Paul Taylor and my mother, Nancy Robb Amerson, were contemporaries, not only in age but also in having the passion of dance. She, too, danced in New York City before following her heart (and my dad) back to Minnesota, and, even taught dance while she was pregnant with me. It was another of our stories: how the nuns at St. Cate’s never knew she was “in the family way,” thanks to her amazing abs. Six month later, we were in Caracas. In a short couple of years, she had gone from NYC dancer to wife to mother to Foreign Service partner.
Mom made Dad look good on the dance floor at the Marine Ball at Embassies from Caracas to Madrid, and she applauded my sister and me when we’d twirl around the house, but she never again performer on her own or even taught. When we’d see dancers who she knew from New York, I asked her if she wasn’t sorry she left. “And miss the life we have?” She felt the richer for having chosen the path away from the solitary life.
But Mom had dancing in her genes, and when my daughter was just three, Mom took the time to tell Victoria the story of her Dancing Grandma. It starts with this letter:
Cape Cod, Massachusetts February 26, 1996
Just a few days ago, you and your mother came for a visit. Your mother had called to say that you’d told her you wanted to “go to Cape Cod to see Grandma and Papa.” While you were here, you asked to see the video about dancing that we had looked at together the last time you visited us. I knew just the one you meant. I remembered how you had stayed so still watching the dancers until the music made you get off the couch to whirl and leap. The video is called That’s Dancing (MGM)and contains bits of good dancing from many movies, but your special favorite is the part with Shirley Temple from “The Littlest Rebel.” She and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson dance down a street and up a short stairway. You tried to make the humming sounds they were making, and you placed your hands on your hips as Shirley was doing.
Later, you and I even tried to copy them by dancing up our stairs. Will you remember this?
I love seeing that you apparently are going to have the urge to move. There is nothing like it — if you love it. And so, I want to tell you a bit about my own dancing days. — Grandma
When I was a bit older than you now, tap dancing was the rage all over the country. Every little girl had hopes to dance and look just like Shirley Temple, with hair like hers in little sausage curls, and I was just her age. My mother, your Mom’s Grandmother Robb, rolled my hair up in socks to get just the right curl.
Many of us girls took tap dancing classes every Saturday morning to the Murphy Dance Studio, and I quickly realized that I wasn’t very good, either at tapping or at remembering the steps: it was hard to feel free to move with those clunky shoes and heavy taps. When we had our year-end recital — between features at the State Theater — I discovered how scary it was to perform for all those people sitting out there in the dark theater.
Although I stuck with the lessons (and the recitals, with outfits like this one made for me by my grandma) for a while, I realized I’d never be another Shirley Temple!
You probably know that the town I grew up in, Winona, Minnesota, is right on the Mississippi River: it was originally a sandbar on which riverboats, like the ones Mark Twain wrote about, stopped. Every summer, paddleboats from New Orleans offered a four-hour excursions with a jazz band on the upper deck. When I was in sixth grade, my Aunt Didi, who had been a “flapper,” taught me the Charleston and other ballroom dance steps, and I discovered that I loved to move like this. Although I didn’t know it, these excursion boats carried the best jazz bands in the country, so we were dancing to the music of performers like Fats Domino. I wonder if you have heard of him.
By ninth grade, our group was old enough to be enrolled in Mrs. Seaton’s Dancing School. She was big on manners, making the boys line up on one side of the room and walk over to a girl on the other side to ask her to dance. I really just wanted to dance with my friend Rosemary Mannie who could follow any step I made up, so I avoided the boys and we twirled around the room. Once Mrs. Seaton ran over to stop us from swooping and whirling to a walz. “You can’t do that,” she shrieked, “we don’t learn that until next week!” We laughed over that for years.
My group of friends danced all the time: at the Y gym, at the high school, or at a special occasion formal dance. Although we girls still preferred to dance together (and the boys we liked prefer shooting baskets), some of the boys began to get really good at a new tricky dance called the Lindy Hop. I was super flexible and loved the moves. I knew I’d arrived when I was in 10th grade and a senior boy, one of the best dancers in the school, asked me to be his partner to perform the Lindy during a football game halftime show. We danced on a big flatbed truck, surrounded by the school jazz band playing Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood.”
Out there in the middle of the football field, I discovered that this time, with this kind of dancing, I loved performing for a crowd. And that, as you will see, is how I met your grandfather!