“There will be no hoochie coochie dancers in this family!” That was my grandmother's proclamation when my mother, then just a teen, delivered the news that legendary dancer and choreographer Katherine Dunham http://to.pbs.org/iOxvMV had asked her to join the troupe on their European tour. Those ten words changed the direction of my mother’s life. Her bubble had been burst.
My grandmother, born and raised in Savannah, Georgia, was a practical, proper lady and she didn't see her daughter’s dream as a realistic or respectful one. She meant well, but she didn't think being a dancer was the right career choice for a young Black girl back in the mid 1940s. My mother, Edna Rust, went on to be a social worker, a teacher, a published author, and a loving wife and mom. Not too shabby at all, but not the dancing on world stages, cafe hopping with James Baldwin, Josephine Baker walking-a-cheetah-down-the-Champs-Elysees kind of life that she might have been expecting. My mom died when I was just twenty-one, and I wish that we could have had a grown up conversation about all of this. Now it is the stuff of legend."My mother was good enough to have danced with the great Katherine Dunham!"
This event reminds me to be very cautious of what I say to my two children when they share dreams for their futures. I want to be able to support, and I want to be able to nurture even what I might deem to be the most far-fetched aspirations. That does not mean that I won’t squeeze in my fears or concerns about a possible career choice, but I won’t put the kibosh on it either.
I'm not exactly sure what my mom did emotionally with her dream deferred, but I think she played it out in different ways. She embraced Afro-Caribbean music, art, and culture, she went on several pilgrimages to Haiti to buy art and stayed in Habitation Leclerc, Dunham's former home turned into a luxury hotel. I’ll never forget mom telling me, marveling, that there was a tree growing through the bathroom ceiling. She never became a dancer, but she danced every chance she could, be it at a party or in our living room, much to my teenage shame. She brought me to see Alvin Ailey, to dance performances at Lincoln Center, and to Broadway shows, and I learned to appreciate the gorgeousness of a body in motion. I never wanted to become a professional dancer, but dancing is one of my favorite things in the world; when I'm dancing, I often think of my mom and I smile.
I know that if she had been gallivanting around Europe as a young woman, she probably would have wound up with a poet, a painter, maybe even a dashing count, and I would not be sitting here writing this blog post. Still, I sometimes dream for her, living the life of a beautiful young artist in Paris, visiting salons and kicking up her heels. Not a hoochie coochie dancer at all, but the toast of the town, a woman of the world.