I Was There Too
My pace slowed as I noticed on a friend’s bookcase I Was There, a bound collection of Walter Terry’s dance reviews from the New York Herald Tribune. A domino of memory fell forward and my recollections fell down in a curly wave. There I was thirty-six years ago forming a perfect third position. I had desperately wanted to be a dancer, studying as much about the history of dance as the technique required to perform it.
* * *
In 1978 I was twenty-six years-old, a gay man living in central Pennsylvania and hosting a New Year’s Eve Party. I’d assembled a handful of longtime friends: a fine artist, a political science professor, one trendy restaurateur, a photographer, and a pair of editors, one of whom had squired along his holiday house guest, Elliot Cohan, of Charles Street, New York City.
In New York, Elliot maintained his grandfather’s profession of using a nearly extinct method to print Chinese menus. On the windowless sixth floor of the shop’s original Lower East Side location, he pressed onto thick paper ink so black it summoned evil. At the precise moment he added the brilliant red coloring to the vertical rows tradition was preserved.
Elliot lived in New York City during the time joints were smoked as often as cigarettes. That night at my dinner party, he was praising his older brother Robert’s incredible creative energy. In the fall of 1947, upon returning from the war, Robert had found his way to Martha Graham’s school at 66 Fifth Avenue. With Stuart Hodes and Bertram Ross, Robert joined what became Graham’s third company and surfaced as one of her senior dancers. Eventually, Cohan and Ross were listed as Graham Company co-directors. Later, Robert moved to The Royal Ballet of London as artistic advisor, chief teacher, and choreographer.
I knew all about Robert Cohan by then. Stripping pretense (but not my clothes) before Elliot’s entire chorus of contacts in the dance world, I had seated him next to me at dinner. By New Year’s Eve that year, I had already exhausted the meager dance resources available in Columbia County, Pennsylvania, home of the North American Train Committee, a John Birch-like group. On both occasions when George Wallace ran for president, he carried one Pennsylvania county—Columbia. I was eager to see myself dancing on a bigger stage but also worried that I was already too old to give it a try.
My dinner with Elliot led to correspondence with his brother, Robert, who graciously suggested that he send word of my interest in classes to three Manhattan dance studios. In his final letter, Robert dropped three business cards for me to present upon making my calls. To an otherwise jaded New Yorker, my enthusiasm at this opportunity sparked Elliot to act: he offered me use of his apartment and his British sports car (which cost as much to stow as the rent on his apartment).
I was touched by the untethered kindness of both brothers. Unlike so many other older gay men I’d encountered, he didn’t expect anything in return from a young buck. Now I’m old and find it sad that we’ve yet to find a way for younger and older queers to have decent conversations about life, liberty, and the pursuit of our happiness.
With six weeks paid summer leave to liberate me, I leaped away from Pennsylvania to find Elliot’s Greenwich Village walk up. I landed on the pavement in front of a skinny, brick building. Pendulous bags swung from my shoulders. The bus station smell lingered in my nostrils. New York City had a distinct smell back then; pre-Gulliani, it was stale, greasy, slick, and exciting. Right across the street from the steps of Eliot’s apartment building stood the entrance to the 6th Precinct where a cadre of city’s finest were buttoning up uniforms as they began an afternoon shift. Two blocks over was Christopher Street and I wondered how many stripped out of their sweaty uniforms and made their way over there.
Invigorated the next morning by Elliot’s walking tour of the neighborhood, I set out to find the three studios Robert had forewarned of my arrival. Against Times Square’s blaring din, I scanned mosaics of window signs on skyscrapers’ upper floors, growing confused over where I’d already searched since the buildings were identical at eye level. Windows full of electronic goodies were separated by portals of entry into the erotic, a Las Vegas of porn.
Having eventually figured out the anti-logic of Manhattan signage, I excitedly ran up a dark stairwell making so many consecutive right turns that I was dizzy when I reached my destination. Unlike Vaslav Nijinsky, who told his wife, Romola, that he liked the quickness of New York elevators, I was reporting to less well-appointed haunts. Eventually, a dingy sign directed me through a door with so many layers of paint colors peeling off it that it resembled an artist’s palette. Once through the main door, I could hear the familiar cadence of barre work underway marked by light tinks on piano keys. “And one and two, and three and four...yes?” a choreographer’s standard question to straining minions. Well-honed “yeses” were often croaked with phony Russian or French accents. I’d been warned.
I slowly opened the door sealing off the instruction room and stretched my head in for a look. The studio was an enormous black hole with barely visible wisps of movement flashing here and there. “Like the pianist’s fingers find the keys, your feet find the floor...yes?” the choreographer asked. Nope, no way. I sleep in the dark, not dance in it.
Trying to find the second studio Robert had suggested was hopeless.
The third address, Merce Cunningham Studio, at Westbeth, put me back near where I began my search. I hadn’t realized until charting my longitude and latitude with Elliot that evening that Cunningham’s studio was a ten-minute walk from Charles Street. Promptly at 9 a.m. the following morning, class auditions would commence.
Dancers’ class auditions require that you report to a huge studio where a company’s senior members, with perverse glee, run you through gauntlets of movement phrases. After they have you near clinical exhaustion, they calculate your level of experience onto a clipboard. Early the next morning, you limp back to collect a tiny white envelop which contains scant notes on your recommended level of instruction and specific classes you are invited to attend. Lemming-like, you proceed to the desk where you pay every cent of tuition, or no classes. Those not invited into class are waved on to the dance master’s chapel for a slow lowering to reality about their dance skills or perhaps a quiet return to Iowa with what remains of grandma’s egg money.
I entered two classes at second and third level. There are, varyingly, about nine levels of study in a legitimate dance studio: one through six is like passing through school grades, seven is preparation for the junior company, eight is understudy, and nine is bingo, corn on all four corners. When you reach level nine, you’re in, if you’re not crippled by then. Cunningham’s movement theory is based on the principles of quantum mechanics, reflecting his career as a dancer with The Martha Graham Company. Complicated beyond my experience, these classes established confidences I’d not yet felt, although I was, as dance critic Walter Terry wrote in 1940 of Cunningham’s performance in El Penitente, “simple and naive.”
But finding myself in New York with a free apartment and a sports car was better than hitting the lottery. And there was more than dance classes at my fingertips.
The first day I arrived at Elliot’s apartment he stopped in his tracks, looked me right in the eyes and said, “No bringing anyone back to my apartment. I know you’ve been around but this is New York City. People come back later and steal your stuff.” That did it. I was dutifully warned and officially afraid. In six weeks I broke Elliot’s rule only once, while he was away visiting his parents near Rockaway Beach.
He lived only two blocks from Christopher Street so I had an entire sexual smorgasbord of enticements. The Christopher Street Pier, officially Pier 45, was right nearby. Sunday afternoon walks with Elliott along Christopher Street and down to the pier were interesting and disorienting to a young man from Pennsylvania’s Anthracite coal region.
Starting at Sheridan Square both sides of Christopher Street were busy with long lines of men dutifully moving like ants, so close to one another noses nearly bumped between shoulder blades, crunches practically rubbed asses in front of them. On the left side of the street, the long line cruised its way toward the pier. Once there you either entered to continue your adventure or cut around and made your way back up the other side of Christopher Street.
Once back at Sheridan Square you turned around and did it all over again. If you continued in line into the pier, you had to perfect the art of keeping your swing, sway and bounce going while navigating plaster droppings, nails, and sharp edges on rusty pieces of metal. With your movements perfected to second nature, you would look left and right into spaces that might accommodate two or more men involved in public action. You could also follow someone with whom you made eye contact to a dingy sex space that everyone else could see. Or you could find a private spot in the nether reaches of the crumbling structure. Holes in the floor and shaky beams were a buzz kill. There is a famous photograph of one man who fell to his death in the Hudson River through holes in the pier’s floor. Others met the same fate.
The weird part is that public cruising had become such a commonplace event in Greenwich Village, and especially Christopher Street as Gay Ground Zero. One was expected to perform his Public Cruise as if it were casual when it was anything but that. I was never sure that I had properly acquired the ability to casually cruise in broad daylight with literally hundreds of other men doing the same thing around me. One behavior that differed from the dimly lit bath houses is that guys actually talked to one another. The Code of Silence normally in play inside a bathhouse was lifted on the streets.
And then there was the familiar face of a pudgy Mediterranean guy, about twenty-five, with a violin case bouncing around on his belly. His mean looking black dog in toe. A leather strap around his neck balanced the open instrument case right below his chest horizontally. The case held thinly rolled joints which sold openly for a buck apiece or six for $5. You made your own selection. The smaller space that held string replacements was the cash register where customers made their own change under his watchful eye. I’d never seen the canine called into action.
Right around the corner from Christopher Street was the Ramrod, a leather, S/M bar, where two years later a homophobic misfit opened fire with an Uzi into a crowd hanging in front of the place. He killed the twenty-two year-old doorman (Jorg Wen), another patron and injured others.
And then of course there was The Mineshaft and my introduction to the place by Elliot, who favored Sunday evenings because then the venue was less intense than other nights. Media often referred to it as the world’s most famous S/M men’s bar. Whatever it was the place sure as hell scared me. When looking back I’ve often said that I was never a prude and I didn’t miss much. I never confused that with participating in everything I saw.
And besides all the sex candy, Elliot seemed to know everyone. Greenwich Village was indeed a place crawling with creative types from every conceivable form of expression. No pretense either. One Sunday on our sidewalk tour, we moved toward Doric Wilson, credited as the father of Off-Off Broadway with a rag-tag collection of theater diehards at Cornelia Street’s Caffé Cino. “Those plays you found on my bookcase?” Elliot said to me. “That’s him.” I looked up into his nostrils as he looked down into mine. We shook hands, we hugged, we chatted. He was real. That same summer, Elliot and I had seen Wilson’s A Perfect Relationship at a Chelsea Theatre. In the audience was Bertram Ross, a former principle dancer with The Martha Graham Company and longtime friend of Elliot’s brother Robert. After the show, we huddled on the sidewalk outside the theatre. Afraid of saying the wrong thing in such august company, I smiled a lot. By the look in his eyes, Wilson could see my bashfulness coming through and asked what I thought about his play.
In contrast to Wilson’s warmth, I was confounded by the reluctance of the dancers I encountered in class to actually talk about dance. For me, to dance was “to breathe,” as Cunningham said. Then one day Gianna, a studio veteran, pulled me aside for lunch one day. “Sure, the others have had more work; they started in the hospital nursery. But you have desire, nerve, you learn. You’re not afraid of what you don’t know. That makes you competition,” she explained. I was in a trance. Me, competition? I felt betrayed for not following what Robert wrote in one of his letters: “Dancers never think something’s too hard. They’re always ready to take the next step.”
I shared with Elliot Gianna’s thoughts on my naiveté about the whole dance experience. He was comforting as we soaked our parched mouths with cold beers. “They’re not a school of fish darting here and there in unison,” he explained. “Are they working on anything special?” he asked.
“Yes, an old Graham piece called Every Soul Is a Circus,” I answered.
“The one where the lead is thwarted in all her attempts at star turns?” he asked.
“That’s it,” I said.
“Robert would love this!” he shrieked. And he scrambled down the hall.
* * *
Years later I encountered Bertram Ross and his longtime companion, John Wallowitch, in Philadelphia, John’s hometown, for a premiere of their biopic “Wallowitch and Ross.” It was 1999. I was forty-eight and they, well, were much older. I’d given up dance about a decade before when I was forty and felt the strain on my body.
“You’re Elliot’s friend?” Bert asked, now afflicted by Parkinson’s disease.
“Yes, it’s a pleasure to see you again,” I said, my hand trembling. He was a hero to me since I first got over thinking at age twenty-five that men taking dance classes was a fag thing. Whoever said ballet was for sissies never took a class themselves. Twenty-one years later, there I sat with Ross who danced with the bohemian art world’s most eccentric choreographer, departing audience members waving to him, some shaking his hand, others coming up to leave kind words. When the last of the crowd left, we were alone.
“What’s this about Walter Terry’s book and the other one about Graham?” Bert asked. I had written a piece about Terry’s book and sent it to his partner John.
“Terry collected his dance reviews from his days with the New York Herald Tribune. Called it I Was There. You’re noted throughout,” I explained.
“I didn’t realize his reviews were collected. What about the other book?” Bert quizzed.
“By Don McDonagh, simply called Martha Graham, full of her history, and yours, of course, and all your colleagues from those early years,” I said.
“Marvelous. Didn’t know that either!” Bert said. We looked at each other silently for a brief moment.
“I’m old now,” Bert said.
“You’re my hero,” I said back, adding that I’d wished I’d started to dance earlier and not waited until I was twenty-five, as if I were apologizing.
He was still looking at me, silent; one eye squinted up, his head cocked to one side. “I started when I was twenty-seven, right out of the Navy,” he said quietly.
Stunned, I sat there until he smiled and ran his hand through my hair and pulled me toward him for a hug. Full of energy, his partner John came along with his arms sweeping us up and away to a hotel dining room around the corner. “It’s show time gentlemen,” he said.
Lots of gay men start their show time later in life.
Frank Pizzoli's work has appeared in Lambda Literary Review, White Crane Review, Instinct, Windy City Times (Chicago) Huffington Post, ABC.com, Q Syndicate, Press Pass Q, AlterNet Syndication, POZ, Positively Aware, and HIV Plus. He is former editor of Central Penn Business Journal and is founding publisher/editor of Central Voice (LGBT) newspaper.