Wellness Wednesday: Pilobolus, Recovery, and Balance

Pilobolus BIG FIVE-OH tour

Last Saturday, my husband and I were in the audience of the Duncan Theater at Palm Beach State College for a performance by the legendary modern dance company, Pilobolus, part of its BIG FIVE OH! celebration tour. As we watched the remarkable ways in which the human body can move, morphing into shapes our brains interpret as other objects, it felt like we, too, were transformed by the experience.

… adventurous, adaptive, athletic, surprising and revealing of beauty in unexpected places … wit, sensuality, and stunning physical acumen …

Pilobolus Dance

Postponed by the pandemic

The tour was postponed, twice, by the pandemic. We had tickets to the 2020 show, when I was less than a year into my rehabilitation from a lengthy 2019 hospital stay from a ruptured aneurysm. Like at least one-third of long-term patients, I was unable to move when I left the ICU, beaten down by ICU-acquired weakness. Watching the performance on Saturday, I understood that I would have felt much different two years ago.

Feeling my body respond

Perhaps its my mothers’ dance genes that make me twitch when I watch movement, intuitively feeling the motion in my own body. It’s similar to when my husband, who competed in the Golden Gloves as a kid, watches boxing. I know to give him room as his shoulders and fists flick.

Sitting in that dark theater on Saturday, I felt my body humming with physicality, an ability to move that I’ve rebuilt in myself since awaking in the ICU. As Dr. Wes Ely documents in Every Deep Drawn Breath, his ground-breaking book about how to reduce the damage done to bodies as a result of life-saving measures:

…for every day spent inactive in the ICU, two or more weeks of activity were needed to rebuild that muscle.

The forty two days took me almost two years to recover. As a retiree in South Florida, I had the time, the support, and the environment that made it possible. Sitting in that dark theater, feeling the dancers’ movements flow through me, I was filled with gratitude.

How to adopt Pilobolus’ moves

Even more important to my story is the fact that I was a very fit exercise instructor when I fell ill. My body had a lot of muscle to use as fuel during my stay in the ICU. A weaker person might not have survived. Ever since, I have preached the benefits of exercise.

Pilobolus, which was founded by non-dancers in 1971, expanded its outreach during the pandemic to include classes in Connecting with Balance designed to improve strength, flexibility, and balance. There is a free class on Pilobolus’ Facebook page with Emily Kent once a month: check it out!

After dancing in New York ….

I spent two years in New York City, Victoria. Then came the second summer, in 1952, when I was home in Winona on vacation. The young man who was to become your grandfather and I met again after having been apart for those two years .. and the rest, as they say, in another history.

We were married in November and started out our life together in a St. Paul apartment for which the rent, at $90 a month, seemed a bit high …. but it had a sink in the kitchen!

I found a job back at Macalester College, in the personnel department this time. Modern dance classes were now under the physical education department; there were no “dance” performances. I realized I’d really hit the jackpot by being at Mac when Nancy Hauser was there: she opened a world I’d have otherwise never known.

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Mom with Macalester College President Turck

After a few months I heard that St. Catherine’s College — the “girls school” just across the street from our new apartment — was looking for a dance instructor. I applied, and after I was interviewed for the job I was sent to the office of the Mother Superior for a final chat. I wondered just how an authority of the Catholic Church might feel about a Protestant-reared woman as a teacher for her charges. I was ushered into the presence of this austere figure in her classic habit of long, black, flowing robes, and waited, fearing what might be harsh questions. But of course, this formidable-looking person turned out to be most gracious and understanding. I was hired.

Toward the end of the year we put on a musical comedy, written and composed by a truly talented senior girl. It turned out to be a great success. With that production, it seemed to me, my dance life had made full circle, for I reached back to my experience with Mr. Murphy’s classes in Winona to choreograph a soft-shoe number for two actors playing old vaudeville performers. At each of the three shows, the number received so much applause that the dancers had to give the audience immediate encores.

Little did the dear nuns, or my students, know that late that spring their dance instructor had become pregnant: so you could say that your mother attended dance classes earlier than most. No wonder she and her daughter have always enjoyed moving to a musical beat!

When we see you dance now, Victoria, our memories flash back a generation and we recall your mother at your age in Caracas, reacting to music the same way you do. IMG_7474

And we remember how, a few years later, she and your Aunt Susie would put on my old cotton leotards, hitched up with scarves, and leap and swirl around our living rooms: from Caracas to Milan to Bologna to Rome. Then, in Bogota, we found a ballet school near our house in Teusaquillo for more organized movement study.

After we moved back to the USA — to Rockville, Maryland — your mother took classes at a good modern dance school, and Aunt Susie’s gang tried a ballet school for a short spell. [Nancy’s daughter, Jane Kelly adds: Ethel Butler, a Graham dancer, was my first introduction to improvisation: I remember feeling such joy in the movement! Ethel Butler obituary.]IMG_7702

Toward the end of our time in Rockville, your mother spotted a dance audition posted at the Rockville Jewish Community Center, where she was doing some volunteer work on weekends, and she passed the audition, performing in a couple of pieces at the JCC a few months later. She continued taking dance classes when we moved to Madrid, taking the bus downtown by herself one evening a week to a studio in an old building right off the Jose Antonio. Your mom also was chosen to be choreographer in the high school production of Lil Abner that both girls went to at the Torrejon High School on the Air Force base outside Madrid.

It wasn’t until we moved back to Rome that Aunt Susie blossomed in a modern dance class. The duet she choreographed with a friend for a show at the Overseas School was stunningly well performed! It looked as if she had studied for years to reach that point.

Your mother’s path, meanwhile, led to serious modern dance study, following in my footsteps. First she attended a summer session in Colorado Springs, studying with Hanya Holm just like I did. Then, it was on to Minneapolis to study with my college dance teacher Nancy Hauser.

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Nancy Hauser Apprentice Group (Kelly Amerson in blue on the right)

What a delightful, creative, disciplined dancer she was turning out to be! She moved to NYC to study with one of Don Redlich’s dance company members, Irene Feigenheimer, and we saw her in a performance at the Dance Theater Workshop with two of Don’s other dancers, Billy Siegenfeld and Jenny Donohue.  Your mom was the standout figure in the group. It was such a thrill to see that the raw talent we’d observed in our three year-old had been shaped by dedication into a captivating dancer.

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Dad (Bob Amerson) and Mom (Nancy Amerson) with me after the 1978 performance at Dance Theater Workshop

And there you have it: some of the highlights of my (of our!) involvement in the world of dance. As I have written these words, many details have come to the surface that had all but been forgotten in the intervening 40-plus years. So, I am indebted to you, Victoria, for inspiring me to do some remembering.

Sometime, when you are a little older, it may be appropriate for you to share some of this story about Grandma with Sam and Connor. I love you all!

Grandma

Cape Cod, Massachusetts

February 20, 1996