Friday, May 10, 2013

Dance Moms: "Dance, My Darling Daughter!"

 With Mothers' Day fast approaching, I’m thinking of Lifetime’s hit reality series, Dance Moms, in which ambitious mothers of junior ballerinas struggle mightily to push their own little darlings into the spotlight. Not that I’ve ever watched the show. But in some ways I feel I’ve lived it.

At my gym the other day, on one of those big-screen TVs, I caught a glimpse of high school kids in Fifties garb marching across a high school lawn, singing their lungs out: “We love you, Conrad! Oh yes we do!” Leading the charge was a ponytailed blonde. Yes, it was 1963’s Bye Bye Birdie, the spoofy musical hit that parodied the fuss made in those innocent days when Elvis Presley was drafted into the U.S. Army. The movie version of the popular Broadway show launched the career of Ann-Margret by turning her role from that of a sweet ingénue into a sultry teenaged sex symbol. As a fan of the play, I disapproved of that change (though the boys I knew probably didn’t). And I also had mixed emotions about the film because several classmates I’d known forever had won roles in the chorus. (Hey, why not me?)

Then there was that ponytailed blonde, who was always in the front row, and actually had dialogue scenes as Ann-Margret’s BFF. She also got to cross her eyes and faint dead away when the film’s Elvis-clone, Conrad Birdie, handed her his guitar. Let’s call her Good Old Geri. Our paths had crisscrossed since I was a pre-teen, and it was hate at first sight.

Not that Good Old Geri was in any way a bad person. Frankly, it was her mother who sparked my resentment. I was ten, and had started taking dance lessons at a local community center. It was no big deal: certainly this class had no pipeline to Hollywood talent scouts. But from the first I couldn’t miss Good Old Geri, a blue ribbon tying back her blonde hair, practicing fancy pirouettes before her mirrored image. And I certainly couldn’t miss her mother, who attended every session, wearing (if memory serves) a somewhat shopworn fur coat. Geri’s mom watched the proceedings with an eagle eye, making sure her daughter was always placed in the front row. Though she generally remained aloof, she did speak to me on one occasion. It seems I could do (thanks to my earlier dance training elsewhere) a difficult and showy drop to the floor called a “hinge.” She commanded me to teach Geri to do it too. (I didn’t try very hard.)

My story pretty much ends here. According to IMDB, Good Old Geri has racked up no screen credits since 1968. But during her teen years, she worked fairly steadily, especially in amiable sitcoms like The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis. She also managed to have a somewhat normal high school experience, and became a great pal of a good friend of mine. I gather she moved between her stage-named persona and her everyday identity with relative ease. And when I was a UCLA sophomore, she and I ended up in the same Shakespeare class. The prof wanted to present to the class a hilariously convoluted romantic scene from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and she and I both volunteered to participate. It was perfect casting: as the lines required, she was tall and blonde, I was short and dark. Two football-playing brothers were recruited to play our romantic partners, and a good time was had by all. No, I never did ask about her mother.

Here’s to Estelle Gray, who loves show biz and her daughters, but was never guilty of being a stage mom.   


  1. weird add-on to your story... okay it's my story of nothing other than the need to share it. my dad's fifth-fifth cousin is Ann-Margret, we never met her and she knows only the history of whole family... not us as individuals. i am okay with that, my mother can track back to Sir Issac Newton... so I say happy time for mothers everywhere.

  2. Fifth-fifth cousin -- what does that mean?? I must say I disliked Ann-Margret in the beginning, based on the hoochie-coochie opening of Bye Bye Birdie, which I understand was added later, after the majority of the film was in the can. In the rest of the film, she actually does a fine job of playing an ingenue, though she was really much older than the rest of the kids. And her later career contains some impressive performances (I'm thinking of Carnal Knowledge). When she suffered a terrible fall while doing her nightclub act, I heard a lot about what a trouper she was, and how her crew adored her. So I certainly wish her well.

  3. Good Old Geri. You do like to confound us with these mysteries, don't you. I've just spent a fruitless half hour trying to figure out who she is. But then, I don't really need to know her true identity to enjoy your post - I can just imagine your frustration at Dance Mom. But then, you could do the Hinge (perhaps thanks to the tutelage of Carmen De Lavallade?) and she couldn't, so lah dee dah.

  4. Wish I had the upper thigh strength to do the Hinge now. As for my little mystery about Good Old Geri's identity, let's say I have no urge to defame someone who has presumably been living well and constructively all these years.