After watching the 1976 Summer Olympics, I decided I wanted to be a gymnast. The only problem was there was nowhere to take lessons in our small town in upstate New York. I was nine years old and wanted to be just like Nadia Comaneci, the top gymnast from Romania who won most of the gold medals that year. In my imagination, I pictured myself on stage being handed a bouquet of flowers as someone placed the gold medal around my neck. I calculated the year would be 1984 when this happened.
I begged my mother to find somewhere I could take lessons and after asking around she found a place that taught acrobatics which wasn’t the same thing but at least it was something. My instructor was the only dance teacher in our small town. She taught tap, jazz, ballet, modern dance as well as acrobatics and was happy to add me to a group of girls my age to teach us moves and a routine we would display for our parents and friends at an end of the year recital.
Norma, our instructor, taught her lessons in the basement of her mother’s house in half hour increments with very little time in between. Usually another lesson was starting just as mine was ending and I would always hang around to see what was being taught. Soon acrobatics was not enough and I wanted to take tap as well as modern dance. I would have taken ballet too but my mother knew she had to draw the line somewhere.
So from about age 10, until my senior year of high school I was devoted to dance class with several lessons each week. I did tap with a couple of different groups and then modern dance. I ended up dropping acrobatics when I got to High School and could finally join a real gymnastics team. But it turned out I was never going to be anywhere near good enough to make it to the Olympics so I took other dance classes instead.
About 1982, Norma got a call from Frontier Town, an old west theme park located about 30 minutes away from our town, asking if she had any students that would be appropriate to learn a can can dance for a new act they were putting together. I was one of the lucky ones she chose to learn the dance and audition for the powers that be at Frontier Town. Either we got lucky or they were desperate for dancers but we got the job (there were five of us altogether) and this would be my first real job at age 14. I had to get working papers and was excited I’d be earning money without resorting to babysitting which was not a favorite activity of mine.
Dancing at Frontier Town was an amazing experience. I was the youngest of the dancers and boy did I get an education from the older girls and the other workers and cowboys who’d been imported from Texas for the summer. They were a cast of characters who have stayed with me all these years like Clarence Canary (I’m pretty sure that was a stage name) who was the rodeo announcer. There were a husband and wife duo who played music together who we nicknamed Chuck Steak and Bobbie Sue and Dan “Piano” who played the music we danced to.
It was a job that didn’t feel like a job and was way more exciting than working at McDonald’s which I eventually did a couple years later. We did about 5 or 6 shows a day and had an hour or so between each to do what we wanted and we roamed the park like we owned the place. We’d visit the Indian Village where there were tribal dances, the stables where the cowboys hung out, the shop where they made personalized wanted posters and sheriff’s badges. We chatted with the girl who took the old fashioned pictures and the bandit who robbed the train that brought visitors into the park. I remember sitting with Clarence Canary on many occasions on the bench outside the dance hall and would listen to his stories from way back as he smoked unfiltered camels. He was about 85 and my favorite Frontier Town companion.
Little did I know that my dream of being a gymnast at the 1984 Olympics would lead me to the stage of the dance hall of Frontier Town instead.
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