Thursday, February 28, 2008

Mysteries of the Thruway: Another Travel Day

The last of our classes behind us, all that was left was to travel on to New York City, the airport and home in our different directions. In the meantime, on an especially cold night we pulled into the Econo Lodge in Farmington, New York.

As a rule, Econo Lodges do not have a great deal of personality, but the one on Farmington charmed me, not as much by what it is today, but by the ghosts of motels past. Now owned by a discount lodging chain, the lodge which overlooks the Thruway, ratains the vestiges of its independent, family owned past. I have to admit to having a certain unreasonable nostalgia for the era of motoring, when hotels were becoming motels in response to a new restless age of driving vacationers.

The section of the New York State Thruway on which the lodge rests had been open for less than a decade when William Treholm built the rustic resort out of cedar and cherry woods. Its location 200 feet above the surrounding country side both gave it a view and made it easy to be seen by travelers. Everything was state of the art. An article in 1961 about the new hotel boasted of helicopter service and a fallout shelter, neither of which are currently on the list of amenities.

Although its glory days have clearly passed, the individual cabins, the rustic conference room, and the fact taht we seemed to have the place all to ourselves, made it a relaxing place to stay. Other people might react differently, of course, but I have never been able to resist the questions posed by a place with an overlooked history.

Among the places that I have lived is Stephentown, New York (the only Stephentown on earth) between Albany, New York and Pittsfield, Massachusetts. I traveled I-90 from Buffalo to Albany many times. I don't recall seeing the road sign that says "Entering the Seneca Nation." It must be new. Whoever designed it seemed to have forgotten that 21st century travelers on the Thruway are in automobiles. The sign had a full paragraph of text that couldn't possibly be read at highway speeds, but I imagine it was an interesting story.

Another sign urged us to "honor Indian treaties," which I am happy to do, although I'm not sure how to do it as an individual. Maybe it told me on the verbose road sign.

When I see things like this at the side of the road that pique my curiosity, I make a note of them and then research them-- or at least Google them-- when I'm home. But don't you find having a question is much more interesting that having an answer most of the time?

In case you were interested in a little Seneca/Thruway context, click on the link for an article I found.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Meadville, Pennsylvania

Even though we are in the middle of a winter tour, we did not encounter any snow storms worthy of the term until we got to Meadville, a town in Western Pennsylvania. In one of my former lives, I lived in North West Pennsylvania, and so I have a great fondness for its small towns. Most are situated in mountain valleys that resist the kind of big box development prevalent in most suburbs.

Along with the Allegro Dance Arts Studio, Meadville's other claim to fame is as the hometown of Basic Instinct actress Sharon Stone. (For those who love to play the six degrees of separation game... One of my acquaintences when I lived in this part of Pennsylvania had Sharon Stone as a babysitter when she was a girl... that makes me... two degrees from movie stardom?)

My first impression was that the class at Allegro, in spite of the shoveling, was absolutely huge. When I actually took the time to count, however, I saw that there were about 25 students. The illusion of huge size had to do with the long, narrow studio and the placement of students along one very long barre in the center.

Only one more class and we'll have wrapped up another great tour.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Flushing, Michigan

"Reach for your star," is the slogan spelled out in huge letters on the wall of the newly renovated Judy's School of Dance in Flushing, Michigan where we had two classes. Flushing is located just north of Flint. If the name "Flushing" conjures up images of indoor plumbing, you may be wondering just where that moniker came from. Flushing, Michigan was named after Flushing, New York. So there you go.

What not satisfied? Ok, here is where Flushing, New York got its name: from Vlissingen, Holland which translates to "Flushing." Happy now?

I'll conclue with another quote that is stenciled on Judy's wall: "If I could tell you what I mean, there would be no point in dancing."-Isadora Duncan.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Arts Castle

We have a new entry in the "most picturesque facade" competition.

When we booked a class at the Arts Castle in Delaware, OH; we didn't expect that it would be an actual castle.

Located in the historic George W. Campbell home, built in 1854, the Arts Castle offers classes in all manner of arts from ceramics and cooking to tai chi.

After its life as Mr. Campbell's home the building served as Ohio Wesleyan University's Lyon Art Hall for many years.

The ballet class was upstairs in a converted ballroom. It brought to mind the game Clue. "Mr. Lantratov in the ballroom with the candlestick..."

It was our first class on this tour with visions of snow falling past the window, and is the only studio so far to boast snow falling past arched church-style windows that appear to have once contained stained glass.

So here is our question for you? Which studio deserves the best facade award? The Bean School of Dance in Fernandina Beach, The Wilson School of Dance in Charlottesville, VA or The Arts Castle in Delaware, OH?

P.S. We recently came across an article promoting this upcoming class online. Enjoy.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Columbus Dance Arts Academy

Please excuse me for a certain lack of vividness in my description of the class at the Columbus Dance Arts Academy. As many notes as I took on our trip, I find that they lack color and imagination, and I am writing this more than a month after the fact. So I will have to rely on my faulty memory to recreate it.

What I remember most about the Dance Arts Academy was how full of life it was. There were energetic students passing through the narrow halls in all directions and watching the classes as they wrapped up through studio windows.

I recall being impressed with the open friendliness of everyone, with the spaciousness of the studio and with the focus of the students. We'd like to thank everyone for coming, and for inviting us to your studio.

In Memoriam

We were deeply saddened to learn of the death yesterday of one of the Bolshoi's great ballerinas, Natalia Bessmertnova at age 66.

Born in Moscow on July 19 1941, Bessmertnova trained at the Bolshoi ballet school in Moscow, and was the first in history to earn the school's highest possible grade, an A+.

She became one of the Bolshoi's top stars, interpreting all the roles in the classical repertory. One of her most notable roles was that of Giselle. She was awarded the Lenin Prize, the Soviet Union's top distinction, in 1986. She was also a People's Artist of the U.S.S.R. She also received the Anna Pavlova prize in Paris.

Her husband was the ballet-master and choreographer Yuri Grigorovich, who survives her. He directed the Bolshoi during her career and notably designed the highly-successful ballet "Ivan the Terrible", in which she starred in 1975.

The Russian news agency RIA Novosti wrote: "Her surname is derived from the Russian word for 'immortal'. For ballet fans across the world, her memory is sure to live on."

Monday, February 18, 2008

On the Road in Ohio

Happy Presidents Day!

I hope you all enjoyed your traditional Presidents Day barbeques and the opening of the Presidents Day gifts.

We had a great deal of luck on your trip when it came to the weather. We expected to return to winter from the moment we left Florida, but we didn't have to put our winter coats back on until we crossed the Ohio River. In Cincinnati we rediscovered snow.

Robert Louis Stevenson was a fan of Ohio. He wrote in 1879, "Ohio was not at all as I had pictured it. We were now on those great plains which stretch unbroken to the Rocky Mountains. The country was flat like Holland, but far from being dull. All through Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Iowa, or for as much as I saw of them from the train, and in my waking moments, it was rich adn various and breathed an elegance particular to itself. The tall corn pleased the eye; the trees were graceful in themselves, and framed the plain into long aerial vistas; country fare, and pleasant summer evenings on the stoop. It was a sort of flat paradise..."

I grew up in Ohio, and I have to admit I lack some of Stevenson's enthusiasm for the Ohio landscape. Ohio has many plusses, but spectacular views from the highway are not among them.

On the road we traveled through towns and villages, urban areas and farm country. Often I found myself looking out the window at the identical condominiums, decaying barns and the small houses with interstates transecting their back yards. I would look at them and think: somebody lives there all the time. That is the background to someone's every day life. That is where he comes home from work, checks the mail and plops down in front of the television. That mansion with the splendid view, that suburban split level, that cement block of apartments, has become so familiar to someone that she doesn't see it any more.

And then there are the rest stops plazas on toll roads. I've always had a curiosity about them as well. Do the people who work at the Sbarros have to drive 60 miles each way to get to work or is there a back road? The travel plazas aren't connected to any town. No one lives above the store, there are no houses nearby. No one at a travel plaza is local. Are there "regulars?" Does anyone walk up to the Starbucks and ask for "the usual?" The travel plazas are little oases out of everyone's life and time.

Even the perfectly ordinary traveler gets to see those houses and villages and to see a tiny glimpse of another life, a life that you might have had, that you could have had. Who would I be if I had been born in a farming town in Indiana? In the shadow of a factory in downtown Gary? Who would I be if I lived in one of the mansions on the shore in Sarasota, Florida? If I ran a fruit stand at the side of a South Carolina road? Who would I be?

Sunday, February 17, 2008


Unfortunately we had no classes in KY, February 17 was a travel day only, but there were road signs pointing to all my Kentucky associations.

There was the Kentucky Fried Chicken birthplace, the historic bourbon trail and a sign reading "Horse Capital of the World." (The Kentucky Derby of course). Only "My Old Kentucky Home" lacked an appropriate brown road sign. All of this got me wondering how a tourist attraction merits "brown sign" status. When I learn the answer, I'll let you know.

A few of the other sites that I noted through the car window were "Stinking Creek," the river whose name is least likely to inspire real estate prices to rise along its banks, and the Hyrock Cemetery. It sits along the side of I-75 just before the Kentucky border. As the name suggests, the cemetery sits on a high cliff. What caught my attention was that the only entrance appeared to be on the Interstate itself, and surely no one was stopping on I-75 to pay their respects. Anyone know the history of this cemetery and how it ended up where it is?

Update: (written in April 2008) The book Along Interstate I-75 also makes mention of this cemetery. "Notice the tiny graveyard beside I-75 just before (the mile 161) marker? here is stark evidence of the way the instertate planners slashed the new freeway across the landscape, dividing businesses, farms, homesteads and in this case- separating the local folk from their departed loved ones. The graveyard is lovingly maintained by the Gibson, Hyslope, Corbin and Parrott families; the cemetery is always well groomed and the flowers fresh." This entry only adds to my curiosity about this landmark. (Now back to the original narrative)

Without leaving the car you can get a glimpse into America's vast and varied religious culture. I remember tiny churches in farm country with seemingly no population for miles. Then there were megachurches the size of sports stadiums; gothic style architecture and churches in the corners of strip malls.

Some of the most interesting roadside sights as we pass through small towns are the church signs. My favorite message so far: "Even when you don't sneeze."

Other people have been fascinated with roadside religious symbols. A religion professor Timothy Beal traveled around the country documenting what he saw.

In various places on our travels we saw large crosses or other religious icons along highways. In various places on our travels we saw large crosses or other religious icons along highways. Some of the most common are the crosses in sets of three and are painted white and gold. West Virginia has 352 sets of these crosses, the most of any state. That's because they were planted by a man named Bernard Coffindaffer, who was born in Craigsville, West Virginia. At 42 years of age, Mr. Coffindaffer became a Christian and had a vision to "plant crosses". Before his death in 1993, he had planted 1,864 trios of crosses.

An especially interesting roadside cross can be found on I-75 in Tenessee just before passing into Kentucky. An giant "Adult World" superstore sits curiously beside an even more gigantic aluminum cross. "Adult World" probably couldn't be much larger, nor could the cross. It stands 101 feet, 6 inches from the ground and appears to be made out of aluminum siding.

James Potter, the preacher who planted the large cross, said, "You know the Bible tells us to stir up their spirit. Well there's no other way you can do it except something big, you know."

Next time we're in Kentucky, I hope to have classes to report on rather than my random travel musings. We very much enjoyed the sights and sounds of the state and hope to be back soon.

Friday, February 15, 2008

I Remember the Night and the Tennessee Waltz

I wasn't looking forward to the long drive on February 15. We were heading north, out of Georgia, and I expected to drive into the grey winter weather at any time. Usually a travel day is a journey on a non-descript section of interstate with highlights such as commenting on the speed of cars in the passing lane, keeping an eyeout for police in
the median and noting the gas prices as we approach another exit ramp.

"Though Interstate 75 pushes through the length of Georgia," wrote Anrew F. Wood in Road Trip America, "it has little to do with the state. Just about all you can see is the overgrown remnants of trees and hillsides as the kudzu line steadily advances. Even in Atlanta, drivers can zoom through its glistening towers and imposing domes without ever seeing the city."

This day's travels turned out to be one of the most pleasant surprises, a journey through the mountains with breathtaking scenery and a few death defying curves. I felt enormously blessed to be witnessing the scenery and I had an overwhelming sense of wanting to stay, to just stop and be at peace in the mountains. I tried to remember the landmarks so I could be sure to come back again.

It has been hard, much later, to figure out exactly where we were and what we saw. As you drive, the scenery does not present itself as a series of place names, but as an onslaught on the senses.

I'm fairly certain that we drove through The Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forests. Chattahoochee because I had the song "Way Down Yonder on the Chattahoochee" on a continuous loop in my head, and Oconee because I repeated this name to myself over and over so I wouldn't forget it. Clearly Georigians and Teneseeans have a special fondness for vowels.

According to, Atlantans refer to the Chattahoochee as "the Hooch." President Jimmy Carter, himself a native Georgian, signed the 1978 legislation that preserve a 48-mile stretch of the river as the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area.

Our route took wound us out of Georgia, we clipped the Western corner of North Carolina, and into Tennessee, winding across the Chattahoochee and Oconoee Rivers. We passed signs advertising scenic overlooks on big rocks, and came through the town of Cleveland, TN. (Population 37,000)

When you see the clear lakes and the guest cabins of the Oconee, you have a fantasy that just being in this locale would bring an inner life that is as tranquil and unhurried.

If I had been a passenger, I could have made notes of all I saw out the window. First we summited and descended a great mountain and then wound down into the valley of the Ocoee river. We saw nothing for miles but white water rafting launches and small cabins. One little motel on the lake was so removed from civilization that it instantly caught my imagination, and for miles I repeated its name to myself so I could write it down in case we ever returned.

As we moved from Jimmy Carter territory to Al Gore country, "Way Down Yonder on the Chattahoochee" became mixed with "Al Gore Lives on My Street..." by Monkeybowl as I clicked through my Tenessee associations in my head.

For most people "Tennessee Waltz" would probably come to mind first. "Tennessee Waltz" is the "fourth" official state song of the state of Tennessee. Unlike "Take Me Home Country Roads," which is not the West Virginia state song but does sing the praises of its state, "Tennessee Waltz" is a break up song that has nothing much to do with Tennessee.

Two points to anyone outside of Tennessee who can name the number one state song. (Answer at the end)*

At one point en route we passed a sign pointing to Nashville. "Real Nashville?" Valery wondered, he'd grown so accustomed to cities named Moscow and other Clevelands and Bostons.

I said, "That way to country music!"

He had a different association. "Nashville has hockey team with Russian players."

The Russian language, you should know, is logical in that it is spelled the way it looks. If a word is spelled "привет" then it is always pronounced "привет." So Valery looked at me as if I were putting him on when I told him not to pronounce the "k" in Knoxville, our destination city.

"Why? It is spelled with K?"

"Because, that's how we do it," was my unsatisfying answer.

The Knoxville Ballet School is the baby of Deb Young. The school is still fairly new, and most of the regular students are still fairly young as she begins training from the ground up. We offered two classes at the studio, the first a beginning level class made up of the studios regular students and the second a more advanced class to a group of students who had traveled from another part of the state.

One of the students was not only a native Russian speaker, but she also had studied with a friend of Valery's back in Russia. It is always a small world when you travel with Valery.

One of the things I especially enjoy with younger classes is how sincere the students are. They haven't yet learned to hide their excitement or nervousness or joy under a veil of cool detachment. Young classes often begin their master classes with this strange Russian man wide-eyed and occasionally so nervous they shake. By the end of the class they are usually smiling, laughing and relaxed.

If you would like to know more about Knoxville Ballet, Deb Young maintains her own blog. The topics go beyond the happenings at her particular studio and into the wider world of dance and arts.

...So did you get the Tennessee state song?

*It's "My Homeland, Tennessee." Adopted in 1925. Lyrics by Nell Grayson Taylor, music by Roy Lamont Smith. They appear to have an inordinate fondness for state songs in Tennesee. The Tennessee government web page lists seven of them including "The Tennessee Bicentennial Rap."

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Best Mural

The winner of the "best mural" award is Heather Wayne's Performing Arts Dance Studio in Hoschston, Georgia, about an hour North East of Atlanta on I-85. Valery was very impressed by this studio, which combines instruction in dance and theater. There was a hub of activity in the studios many rooms. Children in theatrical costumes were preparing for dramatic work while ballet students warmed up in nearby classrooms.

I especially liked the parents room where mom and dad can watch the happenings in the studio comfortably on a closed-circuit TV without intimidating the kids or getting in the way of the teachers.

"This is like Russia," Valery said. We encounter very few studios that incorporate all the performing arts in one building.

We received a very warm welcome here and plan to return in summer when, we can only surmise, the temperatures will be less hospitable.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Georgia on My Mind

"You're from Michigan?" asked the hotel clerk in Macon. "Do you have snow? It must be nice to have snow."

It only goes to show that landscapes you have never seen, but only imagined are the most exotic and intriguing. Post cards of snow covered cabins are so much more romantic than getting up on the roof to make sure the ice doesn't cause leaks in the ceiling. We were not looking forward to our trek into the snow belt.

When we got to Macon, Valery recognized the downtown immediately. "I danced here," he said. He didn't recall exactly when he performed with an American company here, but he has a great visual memory. Directions, faces, and theaters never seem to escape him.

The Dance Arts Studio is one flight up a narrow staircase in a brick city building. We were greeted by Elizabeth, a friendly brown-haired woman who described herself as "a mom manning the phones." Elizabeth had taken classes from Jean Evans Weaver when she was a girl.

"The floors still creek in the same places," she said.

You never know, before you walk into a studio, what level you're going to have in class. One studio's "advanced" is another's "beginning." The cream of the ballet crop at a hip hop focused studio is going to be different than the average student at the classical ballet focused studio.

Even before class we could tell from the photos on the wall that these students were focused on ballet, and were most likely going to be fairly accomplished. You can often recognize an advanced ballet student by her epaulement. Beginners are paying far too much attention to the way their feet are pointing to concentrate on those fluid arm and head movements.

Jean, the director, is a slim, poised woman who wears her hair in a soft white bob. She sat, comfortably perched on a stool at the front of the butterfly-lined studio and wore a serious expression throughout. It wasn't until we'd finished that she broke into the smiles and warm-openness we'd come to expect from people in this part of the country.

The combination of a building with history, and a group of students with focus made this one of our favorite studios on the tour.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Travel Day

Someone once called advertising billboards "litter on a stick." If that is the case, then I-75 between Tampa, Florida and Macon, Georgia is one of the most polluted sections of road in the country. Yet the subject matter of the billboards keep them from being a total eye-sore.

Aimed at "snow birds" who come South for the winter, and then drive back up again, the signs have a local flavor, the citrus themed postings giving way to pecan and peach advertisements once you cross the state line. Boiled peanuts are a popular delicacy on Georgia signage, which reminded me of one of my Georgia associations-- President Jimmy Carter, a former peanut farmer from Plains, Georgia. (His presidential museum is in Atlanta.)

"My most persisten impression as a farm boy was of the earth," The President wrote in his book An Hour Before Daylight : Memories Of A Rural Boyhood. "There was a closeness, almost an immersion, in the sand, loam, and red clay that seemed natural and constant. The soil caressed my bare feet and the dust was always boiling up from the dirt road that passed fifty feet from our door, so that inside our clapboard house the red clay particles, ranging in size from face powerder to grits, were ever present..."

This was a very different Georgia than the one we experienced from our limited vantage point, the Interstate and its service roads. On February 11, we traveled in the unpopulous area between Florida and Macon, Georgia, spending the night at an interesting motel in Vladosta. Instead of a lobby, it had a truck stop gift shop with a counter. You could buy boiled peanuts there, if you were so inclined, but there were no familiar floral sofas, complimentary coffee or continental breakfast. Breakfast could be found next door behind the plastic playground of a fast food franchise.

While we have no classes to discuss, it seems like as good a time as any to talk about hotels. The book Here Speeching American: A Very Strange Guide to English as It Is Garbled Around the Worldby Kathryn Petras and Ross Petras collects sings written by non-native English speakers around the world. I enjoyed this one from a hotel in China: "Invisible service is available for your rest being not disturbed." I like "invisible service," service so seamless that you're unaware of it. You never even see hotel staff around, but your room is always miraculously clean.

That is how I picture the upscale hotels of this world, the Hiltons, Sheratons and Marriotts with their bevy of pillows and encounters with what Jay Leno calls "minthead." "Minthead," he told travel writer Peter Greenberg, "is what happens when you get back to your hotel room and go to sleep. But the maid has put a chocolate mint on your pillow and you end up sleeping on it. You wake up with all this white cream in your hair."

That doesn't happen to us. We're more likely to find ourselves in accomodations like those Ogen Nash described in 1942:

"I know a renegade hotel,
I also know I hate it well,
An inn so vile, an inn so shameless
For very disgust I leave it nameless"

Ok, that is overstating things a bit. With rare exceptions, our hotels are clean, staffed by friendly and courteous people, and while they may not have amenities like infinite piles of pillows and little chocolate mints, they have all we need to get by: wifi, television and beds.

And when we lack "invisible service for our rest not being disturbed" it is usually not the staff doing the disturbing. If we lack sleep it is due to thin walls and noisy neighbors, like the one who fell asleep with his television on full blast and couldn't be woken by repeated pounding or calls from the front desk at 4 in the morning.

Thus is the glamorous life of a touring artiste.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

What is the Word For...?

Valery has never gotten into the rhythm of working with a translator, speaking a sentence or two and waiting for the translation. He chatters on for minutes on end, speaking with idioms and metaphors. Not every translator is a match for it. But the best of interpreters make you feel as though you're speaking seamlessly to the other person. It is easy to take a good interpreter for granted, because you hardly notice she is there.

I have always wished I was fluent enough in two languages to be an interpreter. It seems like a magical ability that opens up your world to many people and cultures.

After more than five years speaking to each other with interpreters, I can tell you that there is a vast difference between a professional interpreter and a non-professional. There is simply much more to it than being fluent in two languages. Back in the 1980s Kevin Nealon performed a hilarious sketch on Saturday Night Live, "Amateur Translator," in which he was a particularly incompetant simeltaneous interpretor for a U.S./Soviet summit. "He's using a word... it's kind of like that feeling where you..." he would explain as the leader moved along to the next paragraph.

If you ever need a Russian-English translator we can recommend Yulia Coe (pictured above with Valery Lantratov at the Performing Arts Presenters Conference in New York) without reservation. Over the years we've been filtering our talk through her brain, we've also come to be good friends and we were pleased to have the opportunity to visit her during our trip to Florida. We had the opportunity to be guests in her home for the first time, and she was able to come and see Valery's class for the first time at the Guilfoil Academy of Ballet in Clearwater.

Located on the second floor of a professional building lined with vine-covered trees, the studio is spacious and well-designed for dance. Even though it was a bright, sunny day outside, the mood lighting in the studio made it a bit difficult for photography-- at least my amateur variety. But here is the best of what I got:

Regretfully, this class marked the end of our time in Florida and we would soon begin our trek north into winter.

Thank you to Andrew Guilfoil for inviting us to your studio.

Incidentally, In Clearwater, FL was a Knights Inn with a sign claiming it had the "world's cleanest rooms."

I find that claim a bit hard to believe. Surely there are a few operating theaters and microchip plants that are a little cleaner?

Thursday, February 7, 2008

The Southernmost City

Have you ever heard of Myers, Florida? We haven't either. Fort Myers was named for an actual military fort, which was named for a General Abraham Myers. For a while in the 1890s, the powers that be decided to rid the town's name of its military associations and just call it "Myers." The people who lived there said, "Yeah, whatever," and kept calling it Fort Myers. So the word "Fort" was quietly penciled back in on the maps. It's officially been Fort Myers ever since.

On February 7 we had two classes at the Creative Arts Dance Center in this city, which marked the Southernmost point on our journey.

Located in a strip mall near a "Green Wal Mart,"* Creative Arts has elevated wood-sprung dance floor, floor to ceiling mirrors, all tied together with a lavender color scheme.

We had two classes and a very warm welcome at this studio. After class they asked Valery to write something on the mural wall which you can see behind him reflected in the mirror.

The studio also posted some pictures of the event on their web page.

It was the beginning of the I-75 portion of our trip as well. From here we would largely follow I-75 all the way to Michigan. This is the same road we took to St. Ignace in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. [We visited St. Ignace on one of Valery's first educational tours. Unfortunately, Caroline June's Just Dance studio closed when she moved downstate. If anyone has a studio in the UP, we'd love to have another excuse to come to this part of the world]

We have traveled nearly the entire length of this interstate and we could look at that pavement baking in the Florida sun and imagine it as a ribbon that stretched straight across the Mackinac Bridge. Amazing.

If you want to see something interesting in the winter, there is an I-75 information web page which keeps a list of temperatures from points north to south along its route.

*What is a Green WalMart?

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

"A Place for Dancing"

I decided to include the clip above because if you're anything like me the expression "High School for the Performing Arts" brings to mind scenes from the movie Fame where 25-year old high school freshmen, completely overwhelmed by the joy of art, dance with abandon in the lunch room or out into the street and on the hoods of checkered cabs.

(Incidentally, jumping down on a piano is not recommended unless you're looking to buy a new piano)

As Melissa Lodhi escorted us to the dance studio at Booker High School, a converted classroom with the desks removed and mirrors where the chalk boards would usually be, we did not see students with violins serenading leotard-clad dancers.

It was simply a quiet, expansive campus with rows of lockers and outdoor breezeways. It was unseasonably warm, even for Sarasota, with the mercury pushing 86F. The extra summer was a tremendous gift for us northerners. We gushed over the beautiful orange flowers that lined the bushes in the courtyard. Melissa's expression told us that she walked past them so often she didn't even see them.

Real high schools for the arts may not take their instruments and wear their dance shoes into the lunch room, but they are some of our favorite places to teach. And let's face it, breaking into unrehearsed musicals after every science class would get a bit exhausting after a while.

Unlike Emerson High School in Gary, Indiana (where Valery has taught in the past), Booker High School is not technically a "high school for performing arts." It is a high school with a strong arts program complete with a dance department.

The dance department at Booker High School is part of a countywide magnet program in visual and performing arts. It offers a comprehensive dance program with a focus on preparing students to pursue dance in college and beyond. In addition to technique classes in Ballet, Modern and Jazz, students study theory classes including Aesthetics, Dance History, Kinesiology, Pedagogy and Choreography. Classes also emphasize creative problem solving, divergent thinking skills and cooperation.

They seem to have a solid record of success. According to their web site, after completing their visual and performing arts program, 95% of the students are the recipients of scholarships, enabling them to continue their education in a college, university, conservatory,or professional school.

Anecdotally, I believe this to be a rarity in our current economy where arts and libraries are two of the places where budgets are frequently cut. But after a short Internet search I didn't turn up any reliable statistics on the subject. Admittedly I didn't put much much time into the search. If you know how common or rare dance programs are in high schools, please feel free to post the actual facts in the comments section.

If you're arguing for funding of a dance program at your school, incidentally, the organization Americans for the Arts lists the results of several studies showing the value of dance, especially among at-risk students.

The summer temperatures in Sarasota were a bit less of a blessing during our class, although I could see how much Valery enjoyed teaching the students as he moved on to more and more complicated combinations. The students found the class challenging, but followed every combination without repetition. We left hoping for more opportunities to guest teach in America's high schools.

I only wish I could have been a fly on the wall when the students went back to a class room to discuss and debrief.

Sarasota was one of our favorite cities all around. We had several hours between our class at Booker High School and a second class at Zero Gravity School of Dance, which gave us time to appreciate the lapping waves, palm trees swaying in the breeze and the nicely manicured parks near the downtown shopping district, which clearly shows that Sarasota is one of the wealthiest cities in Florida. And why not? If you were wealthy, wouldn't you want views like this every day?

Allen Morris's book Florida Place Names: Alachua to Zolfo Springs says the name "Sarasota" is shrouded in mystery. The version we like best says it was named by the Spanish and that the name designates "a place for dancing." There may be no words in modern Spanish to back this theory up, but it certainly seems plausible to us.

Monday, February 4, 2008

An All America City

Ocala, Florida has been recognized as the fifth best place to live in America as well as the 11th "Most Liveable Small City" by Money Magazine. Maybe this has something to do with its dance studio, Mary Ellen School of Dance.

Ocala is an "All-America" city. Valery found this sign fairly amusing, "Of course it's an American city. It's not in Germany. It's not in China."

I didn't know what an All-American city was, so I couldn't really help him out there.

We continued to be surprised and delighted to find summer temperatures in Florida at this point, and enjoyed the Schadenfreude of seeing television images of big snow storms back in the midwest.

The studio itself was spacious and bright with a good floor. Good floors make such a difference! Thank you to Mary Ellen and to Jessica Sorrels for hosting us.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Most Picturesque Facade

By far, the winner of the "Most Picturesque Facade" is the Bean School of Dance in Fernandina Beach, FL. With its palm trees and awning, the school looks more like a gift shop than a dance studio.

The studio space itself is on the second floor up a narrow staircase. Under an A-frame ceiling is a wooden tile floor reminiscent of a dining room.

Broadway posters line the studio walls including one of the most interesting-- "Annie Get Your Gun" starring Tom Wopat of "The Dukes of Hazard" and Cyrstal Bernard of the TV series "Wings."

Along the back wall is something that looks like a collection of giant Pac Men. (Younger readers: Pac Man was a video game popular in the early 1980s)

We had two classes at this studio and thoroughly enjoyed our time. The students found the class rigorous and challenging, judging by their reactions.

Fernandina Beach, located on Amelia Island, claims to be the second oldest city in the United States. It was settled by Spaniards in 1567. We had an opportunity to see downtown Fernandina Beach with Victorian facades lined with palm trees. It has the charm of a seaside resort town, but is not overrun with tourists. Unfortunately, this may be because of the two huge petroleum factories that dot either end of the waterfront.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Midday Near the Garden of Good and Evil

Savannah, Georgia, on the banks of the Savannah river, is known for its stately mansions, statues and fountains, its parks filled with lush greenery and trees dripping with hanging vines. Everyone told us we would love Savannah.

John Berendt's 1994 bestseller "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil," which is subtitled "A Savannah Story" and the movie that followed, increased tourism here by 46%. (I am personally gratified when I hear a story of a book having an impact anywhere.)

Of course, we didn't really see any of THAT Savannah. For better or worse, we're not tourists, we're just transient workers-- and big supporters of the hospitality industry. Still, next time we visit, I'm hoping we'll have time to see this park.

The Academy of Dance is in a section of Savannah that is unremarkable at best. It is off to the side on a business road near the built up region of a busy shopping mall. But it had everything we needed for a pleasant and enjoyable day.

After a few days of what was, for a Muscovite, spring weather, we moved into summer in Savannah. We may not have seen the mansions or the coast, but we absolutely appreciated the climate.

A good climate puts you in a good mood, which was a great plus as we tried to follow our directions the night before this class. Although it was a good three hour drive from Georgetown to our next hotel, we were in good spirits. This was especially fortunate, because our Mapquest directions left something to be desired. It is the kind of thing that can make people more than a little cranky if they're not hexed by good weather in February.

Mapquest, as it happened, insisted we should turn "south" on SC-170. When we got to the intersection, however, the actual road went east/west. The computer said that "south" was to the right, so we went that way, and after 15 minutes or so we crossed a bridge.

But when our hotel didn't appear, we started to lose confidence that we were headed the right direction. So we stopped at a gas station. A polite Southern man (called me ma'am), squinted at my directions.

Although the hotel is in Okatie, it's name is the Fairfield Inn, Bluffton. (A bit of a bluff) "Where is the Fairfield Inn in Bluffton?"

The man's girlfriend knew exactly where it was. It was back the other direction. I could see that Valery's energy for travel and ability to endure poor directions was wearing thin. But the woman confidently told us to take SC-170 in the other direction and we'd find it near an auto parts store. So it seemed we would be there soon. We crossed the bridge, drove back the 15 minutes and another 10 minutes and found the... Hampton Inn.

After some discussion of where our hotel could be hidden, we decided to stop at a restaurant and ask. A polite Southern man (called me ma'am) explained that Okatie was in the other direction. What we needed to do was take 170 back the direction we'd come, we'd cross a bridge and then to another 10 minutes.

By now Valery was starting to sigh heavily, and I could feel a headache coming on as I turned back the other way.

"Look, it's our bridge," I said.

We found the hotel about an hour later than we'd hoped to, but safe inside we regained our sense of humor.

The next morning, with some equally questionable directions from the front desk, we headed out across the bridge (much nicer view in daylight) only to miss our cross road, stop at a gas station and be directed back across that same bridge again.

We decided that from now on wherever we go, we need to start out by crossing this bridge first even if we have to drive to South Carolina to do it.

As much as we appreciated the weather, we appreciated the studio. The Academy of Dance is the newest dance school in the city, and yet it had a relatively sizeable turnout for our master class. Its owner, Paula Fichtenkort, writes Savannah Now, "didn't want to open a ballet school. But pressure from parents wanting their children to benefit from her 30 years of teaching..."

Fitchtenkort is a Georgia transplant. Before coming to the state she taught in Connecticut and before that danced with the Royal Ballet in London. Though Savannah is sometimes off the radar of the big touring companies, The Academy of Dance aims to provide as many opportunities as possible to its students. The school started bringing in master teachers in its first year of operations.

We are pleased to have been invited to this spacious and pleasant school and we hope we'll have the chance to return.