Until yesterday, I didn’t know the name of Arnold Spohr. Then I came across an obituary in the New York Times, naming him as the artistic director of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet for 30 years. Those years included the event that changed my life forever. I have Arnold Spohr to thank for my life in dance, and I’m sorry I didn’t think of reaching out to find out about him before he left us all behind.
The long version of this story is in my manuscript, but for now here’s what happened.
In 1971 I was starting out my sophomore year at Briar Cliff College, a small school on the bluffs above Sioux City, Iowa. We had, as part of our student activity fee, tickets to the college’s Lecture / Concert Series. This was an eclectic series of scholarly lectures and cultural events that fit the school’s liberal arts curriculum. That fall, the big event was a performance by the Royal Winnipeg Ballet at the Municipal Auditorium.
I had been to numerous theatrical events in my young life, including symphony orchestras and big-name musicals like “The Man of La Mancha.” I had both acted (briefly) on stage and been part of our high school musical stage crew. I had taught myself to pick out tunes on guitar and piano, and I had dabbled in some visual art history courses. I considered myself an arts appreciator.
But professional dance was something I knew nothing about, other than a nodding acquaintance with the June Taylor Dancers (look ’em up!). My only dance experiences were:
- A horrible stint at the age of five in tap dance classes held in a woman’s basement. All the other students were girls, and I did not seem to have an aptitude for the art form. I was so glad when I got to quit after our first, undoubtedly excruciating, recital; and
- The memory of watching our oafish upperclassmen in my all-male high school, stumbling their way through dance routines being taught by the all-female high school dance team for our spring musicals.
So my experience of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet was profoundly unsettling. I found that I had no idea what I was looking at, or how to respond. I even had to watch my fellow audience members to figure out when it was time to applaud, because the cues were so different from any other form of stage show I had ever seen.
My embarrassment over that experience was what led me to take a dance class at the college. That in turn led to my first dance performance, in a little ballet called “The Nutcracker,” that Christmas. By the spring, I was dancing 30 hours a week in addition to my college course load, learning jazz and ballet and performing in several productions. From then on, I knew if there was any way in heaven or hell to make it happen, I was going to become a professional dancer. Which, it turns out, I did.
So, Arnold Spohr, I raise a toast to your memory, and send my thanks into the universe to mingle with your atoms. If you had not been aggressive about getting ballet to wider audiences in smaller cities, I might not have discovered my passion for dance until too late to fulfill it. My mission is to pay your gift forward.