and study Home Economics and learn to make gingerbread and practice my scales on the piano at home, and I will return to the ballet studio in my pink tights and pink satin pointe shoes. I know that our worlds are wholly separate, and I know that I will never see any of these young women again.
The decades would pass, and I would grow up and think many times about Maryanne and the others who danced in that room in those days, and wonder what their lives handed them after that summer of 1969. To this day, when I hear the song “25 Miles”, I can still see Maryanne and her friends dancing to it, moving their bodies with effortless rhythm, smooth undulations, and popping pelvises, those hot August weeks lending a sheen of sweat to their faces and their hair glistening in the Music Department Building lights.
They couldn’t have known that it was I who envied their lives that summer.
That fall I was promoted to Mrs. Schumacher’s Advanced Ballet class.