Saturday, March 16, 2013

Honest Amelia Dirt - Because She's a DANCER

Amelia Dunham stood near center stage and stared down at her choreographer.  George, the hated "boss" of the 1936 Rockettes had just given her an ultimatum:  If he saw her en pointe one more time, not only would she be fired, but she would "never work in this town again."  She was a Rockette, dammit, and there was no place in a Rockettes show for that "hoity-toity ballerina baloney."

She felt her face go red.  This was the first paid work she'd ever had, and although she hated it, she had found that it came naturally to her - and with the Great Depression dragging on, she desperately needed the money.  An argument erupted in her mind.  Income that comes with a creepy boss who was positively made of hands, or a return to homelessness.  She had been pretty good at homelessness, and her hobo life had only ended a year earlier, so the prospect was not as terrifying as it might have been to a nineteen-year old girl who lacked such experience.  She missed her trees and her freedom, but she had learned to love the hot water in her studio apartment, unreliable though it was, and would miss her afternoons spent getting lost in Macy'sShe let the internal debate play out for a moment, and inhaled deeply.

To say that Amelia was not fond of ultimatums was like saying that the stock market on October 29th, 1929 was "in the red."  She was once expelled from the second grade for defying her teacher's final warning, and wearing her handmade tutu of leaves instead of her school uniform one time too many.  A couple of schools later, in the seventh grade, she was expelled for her ongoing refusal to speak.   

Her most severe ultimatum had come from her mother.  By her fourteenth year, Amelia had long-since decided that she was a wood nymph, preferring to loiter and dance alone in the woods near her Corbin, Kentucky home, rather than study, or do her chores, or play with others, or even to talk.  Her mother had arranged a job for Amelia, working as an office clerk for the Louisville and Nashville Railroad, in town.

On her first day, when her mother sent one of the wood nymph's miserable little brothers to fetch her for breakfast, Amelia was nowhere to be found.  Later that day, she strolled back into the house, muddy, sweaty and tiredly happy from hours of dancing and cavorting with "her trees," in the thick woods that lined the railroad tracks near the Dunhams' home.  Her mother was too angry to look at Amelia, and her father was working a double shift at the locomotive shop that night, so it was left to the wretched little brothers to deliver the ultimatum.  Show up for work tomorrow - dressed as a normal person - or get out and never come back, they told her.

Before her father got home, that night, she packed some of her homemade skirts and halters and dresses - all of which exposed shocking amounts of skin, especially for the early 1930's - into a couple of pillowcases and danced out the front door without a word.
Dances With Trees

The four years she spent as the hobo Honest Amelia Dirt were the hardest and happiest of her young life.  She made her way south, carefully avoiding people as much as possible, until she found a climate warm enough for her scantily-clad wood nymph lifestyle.  She adopted a small pine forest along the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad near Jacksonville, and lived and danced among the trees, speaking only to them.  

Her hobo years were more difficult than they could have been, were it not for Amelia's strict adherence to a no-stealing policy.  Of the few fellow drifters she met, even fewer were kind-hearted enough to try to teach her anything useful, and whenever their lectures came around to theft, she would shake her head vigorously.  That, coupled with her unflinching penchant for answering truthfully (using head nods/shakes and pantomime, mostly), and an obvious affinity for having maximum earth on her skin, led rather directly to her hobo name.

Life on the road and in the adjoining woods was not easy.  Being a tall, slim, barely-clothed and long-legged dancing teenage human wood nymph in the early 30s was basically living, breathing pornography to most of her fellow hoboes.  She was assaulted more often than she could recall, by the end of it.  The first time, her naïveté had allowed her attacker to take her by surprise by first teaching her a couple of legitimate hobo lessons, and she barely escaped him.  After that, she was more cautious, and although she was thin and not particularly strong, she was light on her feet, and could kick a man in the nose before he knew her foot had left the ground.

In the 1930s, there were no "teenagers," or "'tweens."  If your age had two digits, you were basically an adult.  Amelia was given no special consideration.  At best, she was respected as a woman of the road, staunchly honest and not as easy to rape as she looked.  But beyond the assaults, she also endured a number of awkward proposals of marriage from men from eleven to eleventy. 

She quickly learned to accept this reality, and spent most of her time communing with her trees.  She taught herself to trap, kill, skin, cook and stomach small game, as well as to catch, gut, bone, cook and appreciate fish.  She learned to build her campfires in deep holes, to minimize the chances of rude middle-of-the-night awakenings to bandits or worse.  She made slightly more substantial patchwork clothing for the chilly northern Florida winter nights.  And her thin, muscled arms and legs became tanned, and her eventually hip-length auburn hair lightened, and she danced.  

She taught herself the few classical moves she knew, though she didn't know their names.  She found herself simply moving from her campsite to the stream en point - dancing everywhere she went, every waking minute.  She danced through her conversations with the trees.  She danced through her suitors' mesmerized propositions.  She could not imagine a state of being that didn't include dancing.  

Her leap from life among the trees by the tracks was not by her design.  She had been in the woods of northeast Florida for over three years when she developed pneumonia.  Frog-Eatin' Lou, her only true friend in Hobo Nation, found her unconscious and barely breathing when he came to check on her one January night.  He carried her to a hospital for the poor in Jacksonville.  She slept and absorbed intravenous saline and drugs for a week.  When she woke, she stretched and stripped and found her leafy skirt and started dancing.  She pirouetted through the front door without a word.

As she left the hospital late that night, a pudgy, creepily-imposing little man was dropping an opium-sickened hooker outside the emergency room doors.  He glimpsed Amelia's dancing, weakened though it was by her illness, and was entranced.  He offered her a job - not an audition, a job - with the Rockettes, who would be moving to Radio City Music Hall in New York, that spring.  Honest Amelia Dirt thought about it, and found that she had to admit that life as a dancer with a place to live sounded like something worth trying.  Within a month, she was living in the big city and doing that famous Rockettes leg-kick with two dozen strangers, in front of a theater packed with whooping and howling men.

The city excited her, and one of her biggest fears - having to talk to people - proved false, as it turned out that she could get through an average day without uttering a complete sentence aloud.  The dancing was routine and not nearly natural enough to give her any satisfaction, but it paid for a one-room apartment in the Bronx, and food, and that was enough.  For a while.  As her job became increasingly tedious, she began to add some of her own balletic flourishes.  The Rockettes were - and still are - all about precision in unison, so Amelia's extra-curricular activity was immediately problematic.

She had a choice.  Dance the steps exactly as choreographed, or go back to income-less drifting.  George's tiny face glared at her.  She glared at him.  She took a deep breath.  

She leapt over the orchestra pit and landed, still en pointe, in front of George.  She thought about kicking him in the nose, as she had so many men, including George, over the past five years, but opted instead for a dramatically-loud slap across his oily face.

"I quit."  She scampered to the dressing room to fetch her bag, then danced out the front door without another word.

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