My true beginning - and the highest learning in my life - transpired at Perry’s Studio in Hollywood. Perry’s was Mecca to an artist because it had the incomparable Carmelita Maracci, the supreme teacher after whom all others paled no matter what the subject. This building on Highland Avenue was the holy of holies of my nascent career. Its modest two stories are now a pile of plaster, cement and glitter, a thirty-story hotel of tourists and trade shows.
If New Orleans was a soul zone of jazz, Perry’s was a soul zone of dance. Especially in that main studio upstairs. I remember the dressing room bench where I sat and cried for twenty minutes after Carmelita had recited a poem by Baudelaire as we were doing bourées across the floor. It wasn’t unusual in her class. What she knew, what she said, shook my body to the core. I had to leave class, I had never cried like that before. I just sat alone in that dressing room having a profound transformation. Even as a highly monitored teenager I knew it was the real genesis of my life in the theater.
Carmelita loved me because I had a fine background in classical music. As a pianist I read music before I read books. I had had a concert pianist as a teacher - my mother had provided the best for me. As I was a fast student, Carmelita never picked on me or embarrassed me. Occasionally I was asked to demonstrate what she wanted others to see, but it was nearly always she who turned the space between those walls into a sacred place. She was fanatic about the quality of music in class and how it was played. Even the silence was powerful. The music played through your body, so that even the simplest movements became exquisite. God forbid you came to class for mere exercise. She had already attained the highest technique any dancer could have. Her mastery, the art she brought forth, was greater than anything I’d seen in Moscow, Paris, London or New York. If Carmelita approved of the way you danced, you could have danced for the Gods! No place ever again became like Perry’s, I knew it would never, ever come again.
I did have a body that could do anything. The sheer length of my legs, the way of holding breath into the extended line; eyes followed my body. It pleasured me as I got better and better, though people would look at me for other reasons. This, and purity of feeling that Carmelita inspired landed me a succession of dancing parts in films and on Broadway, most of which I felt not worthy of me, till I met Jack Cole, but that’s another story. I was only 18.