People ask where your passion for something started. As if a passion were an unreasonable thing to have and needed to be justified by a specific root cause.
For me, the devotion to dance began when I was a child and saw a picture in Life magazine. It was a small black and white photograph of Diana Adams in arabesque, as I later learned to call it, in George Balanchine’s compact version of the sublime “white” acts of Swan Lake. As far as I was concerned, the image was a bolt from Heaven. I brought the magazine into the kitchen where my mother was producing one of the endless meals a middle-class housewife provided back in the day. “What’s this?” I asked. My mother glanced away from the stove. “That’s ballet,” she replied, matter-of-factly, and turned her attention back to her casserole. “What’s ballet?” I asked. I can’t remember her reply, but I do recall understanding, on the instant, that ballet was for me. Talk about the fairy’s kiss!
As for my devotion to the visual arts–as painting and the like are called, but, oddly, dance is not–that came even earlier, in our neighborhood branch of Woolworth’s, the five-and-ten-cent store of my youth, a vast emporium crammed with small irresistible treasures (or so it seemed to a pigtailed eight-year-old).
I grew up in a time and a community where a mother could let her young offspring out of her sight for a moment without endangering the child’s life. So while my mother, list in hand, ranged from counter to counter acquiring household and personal necessities–a frying pan, an inexpensive lipstick, a retractable measuring tape that, at a touch, would retreat into its hard shell like a startled snail–I could disappear in the direction of the Sewing Department (on the right, in back).
There, riveted to the spot, eyes wide, mouth slack with wonder, I would gaze at row upon row of inch-high wooden spools of 100% cotton sewing thread in every color imaginable, rising from waist height to far over my head. The thread had no pretensions to being silk–Woolworth’s customers were common folk–yet it was wound on the spools so tightly and evenly that each spool gleamed like a unique beacon of colored light.
The spools were arranged according to hue, one hue succeeding the next in rainbow order, with pedestrian black and white relegated to the bottom row, like a grudging afterthought. Each color family–this was the marvel–offered infinite variations on its basic theme. Women brought minuscule swatches of fabric from which they planned to create a dress and matched thread to them exactly. Not sort of, not close enough to make no never mind, but exactly.
I had no desire to sew anything, a stubborn lack of interest that has lasted a lifetime. All I cared about was the phenomenal range of color: A dozen shades of pink lined up in order of color saturation from the faintest blush to an almost psychedelic strawberry. A riot of reds, now veering toward a stinging orange, now to succumbing to cinnabar; now surreptitiously creeping up on purple. Cool greens from palest seafoam to the forest darkness that approaches black but obdurately refuses to arrive at it. Blues beginning with the merest hint of blueness and methodically progressing through cerulean and sapphire to the velvety indigo of a midnight sky. Grays more subtly differentiated than any panoply of twilight shadows I’d seen. Even the beiges, so often dullards, were worth looking at.
When my mother finished her shopping and was ready to reclaim me, she’d purse her lips and give the family whistle to summon me to her side. Half the time I was so absorbed in the bewitching reels of color, I didn’t hear her and she’d come looking for me. Soon she knew just where to find me. And one day she said, “If you like the thread so much, pick your favorite, and I will buy it for you.”
“You don’t understand,” I cried to myself. “It’s not one I like. It’s all of them together. And I don’t really want to have them. I just want to look at them.” But as a child I never learned to say important things like this aloud. I whispered, head down, eyes on the floor, “No, it’s all right.” But, as with Diana Adams in the swan’s arabesque, that glorious, hardly believable image of the spools of thread stayed with me, shaping me as I grew. I think I will die remembering it.
© 2007 Tobi Tobias