Remembering Rockaway

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It was the early 1960s and beatniks, jazz and coffee houses were in full fashion. The Broadway play West Side Story had just been released as a movie and my stepmother suggested strongly that I attend a jazz dance class at the Kitty Carson School of Dance on Central Avenue in Far Rockaway.

After going to Capezio for a black leotard, black tights and black jazz shoes (the uniform for every serious jazz student then) the stage was set for my first taste of what Kitty Carson had to offer.

Kitty Carson’s was above the W.T. Grant Company and established almost two decades before I was born. By the time I tried a class at her place, she was a legend. My stepmother was a Far Rockaway native and spent her whole life living in her mother’s house on Central Avenue until, in her late 30s, she married my father.

Still, we spent summers there as a family and most holidays as well. If anyone were a maven concerning all things Rockaway, it was she. Who could argue with her when she believed that I should take a class where every person on the peninsula pursuing prancing practiced?

Our jazz teacher was the consummate continental – from her accent to her attitude. She would not tell me from what country she hailed or how old she was but, from her face, I could tell that she would have pre-dated the beats by a few decades. She was exacting and excited about the recital number we rehearsed every time class assembled and always used the same 45 rpm record to rehearse us. Secretive as she was, I never dared ask her the title of it or the name of the people performing it or who penned it but, I wanted to know.

Many a time I would mosey to the side of the room by the record player to try to catch a glimpse of the label before she caught me looking at it. Never once was I successful at seeing what I wanted – I was too scared of being seen by her.

Before the performance date of our well-rehearsed recital, there was the highly anticipated Christmas party replete with a grab bag. The teacher gave no guidelines on grab bag goodies except to bring them on the day of the party. I decided to buy a beading kit replete with beads of all colors neon and not and plenty of stringing materials included. This is what I would have liked to pull from Santa’s pack and I had a plan. If no one had chosen it before it became my turn to try, I would feel for it, free it from the bag, and it would be mine!

There was a blond, Jewish girl who had gone into Grant’s right before the party and purchased a set of erasers that I had at home. They cost fifteen cents and were two separate white triangles covered in a piece of tight-fitting plastic that had an Asian-themed male and female frock featured on each one respectively. They were topped with a wooden bead on which was painted an Asian-looking face. Each “head” was put in place by a toothpick that was pushed through the middle of the bead at one end while the rest of the pick pierced down the middle of the gummy triangle. I took mine apart as soon as I got them so, I knew how they were assembled and I thought that, for the price, they were ingenious.

Before we were to put our purchases in the pack, my friend had doubts about her contribution. She showed me the set and said the price was only fifteen cents and she wasn’t sure if she should put them in or not. I showed her my gift and that made her absolutely frantic. She was so concerned that her selection was inappropriate but I encouraged her to participate. After all, I owned a set and I was happy with them and she could select her own gift if no else had done so by the time her turn arrived.

She did not select the erasers and neither did I. The look on the face of the girl who did pick them told me right away that my friend’s fears were wellfounded. To make matters worse, the teacher started a tirade. “Who brought these? Who thought these were okay? They are not. Did you bring these?” The question was directed to me and here was my opportunity to cover for her by lying and saying that they were my choice. I remembered that a TV show I watched had a girl teasing and tormenting the lead boy in one of the episodes but, when she did something wrong and it was discovered, he took the rap for her. What a guy!

Sadly, I wasn’t that kind of gal. To make matters worse, I volunteered that I had brought the beads (knowing how much we all loved them, I especially). “Who brought them, then?” It was never revealed to teacher and I could see the tension turn to relief in my friend’s face as we tuned into recital rehearsal time. Whew, that was a close one!

One day, my stepmother saw what we were practicing for the performance that was so dear to our dance director. “Is that what you’ve been doing in that class? All you’ve learned to do is shake your rear end!” That was the first and last dance class Kitty Carson was ever going to give me!! No more quivering from fright or fancy footwork, I figured. Did this mean that my stepmother could have made a mistake? Would she say it?

Sadly, she wasn’t that kind of gal.

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