MOVEMENT 1 – Andante piu Espressivo

“I’m through with neighborhood ballet schools, Mom. Pink bows and tutus from a catalogue?  I want to be a real ballet dancer!”

Mom leans over the kitchen table.  Her deep blue eyes focus on me as she grabs another biscotti and dunks it into her coffee loaded with cream and sugar.  “Sei sicuro? (“Are you sure, Honey?”) Madame Noel’s been so good to you.”

Joanne DiVito at age 5 or 6 - Courtesy of the author

Joanne DiVito at age 5 or 6 – Courtesy of the author

“Well! Yah, I’m sure, I’m 12 now.  I know what I want!”  Mom takes a deep breath, “Fi quelo che vuoi” (Do what you’d like).

So, on a cold, stormy Chicago day in January, Mom and I ride the “L” downtown into the city.  We hold hands and slosh through the dirty snow.  Putting our heads down as we walk against the wind on Randolph Street.  We turn right on Michigan Avenue near the Lake and, there it is, the Fine Arts Building.  We follow the girls with the turned out feet, buns and dance bags slung over their shoulders, as they move into the elevator.  Then listen to their gossip and giggles as we ride up to the sixth floor.  Mom and I pile out with the crowd, find our way to the front desk and are greeted by a lovely friendly Miss D’Avray.

“Oh, we’ve been waiting for you.  You were the girl who called, right?  And this is your mother?”  She smiles a warm welcoming smile.  “Quickly! The class has started…shhh!  Follow me!”   She walks us through the door into a studio as big as a football field.  The smell of wet wood, point shoe glue, perspiration and perfume tickles my nose.  We are then seated in a small viewing room near the door to watch the class in progress.  I’m nervous!

Mom and I are getting settled when I begin to notice that all the dancers look so perfect; slim bodies, everyone’s arms and legs are working together.  I’m going to look that way one day.  Edna MacRae herself is teaching. I’ve been waiting so long for this.  I’m so excited!  Miss MacRae looks like Mrs. Santa Claus.  She has white hair, average height, a bit overweight, which makes her look jolly.  She wears a blue housedress tied at the waist with blue dance slippers to match.  She looks friendly.  Then I notice that she’s starting to run across the huge studio.  Hmmmm, she very fast for her age.  Then she raises her stick…and…Crack!   She WACKS the kid in pig tails…right across the legs.  Ugh!  Mom and I are jolted from the force.  She drags the girl off the barre and shakes her, the girls head bobbing back and forth.  McRae yells something about telling the girl three times to do…her voice trails off.

Façade of Fine Arts Building - Photo courtesy of the author.

Façade of Fine Arts Building – Photo courtesy of the author.

Mom leans over and whispers, “Andiamo, andiamo.” (“Let’s go”) I dart Mom a dirty look.  “Mom, don’t be rude!” I whisper through clenched teeth.   “Tsch, tsch, tsch,” Mom shakes her head and bites her tongue.  She doesn’t say a word for the rest of the class.  I’ve never seen her this angry…don’t ruin it for me mom!  I think…this is my chance to be a dancer in a ballet company.  I go back to watching the class. The rest is exact, perfect…and beautiful.

We stand up at the end as the students révérence (bow) and clap in gratitude.  Miss McRae turns and walks briskly toward the door then enters the viewing room.  Her eyes focus on me.  She looks me over.  “Come to my office!” she commands, ignoring my mother.  We obey and follow her to her tidy office.  White Walls, A large mahogany desk, green blotter over a glass top, and a window looking out onto Lake Michigan, and Grant Park.  She settles in a large dark wood chair behind the desk.  It squeaks when she leans back.  There are two straight back wood chairs in front of the desk.

Miss MacRae - Photo courtesy of the author

Miss MacRae – Photo courtesy of the author

“Sit down over there!”  She points to the chairs, grabs a pencil and paper, and begins to write.  “So!  You want to be a dancer.”   “Yes,” I nod.  I see Mom glaring at the woman, so I try to act polite, just to make up for my mother’s stone silence and flaring nostrils. Miss McRae says, “Well, you’re short…and you’re old!  I understand you’re 12.” Her words tell me nothing new…but it somehow knocks the wind out of me.  I’m thrown just for a second, then… “Have you had lessons before?”  I squeeze the words out… “Uhhhh…Yes, I I I…I’ve always wanted to dance…I mumble.  I knew I would dance when I was three, but I couldn’t start until I was 9.  Now, my teacher lets me go to class every day after school…and I’m even working on Toe.” She sneers, then continues, “There’s a lot of competition out there and you may not make it.”

Now my feelings start to get complicated.  I’m nervous, afraid and annoyed all at the same time.  I’ve wanted to be a dancer since I was born.    She goes on,  “And it won’t be easy, most likely you won’t make it; only a few do!”  By now my Mom’s face is flushed.  Uh Oh! The challenge is on.  The voice inside me speaks to me.  A phrase I hold onto for the rest of my life …We’ll see about that!

Young Joanne in attitude en pointe - Photo courtesy of the author.

Young Joanne in attitude en pointe – Photo courtesy of the author.

“You’ll start next month!”  Edna stands up.  Then I stand up, “No, I wanta start right away!” Mom’s startled.   “Well then…you must come every day… to catch up.”  Mom chimes in.   “Honey, we can only afford two classes a week.”

Miss M…will have none of it. “Well if you really want it…you’ll figure out how to get it.  Let’s see if you’re good enough to do that.”    This is so different from my neighborhood school.  Madame Noel loved me, she’d always gave me free classes and lunch.  I’m missing her and all my friends already.   This must be part of being a ballerina? My rich auntie Sophie said I’ll never make it because we don’t have any money.  This is the first time I ever felt poor but determined.

Mom and dad both told me how hard it was to become an American…so I needed to appreciate everything I got.  Our family came from Sicily and Italy, where singing, dancing and art was inside us.  We had two Opera singers, 3 artists, a lot of philosophers, a couple of Partisans who fought against Mussolini and a grandma who used to play the commodity market.  And then there was me…A dancer!  Not sure how that happened, but I never wanted anything but that.

I come to as Miss McRae mumbles as she guides us out the door and to the elevator.  She goes on, “Dedication, serious study, concentration, and focus. Talent is only one percent of it.”  We stop at the elevator doors.  I look at her face; pointed nose, perfectly coifed white hair and pursed lips.   Boris Lermontov and Victoria Page from The Red Shoes flash into my mind.  Lermontov asked Vicky,  “Why do you want to dance?”  He looks her straight in the face.  She replies, “Why do you want to live?”  He says,

“I must!”  That’s my answer, I have to dance.  It’s like breathing to me.  I don’t have to be Miss McRae’s friend…but I do want her to make me a ballerina.

MOVEMENT II – Adagio Grave

It’s been three years since I started at “Miss M’s” and even though I’m on scholarship, it hasn’t gotten any easier.  She’s developed nicknames for me now like “Idiot dancer” and “Musical Moron.”   She sets me in the corner when my mind goes blank, even though I’m fifteen now.  I get embarrassed and feel sad and lonely as I face the white walls.  All the dancer’s eyes are on my back.  One day she even has the kids laugh at me for being so “dumb.”  Whew!  Maybe Mom was right!  Of course, I could never tell her what was going on.  She may take me out of the school.  I can’t quit now.

Young Joanne DiVito at Illinois Ballet in "façade" Courtesy of the author

Young Joanne DiVito at Illinois Ballet in “façade” Courtesy of the author

Miss M always says to me, “You’ll never make it!  You’re never going to be a dancer!”  but, I’ve begun to develop a steel rod down my back.  We’ll see, I repeat to myself, We’ll see.   Even though that phrase works really well for me I’m scaring myself because my body has developed a mind of its own.  When Miss M says move this way, my body decides to move that way.  I don’t seem to be able to control it.   I’m always scared of what it might do next.

Ooooh God!   I did it again!  I hear Miss M’s footsteps running towards me across the wooden dance floor.  I close my eyes…I freeze.  She grabs me and pulls me off the barre.  She slaps me and shakes me a few times, then yells and I keep shaking even though she’s let go.  Then a gray fog falls over me and I’m looking at her, but someone has turned off the sound!  I watch her mouth moving and I feel the energy hitting my body.  I’m numb.  I cough, and choke back the tears that are starting to run down my cheeks.  Don’t give her the satisfaction.  What can I do?  Where will I go?   I feel like she’s the only one who can make me a good ballet dancer – no, a great ballet dancer, like the ones at the Bolshoi.  Is this how they do it?

MOVEMENT III – Allegro Molto Bene

Well, it’s Saturday again, our three-hour class day and I’m standing looking down the long, large studio.  Everyone is at the barre warming up.  My hair is pulled back so tight it hurts to move my head.  We all have on our uniforms, black leotards, pink tights and pink ballet shoes.  The sun is shimmering through the long tall windows bathing us with sunlight as if to bless us for doing something we love to do. Dance.

We’re all stretching; waiting for teacher’s pets, Monica and Jenny, to enter.  They’re the studio royalty.  Non mi piace.  I don’t like any of them, but I can’t even admit it to myself.  How could such beauty be so…well…unbeautiful?.  I’m an outsider, I know. If anyone hangs with me, Miss M may think they’re dumb too.  So, of course I mostly live in my head.

Barbara, a scholarship student with a kind face, is watering down the wood floor so our feet fit tight into fifth position and stay there.  Mr. Heinze, a lovely small man with a hunched back and feet that hardly touch the peddles plays the piano like it comes from heaven.  Today it’s Chopin.  I just love him, not just because the music is so beautiful, but because he’s always trying to give me the answers when Miss M has a question for me.   When I don’t answer correctly or throw out any old answer that comes to mind, because I’m so scared and can’t think, Mr. Heinze mouths or points out the answer and nods when I get it right.  I don’t know how many times he’s saved me. I love him.

Hallway of the Fine Arts Building - Photo courtesy of the author.

Hallway of the Fine Arts Building – Photo courtesy of the author.

Back to warming up.  Spppllliiit, front and side.  I stand up, grab my heel, and lift “a la Seconde” and hold it.  I let go.  I’m noticing, in spite of all the other stuff, I’m becoming a dancer!  My body is feeling stronger and freer every day, every minute, but my spirit is getting dimmer.  I’m running inside me to hide all the time now.

Hold it!  My legs stays above my head.  Then something catches my eye in the mirror.  It’s a new girl.  She looks tough and….very different from us.  She walks straight over to the “Reserved” Barre.   It’s reserved for the studio royalty, something she knows nothing about but may soon find out.  I’m cringing inside.  But for some reason neither I, nor anyone else, warns her when she violates the sacred space.  I begin stretching in her direction just to get a better look at her.

She’s really unique.  No bun – a BEEHIVE!  It’s teased, twisted and anchored down.  It’s really red.  My eyes continue to move down her body to her purple leotard and breasts. Ballet dancers don’t have breasts!  She even has a waist!  It’s cinched to about 18 inches with curved hips.  And on her legs, MESHED TIGHTS!  Oh God, what will Miss M say?  I fear for her life.  And rather than just a hint of rouge and pink lipstick like all of us, she’s wearing ancient Egyptian makeup.  Mom showed me Princess Nefertiti in our new encyclopedia.  So proud, so tough!  Just looking at this girl, I know she isn’t afraid of anything, as opposed to me, who’s now afraid of everything, specially Miss M.

Young Joanne in a blue tutu - courtesy of the artist.

Young Joanne in a blue tutu – courtesy of the artist.

Oh no!  Here they come!  Monica’s the only one fully in pink, with pierced diamond studded earrings, natural blond hair, huge blue doe eyes and taller and more elegant than anyone in the room.  Jenny, not quite so tall, with jet black hair and cinched waist, peaches and crème skin, perfect, but not as perfect as Monica…no one is that perfect.

When they notice the new girl, they try to push her out of the way, but the gal doesn’t move, this creates some real tension, but Miss M burst through the door and breaks the pressure of the moment.  She notices this “woman/girl” right away, and rather than tearing her away from the barre and slapping her around, she smiles and actually becomes a human being with Maureen.   “Murphy”…(that’s not her real name) but Miss M calls her that.  They seem to understand each other.

Mo is a scrapper, from the Southside of Chicago, where most are Irish,  they fight and drink, and no Italian ever sets foot in their neighborhood.   Edna knows this and doesn’t tangle with her. Oh! Not that she doesn’t try but Mo paddles it right back to her.  God, I love this girl.  She’s like Joan of Arc.  She acts like I want to act but can’t.

We both grow up under Edna’s tyranny.  Within three years Mo turns into a swan.  With each class she’s more and more a dancer (she even loses her breasts).  But her guts and spirit never seem to wane.  She’s amazing.  She’s even nice to me, which I’m forever grateful for.

I begin to lead a double life, joining every club possible in high school and becoming Miss Popularity.  I’m chosen as Captain of the cheerleading squad because I can leap and hit the back of my head with my back foot.  Every minute away from Edna is in color, every moment in the studio is in black, white and pink.  No soul, no friends, just technique.

I begin to show a little “tyranny” myself.  Edna’s been bugging me to take piano lessons.  I decide to take singing instead.  She finds out, and finally it’s too much… for both of us.  She corners me again…this time in the entrance of the building.  “You’ve disobeyed me once too many times.  You’re no longer allowed in the studio!”  I watch her mouth move, the words spinning.  I know she’s talking but I can’t hear anything. I’m don’t move, just like some kind of animal trying to blend into the background.  Am I hearing this right?  Did she say I will not be allowed in the studio?

Joanne DiVito's favorite photo of her dancing with her mom - Courtesy of the author

Joanne DiVito’s favorite photo of her dancing with her mom – Courtesy of the author

I’m left standing in the doorway of the World Theatre, the entrance to the Fine Arts Building.  The Fine Arts building where I spent years of grueling training.  Where the pain in my body competed with the pain inside me.  I watch her as she turns and pushes the door open, her black wool coat covered with specks of snow, her wide powerful body moves away as the door automatically shuts in my face, and finally she’s out of sight.  The day is chilly and gray.  I’m shivering. Flurries of flakes falling silently.  I don’t remember going home…I just remember falling into a lump on Mom’s couch.  What do I do?  I’m no longer a dancer!  My life is over!

I lie staring out the window, immobile for it must have been five or six months.  All I can do is cry or stare, silent, unable to speak or move.  My mother lets me …no expectations, no demands.  She just hugs me and feeds me.  I fight the terror that the phone will ring, Edna might be on the other end.  I am so far away, one day becomes another, droning on colorless.

Then, I don’t know how or when it starts, slowly, slowly…I begin to come back, one step at a time.  My spirit and my body seem to come together again.  Perhaps I will never dance again…Maybe Edna was right…but maybe, just maybe there is another place, a place where I might just stand at the barre and let the music flow over and through me again.

I check the phone book…and…soon I’m finding names that are familiar sounding, Stone Cameron, Ellis Du Boulay, The Illinois Ballet…Maybe!  Yes!  I slowly dial the number.  A cheery Female voice with an English accent greets me over the phone.

“Scuse me, but when are your classes?  Yes!  Study?  Uh, well, Edna McRae.  Advanced Class?  Yes, of course.”  Then something starts happening…that old excitement…hope comes back.  It starts in my stomach, moves to my heart and then out to every part of my body.  And soon, I am dancing, dancing like never before.  Like my life depends on it…and finally …I’m free!

Written and submitted to LA Dance Chronicle by Joanne DiVito, April 20, 2020.


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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Featured image: “Blue Ballerina” – Painted by Joanne’s uncle Peter Darr – Courtesy of the artist