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Judy Atchinson's A Stubborn Woman
by Judy Atchinson

A Stubborn Woman

A Daily Gazette community blog
QUEST leader's wanderings and musings

The color of dance

“No one imagines that a symphony is supposed to improve as it goes along, or that the whole object of playing is to reach the finale. The point of music is discovered in every moment of playing and listening to it. It is the same, I feel, with the greater part of our lives, and if we are unduly absorbed in improving them we may forget all together to live them.”
-- Alan Watts

This past weekend I made my yearly winter trek up to Saratoga to the Dance Museum to play for the New York Summer School of the Arts, summer program. Two programs actually. Ballet and modern dance.

The modern audition taught and adjudicated by Caroline Adams. A black woman, in her 70’s now, and a giant in the modern dance world. Several years ago she had a double hip replacement and has been harassing me ever since to have mine done. A tiny woman she reached up to my face and “Much better and cheaper than cosmetic surgery,” she said, she smoothed my cheek with bird feather fingertips. “The lines are gone,” she said “All that stress and pain wiped away.”

I think I will remember that for the rest of my life. The gentleness and the care she gave to someone she sees so rarely. There were 30 people for this audition, and maybe 2 or 3 will be chosen, but again I was struck by the lack of faces of color in the room. Oh there will be faces of color in this program, many in fact, but none from our area. This is a program run and taught by people of color. Almost every major modern dance company in this country was founded and kept alive by people of color. It is a great legacy and lesson for our children. Yet there is no interest in this area.

Yes, we have African dance and African drumming but this, this great gift of modern movement, is never mentioned. Alvin Alley’s Revelations is a journey through slavery and black triumph. Yet it is Caucasian children whose parents make sure they are aware of this great gift to the arts. And how many times have I spoken of Bill T in this blog? Then there’s Jose Limon, from Mexico, who made a living tribute to Shakespeare with “The Moor’s Pavanne,” and a beautiful piece of reverence and stillness called “There Is A Time.” These are masterpieces of black genius which are lauded by the world but not by those in our community. I can continue on and on about the birth of contemporary dance led by people of color right here in this nation. Ballet was born in Russia, and African dance in Africa, but true contemporary modern dance started right here, in this country. What a legacy for our children particularly our children of color.

We are so backward still. Yo Yo Ma will be playing the cello with the Albany Symphony. And yet will anyone interview him about his Silk Road ensemble, or Citizen Artist’s work? Will anyone mention Lil Buck- jooker extraordinaire who traveled to China with Yo Yo to perform “The Dying Swan” in front of 3,000 people with Yo Yo Ma accompanying him? Jooking, by the way, is a highly sophisticated form of break or street dancing again pioneered by the black artistic community.

Lil Buck is, of course, black and “The Dying Swan” was the signature piece of Anna Pavlova, a Russian Prima Ballerina, and the music is unaccompanied cello, played by an oriental Yo Yo Ma. Charles Riley, (Lil Buck’s given name), performed in black jeans, black t-shirt and black sneakers and Yo Yo Ma in his shirt sleeves and the Chinese gave it a rousing standing ovation. Now this is diversity. This is the coming together of a culture that Martin Luther King really dreamed of. Not the dragging out every year of that same worn out speech, over and over – ad infinitum to nausea.

It seems as if our town, our people, want to be identified with second-run Broadway shows and karaoke.

We have places right here that have identified with the arts but who don’t really present them. Except for SPAC, but no one ever goes to see and support performances. The black art of dance was supposed to be for every day common man and woman. “There Is A Time” should have been seen in every school and Revelations -- well this is true black history. Do we even talk to our youth about Malcolm X? What about Angela Davis -- The Black Panthers -- The Chicago Seven? Shame.

Our kids know more about superheroes than the living, breathing heroes and heroines of their backgrounds and history. And by the way, where are the super heroes of color? Please, please in your rush to be cool and angry and whatever else, you leave your own nation behind and forget how the real heroes of your legacy preached togetherness, inclusiveness, and love.

Here is a favorite quote of M.L.K. and also of mine. Try to live it as it is meant to be lived -- not one day a year but everyday of your life.

“I have decided to stick to love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.”
-- Martin Luther King

I have the flu -- here I thought I hurt all over because my arthritis was acting up -- Nope -- the real life in living color flu. I feel hideous. Exhaustion, and headache, and stomach distress (funny way to say it S.O.S. - stomache. Every joint and bone hurts and I am freezing and miserable. It’s been 5 days now but whenever I get out of work I come back sicker than ever.

I just want to turn my face to the wall, put the dog against my back and the cat on my pillow and sleep. And I am the original night walker, insomnia is my middle name. But, now I sleep as if I’ve been beaned by a brick and I have vivid exciting Technicolor dreams, which veer from scenes of terror and flight to back grounds of birds, flowers, and dancing children. My dream life, right now is richer and more exciting than reality.

Still, playing the piano on Sunday was nice. I miss it often and it gives me surcease from stress and depression. I am in the zone, automatic pilot and pure bliss. I still wish to be invited to play somewhere. This is something I really excel at.

Now a hero enters my life from a new direction. Union College. This good man has invited QUEST to send a student of exceptional brilliance to Union to finish up his degree. I had been one of the nay-sayers for years, and I felt I had a right to dismiss this school because I had worked there for over 20 years. And a while back. Cynthia Stromillo (nee-Mandillo) had left a legacy to Union’s dance department on my behalf. There is even a plaque in her honor somewhere in the dance department. That is, hopefully it’s still there; these things have a way of disappearing. I would have preferred the money to the honor, but because I no longer work there, I am completely out of touch with this school. I had watched them build more and more fences, close more and more roads, and become a schools answer to a gated community. The perfect ivory tower.

And then this tall elegant black male stepped in and I am blown away. My boy, coming from a bright but broken family will have his chance -- At first he said 'no' -- but mom and brother and I ganged up on him, and what else could he do. He will be a brilliant student in his chosen field and a blazing star in the career of his choice. Not to mention his wicked sense of humor and a blinding smile.

And then totally out of the blue Helen Quirinni spoke to me from the great beyond. My dear, dear friend Helen who broke all the rules all of her life. The first female shop steward in the nation -- and who kept an ongoing dialogue with Jack Welsh about fair pensions for seniors, many of whom had worked a lifetime (as she had) for G.E. At the reception for her funeral a letter was read from Jack Welsh stating how he would miss the thrust and parry of their ongoing discussion.

She often bemoaned the fact that I didn’t take care of myself properly or pay myself a fair wage. She told me stories of her poverty stricken youth and how she would scavenge bottles to turn in for nickels which she would then use to rent bikes from friends and strangers so she could ride around the block. She always had a shelter dog right up until she died.

We would meet for lunch monthly, she particularly liked the Light House as it was on the water. She had a beat-up old boat which was her pride, joy, and everything else. She loved taking folks for a cruise down the Mohawk -- “You bring the sandwiches” she would say, and I’ll bring the paid help. The paid help being her nephew who lowered the boat in and raised it out of the water. On the cruise (such as it was) Helen would be a tour guide extraordinaire. She knew this area’s history completely.

The unions adored her, she spoke all over the nation about union-building and/or the strength of women. In her later years 80 or so, she wrestled with G.E. about pension funds. She traveled and spoke at many a shareholders meeting, with great concern for justice and human dignity.

I remember the last march on GE down by the company gates with her bull horn, her whistle and her walker -- still an organizer, still a person to be reckoned with. She was dead 6 months later -- a stroke and then 2 days hence a quiet death. She dedicated her body to Albany Medical Center for research and her money (which most of us did not know she had) to a donor-directed fund at the Community Foundation.

And they in turn e-mailed me and 2 other organizations to apply for $5,000 for a special project. This doesn’t guarantee we get the money but it does give us a running start. Community Foundation states there will be similar monies available for the next 5 years. Hallelujah! In these days of diminishing money this shines like a beacon in the night. Helen’s stipulation being that the money was to be used for her favorite projects -- women and disadvantaged children.

Helen, my friend, don’t worry your pretty little head, we can cover both without even breaking a sweat.

Helen this is for you.

“If you can’t fly-then run
If you can’t run- then walk
If you can’t walk- then crawl
But whatever you do---
You have to keep moving

-- Martin Luther King

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