Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Making a Joyful Noise! In Memoriam Interlude: 5 . . . 6 . . . 5-6-7-8

 Susan Hartley in Ireland, 2005.

Not everyone sings with the voicebox. Not everyone makes melody with the mouth.

Susan Hartley made a joyful noise with her feet. Tap-e-ta, tap-e-ta, shuffle ball change, shuffle ball change, jump down, jump down, jump down, stomp! Only a whole lot faster and a whole lot more intricate.

She must have been something when she was younger. Her bio says she started dancing when she was five, and was a demonstrator for Paul Draper in his New York studio by the time she was 12. When she was 15, she was part of a group of precision acrobats called The Hurricane.

Tap, jazz, acrobatics, ballet -- Susan danced it all on concert hall and theater stages from Atlantic City, New Jersey, to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

And she shared what she knew. In 1988, Susan opened Dancemoves Studio in Seminole, Florida, where she taught countless girls and boys how to cartwheel, arabesque, and Shuffle Off to Buffalo.

Nine years ago, give or take a few months, I watched Susan take my then somewhat hesitant four-year-old grandson by the hand, lead him to the center of her studio dance floor, and walk him through a series of tap steps.  

Brush forward, brush back, step. Brush, brush, step. Fl-ap, heel; fl-ap heel. Fl-ap, fl-ap, fl-ap, flap.

Week after week, month after month, year after year. Tap, jazz, ballet, lyrical, hip hop, acrobatics. First one grandson, then another, then a cousin, then a granddaughter.

It was all about developing that innate itch that makes us sway, swing, and step to music. It wasn't about perfection. It was about the kind of professionalism that drives you to keep practicing until it's as perfect as you can make it. It was about the kind of professionalism that keeps the show moving regardless of what faux pas has just occurred onstage.

Miss Susan didn't go over and over and over a step. She expected her students to watch closely and remember complex combinations almost instantly. She expected daily practice between lessons. That was part of the training. Broadway directors would be culling wannabe's who needed coddling from professional dancers who had the mental acuity as well as the physical agility to handle two-hour's worth of demanding choreography.

There was no undeserved praise awarded and no slack given. Little miss in a huff off in a corner? Pick her up, bring her back into the circle, and tell her to save the hissy fit for later. Shut the door, shut out the distractions, and carry on.

Knowing that one teacher is never sufficient, she brought in Lane Napper and other professionals from the Broadway Dance Center and other studios to conduct master classes in dance, voice, and theater. Her daughter, Elizabeth, joined her in the studio teaching musical theater and voice. She took her students to New York, Ireland, Miami, and as many places as their parents were willing to let the children go. She taught them how to conduct themselves in an audition, how to occupy themselves when it was someone else's turn to practice, how to overcome the fear of doing a round off, how to be generous with each other.

One student ended up with a part in a Nickelodeon TV show because of the connections Hartley helped her make.

Her choreography reflected Draper's melding of ballet and tap and her own acrobatic and ensemble training. Her studio boasted the only precision lines  (think Rockettes kick lines) in Pinellas County.

It can be hard on kids when their mother works with other kids. Especially when you don't quite fit in to her world, their world. That's not an excuse. It's also hard when you know you're not quite the mother your child either needs or would like to have. Either way, there are choices to be made. Choices to let go of unrealistic expectations, to accept what is and not what we wish was, and to find the perfect path our Creator has prepared for us -- and no one else -- to walk in.

Susan's son struggled with that. Susan struggled with it, too. Maybe no one knew how much until it was too late. Ultimately it cost both of them -- and all of us -- big time.

There are no guarantees of how many days we each have in this world. Or of how we will pass from this world into the next.

All we have is today. How we choose to live today is what matters for today . . . and, oddly, for tomorrow, too. Today we can choose anger and bitterness over what we perceive as unfair. We can choose to sit in a huff in the corner because the music isn't to our liking.

Or we can choose to get up and make a joyful noise to the music that is playing -- one that echoes through eternity.

With our mouths.

Or with our feet.