Arthur Murray Didn't Teach
Linda Sipple was a triple threat in the theatre. She could act, sing, and dance, so at an audition she was always a serious contender for a leading role. And, she did many of the great roles from Charity to Dolly. During our rehearsals for Funny Girl, Linda was dance captain and she formed a tap class after rehearsals. A whole gang of us would get on the line and learn routines from this master tapper. Linda would always stop in the middle of what she was doing, stare at me, hands on hips and shake her head. "Shuffle, ball, change!," she commanded. I tried, but it was useless, these feet were not tap material. So, I came to the conclusion that I was a triple threat in the theatre too! I could not sing, dance,or act. Still, something happened to me each time I got out under those lights in front of a live audience. I connected with an audience and could make them laugh too!
Years later, it was understandable. It was simply that I wanted to bean actor, but I had no idea what I was doing because I had not learned the craft. Linda patiently taught me how to dance. It was so much fun too, because she had the best sense of humor of anyone I have ever known. Off to dance school with me! First, it was Bob Nizniks school for Tap, jazz,and a thing called Afro-Cuban, then it was to ballet school with Jozia Miezakowski's Ballet Company.
As far as the acting, well, that was another story. I had a walk-on role in Promises, Promises and my line was, "The Knicks lost. 129-128 in double overtime!" Well, I said that line like I was doing "I Am A Modern Major General." A great actress at the time pulled me aside and said to me, "John, slow down, this is your moment. Acting is more than just repeating lines. You are a janitor sweeping Madison Square Garden, and you are a diehard Knicks fan, and you are super frustrated that your team lost. Now try it again. Think, John, think!" The line became. "(sweep, sweep) Aw, (pause) the Knicks lost! (pause) (sweep) (voice incredulous 129 to 128! (resigned, shaking head, raising voice) In double overtime! (sweep, sweep). Well, that little lesson went a long way with me. Years later, I had the pleasure of directing her in Checkhov's The Bear and was giving her some Stanislovski tips! I owe a lot to that lovely lady whose name escapes me. Sophia Rodzin, I think, yes, lovely Sophia!
The singing part I never got over. I simply cannot carry a tune to save my soul. Ed Goman, we called him Goman the Showman, tried to teach me, but even he knew it was no use. Ed was in tap class and he tapped like I sang. We would be driving over to Vispi's theatre bar with the tape of Company playing and we would sing along. He would be giving me singing lessons. I could never understand the control he had in his voice or how he was able to stay on key. He just seemed to know how to do it. Let me just say that my rendition of "Being Alive" would send dogs scurrying under beds.
It was through the ballet company that I learned the most, especially discipline. Dance classes were very hard for me, but I continued. Not being a natural dancer, I had to work at it. It was a great triumph for me toland the role of Drosselmeyer in the first annual production of The Nutcracker. I worked so hard on that, and I guess it paid off because I did it for a few years. Even when I moved to New York, I was invited back to do the role in the annual presentation.
I moved to the Big Apple. I had honed my dancing, acting and comedic skills in community theatre. I still couldn't sing. Broadway, here I come! What I didn't know was the world was filled with triple threats. More dance lessons, more acting classes. Gosh, maybe I should have stayed home and been a big fish in a little pond rather than be a little fish in this big pond we call Broadway. Time passed, an off Broadway thing here and there. I did work on Merlin, the Broadway musical, but not in an acting capacity. But, that's another story. It was around that time that I had the best dance class I ever had in my life.
I had taken up retail sales to make a living and was working in a mattress store on Broadway and 72nd Street called SLEEPY'S. A customer came in one day, a black man, to purchase a set of bedding. I waited on him in the customary way, giving advice and recommendations. He selected a set and we headed to the desk to write up the order. But, something struck me as odd. He spoke so eloquently. His manner was genteel, refined, if you know what I mean. In other words, this dude had class!
I asked his last name. He said, "Ailey." I froze, looked up and said, "Not Alvin?" He said, "yes." Well, I was a monster Alvin Ailey fan, but for some reason, I had no idea what he looked like. Linda Sipple and I use to come to New York on the Martz Bus just to go to City Center for performances of the Alvin Ailey Company. I was also a member of a club called "Friendsof Ailey." So, I was familiar with the company and not the person. I was also very familiar with the work of this choreographer. I knew I was in the presence of genius. I started yakking with him, telling him about my love for his company, and the conversation turned to some of his compositions. He told me stories about Blues Suite and Revelations and what they meant to him. Then, he told me stories about his early years on Broadway, and I in turn told him about my experiences. The only thing that I felt he could relate was that I shared billing once with Sergio Lopez-Cal, who was an Ailey dancer, in Nutcracker once.
He was not in a hurry and was just so super nice, so I asked him something about Revelations, or stated that I would kill to dance in that piece. I knew that that was impossible because I knew that the Ailey Company was comprised of either black or third world dancers. I don't recall any white dancers in the company. I don't think they had a policy. It was just the way it was. But, I asked Alvin to teach me a step from Revelations. I had always loved the finale when the male dancers come out in the black slacks, gold vests, hands on hips, strutting down stage in unison to the tune of "Rockin' My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham." He laughs, and says, "sure." I had a tape deck with the tape of Revelations in the store. I had tapes from Broadway and opera too. I say, "let me get the tape." He says, "you're kidding!"
So, there I was on Broadway and 72nd Street, up on the second floor in this glass encased showroom, the tape player blasting. I, and this fabulous choreographer, hands on hips, strutting to the tune of "Rockin' My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham!"
Eat your heart out Linda Sipple!