#CHQstories – Music and Dance, 1974

Your voice. Your stories. Your Chautauqua.

This summer, read stories submitted by our readers at http://www.chqdaily.com. Describe your first visit to Chautauqua. Share your family history. Reflect on how you bring the Chautauqua experience home.

Submit your CHQ story idea to Daily editor Matt Ewalt at mewalt@ciweb.org.

Leah Pileggi | Community contributor

In the morning, I would take my very first dance class. I was 16, ancient in dancer years. But I was scheduled to jump-start my dance life with pliés and jetés and mazurkas and “modern dance” seven hours a day, five days a week, for two months. A summer of dance at Chautauqua.

I knew Chautauqua. For a couple of weeks every summer, my family ventured from our tiny Pennsylvania hamlet to nestle in the magical, cultured community by the lake. I had grown up watching dance students gather in the plaza like flocks of teenaged pink flamingos, unconcerned or unaware that they were the subjects of painters whose easels sprouted from the plaza’s lawn.

My childhood Chautauqua days had been accompanied by a unique, organic soundtrack. Afternoon rehearsals in the open-air Amphitheater filled the grounds with an ever-changing arrangement of musical styles. The summer symphony rehearsed with guest musicians. Or sometimes the organist practiced on the immense pipe organ, making it breathe like a whale, sending out bursts of music that shook my bones and made my skin jump.

In the evenings, performers from Kenny Rogers to Ethel Merman to Cleo Laine to Marilyn Horne entertained. I’d sit in one of the Amphitheater’s hard wooden pews or, preferably, in a rocking chair on the slightly saggy second-floor porch of the Keystone Hotel next door where I could listen while looking directly down onto the stage.

Over the years I rode an assortment of rented clunker bicycles past practice shacks where musicians scaled the heights of their instruments’ musical ranges.

Back then, the dance studio perched atop the locker rooms of a man-made beach. I swam in the lake and sunbathed on that beach where piano music from the dance studio floated down on a breeze of seaweed and Coppertone.

All those summers I had wondered what went on in that dance studio. Now, I was about to find out.
The night before my very first dance class, I didn’t sleep. I was living among 20 or so unknown-to-me teenage girls, all of them as flexible as Gumby.

During our introductory group meeting held that evening in the common area, girls sat easily in splits – some with one leg in front, some with legs straight out to each side. They flexed and pointed their feet beyond what I thought humanly possible, yawned and tightened their ponytails and yawned some more. My only move was the ponytail. But then they all pulled out hairpins and hair nets and bobby pins, and they created perfect buns. I’m certain my ponytail sagged.

My roommate (who studied ballet as her phys-ed requirement at her private high school in Cleveland) probably wasn’t aware that I lay awake all night in our unadorned, un-air-conditioned dorm room on the third floor of Alumni Hall. My mind raced. Would I be able to keep up? Did I have the right ballet slippers? What about footless tights for modern dance class? I had cut the toes and heels off of one pair of black tights, carefully stitching the frayed edges. But was one pair enough?

My first class would be Ballet I. My teacher was scheduled to be the director of the dance school, a real ballerina named Statia Sublette. Her outsized persona was spoken of in whispers across the Chautauqua grounds. Was she a tyrant or a perfectionist? Was she loud or rudely silent? Would her ego fit through the doorway?  I imagined her as a bitter ex-ballerina-turned-wicked-taskmaster, with a walking stick to smack the ground (and maybe the students). I might have seen that in a movie that included dialogue like “Faster! Straighter! Pay attention girls!” Crack! The cane’s pointy end strikes the wood floor.

That first morning after that very long night, I filled my dance bag with every pink and black piece of dancewear I owned. And then, heart pounding, I set out with a few other girls down the steep narrow street that led straight toward the lake and the waiting dance studio. The air was cool and still. Morning mist hovered over the water. The entrance to the dance studio, an ancient screen door with springs to keep it closed, didn’t close. It slammed. I was awake.

Gaggles of girls squawked and preened in the lobby. It was immediately apparent that stitching around the cut-off toes and heels of my footless tights was overkill. A few girls wore tights with more holes than not, proof of an already-lengthy dance career.

A tide of students swept me toward my assigned studio where I joined a dozen or so equally sleep-deprived older beginning dancers. And there stood Ms. Sublette, posture erect, blond hair trained up, arms graceful even as she quickly checked our names off her list.

She got right to work by leading us to the ballet barre. We were to stand in first position. Heels together, toes turned out, hand resting lightly on the smooth wooden rail. And then, “Girls, buttocks tucked, shoulders down, elbows up, long neck.” How could my body go in so many directions at once? And then, plié and développé relevé. I was so busy trying not to fall over that I didn’t notice she wasn’t berating me or belittling me or ignoring me. In fact, Ms. Sublette explained everything, patiently and in detail. She demonstrated every movement, every exercise. She placed an arm at the proper angle, a foot turned out just so. She corrected me and complimented me. She clapped her hands louder and louder with the music when she wanted me to give all I had. And I gave.

But there was more. After all those years of afternoon Amphitheater serenades and practice shack musicians and melodies from the dance studio as background to my Chautauqua summers, right in front of me sat a real live person playing piano, passionately, just for us old ballet beginners.

“Play something softer, more fluid,” requested Ms. Sublette. The pianist nodded, rifling through a stack of music piled on top of the piano until he found the perfect piece. Later, “Something at this tempo,” said Ms. Sublette, clapping her hands quietly and precisely. The pianist bent down and pulled a page of sheet music from a secret compartment in his bag, something hidden away for just that special request.

At the end of class, we applauded for our accompanist and for Ms. Sublette, and we meant it. And perhaps I also applauded myself for not only surviving my very first dance class but for feeling that if I chose to fly at that particular moment, I could.

Those weeks of dance were so perfect that I came back the following year for another whole season.
Today when I think of Chautauqua, I can still hear the music in my mind, and my soul dances again.