The other day a friend asked whether I had ever experienced an ‘IF ONLY’ moment in my life, for example had I ever had occasion to pause and reflect about something I had longed to do but failed to achieve it.
My immediate reaction was ‘No’, as for me yesterday is gone and I am very much rooted in today, looking neither backwards nor forwards.
She said she didn’t believe me and there must be something I had overlooked, so, as one does, when unable to sleep in the early hours of the morning, I thought again, and sure enough something did come up.
I had always dreamed of being a dancer. As a small child I recall sitting in the cinema on a Saturday afternoon with my Russian grandmother watching endless Hollywood movies. They were spellbinding. We left the theatre in a dream state “trailing clouds of glory” to quote Wordsworth. It was just after the war when, during times of austerity, Hollywood led us into fantasy worlds far removed from our everyday lives.
I remember the glamour and the songs in those seminal musicals, from the 40’s – Carmen Jones, Oklahoma, On The Town, Carousel, Annie Get Your Gun, Brigadoon, Finian’s Rainbow, Kiss Me Kate, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and South Pacific.
Then in the 50’s The King and I, Call Me Madam, Guys and Dolls, CanCan, Damn Yankees, West Side Story, My Fair Lady, The Flower Drum Song, and the Sound of Music. The list is endless.
This was a prolific and rich period with composers such as George and Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, (later Rodgers and Hammerstein), Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Harold Arlen and Leonard Bernstein filling our lives with the unforgettable lyrics of their classics. Today reading a list of melodies from the ‘Great American Songbook’ (which was never published as such but just refers to the creative output of that period), I realise that I know every word of almost every song whereas ask me anything post Beatles and I am stumped.
My friends and I dreamed of experiencing that glittering world on screen. We imagined how it felt to be Ginger Rogers partnered by Fred Astaire, gliding across the floor in a bias cut frock, or being Leslie Caron or the divine Audrey Hepburn partnered with Gene Kelly.
Neither I nor any of my friends were sent to ballet lessons but I do remember a brief sojourn as a tap dancer and until today I can recall all the steps and the music – the ‘Anniversary Waltz”.
At grammar school we had ballroom dancing during lunch breaks. All I recollect of this embarrassing ritual was how we uniformed schoolgirls danced with our female teachers.I was asked to dance by our English mistress ( see above) and had to take the lead, which must have looked very odd as she was very well endowed and I was one of the smallest in the class. I clearly remember placing my hand gingerly in the centre of her back, but instead of encountering voluptuous female flesh my hand rested against what must have been the armour plating of the day, an all encompassing corset. Even writing this now I recall the overwhelming feeling of distaste and my relief when our foxtrot reached its end. Amazingly this did not diminish my love for ballroom dancing, it merely reinforced my determination to make sure I had an appropriate partner next time round.
Dancing did however take another more enjoyable form at the ice skating rink in Cheetham Hill, Manchester where I had occasional dance lessons with the professional teachers. I continued this until my early twenties when, whilst living in Middlesbrough, I would skate three times a week. I remember wondering, as I circled the rink endlessly in an anticlockwise direction, whether this was all my future held for me, but it was glorious being whirled across the ice dancing the waltz or tango, supported in the arms of the instructor who made it feel so easy and totally sublime.
Music was a natural part of our childhood. Dad and his two brothers were professional musicians – he played saxophone, clarinet and piano accordion with Billy Cotton and his band.
Mother told me that they met and fell in love when she appeared on stage at one of his concerts and sang “Mean To Me” – a bluesy classic written in 1929, recorded by Billie Holliday in 1937, a year before my parents wedding. It was later recorded by greats such as Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Bing Crosby, Sara Vaughan and Dean Martin.
Father always looked dapper and elegant as was the fashion in those days. No sloppy casual clothes for him, but wide leg slacks, tight fitted jackets and two-tone brogues.
Mother too was the epitome of style, slender and long waisted. I remember clearly her 39th birthday. She was dressing to go out. In those days my parents attended many ‘functions’. To watch her make up and dress was pure theatre from her powder puff and dressing table ornaments to her silk stockings.
That night she wore a dark royal blue silk bias cut full length evening dress. The shoulders were padded as was the fashion, and there was a triangular cut out shape at her neckline. In her tumbling auburn hair she wore a blue bird, the same colour as the dress and her matching shoes. “How do I look?” she asked. “I am getting old, I am 39”. I gazed at her admiringly and confirmed that I had never seen anyone quite so glamorous. She was the closest I had ever come to my fantasy world of the movies.
Throughout her life mother was immaculate, always formally attired and well groomed. For her it would have been social suicide to appear before anyone without makeup or in her dressing gown. Quite unthinkable. Appearances were everything and had to be maintained. Her best friend ‘Auntie Faye’, was a milliner and she too looked like a fashion plate right into her nineties.
Thirty years ago they came to visit us in Jerusalem. I tried really hard to give them a memorable week. Afterwards I asked what Faye had to say about it, to which Mother replied “She wondered if you are letting yourself go”. It was then I realised I could never live up to Mother’s exacting standards and didn’t stand a chance in the fashion stakes.
Mother loved dancing. I took her to the Royal Albert Hall to see ‘Songs from the Shows’ where we sang along, both feeling nostalgic and emotional. How she would have adored the ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ series to which I have become addicted.
I did have a brief excursion into the world of tango, when Charles and I booked dance classes, prior to a trip to Argentina. It was not hugely successful, because whilst Charles is wonderful in every other respect, on the dance floor he was somewhat out of his comfort zone. But once in Buenos Aires we attended a tango session in a seedy downtown hall – it was magical!
So there it is. My ‘If Only’ is revealed to the world and yes, I would love to have met a man who can dance – not so well as to make me feel inadequate, but just well enough to steer me around a dance floor in time to the music.
So what can I do about it? I did have my first public solo singing performance after retirement age in Jerusalem, so is it entirely naïve to think that the world of dance has escaped me for ever? We shall have to wait and see. Miracles do occasionally happen.