During that time, Steve made a career change into the field of non-profit fundraising, and though he enjoyed his work, he also found it stressful. Weighing his options, he decided that it would make sense to retire. An active person both physically and intellectually, he has found a number of outlets for his interests, dance being one of them. In Steve’s “last say,” he uses the dance arena as a place to explore on his past, his present, and his future.
My hand overhead signals to start by bringing our right foot back. I’m leading a dance class to the tune of Alan Dale’s famous 1955 Cha Cha, “Sweet and Gentle.”
Left-Right one two three.
We’re here in Gilda’s Club in downtown Manhattan, where I teach a 90-minute Yoga Dance Class every two weeks to a group of women who are, like my wife, cancer survivors. I’ve been volunteering for almost two years—a journey for me as well as my students, many who have been with me from the beginning. They love Yoga Dance, which I discovered at Kripalu, the yoga center near our weekend home in Stockbridge, where this dance form was invented.
Today, as I’m leading the class, I flash back to the Wonder Lake Bungalow Colony, a retreat about 50 miles north of New York City. It was here that our family escaped the sweltering heat of the Bronx for a few weeks in the summer. Wonder Lake meant swimming and sports during the day, but things got pretty boring on weekday evenings when all the husbands/fathers were in the city working. One night, I was complaining about the lack of what to do, and my mother, tired of hearing me, said, “OK! Let’s go down to the canteen and I’ll teach you to dance.” That sounded real exciting to me!
Left-Right one two three.
The canteen doubled or tripled as a restaurant, soda fountain, and dance hall with a jukebox. There were people scattered around when my mother put on the cha-cha song that was rage then, “Sweet and Gentle.” We must have cut a cute scene. I was about eight and only came up to my mother’s waist, but I had my hands around her, in proper dance form as she instructed me. I recall how quickly I mastered the cha-cha, right-left-one-two-three, left-right-one-two-three, and how people were watching us and smiling. “That’s all there is to it, Steven,” my mother said, and she smiled such a happy smile—a sweet and gentle smile. I remember feeling a sense of pride, joy, and mastery, which didn’t come easily to me at that stage of my life.
I remember also how thrilled I felt to know that I had pleased my mother by learning to dance. Betty Kerner, born Rebecca Azaria, was a diffident, quiet, unassuming woman who took care of my younger brother Howard. I think she generally didn’t feel much gusto in her life, as she was often physically not well from her teenage years onward. She seemed to relate to housekeeping as tiresome and drudgery—whether it was doing the laundry, cleaning our apartment, or even cooking. Over the years, my mother’s energy and her persona slowly faded with her illnesses, but the one time she came alive was dancing at bar mitzvahs and weddings. She just loved to dance. Whenever the band would play the Middle Eastern music that recalled my mother’s Sephardic roots, I would watch her slowly rise up to the dance floor and, out of I don’t know where, she would start to do a Bronx version, but a very good one, of a belly dance, with a wonderful smile from head to foot as she threw off her usual constraints. Men—relatives and family friends—would affix dollar bills to the beads of sweat that covered her forehead and joyful face. I was excited and proud to see her willing to make a public statement for herself, a side of my mother that was rarely seen.
Left-Right one two three
In these last years when I too have sometimes felt a lack of gusto—exhausted with the weight of working in fundraising and living with my wife’s illness—I, like my mother, find escape and meaning in the joy of physical movement, especially dance. I reflect on the importance of having a pastime that both enriches and balances, and have come to realize that sometimes it is only later in life that we recognize some treasure of learning that we received from our parents. Meanwhile, I glance back over my shoulder and see that my Gilda ladies are smiling, sweetly and gently, as they follow my steps.