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Jocelyn and Deven Muhammad: Creative Siblings Move Past Labels to Make Their Marks

September 15, 2015 1 comment

Jocelyn and Deven Muhammad are so over being known as openly gay siblings and that is of course a credit to them and how it should be.  But if you’re a journalist assigned to cover them as I was for this story then that facet of their identity and being, even though it’s just one facet, has to be addressed.  Why?  Well, it is a part of their humanity.  It is also a point of curiosity and interest that cannot be denied or ignored or wished away.  And so so this story about Jocelyn and Deven attempts to strike a balance in its portrayal of them, neither spending too much space or giving too much attention to their sexual orientation nor avoiding it.  In fact, I decided to broach the subject and their matter-of-fact, it’s-no-big-deal attitude about it right up front.  My Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/) profile of this dynamic brother and sister – he is a champion dancer and she is an emerging singer-songwriter – hopefully establishes them as compelling, destined-for-big-things individuals you should know about not because they happen to be gay siblings but because they have much to offer with their talent and intellect.  Something tells me we will be hearing from them as time goes on and as they hone their fabulousness and reach ever greater heights.

 

 

Muhammads

Jocelyn and Deven Muhammad

Creative Siblings Move Past Labels to Make Their Marks

August 26, 2015
Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Originally appeared in the July/August 2015 issue of Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/)

Since coming out a few years ago, Jocelyn and Deven Muhammad have been known as “the gay siblings.” But as a LGBT Nebraskans profile put it: “That’s one of the least interesting things about them.”

Jocelyn’s a promising singer-songwriter with an old-soul spirit. A May graduate of Millard South, where she was named prom princess, she can be found performing her sweet-sad love tunes on Old Market street corners and at open mic nights around town. Her from-the-heart work, some featured in YouTube videos, has attracted the attention of the music industry. She recently sang during open mic sessions at the legendary Whiskey a Go-Go in L.A. and the Bluebird Cafe in Nashville. She plans to return to L.A. this summer.

Her goal is to write hit records. She’s currently creating songs for what she hopes is her debut album on a major label.

Deven has been selected as a touring performing artist with The Young Americans, a nonprofit group founded 50 years ago to promote understanding and goodwill through the arts. The charismatic junior-to-be at Midland University in Fremont recently helped his school’s competitive dance team win two national titles with his dynamic hip hop, jazz, and pompom routines.

In high school he starred in musical theater before becoming the first male dance team member and being voted Mr. Millard South. At Midland he was crowned Freshman Homecoming Prince.

These creatives fiercely support their individual expressions and dimensions. For a long time it was Deven who sang and Jocelyn who danced. As kids they became determined to swap lives.

“What I love about us is that I know she’s the singer of the family and she knows I’m the dancer…and we kind of leave it as is,” Deven says. ”We do our own thing, we have our own thing, so we don’t get jealous of each other. But we also love to share what we’re doing.”

The siblings not only identify as gay, but also Caucasian, African-American, and Chinese. They have encountered racism, both subtle and overt. Through everything, including a childhood when their father wasn’t around much and they made do with less than their friends, these two have been simpatico. Of course, the siblings also sometimes stole each other’s clothes.

“We feed off each other and we respect one another,” Jocelyn says. “We’ve always had each other. We have this bond. He’s always pushed me. He’s very real, very blunt. He’ll tell you what’s up.”

Though brutally honest about her first vocalizing attempts, he worked with her. Most of all, he reminded her they come from a loving family that supports whatever interest any member follows.

“He showed me there’s no such thing as trying,” she continues. “You do it or you don’t do it. That’s what he’s done with his dancing. He’s very inspiring. I look up to him a lot.”

Tough love is necessary if you expect to get better, Deven says. “That’s why I’m hard on her on some things and that’s why people are hard on me. I love being pushed, I love reaching for a new goal.”

Though not surprised by Jocelyn’s success, he’s impressed by how far his little sister has come since picking up the guitar less than three years ago.

“She’s growing up really fast. She holds herself very well. She’s different every time I listen to her. It’s literally a whole new voice. Jocelyn is making strides like it’s nobody’s business. She’s doing what she feels she needs to do to succeed.”

Jocelyn has surrounded herself with veteran musicians who’ve taught her stagecraft and the business side of music. She considers the defunct Side Door Lounge, where she played extensively, “the best schooling I’ve ever had in my life,” adding, “Just being there experiencing everything, meeting musicians, having jam sessions—that one venue changed the rest of my life.”

Deven’s refined his own craft through dance camps and workshops.

“I know if I want something in life I have to work for it,” he says. “I love that the things I have are because I worked my ass off for it. I’m very appreciative of what I have. That’s really shaped who I am.”

As life’s grown more hectic between rehearsals, school, and work, the release that comes in dance, he says, is more precious than ever.

“It kind of makes me forget about everything going on in life,” he says. “It’s the one thing I love to do.”

When the vibe’s just right during a set, Jocelyn gets lost in the music, deep inside herself, connecting with the audience.

“It just makes you feel your highest self,” she says. Jocelyn feels the chances coming her way are, “happening for a reason. You create your own destiny and your own luck.”

Muhammads

Music-Culture Mixologist Brent Crampton: Rhythmic anthropology and pure love of human bodies moving

July 4, 2015 1 comment

Sometimes it seems as if Brent Crampton has cornered the market on cool in Omaha with this weaving the social fabric thing he does at House of Loom.  The near downtown club he co-founded and co-owns epitomizes cool in its decor, craft cocktails, diverse crowds, multicultural music, themed events, and down-for-anything vibe.  Crampton’s long cultivated a dynamic, inclusive social scene bound by a love of music and a spirit of exploration.  House of Loom is where it all comes together in a heady brew of influences that excite the senses,  The ambience, the music, the drinks, the people, the conversations, the dancing, and last but not least Crampton himself, who serves as host, DJ, programmer, and cultural mixologsit, make it a kind of hipster heaven.  His passion for what he does is palpable.  Here’s my profile of Brent in the new issue of Flyover Magazine (http://flyovermagazine.com/), the new quarterly publication from Bryce Bridges that’s devoted to celebrating the creative soul.  Check out more creatives in the new issue available for subscription and at select area venues.

 

brent crampton

 

Music-culture mixologist Brent Crampton: Rhythmic anthropology and pure love of human bodies moving

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in Flyover Magazine (http://flyovermagazine.com/)

 

Brent Crampton is a prince of bohemia whose branded lifestyle Loom “weaves the social fabric” by having diverse people interact through music and dance.

A DJ entrepreneur with a serious case of wanderlust, he applies a mix tape sensibility, informed by journalism and religious studies degrees, to sample, celebrate and cross-pollinate cultures. The ever curious Crampton, an Omaha resident but world citizen, curates and emcees music and dance-infused multicultural happenings.

“I think the same way I mix music I mix life experiences because I listen to a wide range of different styles of music and I eat a wide range of food and I hang out with a wide range of people. To experience the rich cultural vibrancy you have to get out of your comfort seat and create friendships at the margins.”

His events intersect African-American, Latino, LGBT and various international communities, including Omaha’s West-African, Indian, Brazilian and Jamaican populations.

“When we do those events it’s really important for us to reach out to people who identify with that culture to have them collaborate and consult with us. It’s a community thing. In a small humble way we use Loom as a tool of social transformation.”

For five years he and Jay Kline practiced the Loom social theory at a rotating series of venues. Then, in 2012, they partnered with Ethan Bondelid to give their cultural experiment a nightclub home, House of Loom. This funky oasis with eclectic decor and craft cocktails is dedicated to “mixing life, bringing people together, connecting through music, releasing in dance.” Situated just south of the popular Old Market entertainment district and just east of the historic Little Italy neighborhood, it’s inconspicuously set back from busy 10th Street.

Righteous house music sets and themed parties attract a creative demographic that recalls the hipsters and Beats of another generation. Known as the gayest straight bar in town and as a meta cosmopolitan night spot, Loom is a club and creative salon in one, Blending cultures is at its heart. As the music revs up, swirling bodies and colors animate the intimate space. The heat and noise rise as inhibitions loosen.

Having a permanent home, Crampton says, “allows us to take that ideology and transfer it to a seven-days-a-week brick and mortar space where we explore different aspects of our philosophy beyond just a dance event into spoken word, music performances, visual art…”

Crampton, whose hippie-dippie demeanor matches his New Age leanings, is seemingly everywhere at once at Loom, his tall frame hard to miss in the rub of people at the bar, in the lounge or on the dance floor. He really takes center stage when grooving in the DJ booth. He first felt the DJ call attending Omaha and Kansas City raves.

“I was really enamored with that dynamic call and response cycle of the DJ playing the music and watching people gyrate their bodies off the beat and how that fed back to the DJ. I remember making this very conscious decision of I’m going to become a DJ, I’m going to buy the gear and do this, and that just set me off on a whole course.”

From the sanctuary of the DJ booth he sets the vibe with the beats he selects.

“I kind of have this total freedom, within the jurisdiction of good music, to just do what I want to do. One of the powerful things about music is this veil it tears down that somehow we’re separate from each other.”

He takes a certain pride in providing the vehicle for interracial unions that get their start at Loom. From the booth he sees connections happen all around him but when working he mostly enters a zone.

“You kind of create a bubble where you’re doing your thing, you’re aware of what’s going on but you don’t try to think about it. It’s that sensation you get when you’re about to jump off a cliff into water,” says Crampton, who made that leap in Maui, Hawaii.

 

 

He credits Omaha’s burgeoning indie music scene of the late 1990s into the start of the new millennium with broadening his musical education. An Omaha concert he attended then featuring The Faint and Tilly and the Wall at the Sokol Auditorium made a big impression.

“I had the sense when I walked in the room I was walking upon a conversation I had been missing out on. It was articulated very well and it had a whole movement behind it. I just wanted more of it.”

He says unlike many DJs who grew up around their parents’ great vinyl records, he didn’t have that.

“I mean, there was music around growing up but it wasn’t this central theme. I discovered a passionate connection to music later in life.”

Fittingly for a man of many interests, the well-springs for his music passions include skateboarding culture and the African diaspora. He reverently watched videos of his counter-culture skateboarding idols that featured cutting-edge music from the coasts.

“I was being exposed to music I wasn’t hearing in Omaha at all. I looked up to these skateboarders and so if they were into that music then I was into it. Then I started purchasing that music. I was hearing The Roots years before they became popular. I got turned onto house music. That was really helpful because it allowed me to break out of a Midwestern mold of just being influenced by whatever I heard on the radio or MTV.

“When I walked into the world of Electronic Dance Music (EDM), I had an immediate open-mindedness to it. I’d already been prepped for being into different things.”

Some mentors guided him, including former DJ James Deep, who schooled him in the craft of emceeing.

Jack Lista opened his mind to the music’s origins. “He educated me on the historical context of dance music in America. Being a straight white kid in the Midwest I really had no idea where this whole world of music came from I was listening to. It came from a very black, Latino and also gay place. It really blew my mind away but it made a lot of sense. House music is the root of EDM but the root of that is disco. I began a musical pilgrimage and in the process it changed my route from being influenced by what I was hearing at raves to being influenced by how the African diaspora has affected music around the world.

“It’s not something we’re taught or are aware of culturally. That gave me a deep appreciation for the places it came from. I became a student of the whole black experience in the Americas and the music that followed. That’s what I started funneling into.”

 

 

 

It all plays out at Loom, where an evolution is under way.

“If Loom in its first five years was about the party, Loom the next five years was about being a business and Loom in its next chapter is going to be about investing in its soul. I think we’re going to take all the best parts of everything we’ve learned and channel that towards more of what we want to do, when we want to do it rather than being obligated by paying rent.”

Soul yearnings feed Crampton, adopted “from the womb” and raised by parents who encouraged his creative expressions.

“My incredibly loving, supportive parents didn’t really leave me lacking.”

Yet he surmises the “jumping from one culture or subculture to another” that adoptees like himself tend to do “is rooted in not having a foundation in some ancestral past.”

“It’s about trying to find yourself, to find your place,” he says. “I definitely have tendencies of that. I’m not bound by the past and so that gives me a lot of cultural mobility to say, If I’m not this, what am I? Well. I’m a person of the world and that can mean a lot of things, and so I choose to celebrate and explore different aspects of human expression. That has allowed me to have a certain open-mindedness, which has translated to my vocation, which I think has allowed me to live in Omaha, Neb. and be a proponent for multiculturalism.

“So, yeah, what I do vocationally is directly related to being adopted.”

He takes his spirituality seriously enough that soon after celebrating Loom’s ninth anniversary with a March 14 blow-out party he went to a remote site for a silent retreat.

“I don’t identify with one thing or another but I definitely feel like I’m walking a spiritual path. It gives me another way to interpret the world.”

There’s even a small altar above a fireplace in Loom containing incense, myrrh, sage, candles and religious artifacts.

Another way he refreshes his inner self is through travel. He’s visited Hawaii, San Francisco, New York City, Chicago, Boston, Miami, London, Mexico, Peru and Cuba, among other locations.

“When I go to places I definitely experience the music there. Brazil has always been on my bucket list.”

 

House of Loom Omaha upscale lounge

 

Most everywhere he’s travels he DJs. An opportunity to gig at what he calls “probably my favorite nightclub in America” – Cielo in New York City’s packing district – held special meaning for Crampton because, he adds, “It was one of the influences on House of Loom. It was some sort of life goal to play there.” laying the noted Slowdown in Omaha meant a lot to him, too.

Crampton, who sees himself producing music at some point, is sure Loom will continue doing its thing.

“I kind of feel like we’re just hitting a stride. We all have this renewed sense of energy and inspiration. People need an escape to release tension and there’s a certain connection and sense of community you make through social gatherings. Music and dance is our preferred medium to bring people together. You may think you don’t have anything in common but if you’re in that same space sharing the love of the beat in that same moment, boom, there’s your first connection.”

The shared smiles and feelings of optimistic energy expressed then, as well as the personal relationships that form, are what drive him.

Though he worries about burn-out, he’s loving the freedom to just think-up and create these “artful expressions of multiculturalism.”

Visit http://www.houseofloom.com and brentcrampton.typepad.com.

Moving right along: Educators, dancers, advocates, activists Josie Metal-Corbin and David E. Corbin not slowing down in retirement

July 3, 2015 1 comment

For all of us there are people in our lives, even if tangentially, who we admire for the way they, well, live.  Josie Metal-Corbin and David E. Corbin are two of those people for me.  This married couple just knows how to do life right.  At least that’s the distinct impression I get whenever I’m around them, which is rarely and then only for brief visits, but my instincts about people are good and all evidence suggests my perception about them is right on.  There’s a joyous spirit to them and their pursuits, both personal and professional, that largely remains elusive to those of us, like me, who fall on the depressive, anxious side of the spectrum.  Oh, I’m sure they have their dark, down moments and struggles like anyone else but I suspect they are far more positive than negative in the balance of things.  I also know for a fact they intentionally, consistently keep themselves healthy in mind, body, spirit by virtue of their degreed disciplines, specializations, and passions having to do with physical education, recreation, healthy aging, and dance.  They are active people and in retirement they’re still moving right along, just as the headline for my New Horizons profile about them says.

 

 Cover Photo

Moving right along: Educators, dancers, advocates, activists Josie Metal-Corbin and David E. Corbin still on the move in retirement

©by Leo Adam Biga

Now appearing in the New Horizons

 

Josie Metal-Corbin and David E. Corbin are aware not everyone is as fortunate as they are in following their passion work. Their magnificent obsession happens to be health, physical education, dance and, more broadly speaking, the humanities.

They were already married and established in their respective fields when they joined the University of Nebraska at Omaha staff in 1980, where the next four decades they pursued their professional lives. Today, they look back fondly on distinguished educational careers that often intersected with one another.

A soon to be retired dance educator and choreographer, Josie led UNO’s award-winning resident dance troupe, The Moving Company, whose concerts explore myriad subjects in diverse spaces. David’s an emeritus professor of health education and public health who led many community health initiatives and is now an environmental activist.

Besides their mutual interest in health education and recreation, they share in common a passion for performance – she’s a dancer and he’s a musician – along with art, activism and advocacy. In addition to being each other’s favorite dance partner, he’s often accompanied, on guitar, performances she’s danced in or directed-choreographed. He’s even danced with The Moving Company himself.

The two actually met over dance – at a Brigham Young University social ballroom dance workshop in Provo, Utah. He came to the workshop from Saskatchewan, Canada, where he was teaching at the University of Regina and she traveled there from back East, where she was teaching at Robert Morris University in her native Pittsburgh.

They both actively promote healthy aging through activities like dance and Tai Chi and they use their expertise to support progressive, humanist causes.

Married 38 years and residing in the same Dundee house they’ve always lived in, they are parents to a daughter, Quinn Corbin. She describes her folks as “an incredibly inspiring couple,” adding, “They always follow their passion and work incredibly hard while still taking the time to meditate every day as well as view life through a positive yet realistic lens. They both care for so many others and are heavily involved in the community.”

Her parents are friends, colleagues and collaborators with a large circle of fellow creatives and concerned citizens.

 

 

©photo vt David Conway

 

 

Putting down roots

These Omaha transplants were both teaching in Pittsburgh when they accepted offers from UNO. He was completing his Ph.D. and she was following him wherever he landed. He weighed options in Boston and Indiana when jobs serendipitously opened for each at UNO.

Before Omaha David Corbin never lived anywhere longer than eight years. His educator parents moved the family from Ohio to New Mexico when he was young and he came into his adolescence in that sun-swept and desert land, living on a ranch in a small Sandia Mountains town. His folks taught at a two-room schoolhouse. He attended a school 18 miles from home. He often rode into town on one of the family’s horses. Before his senior year his parents accepted positions at an American school on a U.S, military base, Fort Buchanan, in Puerto Rico. That’s where he graduated and after getting his teaching degree in the States at the University of New Mexico he returned to Puerto Rico to make his living as a teacher and musician.

Music’s been a big part of his life since age 12. As a young man his father played bass in touring bands. When David got struck by the folk and rock explosion, his father gave him his first guitar lessons. David headed up a band during high school in New Mexico. A popular song then, “El Matador,” by the Kingston Trio was naturally adopted as the fight song for his school, nicknamed the Matadors. David’s group performed the tune before basketball games.

His band’s gigs extended to ski resorts.

“We didn’t get paid. We got room and board and free lift tickets. We didn’t care,” he recalls of those free-spirited adventures.

He led a band all through college at UNM.

“After college I became solo in Puerto Rico. i worked on cruise ships and I was teaching by day and playing by night in bars.”

A tee-totaler, he never imbibed at those night spots, but he was burning the candle at both ends.

“Looking back, I wonder why in the world was I doing that. After working a full school day I’d get home at 4 p.m,, take a nap, go to work at 10 to sing and play guitar, get off at 2 a.m. and then have to be back at school at 7:30.”

Even though his parents were educators, he says it was really his older brother Charles “Chuck” Corbin, a noted fitness-wellness educator and author, who influenced him to pursue a physical education track.

After Puerto Rico, David’s roaming began again. He studied at the University of Oslo (Norway), he taught in Fort Worth, Texas, he earned his master’s from the University of Ohio, he taught in Maryland, he lectured in Canada, he attended an intensive course on human sexuality at the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University,

Josie, meanwhile, rarely left Penn. before he came into her life.

Her father was a coal miner turned hobo hell-bent on being a lumberjack before contracting tuberculosis. He then learned the craft of fine motor watchmaking and clockmaking. Her father and mother raised the family in an undeveloped Pittsburgh suburb that was more like the country. The eldest of three, Josie led adventures in “these great woods behind our house.”

But it was work, not play, combined with a self-sufficient attitude that was most impressed upon Josie by her folks.

“Work, work and work. We were the Metal girls and we could do anything – this was the philosophy. We went hunting and fishing, we skinned rabbits, we chopped off cement from bricks so my father could salvage brick.”

Running parallel to that blue collar, tomboy lifestyle were the dance lessons she took from age 3 on.

“This Metal girl had an unbelievable opportunity. The Carnegie Museum of Art had this wonderful program called the Tam O’Shanters. Kids from the public schools were selected to come every Saturday for free. I did that from third grade through high school, by which time we were going to the Carnegie Mellon Institute of Art. So I had free art lessons, I saw different exhibitions. It introduced me to this whole other world. It was really amazing.”

That experience is so ingrained in her, she says, “when I go to museums or older institutions to get a drink from the old brass fountains it just all floods back.”

“One of the highlights of my life came when the Durham Museum (Omaha) asked me to be a scholar in residence,” she says.

Fine art and higher ed were not part of her parents’ experience and she appreciates that these things became a vital part of her life.

“I was first generation college,” she says. “I went to Slippery Rock Sate College  (Penn.). I actually played soccer on a sheep field there. I was always in dance, Dance then was part of physical education. Now you go to study dance. Then I went to the University of Pittsburgh (for her masters). I taught three years in the public schools – health and physical education – and did dance and choreography. Then I went to Robert Morris, where I founded Orchesis (the greek word for dance).”

UNO’s company was originally called Orchesis after a nationwide modern dance  movement and honorary society.

Metal-Corbin stretched herself while at Robert Morris.

“Not only did I found the dance company, I joined folk dancers from Duquesne University as an itinerant grad school teacher for Penn State University. I coached varsity basketball for women, I was the softball director, I was the cheerleader sponsor. I did a million things there.”

 

 

DJsculpture

Sculpture by Jamie Burmeister; ©photo by Quinn M. Corbin

 

 

Dance as life

Once at UNO she contributed to The Moving Company’s long legacy.

“I’ve been involved in the work of carrying on a tradition of modern dance at UNO that goes back to 1935. We’re in our 80th year of continued existence, which makes us one of the oldest modern dance university companies on the planet.”

There have been four directors – Ruth Diamond Levinson, Aileene Lockhart, Vera Lundhahl and Josie Metal-Corbin.

Bringing dance to people and places that don’t often see it is one of Josie’s passions. She’s done that as a Nebraska Arts Council Artist in Schools and Communities and via the Moving Company, whose mission, she says, is community oriented. “We were doing community engagement before it became the byword of institutions.”

Indoors or outdoors, kids to seniors, she’s made dance accessible everywhere, for everyone.

“We invite the community. When i came to UNO I wanted to see the dancers and the audience reflect north, south, east and west Omaha. I worked for a very long time to get diversity of audience and performers and today we are diverse in age, religion, language, race. you name it That is I think my biggest accomplishment.”

She’s been intentional doing outreach work with the Omaha International Folk Dancers and the African Culture Connection. She’s worked with a local ballroom dance group. She formed Reach for It, a dance class for people with Parkinson’s disease.

Her interest in dance as cultural rite, symbol and storytelling device found full expression in a native Bosnian dance-inspired piece she choreographed. The performance was accompanied by authentic music and projected images of the Bosnian-Serb War. Among the dancers and musicians were Bosnian refugees living in Omaha.

“I love collaborations, I thrive on collaborations, I always have from day one in my teaching career. You see, dance is very ecumenical. Dance is physics, dance is force, gravity, weight, flow and time, so connecting it to science in any way is a natural connection. We’ve done the water cycle dance, the spider dance…There’s an easy connection to math with patterns and forms and shapes. There’s most definitely a connection to fine art, to music, to language arts.”

She says “dance is very universal” but American culture doesn’t readily see its broad integration until someone like her choreographs a site specific work where you least expect it.

“A recent book I published a chapter in is about site specific dance. I illustrate how you can have dance on bridges, in the middle of water, on mountaintops. There’s vertical dancing now where people are hooked up on rigs and they do the mountain or climbing wall.”

Some of her favorite site specific work has intersected with some of the area’s most sublime spots.

“The first meaningful site specific piece I did here was with artist Catherine Ferguson, storyteller Nancy Duncan and musician Michael Fitzsimmons. We did it in a Joslyn Art Museum gallery with words, music and dance within a Catherine Ferguson installation of slate and rope. Then we did something through the galleries at the Sheldon Art Museum in Lincoln with works by artist Jamie Burmeister.”

She recalls another Joslyn performance that brought nontraditional dancers together for a piece that took some improvising.

“In 2005 The Moving Company was commissioned to respond to an exhibition, Renaissance to Rococo. I wanted the dance performed in the galleries among the works of art but was denied permission due to security issues. Our performance was relegated to the Witherspoon Concert Hall. I was disappointed but richly rewarded with the premiere of a piece I made for five physical education majors. They were future teacher candidates learning ways of integrating dance, language arts and sign language into the physical education setting.

“A quarterback, a coach, an assistant at Boys Town and two K-12 physical education majors made their dancing debut, much to the amazement of their peers. Although the site was a traditional stage to our Moving Company dancers, it was a very unexplored place to these newcomers. In this new environment they learned to navigate space, time, effort and relationships on a stage versus on a playing field.”

A few years earlier she assembled dancers at UNO to serve as models for sculptor John Lajba and his commission to create what became the “The Road to Omaha” bronze sculpture for the College World Series.

“Lajba and a photographer came to the UNO Dance Lab and worked with dancers as they performed combinations of running, jumping and lifting. Lajba used photos of the dancers as departure points for maquettes and ultimately some dancers sat for wax casts.”

Then there’s her work for the great outdoors.

“Two times we did a dance on the Glacier Creek Preserve,” she notes.

Northwest of Omaha, this topographically diverse nature preserve is dedicated to the study and appreciation of the tall grass prairie and associated ecosystems of Eastern Nebraska.

“The first prairie dance was based on a poem. It came out of an environmental presentation I did at Kaneko. Then when the preserve’s barn was dedicated we performed in the loft. David played music for it.”

She describes how a public byway became a medium for dance.

“Last year we did a dance along the full length of the Bob Kerresy Pedestrian Bridge. The theme was the fragility of U.S. waterways and our performance was synched with performances by dancers across the nation at 3 o’clock on April 6 to bring attention to the issue.”

Legacy

Now that she’s retired, she’s pleased the university “is going to carry on the dance company” with an interim director.

Metal-Corbin says while she’s stepping out of the field, she’ll always remain a part of dance.

“I don’t want to say that I’m through. I am a dancer, I’ll be dancing in my kitchen, I’ll be on the highways and byways dancing, but it’s not going to be these huge events. I am setting boundaries. There are other people that can do this now. I’ve done it and it takes a lot of energy. I now want to take my energy and put it somewhere else.

“I’m not fading away. I am leaping and stepping out and landing – I don’t know where. We will see what kind of a landing it will be. I’m OCD, and so it’s unlike me not to know what the next step is.”

There are still bound to be those whimsical moments, at home or in public, when the mood strikes and she, and sometimes David, too, trip the light fantastic, not giving a hang what people think.

“Once while visiting a shop in Quebec City,” Josie recalls. “I became engaged in conversation with the hat maker at a millenary store concerning the art of modern dance. She was intrigued I was a dancer-choreographer. Before I knew it, she suggested a ‘trade.’ She asked me to create a dance within the store, and in turn, I would receive a discount on the beautiful hat I had been admiring and trying on. She locked the front door and for a few minutes I improvised dancing through the aisles and around the displays.

“She got her dance and I walked out with the hat.”

Quinn Corbin grew up expecting the unexpected with her parents.

“At times them dancing in the aisles of the supermarket or singing loudly on the street corners in New York City was embarrassing but I’ve always pretty much embraced it as have my friends.”

Retired or not, Josie’s spontaneity to break out in dance will never go away as long as she can still move.

Always a teacher, always of service

Even when she stopped concert dancing more than a decade ago, teaching still brought out the performer in her.

“When I’m teaching I also am performing. Every teacher who is a good educator is looking for a performance level. So every time I go into that classroom or studio I humbly feel I have a captive audience and I’m pulling out all the tricks in the book to engage people. Even though I stopped performing in formal concert at age 56 I was still directing, choreographing and teaching.”

She says the passion she expresses for her work is contagious.

“My (teacher) evaluations have always said, ‘She’s energetic, she’s enthusiastic,’ and the truth is it’s a quid pro quo. I get my energy because there’s people there, so they reflect things back to me. Or if they don’t, I have a genre to get them to move or to respond.”

Her ability to connect with students and to be a leader in her profession earned her National Scholar-Artist recognition from the National Dance Association in 2012, one of many awards recognizing her work in the studio and in the classroom.

All in all, she’s content with how her career evolved.

“I have worked very hard to create a body of work on the academic side and on the artistic side that’s been very rewarding. I’ve had the chance to work with so many different people I’ve given to but that in turn have given back. That quid pro quo is what I always try to do.”

 

 

©photo by Josie Metal-Corbin

 

 

Alone and together

David has his own recognized body of work separate from Josie. They respect that they are their own persons, professionally and otherwise.

“We’re two independent people,” Josie says. “We don’t speak for each other and people have honored that because I think we’ve kind of insisted on it. I’m not Mrs, Corbin. I have a hyphenated last name. I have my own professional title. He has his own professional title. David has his teaching, his writing and all these other initiatives that retirement allowed him to expand.”

He confirms he’s a man of varied interests, saying, “I have many passions. Certainly teaching and advocacy are among them. But I also enjoy music, nature, travel and reading.” Writing, too. He’s authored or co-authored many books in his field, including a pair of high school textbooks he worked on shortly after retiring. His brother Charles, whom he considers a mentor, was a co-author on those projects.

An earlier book the brothers did, Homemade Play Equipment, landed David on The Late Show with David Letterman Show. He’d sent a copy to the show. Years passed when a staffer called to request a video of what he’d demonstrate if he were a guest. Thus, he ended up showing Dave reuses of bicycle inner tubes, milk jugs, panty hose and other throwaways as resistance and strength training tools. Corbin utilizes some in an exercise program he conducts at deFreese Manor. He even gives Green Fitness workshops that emphasize getting in shape using fun, repurposed, low environmental impact devices.

He’s traveled extensively for his work, once serving as a consultant in Romania. He and Josie taught a stress management workshop in China. She says she’s grateful for the support he’s shown her to go after certain professional opportunities.

The couple have merged their interests and expertise to do many projects together. For years he’s taught, with Josie assisting, exercise classes and workshops for older adults, many of them for the Eastern Nebraska Office on Aging (ENOA). The pair ended up writing a book together, Reach for It, that grew out of their shared interest and experience in getting older adults moving to improve their health. David says, “The subtitle of that book is A Handbook of Health, Exercise and Dance Activities for Older Adults. I was teaching healthy aspects of aging at UNO at the time. Part of it was at that time there were no decent textbooks around, so it was kind of meant to be background information on aging, plus activities that people could do.”

David says introducing exercise to older adults may meet with resistance at first but once people participate they’re hooked.

“We were giving a workshop for ENOA and it was pretty obvious the group was very reticent to get involved. Some people had canes.

We actually had a parachute canopy (a tool to stimulate perceptual, cognitive and motor skills) and we said, ‘OK, we’re going to try this,’ and finally everyone was up. Then we got the activity going and one person took his cane, threw it down, and started dancing. We felt like Oral Roberts or someone,” he’s says, laughing at the memory. “So it turned completely around. It went from people rolling their eyes and I don’t want any part of it to active joyful engagement and movement.”

 

 

©photo by Quinn M. Corbin

 

Performance of “Thriller” at the Durham Museum; ©photo by Debra S. Kaplan

 

 

Parkinson’s program

Josie borrowed the book’s title for a dance program at UNO she started for persons with Parkinson’s.

“There are inherent therapeutic benefits of dance no matter whether you’re ill or you’re well,” she says. “The joy of movement, being with other people in a community of learners, sharing in the rhythm and the music – that’s the therapeutic part of it. You have a chance to be creative, sometimes to do problem solving. You’re moving in the kinesthetic domain, so if you’re under stress your body gets a chance to get rid of some of the stress products.”

She says the Parkinson’s program’s been well-received.

“It’s a very sound program. It’s based on one I studied in New York that is worldwide. At Reach for It we do 10-week sessions. This last semester we had speech, language and hearing students come – that’s really important because with Parkinson’s you have to exercise your voice as well as your body. We let in free the caretakers or drivers of the persons with Parkinson’s. So we have usually a nice circle of maybe 20 people at the UNO Dance Lab.. We always have live music.

“We’re in our fifth year. The Nebraska chapter of the American Parkinson Disease Association and The Moving Company are the sponsors. We just got a grant to carry it forward, which I feel good about because I’m leaving and at least the funding’s in place. The person leading them now is Danielle Laurion, who is a dance therapist and a choreographer.”

David says the benefits of dance for Parkinson’s are well documented.

“Part of the philosophy behind it is that the rhythm of the music helps with the tremors and things like that. Music is part of it and rhythm is part of it. People will usually report they have an after-effect, too – they feel better for a couple of hours.”

“When you’re losing some of your physical movements in your flow, to get it back even for a short while is reassuring,” Josie says. “It’s well known in the Parkinson’s community that dance is beneficial. This is all about the healing powers of dance. Participants are moving in all ranges of motion and the thing is they’re with other people. You have a community of learners and these people want to have music and dance in their life. Instead of going to play bingo maybe or going to a book club, they’re going to a dance class.”

Last year she directed an impromptu private performance in the backyard of a longtime Moving Company supporter battling a terminal illness. Josie says the patron’s daughter shared that her mother seemed like her old self for the first time in awhile during the dance.

David says whatever your age, the best advice he can offer is “keep moving and exercising” and “emphasize what you can do and not what you can’t do.” After a 23-year gap, he did Bike Ride Across Nebraska last year and found it much tougher this time. But he did it.

 

 

©Cover photo by Bill Sitzmann

 

 

Public health

With that same can-do attitude he’s taken on public health issues and affected change. He helped get the smoking ban in Omaha and statewide. He helped get funding from the Master Tobacco Settlement to establish new public health departments in Neb. so that for the first every county’s covered by a local or district public health department.

“Both of these were collaborative initiatives, but I am proud to have played a role in each of them.”

His mission to connect people with public health issues is ongoing.

“I am still educating about the relationships between public health and climate change. If you ask people whether or not they support public health or taking steps to reduce the consequences of climate change you get somewhat tepid support. If you ask people if they support clean air and water and safe and healthy foods, you get very high support. Good public health programs and slowing or mitigating the consequences of climate change are essential to clean air and water and safe and healthy foods.”

He wishes Obamacare had gone much further.

“It baffles me the U.S. is one of only a few so-called developed countries that does not have universal health care. I think we should.”

He’s not shy expressing his views in public forums.

“I’ve certainly been active in writing letters to editors and op-eds for as long as I can remember. I’ve had the opportunity to be involved in kind of major things. Sometimes they’re little. For example, I’m trying to get something going for a plastic bag ban here in Omaha, not because it’s the biggest issue in the world but it’s a way to get people talking about recycling in general – to get the argument going.

“The average person uses 500 single-use plastic bags a year and most of them get used for less than 20 minutes and then they’re tossed. We did a trash day at Prospect Hill Cemetery. I put all the trash on display – there were over 70 plastic bags. Of all the times I’ve been in the newspaper more people remember me for picking up trash. I still pick up the trash every day when I walk.”

He even produced videos about the evils of plastic bag proliferation. In one, he does a dance he choreographed himself.

He’s focused on environmental issues these days. He’s on the Sierra Club board. He’s president of Nebraskans for Solar. He’s on the Public Health Association of Nebraska board. He’s also a self-appointed watchdog at all Omaha Public Power District open board meetings.

“I think we’ve been pretty successful in getting them to have more wind power and less coal,” he says of his and other activists’ pressure on OPPD. “I follow a lot of the legislation.”

Environmental events he attended in 2014 included Earth Day Omaha, the People’s Climate March and the Harvest the Hope Concert in opposition to the Keystone XL Pipeline.

 

 

©photo by Josie Metal-Corbin

 

 

©photo by Josie Metal-Corbin

 

 

Happy trails

Just like Josie, he’s never at a loss for what to do. She says upon announcing her retirement “the first thing people said was, ‘Oh, you and David will get to spend more time together.'” She’s quick to point out, “We don’t need more time – we have good time. We’ve managed to figure out our own space. We’re not a couple that has to do everything together. But we do a lot together. We travel. We’ve done a lot of very good trips together.” They celebrate wedding anniversaries trekking to exotic locales.

“For our 30th we did Argentina and Patagonia,” she says. “In Buenos Aires we took tango lessons at an Armenian social club late at night. Then we took a little plane down to Patagonia and stayed on this sheep ranch. To me, it was what the creation of Earth must have looked like because we were on the water, no lights. Beautiful.”

“For our 35th we went to Iceland,” she says. “It was the best. Beautiful.

Little hamlets, horses, black and white sheep on the hillsides, no telephone poles, geothermic.”

David marveled at Iceland’s “one hundred percent renewable energy.”

They both like that Iceland’s tech savvy enough to have wi-fi in the most remote regions yet protects its pristine, lush, green environment.

On another trip they enjoyed the vistas of Vancouver, British Columbia, at one point staying in a tree house with all the amenities. They got around by sea-plane, kayak, tandem bicycle, hiking, bus, car and ferry.

In 1998 she made her New York City dance debut and has also performed in Lisbon, Portugal, Paris, France and Italy. In 2001 she led a large group of Moving Company dancers to Cesena, Italy to compete in the international Dance Grand Prix Italia. The UNO team won second place in Theatre Dance. David made the trip, too.

For their own personal travels, the couple often do self-guided tours she extensively researches, though their itineraries leave plenty of room for unexpected discoveries and adventures. Like taking tango in the wee hours of the night or suddenly dancing when the spirit moves them, wherever they happen to be.

A miniature sculpture by artist Jamie Burmeister, who was a graduate student of David’s, captures the effervescent couple in, what else, a dance pose that reflects their embrace of life.

“Their commitment to making the world a better place through their activities really inspires me,” says Burmeister, who simply titled the piece, “David and Josie.”

When it comes to living and relating, the couple answer a resounding yes to the question: May I have this dance? Their life is a living metaphor for the symbiotic give and take and affirmation that is dance.

 

 

 

 

 

©photo by Quinn M. Corbin

 

Charles Ahovissi brings West African culture to the Heartland: African Culture Connection uses dance, music to tell indigenous yet universal stories

December 12, 2014 1 comment

Here’s the story I wrote for The Reader (http://www.thereader.com/) about the African Culture Connection and its founder-artistic director Charles Ahovissi in advance of their Dec. 8 production at the Omaha Community Playhouse. Pam and I went to that show expecting we would be thoroughly entertained having seen the company perform before and if anything our expectations were surpassed. There may be more positive energy and life-affirming love in a single ACC show than there is in a season’s worth of shows by other troupes. Combine that with the fact that there just isn’t anything else like what the ACC does in these parts and you have the makings for a singular experience that as my story tries to communicate is a rich cultural immersion not to be missed. It was a packed auditorium and those of us in the audience returned the energy and love received with our own warm, good vibes. By the way, the ACC show on the 8th was part of an alternative programming series the OCP offers. The programs are free and a welcome change of pace from the usual.

 

Charles Ahovissi

Charles Ahovissi brings West African culture to the Heartland

African Culture Connection uses dance, music to tell indigenous yet universal stories

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (http://www.thereader.com/)

 

Art often expresses culturally-specific stories but until the Omaha-based African Culture Connection surfaced in 2006 West African tales were rarely if ever explored here.

Led by Benin, West Africa native and veteran dancer-choreographer Charles Ahovissi, ACC’s dedicated to presenting the vibrant rhythms, movements, colors and costumes of African tribal tradition and culture.

In upcoming appearances he and his troupe will enact lively interpretations of African proverbs through song, music and dance. On Friday they perform during the Ethnic Holiday Festival at the Durham Museum. On Saturday they offer dance instruction at the South Omaha Library. On Monday they present the story of the Iroko tree in the Omaha Community Playhouse’s Alternative Programming Series.

Alternative well fits ACC, whose programming nearly stands it alone among area arts groups. As a Nebraska Arts Council (NAC) touring artist, Ahovissi brings his cultural showcase to schools and youth serving organizations, where African studies are negligible.

“It is a very unique program,” he says. “You don’t see it in this state. You cannot get what we teach kids in a library. In schools kids barely get the cultural activities we provide them. That’s why it’s very unique, very special and engaging.”

Omaha Girls Inc. executive director Roberta Wilhelm says, “Charles has helped our girls learn about Africa in ways they simply never would in a classroom or from a textbook. The girls connect to the lessons in a very visceral way. He and his team help the girls ‘feel’ Africa when they drum and dance. They prepare and taste African food, create printed fabric to wear while they dance and hear African stories. They also learn lessons about creativity, collaborative work, self-expression, delayed gratification, responsibility and pride of accomplishment.”

At the free 7:30 p.m. Playhouse show the featured Iroko dance imparts a lesson through a cautionary parable about the dangers of putting self before community and not respecting nature. In West Africa the Iroko tree is held sacred for supposed mystical powers and medicinal properties. In the dance a young woman ignores a prohibition to cut the tree and goes mad as a result. After being saved by the village’s purification ceremony she vows never to violate the Iroko again.

Ahovissi says, “”There’s a reason why we do any traditional dance and drumming. Every life aspect in Africa has a specific dance, rhythm, music, so at the same time I’m teaching a dance I’m also teaching the culture, the tradition, the story behind that dance and music. For example, when it comes to farming in Africa there is preparation and celebration. How we pick the fruit, why we pick that fruit is dance movement that has a story.

“Another example is the special music and dances we do for the initiation of youth in a village. When I’m teaching kids here the initiation dance I’m also teaching this story, this culture, this way we do things.”

Between the beating drums and the whirling dancers the energy rises to a fever pitch at ACC performances. The nonprofit’s on quite a roll, too. In late 2012 it became one of only a dozen organizations in the U.S. that year and the first ever in Neb. to receive the National Arts & Humanities Youth Arts Award. It’s a major honor for any group but particularly one as new as ACC.

 

Slide

 

Ahovissi, ACC’s ebullient founder, president and artistic director, accepted the award from First Lady Michelle Obama at the White House. Additionally, ACC received a $10.000 grant to support and expand its programming. This came on top of winning the Nebraska Governor’s Arts Heritage Award.

Even Ahovissi finds it hard to believe his organization did what none of the state’s larger, more established arts programs managed doing.

“I just don’t know how we got here,” he says. “It was surprising.”

NAC director of programs Marty Skomal says, “No other arts group in Neb. has succeeded in demonstrating ACC’s masterful combination of high artistic quality with genuine and significant community engagement. Each time I see the troupe perform, I am impressed by the level of dedication, attention to detail and commitment. It becomes contagious. Kids can sense this authenticity, and respond to it instantly. ACC is able to do what its name implies – make a connection.”

Ahovissi appreciates the positive feedback he gets from teachers, administrators and program directors about the immersion experience he provides. He says the glowing evaluations “confirm that after we work with kids they learn how to respect and how to behave and some kids who were shy become engaged in the classroom,” adding, “All the teachers tell us thank you for making a big impact on kids’ lives.”

He says the rituals and lessons taught have deep, universal meaning.

“We say it takes a whole village to raise a child. From generation to generation we pass on the culture. In Africa everything kind of ties together.”

In a real sense he’s carrying on traditions handed down to him in Benin, where dance and drumming were part of his growing up..

“My mom took me from village to village to the ceremonies,. I just picked it up from that.”

In his early teens he joined a local arts group. “They taught me how to be more professional,” he says. He then won a competition that enabled him to perform with the National Ballet of Benin beginning in 1984 at age 16. “That allowed me the opportunity to travel and perform with that company. I was very honored to be selected.”

Later he joined the Super Anges dance troupe. He was touring the U.S. with that company when he met his wife. The former Karen McCormick, an Omaha native, did a Peace Corps stint in Africa, including service in Ahovissi’s native country, Benin. In Omaha she volunteered with the La Belle Afrique presenting group that brought Ahovissi’s dance company to Omaha in 1999. The two met, fell in love and married. They have two children together. Ahovissi moved to Omaha in 2000 and became an NAC touring artist in 2001.

 

teaching African dance

 

He conducts NAC residencies around the state.

“I know all the cities and towns in Neb. I just pack my car with my costume and drum and travel one week, two weeks at a time. I cannot count how many places I’ve been to. I’m grateful for that because I do love teaching, performing and sharing my culture.”

He trains teaching and performing artists to join him at some venues.
His multicultural troupe present African music and dance and the stories behind these traditions. He feels American children need to expand their knowledge of diverse cultures in this ever shrinking world.

“It is so important for them to learn about other cultures. They have to open their minds, they have to allow themselves to appreciate other cultures, they have to accept their friends who are not like them. Since Omaha is becoming more diverse we need to be more diverse, too. We all need to be together and move forward.”

He says as Omaha’s welcomes migrant populations from around the world “there is a need for global understanding in our community. It’s not just African culture – we need to be learning about all these different cultures. You teach me about your culture, I teach you about mine, and we share it. That’s how we become open-minded and free and live in a peaceful way.”

Ahovissi’s still deeply tied to Benin, so far spared from the raging Ebola epidemic. He sends money back every month to his large family living there. “I’m they’re hope,” he says. They’re his roots and inspiration.

Visit africancultureconnection.org.

Charles Ahovissi and His African Culture Connection Enrich Nebraska Youth Through Performance and Teaching Programs

October 8, 2013 Leave a comment

Thousands of miles from his homeland, Charles Ahovissi is living a dream to share his culture with the world.  The native of Benin, West African resides in Omaha, Neb., where he fell in love while on tour and married and started a family here, and this acomplished dancer, choreographer, and drummer now exposes aspects of African cultures to student and adult audiences throughout this Midwest state under the auspices of his African Culture Connection.  His small but mighty nonprofit is still basking in the glow of a major national award it was recognized with last year.  It’s not the first significant recognition he and his performing and teaching troupe has received and it’s not likely to be the last either.  My story about Charles and the ACC is still looking for a publication home but for now you can read it right here on my blog.

 

 

 

 

Charles Ahovissi and His African Culture Connection Enrich Nebraska Youth Through Performance and Teaching Programs 

©by Leo Adam Biga

 

Between the beating drums and the whirling dancers the energy rises to a fever pitch during African Culture Connection performances like the one Sept, 5 at the Westside Community Conference Center.

Led by Benin, West Africa native Charles Ahovissi, a professional dancer and choreographer, the Omaha-based ACC is dedicated to presenting the vibrant rhythms, movements, colors and costumes of African tribal tradition and culture.

ACC performances are always dynamic but last month’s by-invitation-only event carried even more vitality because it celebrated a milestone in the young organization’s life. In late 2012 ACC became one of only a dozen organizations in the U.S. and the first ever in Nebraska to receive the National Arts & Humanities Youth Arts Award. It’s a major honor for any group but particularly one as new as ACC, which formed only in 2006.

Ahovissi, ACC’s high-energy founder, president and artistic director, accepted the award from First Lady Michelle Obama at the White House on Nov. 19. Accompanying him at the ceremony was Victoria Baeugard of Omaha Girls Inc., an organization that ACC ofter serves. Baeugard is part of a troupe of Girls Inc. members who’ve learned to perform African dances under Ahovissi’s tutelage. In addition to the award, ACC received a  $10.000 grant to support and expand its programming. This came on top of ACC winning the Nebraska Governor’s Arts Heritage Award.

All of it is more than enough reason to celebrate and so many of ACC’s board members, donors and supporters gathered for food, drink, conversation and congratulations last month. Even the beaming, ever-optimistic Ahovissi finds it hard to believe his little organization did what none of the state’s larger, more established arts programs managed doing.

“I just don’t know how we got here,” he says. “It was surprising.”

 

 

 

Nebraska Arts Council director of programs Marty Skomal says “the award is given to an arts or humanities program for youth that takes place outside of the school day which also promotes youth development. No other arts group in Neb. has succeeded in demonstrating ACC’s masterful combination of high artistic quality with genuine and significant community engagement. Each time I see his troupe perform, I am impressed by the level of dedication, attention to detail and commitment. It becomes contagious. Kids can sense this authenticity, and they respond to it instantly. It is ACC’s unique way of inspiring youth by example that motivates kids to take pride in their own cultural heritage, whatever its origin. In brief, ACC is able to do what its name implies – make a connection.”

Ahvossi knows ACC is well thought of by the positive feedback he gets from teachers, administrators and program directors about the African immersion experience he provides. Ahovissi says the glowing evaluations and notes “confirm that after we work with kids they learn how to respect, they learn how to behave and some kids who were shy become engaged in the classroom,” adding, “All the teachers tell us thank you for making a big impact on kids’ lives.”

Then there’s the fact ACC offers programming that no one else does in this area.

“It is a very unique program,” he says. “You don’t see it in this state. You cannot get what we teach kids in a library. In schools kids barely get the cultural activities we provide them. That’s why it’s very unique, very special and engaging.”

Omaha Girls Inc. executive director Robera Wilhelm says Ahovissi “has helped girls learn about Africa in ways they simply never would in a classroom or from a textbook,” adding, “The girls connect to the lessons in a very visceral way. He and his team help the girls ‘feel’ Africa when they drum and dance. They prepare and taste African food, they create printed fabric to wear while they dance and they hear African stories. They also learn lessons about creativity, collaborative work, self-expression, delayed gratification, responsibility and pride of accomplishment.”

Ahovissi conducts residencies around the state through NAC. He brings not just the music and dance of Africa, but the stories behind them.

“I know all the cities and towns in Neb. I just pack my car with my costume and drum and travel one week, two weeks at a time. I cannot count how many places I’ve been to. I travel a lot through the Nebraska Arts Council. I’m grateful for that.  I do love teaching, performing and sharing my culture.”

He’s also trains a group of teaching and performing artists to join him at some venues to immerse participants in various elements of African culture.

“Every life aspect in Africa has a specific dance, rhythm, music and all that, so at the same time I’m teaching kids a dance I’m also teaching them the culture, the tradition, the story behind that dance and music. For example, farming is a big deal in Africa. Before farming there is preparation, during and after farming there’s a celebration. That is like story. The way we farm in Africa is not the same as it’s done in America. How we pick the fruit, why we pick that fruit, that is dance movement that has a story.

“There’s a reason why we do any traditional dance and drumming.

“Another example is the initiation of youths. When you reach a certain age you need to go see the elders. They will teach you life skills, what is right to do, what is wrong to do. During an initiation in a village we play certain music and do special dances. So when I’m teaching kids the initiation dance I’m also teaching them this story, this culture, the way we do things.”

The dances performed at the Sept. 5 celebration included the Sinte dance. He exp;lains, “Sinte comes from the Boke and Boffa area in the northwest of Guinea. The Landonma, Nalo, and Baga ethnic groups, who have been living together in this region for many years, play it before the initiation of the youth.” Another number ACC performed at the event was the Djole dance. “Djole is a dance organized to showcase different masks,” says Ahovissi. “Djole comes from the region in the southwest of Guinea and the northwest of Sierra Leone. The Temine, Mandenyi and Soussou ethnic groups share this rhythm.” Finally, he says the Kete dance executed by the Girls Inc. members is from the Allada Region of southern Benin, adding, “The music and dance can be heard on many occasions and festivals, particularly at funeral ceremonies.”

 

 

Ahovissi says students who participate in his programs, including members of Girls Inc., learn rituals and lessons with deep, universal meaning.

“We say it takes a whole village to raise a child. That simple statement means a lot,. From generation to generation we pass on the culture. In Africa everything kind of ties together.”

He strongly feels that American children need to expand their knowledge of diverse cultures in this ever shrinking world.

“It is so important for them to learn about other cultures. They have to open their minds, they have to allow themselves to appreciate other cultures, they have to accept their friends who are not like them. Since Omaha is becoming more diverse we need to be more diverse, too. We all need to be together and move forward.”

He says as Omaha’s welcomed migrant populations from Sudan, Togo, Bhutan and several Central American countries “there is a need for global understanding in our community. It’s not just African culture. We need to be learning about all these different cultures.” He loves that America is still a melting pot. “You teach me about your culture, I teach you about mine, and we share it . That’s how we become   open-minded and free and live in a peaceful way.”

Growing up in Benin he absorbed dance and drumming through repeated exposure to it.

“My mom took me from village to village to the ceremonies,. I just picked it up from that,” he says.

In his early teens he joined a local arts group. “They taught me how to be more professional,” he says. He then won a competition that enabled him to perform with the National Ballet of Benin beginning in 1984 at age 16.

“That allowed me the opportunity to travel and perform with that company. I was very honored to be selected.”

Later he joined the Super Anges dance troupe. He was touring the U.S. with that company when he met the woman who is now his wife. The former Karen McCormick, an Omaha native, did a Peace Corps stint in Africa, including service in Ahovissi’s native country, Benin. In Omaha she volunteered with the La Belle Afrique presenting group that brought Ahovissi’s dance company to Omaha in 1999. The two met, fell in love and married. They have two children together. Ahovissi moved to Omaha in 2000 and became a Nebraska Arts Council touring artist in 2001.

Ahovissi sends money back home every month to his large family – he has 21 brothers and sisters living in Benin. “I’m they’re hope,” he says.

Gotta Dance, Seniors Make Ballroom Dancing an Integral Part of Staying Young

December 10, 2011 Leave a comment

Dance Gallery for Nebraska Invitational

 

 

 

I don’t dance.  I mean, I’ve tried, and let’s just say it hasn’t taken with me.  At least not in public.  I sometimes do my own version of dancing, either alone or with my partner, in the privacy of our home.  More for the exercise, I must admit, than anything else, though I do enjoy the intimacy of slow dancing when we’re by ourselves.  I appreciate those who can move gracefully and unselfconsciously on the dance floor.  And so it was that I observed with admiration and some envy a group of seniors doing their ballroom dancing thing for the following story I did eight or nine years ago.  Who knows, maybe my dancing years are still ahead of me?

 

Dance Gallery for Nebraska Invitational
Dance Gallery for Nebraska Invitational

 

 

 

Gotta Dance, Seniors Make Ballroom Dancing an Integral Part of Staying Young 

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the New Horizons

 

By 9:30 on a fine October night, a downtown dance hall is abuzz with the revelry of senior couples bobbing to the sweet notes of a swinging big band. It is dim inside save for lights strung overhead to cast a warm golden glow over the scene.

Everything — from the bouncy tunes to the jitterbug moves to the elegant couples dressed-to-the-nines — hearkens back to the 1940s, when juke joints like these ruled. The only difference now is these dancers move a tad slower than they did then. No matter, this is one hideaway where numerical age means little as long as you are still young at heart. Here, where time stands still, romantic asides and whispered sweet nothings continue to be shared by gray-haired partners for whom holding hands and sneaking smooches never grows old. In the rich ambience of this jumping night spot, nostalgia reigns supreme.

Elaine McMullin, 84, and Bernie McKernan, 76, are two regulars here. As usual, their dance card is filled. These smartly turned-out partners will sweep the rest of the night away to the melodious strains of the Ron Nadherny Band at the North Omaha Eagles Club, 24th & Douglas, where every Thursday evening ballroom dancing takes center stage courtesy of Joe Mimmick’s 40s Dance Club. A different band plays every week. More than a mere dance venue, this ballroom — along with others like it in the area catering to the senior population — offers a veritable fountain of youth for participants, many of whom arrive lame yet somehow turn spry once the music starts. Yes, some magic is at work in these In-the-Mood places where age is merely a state of mind.

“No matter how you feel, music will bolster your spirit and will really make you feel young again,” said 40s Dance Clubber Gloria Gordon of Omaha. “Sometimes you can hardly walk, but when you get on the dance floor it seems like for some reason you have no problem at all dancing. It is a real tonic. It’s give you kind of a high.”

Retired local school teacher Elaine McMullin, who dances with Bernie McKernan three nights a week, could not agree more. “You forget how old you are,” she said. “You forget how many aches and pains you might have. A lot of nights I’m kind of tired and I think, ‘Oh, I should stay home,’ and then I realize I’d just be alone feeling sorry for myself and I figure I’m a whole lot better off going out, and so I go. It’s certainly an enjoyable way to spend the evening. Plus, it’s good exercise.”

Bill Yambor, 76, can attest to the health benefits of dance. The Omaha resident said he has lost weight, stabilized his blood pressure and increased his energy level through a steady diet of hoofing. “It’s good aerobics and it’s good for the legs too. I’m in good shape,” said the slim Yambor. He goes ballrooming every Wednesday and Thursday afternoon at Bluffs Run Casino and every Thursday night at the Eagles Club. He works in an occasional Tuesday night at the Millard Legion Post 374. He puts in as many as nine hours of dancing a day — rarely sitting out a turn. “If there are 15 dances, I dance every one of them. I don’t miss one. I like them all.” The only concession to age he makes is not dipping his partners anymore.

A typical ballroom program offers a wide variety of musical numbers and dance styles — from swing to the foxtrot to the polka to the rumba to the waltz. “I like to do them all, but personally the waltz is my favorite dance, especially the Viennese Waltz,” said Elaine. “It’s the smooth, even, gliding, free flowing movement I like. And when I dance I like to close my eyes and block out everything except to listen to the beat and to the shuffle of the feet on the floor. You hear the music, you feel the movement and you glide around. It’s like your floating. It’s a wonderful feeling.”

 

 

Swept away by the thrill of it all, ballroom dancing enthusiast Jerrie Kraniewski of Omaha said she sometimes feels transported on the dance floor — as if she is “almost in another world.” Bob McEniry, who has been Gloria Gordon’s steady dance mate the past 10 years, said getting caught up in the moment — with the soothing music and the seductive movement — induces a kind of meditative state that triggers memories of old times. “You’ll hear a song and it brings it all back. That’s part of the reverie. It is a form of trance — you’re way off there by yourself. It’s trance dancing.”

For Shirley Sailors, dancing is “the nearest thing to heaven there is.” Shirley and her husband Ken come all the way from their Dunlap, Iowa home to kick up their heels in Omaha. Appropriately, the pair met at a dance. The circumstances of their meeting echo that of many senior ballroom dancing couples. Both had lost a longtime spouse and in the process of getting back into the social swing of things, they found each other. Dancing had been a shared love of Shirley’s and her first husband’s but she was unsure if it “could ever be the same again with someone else.” To her joy, she discovered she “enjoyed it tremendously” with Ken too.

When Omahan Bob McEniry retired a decade ago, the widower didn’t know what to do with himself — until he rediscovered a passion for dancing grown dormant during years spent working and raising a family. “I saw an ad in the paper that said, ‘Dancing,’ with a phone number. I dialed it right away. The fella answering said, ‘We’ve got free dancing every Wednesday afternoon. Why don’t you come over?’ I went over and I’ve been at it ever since. It’s been a fabulous find. It’s just been delightful. It’s brought it all back for me. It’s a great way of staying young.”

That desire to recapture a glint of youthful vitality crops up time and again in conversations with the senior dance crowd. Gloria Gordon loved to dance as a young woman but fell out of practice while married to a man without an ounce of Fred Astaire in him. After being widowed, she struck up a friendship with McEniry and was delighted to find that, like him, “it just came right back to me.”

In the case of Elaine McMullin, she and her husband Jim shared a passion for dance they often entertained until he suffered such severe heart problems that it curtailed his physical activities and effectively ended their arabesques together at night spots like Peony Park, the Music Box and the Charemont. “We both missed it a lot.” After Jim died, she waited a year before she went back dancing. Now, she might as well be a blushing bride of 18 again when circling the ballroom in the arms of Bernie McKernan, her friend and partner these last several years.

Vivacious Elaine is lovely to look at on the dance floor. She sashays with the gentle, effortless ease of a twirling leaf in the wind. Her body is relaxed. Her feet step lively yet gracefully to the beat. There is nothing out of place — from her high wavy set hair to her fabulous dress (she makes her own fancy dance dresses) slit just so to show off her still shapely legs. Where she grabs attention, Bernie, a retired building inspector, complements her with efficient if not flashy leading. Together, they make a pretty picture on the hard wood, their limbs entwined in close embrace one moment and swaying apart the next. They are made for each other.

“Having a good partner is an important part of it,” Elaine said. “When you can move together as well as Bernie and I do, it really makes it good. When he pulls me up close on some of the slow music, which he calls cuddle dancing, our bodies just blend together and we kind of move as one.” As for the dapper Bernie, who took dance lessons as a boy, he deflects any praise for his footwork to Elaine, saying, “After you’ve been dancing awhile the lady gets accustomed to you and things just come naturally. She can feel and anticipate what the next step’s going to be. With her, well, she’s a great dancer. She makes me look good out there.” The pair never practice. Instead, they simply work out their steps on the floor.

Like many older people who suffer the loss of a spouse, Elaine and Bernie sought solace when tragedy struck and they found it in a support group for widows and widowers. Soon after meeting they learned of their mutual fondness for tripping the light fantastic and began making the local ballroom circuit together (Omaha, Millard, Lincoln, Blair and across the border in Minden, Iowa). They have been an exclusive dance floor couple ever since. Besides cutting a rug, they enjoy going out to dinner. Bernie also helps Elaine maintain her large house and yard. For them, though, dancing is the cat’s meow. They plan their weeks around it.

Elaine, who studied dance from age 8 through her teens, said, “I’ve always loved to dance. Now, more than ever, I look forward to it. It is an occasion. It is a dress-up occasion. I plan the next night out what I’m going to wear and the fun I’m going to have and the music I’ll enjoy dancing to. And there’s a lot of camaraderie in places like this. I’ve met so many friends over the years just because of dancing.”

To a man and woman, ballroom fanciers cite companionship and interaction as among the main attractions offered. The 40s Dance Club is rare in actively seeking senior singles. More than a few romances have blossomed in its ballroom. Take Ed and Gratia Setlak, for example, comparative youngsters at ages 55 and 65, respectively. He was divorced and she widowed when they met at a club function a few years ago. Sparks flew on the dance floor. “Right off the bat I sensed an honest openness in Gratia, and that said a lot to me,” Ed recalls. “We danced twice that night. It was about three weeks before we got back together. We started dating and eventually we married.” Dancing defies age in inspiring such interludes. After all, it is an intimate, seductive and sensuous mating ritual. “I love the rhythm. I love being held held by somebody,’ Gratia Setlak said. Beyond the physical closeness it provides, her husband added, “It brings you together emotionally.”

 

 

Dancers Vernon and Irene Castle. Gelatin silve...

Image via Wikipedia

 

 

Ballroom dancer Ken Sailors said displays of endearment are only natural on the dance floor. “You’ll see dance partners kiss each other on the cheek. It’s a loving you don’t see other places. There’s nothing wrong with showing affection for the lady I love out on the dance floor.” Romance aside, social dancing offers a relaxed and festive setting whose banter and gaiety are infectious. “One of the biggest joys I get at this dance club is seeing the pleasure these people are getting,” Shirley Sailors said during an intermission at a recent 40s Dance Club program.

Bill Yambor and his late wife were crazy about dancing. After her death, he found a steady ballroom partner but she died too. Today, he is an unattached bachelor and equal opportunity dancer. “I don’t want to get hooked up with one partner all the time, so I try to dance with all the ladies. Once in a while I’ll take one out on a date.” He said as long as his “body holds out,” he expects to keep right on punching his dance card. “I’d probably be bored with my life if I didn’t have dancing to do. It’s one thing I really enjoy. It’s a really good pastime. I meet a lot of nice people and make a lot of friends. I’d recommend it to anyone.” Jerrie Kraniewski and her partner Irl C. Andis say they would miss dancing more than life itself. “I’d hate to have to ever give it up,” Jerrie said. “No, we’re not going to give it up as long as we can move,” Irl added.

More than a few ballroom devotees carry on despite artificial knees and hips. Then there is Bernie McKernan who, after an unexplained cardiac event last June in which he collapsed unconscious on a Millard dance floor, now cha chas with a pacemaker in his chest. Bernie recalls little about the incident, but Elaine does. “It sure was scary. I didn’t know what to do. Luckily, a nurse was there and she administered CPR. He was rushed to Methodist Hospital and I spent the evening with him in the emergency room,” she said. All Bernie knows is that he “keeled over on the dance floor and woke up four days later with a pacemaker.” Then, as if to prove his ballroom devotion, he added, “When I came to, I asked the doctor, ‘How soon can we go dancing?’ and he said, ‘In a few days,’ and so we did.”

Asked what could possibly inspire such fierce ardor for this recreation activity, Elaine searched for words and said, “There’s just something about dancing. It really makes you feel good. We both love it.” Or, as Bernie simply puts it, “Well, it’s fun.”

In her 101 years, ex-vaudeville dancer Maude Wangberg has lived a whirl of splendor

August 2, 2010 2 comments

English: Photograph of Sophie Tucker

Image via Wikipedia

With the passage of time the chances of meeting an ex-vaudeville performer diminish.  A few years ago I got the chance to meet a veteran of the vaudeville stage, and while she was never a star or a household name, she shared with me and I shared with readers her experience in one of the great American forms of entertainment.  Like most people around today, I never got to witness a vaudeville show.  My only reference for it is movie and book depictions of it. But after meeting and profiling Maude Wangberg, who was part of a vaudeville dance act, I feel a bit closer to that enchanting chapter of the American popular stage.  My story appeared in the New Horizons when Maude was 101.  I don’t know if she’s still living. but I’m glad I got to her when I did, and when her recall was still quite sharp.

 

In her 101 years, ex-vaudeville dancer Maude Wangberg has lived a whirl of splendor

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the New Horizons

 

Vaudeville once ruled the American live entertainment scene. For mere peanuts, an entire family could enjoy a show in an ornate theater on whose stage artists of all kinds took turns performing their well-honed acts. Acrobats, jugglers, comedians, singers, dancers, magicians, orators, trained animals and precocious kids filled the bill. Everything from gymnastics to pratfalls to pirouettes were seen. Everything from hot jazz licks to Shakespearean soliloquies to operatic arias to punch lines were heard. House musicians in the orchestra pit cued the action on stage.

From the late 19th century through the 1910s, vaudeville was king. With the advent of motion pictures and radio, two mediums that stole many of vaudeville’s best talents, this American art form went the way of variety and burlesque. Vaudeville hung on until the 1930s before finally succumbing to the movies. Vaudeville’s wide-ranging impact extended to the slapstick-screwball-sketch comedy routines and variety show formats that ex-vaudevillians brought to radio, film and television.

Omaha’s own Maude Wangberg, age 101, is proud to count herself a veteran of vaudeville, a distinction few can claim today, as most of its artists are long gone now. If not for acting on a whim and studying dance as a girl Maude might have become a nun. Two of her classmates at Mount St. Mary, the forerunner to today’s Mercy High School, did. Maude grew up in a strict Catholic home at a time when a girl’s options were pretty much limited to marriage and motherhood, religious vocation, nursing, teaching or secretarial work. She chose dancing.

Still cutting the trim figure of a dancer, the New Cassel Retirement Center resident defied convention to become a show girl in a vaudeville act called The Whirl of Splendor. The show took its name from the revolving stage that performers made entrances and exits on. She was part of an all-girl dance act that closed the show. In between dance numbers singers performed. Preceding Maude and the other chorines a couple did an adagio. Sharing the bill with The Whirl were all manner of acts. Presented by New York City-based producer Meyer Golden, the popular show toured widely. Maude performed with the act from 1925 to 1930, a stretch that saw her mature into a woman.

The Whirl followed the vaudeville circuit, playing Orpheum Theatres in and around New York, across Canada, down the west coast, the middle of America and then back east, but mostly playing the big Loews Theatres along the East Coast. The act appeared at all the top vaudeville sites. Maude and company sometimes shared the bill with established stars like Sophie Tucker or legends-to-be like Edgar Bergen.

Touring meant a hectic schedule spent in hotels, theatres and rehearsal halls, on trains and two shows a day or more on stage, seven days a week. “You played every place of any size. The bigger the city the more performances you had to do,” she said. Some audiences were livelier than others. “In Pennsylvania we played a lot of smaller places like Redding because the big steel mills were working then and the young men employed there had to have entertainment,” she said. “They would stomp their feet and whistle. It was fun then.”

 

 

 

Young men, naturally, have a thing for pretty young girls in skimpy outfits, but she said there were never any problems with “stage door Johnnies, as they used to call them, but somehow or other we met a lot of them. In Providence, R.I. we met a lot of fellas from Brown University. They came down to the hotel — a whole bunch of ‘em. They were nice. I mean, they didn’t get rough or rowdy or anything. I guess they wanted to say they’d been with show girls.”

Advances were common from not only fans but other performers on the bill. If Maude were ever singled out for special attention from stage struck paramours it’s no wonder because her classical-training earned her featured parts in two of the troupe’s dance numbers. Of the six chorines, she shined brightest.

“I always had a little special part. See, I had more training than the other girls did and I had much better training too. I had ballet, tap and toe dancing where they just had ballroom. I was a better dancer alright. You could tell the difference.”

She well recalls the dance numbers she performed in.

“The first act we clanked hand-held cymbals as we danced around in little Grecian costumes. The costume was a pink cotton under thing with a filmy deal over it. Real short. I would dance around and take a big leap off the stage,” she said. “The second act was an Italian folk dance. I had the lead along with another girl who did some turns. I was dressed as a boy. I had black velvet shorts on and a big red sash around my waist with long streamers and a red bandana on my head with streamers too. We had tambourines. I was supposed to kind of romance her and then she would spurn me and I would dance off and then do this Italian folk dance.

“Then the last one was a jazz number. Our costumes were one-piece silver tops and shorts with fringe all over. We danced to Black Bottom, a real popular tune that was THE song then. That ended the act.”

Although a lifetime ago now, once Maude gets to reminiscing it seems like only yesterday she cavorted on stage at New York’s Palace Theatre or the Hippodrome, two of vaudeville’s finest venues. Those years gave her the time of her life.

“It was just a lot of fun. I liked it. I just liked being on the stage and wearing a costume and, oh, hearing the applause and everything. It’s just very enticing when you hear your music come on. You’re ready. You get keyed up. You know what’s coming exactly because you’ve been rehearsed and rehearsed. It’s nice to get out there and see a big audience in front of you and to wait for the applause, and then when you get the applause you enjoy that,” she said.

There were other benefits too.

“I loved traveling and seeing all those different places,” she said. “I loved New York. We were there during the Prohibition Era and there were speakeasies on almost every corner. We were in Washington, D.C. when the cherry blossoms were in bloom. New Orleans, I think that’s the most interesting city in the United States. I love the French Quarter. I used to stroll through there all the time. Just a wonderful place. Sorry about the flood. I would name San Francisco second (most interesting) because of the Wharf district…Chinatown..and all they have there.”

Dancing opened up a world of splendor to Maude, who learned under the tutelage of a petite, attractive Omaha woman named Adelaide Fogg. An intimate of hoofers Fred and Adelle Astaire, the Omaha brother-sister act that became the toast of Broadway before Fred achieved fame in Hollywood, Fogg might have been a star herself if she’d desired it. “She could have been in any New York show she wanted to be in,” Maude said. “She was that good.”

In a century of living Maude’s pretty much seen and done it all. Show biz accounted for a brief period in her life, but no matter how short her time in vaudeville it provided fond memories and linked her to a great tradition of which she’s one of the few survivors. Hers is the classic tale of a starry-eyed girl who ran away from the stodgy Midwest to see the bright lights of the big city and to dance amid the footlights and spot lights of the stage. She gleefully recalls how it is a gal from a convent school ended up a chorus girl.

Fogg’s dance studio was in the ballroom of the ritzy Blackstone Hotel. She had a reputation as “the leading dancing teacher here,” according to Maude. “She went to New York every summer to get the latest dancing steps for her classes.” Maude was about 15 when she heard about Fogg from some neighbor girls who studied with her and she pestered her mother to let her join the dance school too.

“I insisted on it. Even though I started kind of late — most kids start in grade school — I enjoyed it. It was just a lot of fun. I danced and danced. I practiced at home too. I got so that I took two private lessons a week.”

She proved a natural. “I don’t really know, it’s just that I loved moving around like that and learning new things. It wasn’t that hard to conquer the steps.” The by-then dance crazy young lady sought out dancing wherever she could find it.

“I never missed any dancers that came. I saw Anna Pavlova (great Russian ballerina) dance The Dying Swan at the Brandeis Theatre. That was really something.”

Never dreaming she’d one day be on stage, she “went every chance I got” to Saturday matinee vaudeville shows at the Orpheum and Gaiety Theatres. Maude attended Duschene College for a time but the pull of dance made her leave.

Saturday nights were reserved for Peony Park, where she and her future husband, John Wangberg, “would dance the night away” to the swing tunes of a live orchestra in the ballroom. But weekdays meant practice. Lots of practice. It wasn’t long before Maude was a star pupil of Fogg’s. She even conducted classes in Omaha when Fogg was away teaching in outstate Nebraska and in Iowa. At her mentor’s urging, Maude left home at age 20 to pursue a dancing career back East. Her father disapproved, suggesting she’d only come running back home disappointed, but her mother encouraged her. It was the chance of a lifetime.

“When Adelaide Fogg’s dancing master in New York wanted to form a dancing act he asked her to bring any of her dancers that would be interested to New York for him to see,” Maude said. “She asked several of us to go with her. Her mother always went with her in those days. They rented an apartment with two bedrooms. We girls had one bedroom, with all four of us jammed up in it, and she and her mother had the other bedroom. You could see the Hudson River from there.”

Of the four girls from Omaha who went East, only Maude stayed, the others either getting married or soon tiring of The Life. Maude stuck with it. There were lots of good times. She and her roommate for most of those years in vaudeville, Edie, became fast friends. There were also some tough times. Maude and Edie and the rest of the girls did a lot of growing up far from home and family.

“You were on your own. Well, see, I was a convent girl and the other girls were just out of high school. Totally unsophisticated — that’s what we were. Totally new to everything. That’s the way it was.”

Maude finally got “sick” of the $55 a week road grind and retired from the stage at 25. She resettled in Omaha, taking up with her old beau, John Wangberg, an RKO Pictures salesman. Much happened in between the time Maude went from girl next door to show girl and much more happened after she hung up her dancing shoes.

The former Maude Fodrea was born in Grand Island, Neb. on May 16, 1905 to Pennington Parker Fodrea and Blanche Watson. She was the youngest of three sisters. Her parents met and married in Grand Island. When her father, a manager with the Burlington Northern Railroad got a promotion, the family moved to Chicago. Blanche returned home to Grand Island to have her babies. When Maude was about 5, the family moved back to Grand Island after her father lost his job and her mother suffered a nervous breakdown. After her mother recovered, the family moved to Omaha, where her father got work, first as a reporter with the Omaha Bee, and then as advertising-sales manager for the Iten Biscuit Company.

Maude grew up near downtown, in a home at 2869 California Street long since gone in the wake of Creighton University campus expansion. She’s seen Omaha’s skyline rise and fall and rise again, just as she’s seen the city’s boundaries expand ever westward. She witnessed one mark to its landscape she’d rather forget — the devastation left behind by the 1913 Easter Sunday tornado.

“Oh, yes. My family and I were out in Benson visiting my grandmother. Towards the middle of Sunday afternoon there was such a strange light in the sky and then it got real dark after awhile,” she said. “So my father and mother decided it just wasn’t safe to go out. No, it just didn’t look right. There was something wrong. So we stayed there all night and then the next morning we left. The streetcars were running. Nothing moving but them. No automobiles. No people. It was just very quiet. Just dead silence. On our way home we saw clothes hanging up in trees and trees down and, oh, things like that. We didn’t know if anything happened to our house or not. But everything was OK in that section of Omaha. There wasn’t anything bothered at all. That’s about all I remember of it. It was soon forgotten.”

 

Aftermath of 1913 Easter tornado

 

 

 

Streetcar lines once crisscrossed Omaha and that’s how Maude, her family and her friends got around town. “We took the streetcar every place — downtown, to high school and back. It was a nice ride, you know. I think it was a nickel.”

One of her streetcar rides brought her smack dab in the middle of a violent mob. It was September 28, 1919, a day of infamy in Omaha history. Only a few days before a black man named William Brown was arrested and charged with the rape of a white woman. Serious questions were raised even then about his guilt, but racist fervor made for a tense situation. An attempt to lynch Brown the day of his arrest failed. Calm seemed to prevail but on the 28th passions reignited and an angry crowd bent on vigil ante justice gathered outside the Douglas County Courthouse in the afternoon. Word spread that Brown would be taken by force and hanged.

Maude, then a 14-year-old schoolgirl, was in a group of girls who heard news of the trouble and she and the others went downtown “out of curiosity.” What they found scared and sickened them. Brown, protected by a cordon of police far too small for the growing crowd, fled under guard to the balcony level of the courthouse, which people began laying siege to.

“My sister and I and another girl and her sister went down on the streetcar to the courthouse and we stood across the street. There was just a mob of people all over,” she said. “The man who was going to be lynched was up there on the steps higher up where you could see part of him. It just was awful, that’s all I can say. It was terrible and you wished that it wouldn’t be. It was just an eerie feeling. It was very unpleasant. We stayed awhile just looking and wandering around and then we went home. We never saw the actual lynching. We didn’t want to really. I remember that very, very well. I won’t forget it.”

As night fell some in the crowd armed themselves with guns and shots rang out. Blacks were beaten. Lives lost. A pitched battle between the mob and police ensued. In the process, the courthouse was riddled with bullets and set ablaze. Brown and other prisoners were forced to the roof to escape the smoke, flames, gunfire and ropes. Late that night Brown was captured by the mob, killed and his lifeless body strung to a telephone pole, a fate the mayor nearly met earlier. A race riot followed. The violence made news across America. The woman who accused Brown of the crime recanted her story.

A mix of memories — good and bad — abound for Maude. Like sharing the bill with a young Milton Berle, whose mother traveled with him and “would go down into the audience when it was time for his act and start the laughing. We could tell her laugh standing back there in the wings.” Watching performers from the wings Maude and the other girls sometimes got “silly” and caused a ruckus, whereupon a flustered stage manager would shoo them away. It was a kind of game.

Her last year on tour she got to perform at home, on the Orpheum stage. Friends and family saw her strut her stuff there and feted her at a banquet her dad put on.

Twice, Maude was offered chances at stardom and twice she declined, once to lead a Paris revue and again to head a new vaudeville act. The prospect of Paris came soon after arriving in New York, she said, and “it scared me to death.” She wasn’t ready for such an opportunity so early in her career. Besides she said, “I didn’t have any ambitions, so I didn’t really envision myself as a big dancer all by myself. I never really thought about that.” The chance to be a vaudeville headliner came after she already decided she’d had enough. “I don’t know what came over me, but I kept telling myself, You don’t want to do this anymore — you need to go home.” So home she went. On the very next train.

Like many a star-struck girl she fancied a fling at Hollywood but never could work up the courage to go try her luck there.

Following her abrupt departure from the stage she opened her own dance school at the Elks Club. Just as Adelaide Fogg did for her, Maude did for young girls. Hard times came with the Great Depression. “My father lost a lot of his money. Things were just pretty sad for awhile there around home,” she said. Given this reversal of fortune, Maude and John opted for a small wedding. His job took them to Kansas City. He rose through the RKO ranks to become regional manager. When his job required relocating to the South, the couple lived out of hotels in various cities and states. They returned to Kansas City, visiting their folks in Omaha on weekends.

With John on the road a lot, a “lonely” Maude began adoption proceedings for their only child, Lorraine. It was 1946. When little Lorraine was old enough, Maude gave her ballet lessons. Lorraine Boyd became a Creighton University grad and is now a reporter with The Daily Record in Omaha.

In Kansas City Maude volunteered for several Catholic causes and groups and played lots of bridge. “I was active. I really enjoyed Kansas City. I call that my home,” said Maude, who has a big framed poster of the night-time K.C. skyline above her bed. Except for that stint down South, she lived there until 1988, when she and John moved back here to be near their daughter. After nearly 60 years of marriage, Maude lost John in the early 1990s.

Today, she keeps active working crossword puzzles (in ink), reading, watching TV and going to mass. If there’s a ballet on she might give it a look but not so much anymore as her favorite artists, like Mikhail Baryshnikov, no longer perform. Yet her love for dance is always near and it doesn’t take much prodding for her to recall her days on stage. Even though Maude claims her passion for it’s all in the past, her daughter says her octogenarian mother is “always up for dancing at parties,” where she’ll demonstrate a few steps to anyone interested. At 101 she’s still gotta dance!

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