A few months ago, I wrote about Mr. Hess, my childhood teacher and dance director, passing away. That tribute flowed out easily, like pulling ribbon off a spool. Now I have to write again because Mrs. Hess is gone too, and this will be harder to get out. My memories and feelings keep snagging on one hard fact: Mrs. Hess was the meanest, scariest character of my childhood. But, I love her deeply and learned life-long lessons from her.
As I think of her now, I am realizing how so many of the qualities in which I take pride were instilled in me by her. I got some of my loyalty, FIERCE loyalty, from her. When my dad's band was let go from the pre-show gig they had for many years warming up the crowd for TEXAS, Mrs. Hess was sure to tell me how upset she and Neil were, what a bad decision they thought it was. When she heard about cat-fighting or back-stabbing (between children or adults), she was always livid, and we would hear about it. Like Mrs. Hess, I really hate the celebration of mediocrity. She pushed for perfection, and so do I. I mean, why look like a "dead fish" when you could keep working and maybe look human or even like a dancer!? I don't blow smoke. Neither did she. 75% of the really meaningful compliments and encouragements I ever received came from her. If she said you looked good, did well, had a future, she meant it. Once, by the time I had settled in to my place in her good graces, she was asking me if I felt ready for a big audition I had coming up for the School of American Ballet. "Yes," I said. "I just hope there won't be too much turning in the audition class. I always worry about the pirouettes." "You don't have a problem with pirouettes," she said. Talk about the power of positive thinking! If Mrs. Hess said I didn't have a problem with pirouettes, then I didn't. Period. I never thought of myself as a bad turner again. By the time my "career" ended, I even thought of myself as a pretty good turner.
I loved ballet, and I loved the Hesses. I wanted nothing more than to make them proud, so I showed up and worked hard. Eventually, Mrs. Hess let me under her wing. She let me teach the younger kids for her. She taught me little variations and gave me special combinations after class. She gave me a tutu. She gave me her daughters' old leotards and clothes as she cleaned things out at home. Contrasted with how she treated other people, she clearly cared about me. I was given lots of love and encouragement, and it strengthened me for the harsh dance world spread out before me. Of course, you could never get too comfortable. If she ever felt like I was taking liberties or getting uppity (which, by the way, I never actually did. I was too scared. But, there were misinterpretations from time to time), she would slap me down quick.
I recall that during my last Nutcracker in Amarillo, she found me to tell me how wonderful my pas de deux was looking. She used the term "breath-taking" to describe a particular lift. I was stunned by the effusive language and felt so happy. I was getting over the flu during that show and was exhausted. I ran off stage following the third (but not last) role I would dance during the night, and I dared to sit for a moment. We knew we were NOT permitted to sit in our costumes. I didn't sit in a chair, but I perched my tiny butt on the edge of a stool, conscious of my tutu, to take a quick sip of water and take some deep, panting breaths. I am 100% sure that this was the only time I ever sat while in a tutu. She burst though the black curtain, "Where is she!?" Mrs. Hess was seething. Everyone else shrunk against the walls as best as they could, and she saw me right away, sitting in a costume (terrible), a tutu (unforgivable). "Is this what you are doing?!" she screamed. "That explains the thread that was hanging from the bottom of this tutu while you were dancing! Have a little pride! Check yourself before you go on my stage! AND DON'T YOU EVER SIT IN A COSTUME!" Yes, ma'am. She stormed out, and I could hear the rant continue, "These people!..." "Oh, right," I thought. "I'm really just one of 'these people.'"
There was never any follow-up, never any resolve. We were all used to it. The price of admission to her court was subjection to her rage, her insults. I wanted her to be happy with all of us. I wanted her to be proud of us and the work we did on stage and in the studios. Fact is: there was always more to yell about than to celebrate. I wish I knew more about her background. I'll probably finally learn more of her history. (Reading about Mr. Hess after his death I got more biography than I ever heard from him.) I know that her behavior indicated that she was used to more, to better. That's why I stayed with her. I could see in her frustrations and her stories that there was more out there, and I wanted to be a part of it. That was her greatest gift to me. She inspired me to strive for more. As with Mr. Hess, I regret that I don't remember the last time I talked with her. How I would have loved to have one last chat with her! I know she did love us, and she wanted us to be our very best.
I could tell stories all day long about that animated, talented, passionate woman, but most of them paint a picture that is pretty one-sided. For today, I want to be grateful for all the good she did to me and to remember the times that she genuinely smiled at me. These memories of Mrs. Hess, collected by me as a child and now sifted by my adult self, illustrate the difficulty of being human. We are all endlessly complicated to each other. In the end (I cannot believe she has come to an end!), her influence on me is net positive. She gave me ballet, and we loved it together.
Here are some memories from my scrapbook of my time dancing for Mr. and Mrs. Hess: Mrs. Hess and me (age 7), first recital, first Nutcracker, later Nutcrackers, THAT tutu, the only note I have saved (there were more).