I fasten my ankle bells quickly and ice down my swollen knees and feet.  At 20 this is my first Broadway Show… Kismet.   It’s not Ballet Russes as I planned, but a surprise disbanding of the company and a rebound job, created a fork in the road in my dance career.  I do however feel so happy to be working as a dancer and even a triple threat… and I even get paid for it.

My thoughts are interrupted by a voice coming from the other side of the mirror of our dressing room at the newly built New York State Theater at Lincoln Center.

“I studied Bharatanatyam, in Tamil Nadu.  Jack’s not quite up to that.   I trained with THE Masters.  The mentor of La Meri.  Brilliant just brilliant!”

I peak around the dressing room mirror.  It’s Rabindra… Again!  Her head raised, eyes closed, totally rapt in her fantasy.   She appears to be lecturing to the dancers… who aren’t listening.  She’s, again, being the aficionado.

I happen to think Jack’s amazing.  But maybe she knows something I don’t.

Rabindra is her stage name.  Robin Dropman is her real name…hence Ra-Bin-Dra.  She’s from Brooklyn, and rather an un-dancerly looking thing.   She’s round, pink and corpulent, with bad skin and large prominent features that don’t quite match.  Her feet are flat and calloused from the continuous pounding doing the Kathakali.   The question in the dressing room is, How did she get this job?

Rehearsal for KISMET - Jack Cole and Ababu - Photo by Lida Moser

Rehearsal for KISMET – Jack Cole and Ababu – Photo by Lida Moser

She goes on, “When I aaraaaved baack in the States…Jack knew my teacher and they pleeeeaded with me to join the show.” There’s a moment of deafening silence….Her dressing roommates continue reading, doing their nails, washing the Texas Dirt off perfectly good white underwear.

So, to be polite, as I’ve been taught by my immigrant parents and Catholic nuns, I chime in… “Reeeeally?”

She moves closer. “You know Jack doesn’t realize the subtleties of the Bharatanatyam – it’s not tica tac tac….it’s taaatica tock-a-tock, like this!” She demonstrates, slapping her flat feet on the cement floor while bowing her fingers and rocking her hands back and forth countering her feet, her body vibrating from the force.  Suddenly she stops.

“Do you think I should say anything to him?” She comes at me with all the intensity of a Rooster in a Cock fight. I back away and stare artlessly at the pustule in the middle of her forehead almost covered by a red sequin.

“Uh…well…jeez…I don’t know… why don’t you just pretend he’s telling you to do it right …Ok?”  I pull my sweater over my head.  I feel butterflies in the pit of my stomach thinking about her impending slaughter.   She doesn’t get it!   This is not University, this is the Coliseum, the Christians and lions, the Gladiators preparing for battle.

What’s she doing in this show anyway?   She should be an anthropologist.   I, on the other hand, am used to brutal ballet teachers, giggling 15-year-olds in a group glare at the class outcast, and those godlike and godless choreographers picking at you from the inside out.  Question authority?   NEVER!

“Oh, gosh it’s late!  Let’s get to the studio,” I say.  We move out of the dressing room, the ring of ankle bells echoing down the long hallway.  A clamor of sound accompanies us to one of the big new studios we share with the New York City Ballet.   The smell of perfume and sweat welcomes us as we run in and throw our dance bags down on the newly sanded wood floor.  A massive room surrounded by mirrors and barre’s…no windows and two doors…an entrance…and exit.

Gemze De Lappe in rehearsal for KISMET - Photo by Lida Moser

Gemze De Lappe in rehearsal for KISMET – Photo by Lida Moser

“Crazyman,”  Jack Cole our choreographer, known for his brilliance, volatility, creative genius and a reputation for not finishing more than 16 bars of any dance number til opening night.   His wiry, undulating, muscular body and demonic intensity often takes our breath away.  His deep burning eyes, the right wanders and ambles over the dancers, while the left eye picks a victim.  It all embellishes the sense of randomness and fear.  And like in the wild, anyone could be selected as a sacrificial lamb, he puts terror in the hearts of us all.  He stalks like a leopard dressed in his white Dodi and Choli, with bare midriff, chest raised like a high priest.  His ankle bells ring through the hallways announcing his arrival every morning at the beginning of rehearsals.

“Uh Oh, here he comes!”  I warn.

Plink, plink, klank, each step pounding out the impending rhythm and mood of the day.   I count them 15, 14, 12, …We back up against the barre of the studio to steady ourselves as the bells get closer.   But this morning, 5, 4, 3, 2… we all just drop to our knees and stay there with our heads bowed and eyes lowered.  We’ve been on our knees now every day for a week-and-a-half, living through his “choreographers block,” when the sound of the bells stop.  We all look up.

Hrumpf!  He snarls standing in front of us, arms akimbo, his legs and bare feet firmly planted on the light wood floor.  He sneers, then turns to the mirror and begins to work.

Tick, tica tick, tick tica tick. Hip circle, Bah-ba-bop, hip circle bah-ba-bop. Again, he’s agonizing over the same three bars of music, just like yesterday.  He turns and eyes us.  Don’t breathe, I think.  Please God, don’t notice me.  He starts to stalk again – the bells echo around the room.

“Shaaa – shi Shaa – Tock ticky tock!”  I see him under my lashes…God he’s beautiful.  He moves like a panther.  Every muscle rippling.   The sinews of his body quiver and undulate.  But he keeps going over and over the same 3 bars.  Each time it’s just a little bit different.   But enough alike to begin to hypnotize all of us here on the floor.  We all watch forgetting the pain in our swollen joints.  An hour goes by.  “I’ve got to go to the John so bad,” whispers Shih, a gorgeous dark-skinned Indian girl, on her knees in back of me.

“We’ve only got a few minutes before the next break.”  I assure her under my breath. “Oooh,” she groans. We’re all trying not to move a muscle…he may decide to pick on one of us if we spoil his concentration.  Then… I notice a pink body out of the corner of my eye beginning to quake then it falls out of position.

Joanne DiVito at The Professional Dance Society, April 14, 2020 - Photo courtesy of the author

Joanne DiVito at The Professional Dance Society, April 14, 2020 – Photo courtesy of the author

“Hey you!  Yah you!  says Jack.  His right eye looks in my direction and his left is pointed between Shih and Rabindra. “Me?”  All three of us chime in together.  “No!  You!”  We all look around at each other.  “You…You!  I’m looking at you!”  He points to (thank God!) Rabindra.  It’s her turn …again.

Gemze DeLappe, Jack’s assistant and Agnes DeMille’s muse and protégé, looks up.  She’s trying to keep up with his changes.  She writes and erases at the same time.

Rabindra stands up and shakes her feet and legs, then replaces herself in the wrong position.  I groan under my breath.

“Jesus!”  Diana says next to me.  “She did it again!”   “Uh Oh!”  I grunt.

“So, you want to get up!  You want to get up?”  Jack grabs Rabindra, like a violent tornado, nearly lifting her in midair, then pulls her out into the middle of the floor.  She glances back at us, a silent cry for help, desperation on her face.  We feel helpless but… sad to say, we’re all glad it’s not us.

“Show me, show me what I just did,” His teeth clenched, nostrils flaring.

Rabindra attempts to execute the last version of Jack’s brilliance.  Her soft body ripples, her bells ringing out in a cacophony of possible rhythms.

“No! No! No! That’s not it!” He shows the combo again – with slight changes.  She tries again…

“Noooo!” A low growl rumbles from his throat as he demonstrates one more time, moving closer and closer to her.  She flinches as he begins to slap the timing with his feet.  She steps away from him and begins to execute the steps.   Then she stops.  Oh God.  No!…don’t stop.  She’s minced meat, I think.

“Is the rhythm tick a tack… or is it tack a tick?”  She puts both hands on her hips and cocks her head to the right.

He yells, “Aren’t ya watchin?” His face jutting forward, veins in his neck popping, he moves closer to her.  Her eyes glaze over.   “Are ya BLIND Crazy lady?” He snarls.  Like this!”  He does a count of eight with changes… of course.

Oh boy…I know I couldn’t do it.  So, I know she’ll  never get it.

I look at Jack then back at her.

Oh noooo…. her mouth is open. “Well, you know you’re not doing the mudra correctly … so I’m having a hard time understanding what you want.  It’s really like this…Taaatica tock – not tick a tocka ta ta …

Jack’s eyes widen – then cross.  His face turns crimson.  He veers back.  Then springs at his critic.  I can’t watch, I bow my head.  I’m expecting screams any minute now…Now?  Now?  Silence.  I lift my head.

“Amazing!” I whisper to Shih.   Gemze has wedged herself between Rabindra and Jack.  Jack is draped over Gemze.

“Jack, I’m a bit confused.”  Says Gemze.  “Could you please help me with the last three bars of this section.  Let’s give the kids a break and go over it.  OK?”  She annunciates each word, like you do with a wild tiger.  Then while still talking to Jack, holding him in place, puts her arm around Rabindra and pushes her toward the singular door.

We roll out of our positions, wake up our legs and scramble out of the studio before Jack decides to change his mind.  Gemze’s a genius!   How did she do that?   She saved Rabindra’s life.   If Rabindra had died in this rehearsal, we’d be the next in line.   Thank you Vishnu for Rabindra!   And thank you Deva for Gemze, one of the truly divine angels in our world of dance!

Written by and submitted to LA Dance Chronicle by Joanne DiVito


Joanne DiVito

Joanne DiVito

Joanne DiVito began her dance career in Chicago as a demi soloist with the Illinois Ballet Company, having studied with Edna MacRae (Ballet Mistress for Joffrey) and Richard & Christine Ellis from the Royal Ballet.  She then moved to New York City where she studied at Ballet Russes and Ballet Theatre. Fortuitously, on her way to joining Ballet Russes, the company disbanded, and Joanne landed her first Broadway show, “Kismet,” choreographed by Jack Cole, the “Father of Jazz Dance,” and never looked back.  She worked with such Luminaries as Michael Bennett, Jaime Rogers, Danny Daniels, Onna White, Joe Layton, and historic Broadway Icons like Ethel Merman, Richard Rodgers, George Abbott, Alfred Drake & Irving Berlin.

Joanne went on to have a long successful career as a Director/Choreographer completing over 100 commercials, Broadway projects; “Gangs” for David Merrick & “Jockeys” for Julie Styne; Movies: Thank God It’s Friday, Eddie & The Cruisers, Once Bitten” for Sam Goldwyn with Jim Carey, Body Rock (one of the first break dance movies to be released), the “Wired” about the Blues Brothers.  Television: “And Life Goes On”, “Coach”, Dance Fever, Specials, MOW’s, TV series and Music Videos.

She was an Emmy Nominee for the Jane Mansfield Story and an American Video Award nominee for Chaka Khan’s,  “I Feel For You. “ In 2018, Joanne was rewarded the coveted Professional Dancers Society’s Gypsy Robe; and again in 2018, The Los Angeles Dance Festival and The Brockus Project bestowed the “Service to the Field Award – Rise of the Female” to Joanne along with Renae Williams Niles and Ann Haskins.

Joanne developed her own production company, where she wrote, produced, directed, staged and/or choreographed Industry, Stage and TV shows. Among her many challenges was the half time show for the World Cup, directing over 1,000 performers.  Among her Industry clients were Disney, Mazda, Toyota, Apple Computer among others.

While working as an agent for Bobby Ball Agency, she was asked to head the West Coast Office of Career Transition for Dancers, at Screen Actors Guild.  Its mission was to help professional dancers bridge their careers to new challenging and fulfilling professions.  She created programs, that assisted dancers in connecting, educating and fulfilling a wide range of goals and aspirations.  As an example, Joanne brought the LEAP program to Los Angeles, helping dancers get their bachelor’s degrees so they could compete as leaders in the community.  She developed the “Dancers Forum” which brought together respected opinion leaders of the dance world, such as Nigel Lythgoe, Debbie Allen, Renae Williams Niles, Tony Basil, Lula Washington, Sasha Anawalt, Jamal Simms, Julie McDonald, and so many others. She encouraged dancers to get Grants to go back to school and start new businesses, was a passionate leader of the National Outreach program all around the U.S. while working on her own bachelor’s degree.   Upon graduating from the LEAP program in 2007 she was invited to become an Adjunct Professor at Cal State Northridge under the leadership of Dr. Paula Thomson.  This has both been an honor and privilege.  In her 12 years of teaching at CSUN she has discovered that the work with the students and the give-and- take of teaching has both enhanced and inspired her, further fulfilling and expanding aspect of her life in Dance.

Dance and dancers have always been her passion, and she is so proud to have been chosen as a judge for the Music Center’s Spotlight Awards since 2017 with Jeri Gaile – Director at its helm.  The Spotlight Awards gives recognition to young up-and-coming artists and inspires young people to reach out and be their best brilliant selves.  Joanne is now also taking the opportunity to move into her next love, “writing” as a Dance Reviewer.  She is so proud to join the Los Angeles Dance Chronicle under the leadership of the talented and generous Jeff Slayton (Merce Cunningham) and Roger Martin Holman’s (Raytheon, Micom Systems, Symantec) as a Dance Reviewer, a timely and important service for dancers partnering with the gracious and gifted Ann Haskins (L.A. Weekly, Pointe Mag, Dance Spirit, Daily News).

In 2015 she was awarded The California Arts Counsel Award for Service to the Dance Community, in 2018 she was recognized at the Los Angeles Dance Festival, Year of the Woman, being presented with the Service to the Field Award.  Also, in 2018, The Professional Dancers Society presented her with the Gypsy Robe.  This Is an honor bestowed to few dancers and/or choreographers who have dedicated their life to dance and have been of service to the dance community.  It has been a humbling experience for her to be recognized by her peers for the work she has done and the service and advocacy she brings to the dance community.  But Joanne does not rest on her laurels.  She is also describing Broadway shows for the Blind at the Pantages, Segerstrom, Geffen, and Music Center.  This is a field that is recognized by the American’s with Disabilities Act (ADA) and gives tremendous joy to both the newly and long-term blind patrons.


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