The African American Jewish White Girl


AADC 1981-82 warming up at TV studio before performing and filming Lemonade Suite

In 1974 I chanted Hebrew as a member of the Jewish community in front of family and friends, and celebrated my new-found womanhood at North Shore Congregation Israel, in Glencoe.

In 1981 I danced onstage as a member of The African American Dance Company (AADC) of Indiana University, and celebrated the resurrection of Lazarus’ “dead” body, played by the only other Jewish white girl in The Company on the stage of the Ebenezer Baptist Church, in Indianapolis.

After the performance, we were treated to a delicious dinner supplied by the Women’s Auxiliary of the church. I ate food that was better than anything I had ever tasted. I said to one of the male dancers, “Wow! That spinach is really good!” He laughed and said, “That’s not spinach. That’s greens.” Talk about feeling white.

Years later, while having lunch with our friends, Savannians Alex and Michele Raskin, at Mrs. Wilkes’ Boardinghouse, I learned the secret of making great-tasting greens. Now, I make some of the best non-Kosher greens east of the Mississippi.

As members of the AADC we danced, took lecture classes, had exams and learned about African culture. We learned how African dance evolved, forming the basis of tap, and many other forms of dance. Since my mother was a tap dance teacher for 25 years at the Carol Walker Dance Studio, I found it all fascinating.

Professor Iris Rosa (ProRo) founded the AADC in 1974, and poured her heart and soul into all of us. The alumni were recently told that ProRo is retiring at the end of the year.

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My parents performed in many benefit shows together while I was growing up.

If you have one of these, please leave a comment after this blog post.

If you have one of these, please leave a comment after this blog post.
 
 [Barat College- in master class with Dennis Wayne of Joffrey ballet c. 1974 Taking a Master Class from Dennis Wayne of Joffrey Ballet at Barat College c. 1975.  Notice I straightened my hair so it would look nice. It didn’t look that nice after the class.

I was a dance-studio “rat.” I grew up at the Carol Walker Dance Studio, in Highwood, Illinois, where my mother taught tap dance classes for 25 years, and my much-much older sister, Beth Chase Avraham, and I used to perform at local schools with The Carol Walker Dance Troupe. Of course, because of the huge age difference, we didn’t perform together.
After taking a Jazz class with Randy Duncan or a Modern Dance class with Carol Walker, I’d come home and thank my parents for genetically giving me their strong legs and sense of rhythm. After ballet class, I’d come home and “thank” my father for genetically giving me his flat Fred Flintstone feet that made being able to get on pointe next to impossible.

Auditioning to become a member of the AADC was especially important to me because, even though our years at I.U. never overlapped, my brother had been a member of The Company five years earlier.

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The experience of being a part of the AADC family is an integral part of who I am now. Plus I had the opportunity to dance every day, which I loved, and to perform frequently, which I didn’t. But, once I’d get onstage, I had no choice but to do what I was supposed to do, which helped take my mind off of being perpetually nauseated. Vomiting onstage? Not cool. Unless you’re a 70’s rock star.

I remember once standing frozen in the wings, thinking, “There are four other dancers already out there. They won’t miss me.” Iris Rosa, the director of the AADC, found me and told me to get onstage. I’m glad she did. I didn’t like it, but I knew I’d eventually get used to it. I haven’t.

I know that a big part of the reason I didn’t go out on-cue was because all I was wearing was a purple leotard, purple tights, and tap shoes. Nothing else. No skirt to cover my adipose tissue. No dress to smooth out my curves or tame my boobage. Plus, my boyfriend at the time had thoughtlessly remarked that in that particular costume I resembled a grape. I broke up with him shortly thereafter.

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The first time I remember truly enjoying myself onstage was when we performed at the Indianapolis Children’s Museum. The stage was low and closer to the audience than any other stage on which I’d tried desperately not to throw up. And, being able to look into the eyes of kindergarteners who sat with amazed, mesmerized faces thoroughly enjoying every single move we made, gave me a newfound confidence to smile at the faces smiling back at me, allowing me to temporarily forget how terrified I usually felt in front of an audience.

I knew I didn’t have what it took to be a professional dancer; like arched feet, weighing 80 pounds, and little things, like being able to balance and pirouette on pointe,  so I decided to transfer to Lake Forest College to study Creative Writing that upcoming fall.

 

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My final performance with the AADC was in the spring of 1982 on the main stage at I.U.  I was going to miss this family with whom I had spent nearly every day during the school year. We had fun, especially when we weren’t in rehearsal and spent entire classes dancing to Michael Jackson’s 1979 album “Off the Wall”.

But I was excited,too, because my parents had come to see me dance. We debuted “Lemonade Suite,” a piece that combined Iris Rosa’s choreography, Dr. Kenneth Ware’s original score, and the poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks.

My bio in the program read, “Leslie Jo Chase (dancer) is a junior from Highland Park, Illinois. Majoring in General Studies, this Capricornian likes to dance, play tennis, read, and cook.” I was grateful the editor of the program added our astrological signs; otherwise, mine would have been as plain as, well, white bread.

I was one of the dancers in a part of “Lemonade Suite” titled “The Mother.” It was the most dramatic piece in which I have ever danced, and the only one that didn’t cause me to be afraid to be onstage.

The stage was dimly lit. The background music sounded like a funeral dirge that intensified as we walked slowly and aimlessly with blank stares out onto the stage, and then fell to our knees.

We clutched and contracted our midsections, as if we’d each received a fastball to the stomach delivered by a Major League pitcher, as the narrator spoke the first word of the poem with agony in her voice: Abortion.

My parents must have been so proud.

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There was much more writhing, contracting, and rolling around the stage in remorse as the narrator repeated the words of Gwendolyn Brooks, “I Loved you All.” It was haunting, and powerful, and, just a tad embarrassing because I knew my father was videotaping it.

The last segment of ”Lemonade Suite” was “The Wedding Dance.” That was really fun, and not at all embarrassing to perform. But, I had to rein in ”the girls” by binding them up with an ace bandage beneath my dress to prevent getting  a black eye.

That would have been quite the Pas de Don’t.

The audience didn’t just sit there clapping politely when we finished a piece. This audience enthusiastically showed us all of its love — while we danced — by cheering, screaming, clapping, and then jumping to its feet yelling, “Break that body!” Their infectious enthusiasm and encouragement moved me to dance better, harder, and have more confidence than I’d ever had before. I knew I might never feel that way again so I let loose and became “Leslie, the African American Jewish White Capricornian,”  “breaking her body” to the delight of the hundreds of people in that auditorium. It was exhilarating. It was magical for me.

For my parents? Oy.

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But, to this day, they laugh about a letter I sent to them that included an article and photo from a local newspaper about The AADC. I noted on the side, “I’m the first person on the left on the 3rd step.” My mother called and said, “Did you really think we wouldn’t be able to pick you out?”

Before the end of the year, we recorded a DVD of “Lemonade Suite” at the I.U. television studio. It was shown on local cable stations and used as an educational tool in schools, helping children learn to make good choices.

Years later, I contacted the Black Film Center at I.U. and bought a copy of the DVD that I watch from time to time, always feeling proud to have been a part of something so profound. (Of course, when I showed it to my husband and kids, they thought it was the funniest thing they’d ever seen.) But, most importantly, I actually DID weigh what my driver’s license said I weighed for once in my life.

My brother and I went to th 25th reunionIMG_3281 of the AADC in Bloomington, Indiana in 1999 and were invited to come back in April, 2014, for the 40th reunion. We thought about going, but then realized it fell on the same weekend our family had decided to have an early Passover Seder so everyone could be together to celebrate our peoples’ freedom from bondage in the land of Egypt, as it is said.

I’m looking forward to the 50th reunion, so, in case anyone on the planning committee is reading this and wants the three or four Jews who were in The African American Dance Company to be able to celebrate with you, Passover is Tuesday, April 23rd through Monday, April 29th, 2024.

If it doesn’t work out, don’t worry. I’ll just sit in the dark, alone, waiting for the invitation to the 60th anniversary. May we all live and be well, and still be breaking those bodies!

Update:

My brother, Paul Chase, was killed in a car accident on June 25th, 2014, three weeks after my father passed away from a sudden heart attack on June 6th, 2014. As they say, hindsight is 20/20. If only we had attended the 40th anniversary celebration. But, we didn’t. Iris Rosa, and her husband, Anthony Artis, attended a memorial service for Paul in Indianapolis, on July 6th, 2014, created by all of Paul’s friends and colleagues. Iris, the most thoughtful person I’ve ever met, brought along an AADC 40th anniversary commemorative pin, and gave it to me at the service. It’s one of my most prized possessions.

Images of Lemonade Suite are the legally protected property of Indiana University.

 

1 Comment

  1. After reading your post, I realize why I do what I do. When I hear AADC alumni talk about their experience in the dance company, it really warms my heart, it really does. I am always wondering if my work has impact, creatively and personally. You have given me the affirmation that I needed, especially today. I can go into the studio with the students tomorrow and know why I do what I do.

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