Martha Graham (1884-1991), whose particular style reshaped American dance, said “Dance is the hidden language of the soul.” This is certainly true for Nancy Healy, 80, who has found dancing to be her inspiration since she discovered it’s joy as a young girl in Chicago.
The oldest of two daughters with a single mother, Nancy began dancing soon after her father left when she was five years old. “My mother wanted to keep my sister and me busy and out of trouble while she worked long hours as a beautician. She enrolled us in dance, piano, and swim classes. The dancing stuck with me. Spending long Saturday afternoons at the dance studio definitely kept me out of trouble. I learned not only my dance routines but my sister’s and every other child’s. This was just in case someone got sick and the teacher needed an extra. Even at a young age I believed in always being prepared. Plus, I just loved to dance.”
In addition to the dancing, Nancy was enamored with the joy dancing brought to her audience. “There were dance recitals every year and I made sure I had at least five or six routines. We also performed at the Moose Lodge, Odd Fellows Lodge, Veterans Hospitals, orphanages, for anyone who would have us. I loved seeing the smiles on the faces of the audience, especially the elderly who enjoyed seeing young people.”
Nancy’s mother had wanted to be a show girl herself. Since that ship had sailed for her, she transferred her aspirations to Nancy. She made sure her daughter got newspaper publicity for her shows and encouraged her as she progressed. So, it was no surprise that in 1953, when Nancy was barely fifteen years old, her mother allowed her to join a traveling, professional dance troupe.
“We were contracted by Barnes & Caruthers to perform in four shows every summer. The dancers, along with the scenery, costumes, production staff and an orchestra, traveled by train to cities across the country to perform at state and local fairs. We were paid seventy-five dollars a week the first summer and eighty-five dollars a week in subsequent years. At the time, the Rockettes were getting paid sixty-five dollars a week so I was satisfied and so was my mom.”
The last year with the troupe, Nancy was thrilled to find herself and her dancer friends on the beach in California following performances at the Pomona State Fair. “Between the dancing acts there were performers like a Russian high wire act and Germans on unicycles. The costumes were amazing. For instance, the Starlight Ballet featured sky blue, hoop skirted dresses with head pieces a foot high. We held flashlights which blinked off and on as we floated across the stage in sequential formations. The music was Rachmaninoff’s Third Concerto.”
This was all quite an experience for a young girl who otherwise lived in a tiny apartment in the back of her mother’s beauty salon.
Following graduation, Nancy married and had a son. “I didn’t dance during my child rearing and working years. I helped put my husband through college and architectural school. Working two or three jobs, there was little time for dance classes but I did stay in shape with regular exercise.”
However, in 2006, Nancy was diagnosed with polymyalgia rheumatic, an inflammatory disorder that causes severe pain and stiffness around the shoulders and hips. “I could barely move. At the time, I was caring for my husband who had Alzheimer’s and was unable to speak. It took me two years to recover.”
Today, Nancy obeys her doctor’s strict orders of no weight gain, no alcohol, and no stress. “I’ve had a knee and a hip replaced and, recently, a new heart valve, but as long as I follow my doctor’s orders, I can still dance.”
Nancy has owned a condominium on Isle of Capri since 1984. For many years, she visited one week a year and rented it out the rest of the time. In 2009, after she had retired and was living on Capri much of the year, Nancy discovered a small group of ladies who were taking dance classes and planning performances. “I dug out my old tap shoes and attended one class. After that first class, a light bulb went off in my head and I said to myself, ‘This is it! I have a chance to dance again!’”
Because of her strong rheumatoid medication, it was difficult for Nancy to remember steps and sequences. “My teacher was very patient with me, and I finally started coming back as a dancer.”
In 2004 ReCreation Tappers started with six women never imagining that today they would have a membership of 110 local and snowbird, women dancers between the ages of fifty and ninety. Nancy explained, “Our ninety-year-old was once a prima ballerina. From November to March our group performs in eight to ten shows. Lessons are available nearly every day of the week. It’s a wonderful opportunity for women like myself.”
Ten years ago, while spending the summer in Colorado Springs, Nancy had the opportunity to perform in “My Fair Lady.” “I was still in a great deal of pain at the time but I let myself get caught up in the music and the atmosphere and I once again enjoyed performing. I danced in the ballroom scene, performed in the ascot scene, danced with Mr. Doolittle before he was ‘off to the church’, and played a cockney character. It was a terrific experience.”
Nancy concluded her stories of her past and present dancing years by saying, “Dancing keeps me young and continues to open up a world of friendships. Dancing puts a smile on my face and, as Graham said, dancing has turned out to be the hidden language of my soul.”