“Dear Melba Cortez:
“I was seven years old when my parents enrolled me in your school. I was nine when we moved to the suburbs. It was then that I made my final (and finest) leap across the stage ...”
The Melba Cortez School of Dance nestled comfortably in an unremarkable office building in downtown Chicago. Although it must have had an elevator, I only remember a staircase from the ballet classes on the fourth floor, which I loved, to the tap dance studio on the fifth floor, which I hated. Tap was taught by a handsome, haggard middle-aged man who was not haggard until I got there. I was not his favorite student.
When I and the other aspiring Princess Auroras were between classes, we sat on the steps in the stairwell landing. It had a window, always opened, that looked out on a rusty fire escape. The stairs, window, and fire escape make up as big a part of my memories of those dance lessons as does Melba Cortez herself.
She was a stout, graceless woman, except when she was teaching us a new step, a new position, a new way to curve our arms or hold our hands. Then, even though she did not become less stout or more attractive, she somehow became a perfect conduit for “essence of dance.”