It would take me years to fully understand the lessons of the pink house. I only knew I felt at home in the room where thick, velvety theatrical curtains hung with dramatic prominence and a new litter of kittens seemed to outnumber humans. I learned two things quickly: 1) kittens didn’t like me and 2) I wanted very much to be on the other side of that curtain. I was two years old.
There was no great wizard on the other side– only a world of possibilities. No ruby slippers. Just a size 8 powerhouse– topped with red hair, grounded with tap shoes– and love that shone from her eyes when she looked at you, fueled by an unusual kindness that took up residence in her soul. The only other look she seemed capable of giving was a passionate fierceness. I’d learn about that later. But even that was emphasized with love.
Decked out in Danskin and Capezio, she took me under her wing in spite of the fact that my big brother had sunk his teeth deeply into her hand for no good reason. I was captivated by her, impressed beyond words by her never-ending supply of Tootsie Rolls. She was 41. I was 3— far too young to understand that she was the stuff legends were made of.
She had already lived an impressive amount of life by anyone’s standards but she still had another half a lifetime yet to live and her hunger to make every moment count was insatiable. Maybe it was because she had already buried the love of her life. All I know is that by the time I met her in the late 1960’s, she had already coached football, earned a pilot’s license, starred in a movie, studied dance in New York, raised two wonderful kids, and opened her own studio.
Together with her family, she welcomed all into the pink house. The sign in front, painted in black script read: Judy’s School of Fine Arts. Her tiny gray-headed mother, Mrs. Ruth Hays, held down the fort at the reception desk. Through the kitchen, past the Pepsi machine, to the right and down the stairs was where Miss Judy taught. Past the Pepsi machine, to the left and up the stairs is where her daughter, Mary Ruth taught.
Long before the days of reality television featuring competitive, feuding dance moms, we’d spend entire summers at the pink house. Our mothers didn’t linger, let alone fuss. They just dropped us off in the mornings with our dance bags and sack lunch, Monday through Friday, and headed to work.
There was no summer camp fee added to tuition. No ungodly hourly rate. Miss Judy simply liked having us there. When we weren’t dancing in her classroom downstairs, we were upstairs with Mary in the gymnastic room, stopping only to enjoy lunch, drinking ice cold Pepsi from a glass bottle purchased from the machine for 20 cents.
I never knew Miss Judy to be away from her studio during business hours with the exception of one trip out of town. Mary decided to surprise her with a fresh coat of interior paint. Pink, of course. So we spent one wonderful summer afternoon painting the walls. In the evenings, our mothers would pick us up and after a good night’s sleep, we’d start all over again.
Body image wasn’t an issue there. Miss Judy understood basic math: calories in vs. calories expended and if too big a deficit was created, there was always peanut butter and bread in the kitchen. Day after day, week after week, and year after year she danced alongside us. That’s why she had thighs and buns of steel long before it was envogue.
Looking back, I see how very much Mary was like her mother, minus the red hair. Hers was dark blond or light brown, depending on the season and she carried herself on legs as every bit as defined as the cross-fit competitors of today. Neither Mary nor Miss Judy would take I can’t for an answer and yet their challenges came without criticism. And they usually got from us exactly what they wanted. Even when the circus equipment arrived. Circus equipment– because someone decided that if we could master time steps and back-hand-springs infinity and double pique turns diagonally across the room on pointe—which actually is rocket science because any good physicist can tell you that the polar moment of inertia equals mass times the radius squared—why…there was no reason on God’s green earth you couldn’t master a high wire or trapeze. And so the circus equipment was installed in the yard of the pink house the summer I was eleven years old.
We knew nothing of dance competition; nothing of tense dressing room scenarios where competitive dance moms held court with their arsenal of makeup and safety pins and false eye-lashes. No one to sneak into our personal space, launching an attack by way of aerosol spray body glitter. Rivalry wasn’t on Miss Judy’s list of attributes, though she could certainly stand her ground if pressed into action. Anything we learned about clashing or locking horns, we learned outside of those pink walls.
Instead of those things, she’d load us into her station wagon and take us on adventures around the state. When her tiny gray-headed mother finally went to live in a nursing facility, she’d take us there to visit. And, of course, to dance. She eliminated the awkwardness from the growing-up process by focusing on the fun stuff and keeping us busy, convincing our moms to let us shave our legs much sooner than our age peers.
The pink house was a place of healing. Relationships were built, and people fell in love. Tragedy occurred and loss was mourned. Babies arrived and had tap shoes on their feet by the age of two. When I found myself a 21 year old single mother after marrying the wrong boy, she didn’t philosophize. She saw my broken heart and simply suggested that I rearrange my furniture and we sat in comfortable silence in the dance room where I now taught. She knew a slight change in energy flow would somehow refresh and alter perspective. She knew all about love and life after loss.
When I attended her graveside service earlier this year, it all came back. As I stood among childhood friends—the ones who felt like big sisters for the length of a childhood— Mary told me that she didn’t recognize the red head standing there…because I had grown up blonde. I told her without ever having realized it before that the influence was far-reaching…and it didn’t escape my notice that Mary’s hair is also infused with red.
Miss Judy’s children and grandchildren stood beside her casket where a pair of tap shoes looked perfectly at home among flowers and celebrated with stories of their mother and grandmother, passing along her words of wisdom: Treat your wife with love and respect and she will always take good care of you Never fight with your husband without your make-up on. Time to wake up…today can be a good day or it can be a bad day…but if you decide it’s going to be a bad day…it will be a bad day all day long. It didn’t surprise me to learn that a couple of days before she passed away, she made it a point to telephone a friend who suffered from Alzheimer’s just to tell her You are a glamour girl.
Every soul there was wholly aware that they mattered a great deal to her….because the beautiful life she shared with her family and friends didn’t just happen. It was choreographed.
My childhood institution of learning was the pink house—a world of possibilities—where faith was a verb and doubt was demolished. A place where we learned to love and prevail and endure. To relish and savor. That remaining alive was far more important than mere survival. That whatever you must face down in this life–just keep dancing.
Sometimes you forget the steps. But if you close your eyes for a piece of time and listen closely to the music, you remember. The lessons imprinted on a soul are never truly forgotten. I’m feeling that insatiable hunger to make every moment count. I’ve still got another half a lifetime yet to live, God willing. Today can be a good day or a bad day. If I’m mindful, I can encourage someone with my last breath and enter into my final rest in the manner of Miss Judy… topped with red hair… grounded with tap shoes.
“There are stars whose radiance is visible on Earth though they have long been extinct. There are people whose brilliance continues to light the world though they are no longer among the living. These lights are particularly bright when the night is dark. They light the way for humankind.”
~Hannah Senesh, poet, playwright, paratrouper