When I was a student at Hess School of Dance, there were no classes during the summer. We were strongly encouraged to attend the West Texas State University (WTAMU now) Dance Camp. I probably begged to be allowed to go. The first year I went I was 10 years old. I was the youngest student staying in the dorms. Most kids would commute because the little town of Canyon, TX that was home to the university was only about a 20 minute drive. Now, in Seattle, I drive about 20 minutes to go places everyday. It's so funny now to remember that drive to Canyon feeling like it took so long. The two week camp (I only stayed for one week) was run and taught by Dance Department majors, and it was a blast. We had classes in things that I did not often get to do: tap, jazz (real jazz... not the stuff Mr. Hess choreographed for us), musical theater, and the very exotic (to us) modern dance. I learned a lot, but mostly I learned that there were teachers and dancers in the world who were kind and encouraging. I learned that I really was crazy flexible because the teachers would always call it out. I wanted to make them happy and worked hard. I hope that everyone of them knows what a difference they made to all of us young “Hess Girls.”
I could not wait to stay in the dorms, but I was also terribly nervous. Going in to set myself up the first afternoon all my fears immediately dissipated when I laid eyes on Elise Carlton. She was a few years older than me, blue eyed and blond haired and only knew how to smile. I remember that she tucked me under her wing, assuring me and my parents that we would be together and that I would be fine. She was a star at the studio during the year. I first met her when I was 7 years old and performing in The Nutcracker for the first time. I was terribly nervous then, too, and Elise had the same effect: calming encouragement. That year, Elise was splitting the starring role of Clara with another girl named Tanny. I still had a Christmas ornament from each of those Claras this year when I pulled out the stuff to decorate. I tossed the one from Tanny (I just do NOT need that many reminders that Nutcracker is no longer a part of my life hanging all over my tree), but I kept the one from Elise. It's a wooden toy soldier whose arms and legs flail when the string is pulled. Her name and the year are written in Sharpie on the bottom.
Even at my very young age I could gather that some mommies gave lots of money to the ballet, some didn't, and some would have if they could. There was a definite presence of Texas socialites in the arts scene. Now, I'm not saying that the ONLY reason girls got to be Clara was because of money because in later years some of those rich girls were also my friends, were mostly kind, and were talented. I am saying that having your mother be active in the Guild and high up on the donation list weren't bad things. Perhaps my childhood impressions and recollections aren't right, but chances are they were more right than I knew. I do believe, though, that it was a rare thing for the child of a mom who was not in any obvious way connected and well-funded to receive the role of Clara. Elise fell into this category. She achieved a rare privilege, I believe, because she was a rare gem and everyone could see it. I hope never, ever to be disabused of this notion. She was beautiful, talented, but mostly had one of the best attitudes I've ever seen and pure kindness for days. She was a perfect Clara. I can still see her lovely little arabesque turn in the second act with her long blond, perfectly done sausage curls swinging out behind her. The blue of her bow complimenting her natural coloring perfectly. She was like a painting by Renoir or Cassat.
That summer at camp I got to know Elise even better. She was hilarious, and she had sharp wit and criticism for mean people which made her own kindness that much more obvious. She once burped the most awful burp I've ever experienced, and I will never forget it. The grossness made her human and so brave to be that unladylike without shame. I remember being in awe that she and her friends let me be a part of their crew. I ran into one of them this winter on a trip back to Amarillo. We said “hello,” and I learned that she was a 1st grade teacher. Of course. She had always been nice to little kids. One of the other girls was another absolute beauty with thick blond hair and big blue eyes. I have a picture of her somewhere holding up a picture of Christie Brinkley on a magazine cover next to her own face, a dead ringer at age 13. I felt like such a fuzzy headed, gangly spazz next to them all.
As years went on at the studio, I passed up those girls dance-wise. By that time, I was going away for up to 6 weeks at a time to study ballet at some of the best schools in the country. I'm so grateful that Elise and her pals made me feel safe that first summer. If it had been a bad experience, who knows if I would have been able to do all the "camps" I did in the future. They were all into high school, and dance just became their extracurricular while I danced 7+ hours a day. I still had such a high regard for them, though. Their behavior was proof to me that attitude really was everything. That there was more to being successful than raw talent and hard work. Elise is still a reminder to me of the difference that confident kindness can make not just to one person but in an entire school of people. Her mother is friendly and hilarious too- motivation to be a great example for my kids.
After Elise graduated high school, she worked for the musical drama TEXAS down in the Palo Duro Canyon. She wasn't the star of the show- perhaps she was no longer interested in spending hours on dancing, but she was using her five-star smile as a member of the hospitality team. I saw her down there a few times and it was always such a joyful conversation. I remembered her in the awful, ruffle-necked, Little House style, pastel gingham checked dresses all the women on hospitality had to wear when I pulled out that ornament in December. My kids were playing with it. One son was being too rough with it and I snapped at him a bit too hard. I felt bad because he was just acting his age, so I took a moment to explain my strong reaction: “That ornament is really important to me! It reminds me of someone very special.” “Why?” my five year old asked. “She was special because she showed me how important it is to be sweet, and the ornament is important because she died.” Elise was killed in a dramatic car accident at age 19 when driving to TEXAS one night. A terrible, terrible loss.