Tag Archives: dancing

Forever Stories

The tiny wisps of cardboard are pierced with cords of braided silk, the delicate inventions from a finer, more polished era.  They were created to dangle from a girl’s powdered wrist or to slide along her forearm, perspiring prettily inside its satin glove:  the swath of pastel colored skin worn so tightly that it could not be worn a second time.

Like dried flowers, dance cards might symbolize something that is deceased, yet they are pressed with a tincture of living memory.  Light and music, the swish of bustles and embroideries, the click of patent leather shoes, the scent of hair drenched in oils and pomades:  such things and more permeate these cards. The names written inside, though little more than claimants – not to be denied – were at the same time proof:  of the girl’s success, of her blossoming popularity, of her delicate blush, of her tiny waist.

Sometimes the cards are shaped like butterflies; during wartime they can be shaped like tanks;  some have the shape of fans and some are edged with fringed silk like an old man’s beard.  The ones from military academies might have a tiny sword to dangle in merry accompaniment with the cord.  Some have silhouettes of dancing couples in historic or current dress – and some are flushed with sentimental Victorian colors of spring and summer:  peach and turquoise, sapphire and honey, jade and gilt.

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However, sometimes the cards remained empty:  gripped within the clenched hands of girls with no one to accompany them except for a chaperon, or a loyal friend equally disregarded.  They surrounded the outskirts of the ballroom like a rim of sad clouds, a soft horizon of taffeta and silk, glittering with loneliness.  These were the generations of young ladies who, for one reason or another, found themselves ignored and who out of necessity were forced to make an art out of not caring.

All of these emotions – set to the sweep of waltzes or the slide of the foxtrot and blackbottom, casting shadows against competitive acres of tremulous candle light or light that exploded with electricity – permeate the dance card like perfume.  The glittering laughter, the scent of cosmetics, the frisson of curls still trembling from their abuse under the iron…all of the remnants of a passionate, frantic toilette saturate the tiny cards.

They open like books to reveal diaries of hope, excitement and defeat – the very alchemy of youth. In their way, these narratives make them more evocative than paintings – the unnamed lady claimed for a dance becomes more known to us than the portrait condemned by the artist to remain unblinking for as long as wood and canvas endure.  The unseen becomes more understood than the seen.     And the layers of haunted and haunting stories – like geologic strata – will last forever.

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Wonderland

The sounds of America in the 1930’s and ’40’s were nearly drowned out by the din of footsteps.  Of running, of a mad escape from a quaking society and economy, from a fear in Europe that was supposedly ground into the earth in 1919.

People ran in the 1930’s:   from the miasma of the Depression that wrapped around and suffocated the good lives that they had struggled for and for which they traveled from foreign slums to the processing plant of Ellis Island. They ran in the 1940’s:  from war, from death lists, from the bloody desecrations they thought had ended with the war that had promised to end all wars.

People needed to escape.  They wanted to hide beneath the comforting shadow cast by the home front.  They needed entertainment – entertainment that was brash, garish, unsubtle.  They wanted to bask in the exotic and exciting, without being troubled by historical accuracy or possible cultural misrepresentation. They wanted to see things they could not hope to see in their frightened lives.

So it was no surprise that these decades witnessed the birth of the dance/supper club.  No more hidden 1920’s pillboxes, folding up and relocating like an army barracks after the most recent police raid – these clubs were lush and madcap, catering to the whims of a saddened population.

These havens were often built around a theme:  New Orleans, San Francisco, The Orient, The Islands.  There was one in particular:  “The 7 Seas” – located on 6904 Hollywood Blvd.  It opened the mid 1930’s, under the ownership of Ray Haller, as a ‘tiki’ bar:  decorated with native portraits, breathless tropical plants, lava rocks; with walls layered in coconut matting and fish netting and Polynesian floor shows led by Sam Koki and his band.

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There was a hula comic.  A Polynesian knife dancer (who also performed the Samoan Slap Dance:  an ‘island’ theme could be very convenient).  Drinks prepared by bartenders stolen from Don The Beachcomber.  But most famously, was its ‘rain on the roof’:  a nightly tropical rainstorm – created by sprinklers and a recording of a thunderstorm – which dappled the corrugated tin roofs that sheltered the extensive bar.

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But time did pass – and cruelly so.  In the ‘50’s, young adults listened to their music in more crowded, less creative venues.  Cocktails were no longer de rigueur.  Older – though not by much – adults married.  Had children.  Created a booming generation.  Clubs like the 7 Seas were forgotten; and through the 1970’s crumbled and decayed, their decorations and trinkets crushed into the sidewalks.

However, during the following decade there was a resurgence of dance clubs.  Very few of them were pretty, or deluxe; there were no themes – save for those drawn from the music that was played, and from what the dancers wore.  At the 7 Seas, from the early to mid-‘80’s, I was one of those dancers.

I remember it very well – a great drafty room, surrounded by a ring of tables occupied by a crowd of hopefuls in the dark, eyeing the dance floor with feline curiosity.  We were dressed in our vintage best:  attractively seedy.  I recall one night I wore black leggings, black pointy boots, a black turtleneck and a black-trimmed gold lame men’s smoking jacket.  A boy much younger than I asked me to dance, and when I recounted this vignette to my friends, they breathlessly asked me what happened next.  And I was bound to say that nothing did.

I went to the 7 Seas to dance.  To dance until muscles and bones ached; to come home with smoke-stained hair.  I loved that ugly, dubious place.

For dubious it was.  I did not know that at the time it was referred to as the ‘7 Sleaze’.  Then, around 1984, it was closed down, because – rumor said – of drug dealings in the parking lot.  I didn’t believe this:  certainly the people loitering in the back were rather skeevy, but this accusation seemed rather unfair.  I didn’t even get to use my free pass, which I still keep in my wallet:

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Recently I read what had happened while I was dancing.

On July 1, 1981 the Wonderland Murders, or the Four on the Floor Murders (for that’s how many bodies were found, and where they were found), were committed.  The details were grotesque and depressing.  It began with a robbery perpetrated by porn star John Holmes to settle a debt to Ron Launius, cocaine kingpin of the Wonderland Gang.  He invaded the home of Eddie Nash – the owner of the 7 Seas.  Two days later Launius and 3 members of his gang were found bludgeoned to death in their home, at 8763 Wonderland Avenue in Laurel Canyon, Los Angeles.  Nash had intended to have Holmes killed as well, but decided to spare him, to teach him a lesson by allegedly forcing him to partake in the murders.  Officers from the LAPD remarked that the scene was bloodier than that of the Tate-LaBianca murders.  Holmes and Nash were tried and acquitted in 1982 by a hung jury, 11-1.  Nash supposedly bribed that one juror with $50,000.

The 7 Seas, where all I wanted to do was dance, was owned and run by a criminal.  The club that began as a wonderland would end with The Wonderland.

The Warming Season

Some animals hibernate for the winter.  They curl into their sleeping places, slow and lazy, and dream of the green months that Nature has hiding in her sleeve.  Some animals stay awake – shuddering through arctic storms, living in sparse forests, thin and hopeless.  But they live like this because Nature has slipped the tendency into their DNA like an unexpected liquor.  And they too hear the future months rattling in her sleeves like dice.

We don’t hibernate.  Nor, for the most part, do we spend our waking winter hours in despair.  We do what we can to stay warm.  We harvest.  We cook.  We celebrate.  We dance.

Hop To It

 

Fancy Formal

 

There is something about the holidays that makes our grasp tighter, our embrace more earnest – to hold onto a joy that is as frail and rare as a flower in the snow, thriving without its mothering stem, or network of roots.  The happiness is sudden and unexpected; a splash of color in a blizzard’s landscape.  We dare not sleep through the warming season, blind to the lights burning frigidly in the early night.  Nor should we ignore the orphaned trees or heavy medieval spices that wait patiently in the annual cook’s cabinet. 

We must take the time to encourage bliss to circulate and keep us alive.  We must step lively.

Brotherhood of Rail Road Trainmen

Fran Pearson!

 Happy Holidays, my very good, my very patient friends.

Happy

“The Orient In Her Hips”

Agustina Otero Iglesias was born in western Spain, into a childhood pocked-marked with poverty and abuse.  Her parents – a Greek officer and a Spanish gypsy – gave her an insolent, passionate heart, but little else.  Her proud inheritance lept unbidden from them to her mysterious blood, which flowed like rapids to their destiny over the cliffs.

When she was ten – in 1878 – she was working as a servant.  In that same year, she was raped.  Four years later she ran away with a lover to Lisbon, and began her dancing career in the local taverns and clubs.  She was young, charming and careless in those dark and dangerous places, her skin glowing like a lost pearl.

She escaped to France with another lover when she was twenty.  Within the year she was free once more, and had reinvented herself as La Belle Otero, swathed in silken shawls hung with silver coins and black roses, her hypnotic feet tracing Spanish patterns on the stages of Marseilles and Paris. 

She was very soon the star of the Folies Bergere and one of the most desired courteseans of a generation that devoured beauty with eyes hidden beneath heavy, lavender colored lids.

Her "followers" were legion.  Stories of madness and desire flashed above her like lightning sparking above a velvet landscape.  The suicides of the men she had turned away.  The duel that was fought over her.  The cupolas of the Carlton Hotel , modeled after her famous breasts.  A writer, Hugues le Roux, observed in the language of education and dissipation, "All the Orient was in her hips."

Whad did he mean?  That all the secrets and danger of an unknown continent curled within her muscles in a seductive implication?  That the exoticism of The Silk Road traveled along the bends and curves of her body?  When he watched her, did he see things that exceeded the dreams of respectable men?  In her luscious prime, Otero must have been magnificent. 

Le Belle Otero died in 1965, aged 97.  The world by then must have become offensive to her:  sloppy, rude and loud.  Reputations were no longer gracefully destroyed in whispers, in the shadows, but in the street for all to see.  Fifty years earlier she had purchased a home for $15,000,000 – now she was shamed by a monthly rent.

She had her memories:  of the lives she ruined, of the underworld she ruled; of the jewels that glittered from her neck and arms – passion's decorations.  Perhaps she rested her hands on her hips and marveled at their once singular power.  She remembered that their slightest movement inspired words as brilliant as a diamond dropped into a glass of champagne and raised to her lips.

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I Suppose I Could Wear This

Had my fitting today.  I think it will do quite well.

I like the sash, and the little tight bow – and how trim it made my waist look!  And the sweet little rhinestone brooch resting in the bow's know:  what a clever idea!

And all that deevy Brussels lace, cascading from bodice to floor – it makes one quite giddy to think of all the threads and needles twirling to make such pretty patterns!

But it was so very tight:  I complained to Mother, who insisted on staying with me during the fitting – so embarrassing – and I believe I said something about 'bloody whalebones' and she slapped me!  In front of the seamstresses, too!  I didn't talk to her for the rest of the afternoon. 

I think the nectline is not low enough – not by half!  But Mother insisted on that strip of lace being put in…I know what the other girls will be wearing at the ball – their Mothers aren't old-fashioned and tedious and boring…so why should I go, dowdy and covered up like Mrs. Astor's librarian?

Let's see…the colors are not to my liking.  And I said so!  Mother called me an ungrateful little creature – but don't I have a say in the making of my own gown?  For my very first ball?  It's so dreadfully unfair.

I'm told that the pastels for the roses and the lavenders are the latest thing – but I would so much prefer bolder, more gallant colors:  crimson and gold, silver and green…but no, a girl must wear faint, dying colors.

I must say, however, that the seamstresses were most clever in twisting and turning the fabric, to create the rosettes at my bosom.

 

"Bosom"?  Did I really say that???  Tres scandalarie!!!

 

I'm not used to a train – we will waltz, of course, but should the band play a galop or schottische, what then?  I can just HEAR my shoes tearing through all that lovely lace and that Marie Baden-Baden de Trop laughing.  Wretched girl – how I hate her and her awful, yellow curls!

 

Still, for all its faults, I must say that the gown is most elegante and de luxe

 

Yes, I suppose I could wear this.

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Tanks For The Memories

I collect dance cards.  I consider them dainty reminders of daintier times and prettier customs.  Imagine one, dangling from the powdered wrist of a lovely, hopeful debutante as she and her partner waltzed, schottisched, galoped, did the polka, quadrille ("…change lobsters, and retire in same order"), foxtrot, tango, Black Bottom or the Lambeth Walk!

My collection contains 70-75 cards, in date ranging from 1875 ('First Annual Invitation Ball of the Clinton Coterie') to 1947 ('Adah H. Patterson Junior Guild Presents Barnyard Hop').  Materials range from wood and metal to shredded straw to plastic celluloid.  One has a tiny sword (a military ball at the El Conquistador Hotel, in Tucson, AZ).  One – handmade – is in the shape of a painter's palette.  One, from 1915, was held at the Carnival Palace in New Orleans, for the 'King of the Carnival'.  My cards range in price from $2 to $65.  But I've seen magnificent ones that cost over $400.  Oh, I could go on and on.  I love them all.

This evening I received my most recent purchase, see above.  Now.  I don't know about you, but to me nothing says Spring Cotillion like a turreted tank, guns ablazing, towering over a parapet, about to crush a duo of hapless Germans.  Well, consider it a sign of the times.  It took place almost exactly 7 months before the end of World War One, and it was held at Westpoint Military School.  The original owner of this card, a Miss Curtis, sat out only 9 of the 20 dances.  I doubt I would do as well.  Well done, Miss Curtis, well done.

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