Dancey Pants


I started dancing when I was 4 years old. Officially, that is--I had been dancing around the house for years before that. Mom and Dad enrolled me in classes at The Dance Place, a local dance studio that was run by Eugenia (Genie) Atwater out of her home. The bottom floor was a studio, waiting room and dressing room. Wow--just writing these words and thinking about the old studio pre and post renovation is giving me chills. I can still smell that studio exactly--I can see the costumes, the cats, the curtains, the mirrors-- everything about it. It was Heaven to me. Mrs. Atwater also did the local yearly performance of The Nutcracker Ballet, so when I was 5 I started performing in that as well. I remember the excitement of each audition day--I always wanted to be in the first row for floor work and in the first group of people in across the floor work. Of course, us students of Mrs. Atwater's had an unfair advantage--she already knew us, our dance skills and what she wanted us to be cast as that year. A career in The Nutcracker meant performing in a number of roles, higher and higher until your senior year, in which you would have a major solo--most notably, the Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy. The choreography never changed--once I got up to the higher solo roles, at our first rehearsal each year Mrs. Atwater would say, "Ok, show it to me" cause she assumed we would just know it. We always did. I must sincerely thank my Mom for being such an amazing support--she sat through 12 years of dress rehearsals and three performances each year all with unchanging choreography--I bet she could dance the whole thing, too!! When we got older, we would be cast in a feature role and then also a secondary role in the snowflake dance. We would have rehearsal after our regular dance class, on Monday nights, and before we would start Nutcracker rehearsal, we would order pizza and all sit around laughing and eating before having the time of our lives dancing these beloved dances.

I spent a LOT of time in that house and in that studio. I wasn't the best dancer, but Dance was my heart. And Mrs Atwater was one of my heroes.

She was also a nurse. She discovered my scoliosis, and for my freshman year in high school, I spent a lot of time in the chiropractor's office, a practice I don't agree with now, but that "helped" then. Because winter was always so busy with dance, Nutcracker, Christmas choir concerts and Madrigals, I had a major injury the last 3 years of high school: Sophomore year--I fell on my knees banging them up and needing physical therapy, Junior year--I passed out while mid turn en pointe and broke my wrist in a place that took 4 doctors and 2 months for them to find, Senior year--my left knee dislocated after a dance competition that I had no business being in (I was back en pointe 2 weeks later). And when I was in Junior High, I performed the Nutcracker once with pnuemonia and 103 fever! The show must always go on!!

Every year, after our weekend of performances, I would break down sobbing. This always confused Mom and Dad when I was little, but as it went on, they knew to expect it. Something about release and loss for something you love so much and work so hard for.

Over the years, in the Nutcracker, I was: Party Scene, Dancing Doll, Mouse and Ponchinella, Snow Baby, Flower (twice in a row), Marzipan and Snow, Spanish and Snow, Chinese and Snow, Arabian and Snow, Dew Drop Fairy, and Snow Queen.

I was never the Sugarplum Fairy.

When I was 13 or 14, Mrs Atwater was diagnosed with cancer. The sad thing was, cancer was nothing new to us then, either--we had lost many a close friend to the horrible disease. Mrs Atwater took it all like a champ--she bought a purple mustang and a purple wig (purple was her favorite color and all our dance recital costumes were lavender or purple for many years in a row) and she showed us the chemo pump she carried around with her with a beautiful candidness. She tried experimental treatments at a number of hospitals and she still lead the Nutcracker my Freshman year in high school (which is in my top 2 favorite years of the show.). The photos from that year show her tired and thin, with her very pregnant daughter Adrian by her side assisting her.

I remember the Sunday morning Mom came in to wake me up to tell me that she had died.

Adrian continued on to lead dance classes and The Nutcracker for the following year, before handing the show over to another (rival) dance teacher. It was rough. I started taking classes with a new woman in town, who I didn't like or get along with, and suddenly, the rival dance teacher's students got all the leads in The Nutcracker. My senior year, I had a duet role with another senior, a friend of mine that I had known since 1st grade. We commiserated over feeling underappreciated in our roles. I wasn't even allowed to be in the finale, a dance I had done for 7 years. I watched it from the wings, I am sure with a tear down my cheek.

To add to everything else, at Mrs Atwater's funeral, she left messages for a number of her favorite students. Messages like "Stick with it, you'll do great things!" and "I'll always be with you." I did not receive one of these messages. It was heartwrenching to have the preacher calling names out and never hearing mine--with each passing message getting more and more nervous. Mom said it was because she knew I would be ok--I never bought that idea, though. Starting the month after she died, I started having these dreams--VERY vivid dreams that I always remembered--in which I was at a dance show and trying to convince Mrs Atwater that I was good enough to do to dance and to put me in. I always woke up so sad when I had them. These dreams continued for years and years, even after I moved to Chicago, haunting me more and more. I even stopped dancing after high school, and still had the dreams. It was only after I choreographed my first full musical, Single Box Turn's "Little House on the Parody" that I vivdly noticed the dreams stop. I finally had proved myself to her! From then on out, whenever I choreograph a show, I think of her and how she would be so proud.

I mentioned in a post a few days ago that I burst into tears whenever I hear Nutcracker music and that every year I try to over come this. This year, I am performing Mrs Atwater's original choreography in Soiree DADA, but with a major twist--one that expresses how I feel about the past, my dance experience, and basically my life in general. I hope that this year will be the year to let everything go. But who knows, right? It is all a part of what makes me who I am.


You have always been a beautiful dancer and Mrs. Atwater loved you dearly. I miss our days of dance. I see dance when I hear music. Keep choreographing and never lose your love for dance.

Thank you, Karla. And I must say that you definitely made those last few years of dance so much easier for me, because I felt like I had an ally and a friend. I cannot thank you enough for that. Love you!

Those were some weird years, weren't they? Good post, baby.

I sure wish I could see your performance. Your post touched me. I hope all is well on your end-

This was a very wonderful piece you wrote about my mother. I know this is 2 years after you posted this, but I just stumbled upon it. I am touched that my mother had a profound impact on your life and I know that she knew that you were a great dancer. She could always see the talent in everyone. I hope you have gotten over your dreams, and just wanted to let you know that whenever I hear "The Nutcracker Suite" at any time I feel a tide of emotions come over my being. Again thank you for the memories of my mother through your eyes.
Richard Atwater

Thanks for that Erica. You brought back a lot of good memories. Don't worry--in my eyes, you were and are always the best dancer. I can't believe you were never the sugarplum fairy--you definitely deserved it. I hope I can give mati Claire the kind of experiences we had...they were great weren't they?!