About That Glass Slipper Thing

It’s hard to imagine wearing any article of clothing made from a substance known for its ability to puncture and shred flesh. And yet. Who’s Cinderella without a glass slipper?

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The basic idea of the Cinderella story—young woman, bad circumstances, objects incite a change of fate—dates back thousands of years to many, many cultures spanning the globe. The current givens about Cinderella—fairy godmother, prince, glass slippers—we owe to French author Charles Perrault. Disney’s animated film, of course, seared their adaptation of Perrault’s tale into our collective brains so completely that sometimes it’s hard to imagine the story without talking mice. Perrault added the elements of the fairy godmother, the pumpkin carriage and the glass slippers, which have become synonymous with the story.

Next weekend, we welcome back Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella, the musical theater duo’s adaptation of the Perrault-inspired folk tale which has nothing to do with Disney, please note. The show does very well because people love this story, and they never stop loving Perrault’s particular embellishments. If you want to see a crowd of disappointed faces, show them a version of Cinderella with no glass slippers. It would be like going to a version of Ireland with no green fields or Guinness. Just doesn’t compute. Shouldn’t exist.

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(L-R) Sean Ryan, Leslie Jackson and Tatyana Lubov in Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella. (Photo: Carol Rosegg)

The glass slippers, like the fairy godmother and her magic, require a delightful suspension of disbelief to make the story work. It’s myth and folklore at its most enchanting. Naturally, science ruins myth with its evidence-based understanding of the world, and so it goes for our young soot-covered maiden’s infamous footwear.

First, let us give you the good news: the glass slippers could exist. It’s not like arguably-functional glass slippers are impossible. About three years ago, some mechanical engineers got together to determine the feasibility of glass slippers. They deduced that you could wear a pair of soda lime glass (i.e., coke bottle “everyday” glass) shoes if you stood perfectly still and weighed roughly 110 pounds.

Here’s the scientific assessment, though, and it raises the more important question of whether or not glass slippers should exist.

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First, you’d still have to be 110 pounds with a size 6 foot. The heel would have to be less than a half-inch to keep the shoes from shattering once you started walking. That’s roughly the height of nice pair of Florida flip flops which is to say “flats” which is to say who cares about the glass slippers if they don’t have a legit heel? The glass would have to be tempered safety glass, not regular glass. Safety glass seems okay until you start thinking about bending your foot, or slipping on the Prince’s polished ballroom dance floor, or running briskly down several stairs in a heart-pounding race against midnight. Safety glass is just thicker, not unbreakable. So, one step at the wrong angle and crash!, the weight pressure will shatter your instep, sending you to the ER at midnight in your raggedy dress.

The upside, however, is that it would have been much easier for the Prince to find Cinderella by tracking the trail of bloody footprints to the sliding door of the ER, and he never would have had to touch the feet of those odious step-sisters.

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L to R: Jimmy Choo design, Nicolas Kirkwood design, Paul Andrew design.

Back to reality: some of the world’s most high-profile fashion designers took the challenge of creating a glass-slipper shoe in 2015, when Disney released their live-action Cinderella film. Jimmy Choo, Ferragamo, Charlotte Olympia and six others whipped up fabulous shoes with enough sparkle and Swarovski to put a fairy godmother to shame. These designs turned into real-life buyable, wearable couture, and you can still get your hands on a pair with minimal Google-work. That same year in Japan, the glass artisans of Nakamura Glass Studio unveiled their hand-blown slippers, made by a process without cutting or molds, that took eight years to perfect and seem to contradict the mathematical findings of our aforementioned engineers. At $697.00 per shoe—that’s $1394.00 per pair—you yourself should probably be in the post-Prince part of the Cinderella story. We have no idea if you can walk or run in them, but you can buy them and put them on your feet. On a scale of 1-10, the comfort level looks to be around an H, indicating that some things may be best left in the realm of the imagination.

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Hand-blown glass slippers from Nakamura Glass Studio.

Come to the realm of imagination when Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella plays in Morsani Hall July 5-8.

Dogs of The Straz

In honor of National Take Your Dog to Work Day on June 22, we’re introducing you to some of the pups of The Straz.

Pet Sitters International launched National Take Your Dog to Work Day in 1999, right as American culture reached its tipping point about pooch pets, launching us precipitously over the edge of dog ownership to being owned by dogs, buying them clothes, shoes, strollers, insurance and even animal companions of their own. Eighteen years later, NTYDTWD is going strong. Part of the point of this day of observance is to raise money for local animal shelters and some companies have raised tens of thousands of dollars over the years of bringing their four-legged loved ones to the office.

Even though we’re a humans-only workplace, most of us believe dogs are people, too. Shadows, soulmates, BFFs, fur babies–whatever you want to call them, dogs play a huge part in the lives of The Straz’s many dog people. Here are a few of our “Straz Dogs” and the heartwarming stories of how they ended up with their humans.

 

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Meet puggle Miley and hound-mix Whisky, boos of Marisol Rocha, our catering sales administrative assistant. Miley loves car rides and treats. Whisky, rescued from a shelter, also loves treats and enjoys watching television. Marisol and her husband bought Miley as their wedding present to themselves for an insta-fur-fam, and the three words they use to describe her are “loving, very hyper and demanding.” Whisky, a fine specimen of hound-dog style, is “loving, over-protective … and clumsy.”

 

Tellier

This ridiculously adorable lil dude is Jackson Browne, a Chiweenie (chihuahua-dachshund). He owns our collaborative piano specialist Sarah Tellier and starred as Toto in the Patel Conservatory’s production of The Wizard of Oz last week. A true performing arts dog, Jackson is “loving, dramatic, and super social,” says Sarah. “I found Jackson after a day at the beach, and after finding out he had no chip over the following weekend, decided to adopt him! We instantly bonded, and he’s been a sweetheart ever since he came home.” Jackson loves his doggie blanket and cheddar cheese more than anything in the world. (Other than Sarah, of course.)

 

Fairbanks

Senior writer Marlowe Moore Fairbanks got a friend request from this dude on Facebook in 2015, which she naturally accepted (actually, it was his foster mom who had set up a page for him). Marlowe had been stalking him for six years online, watching him never get adopted from a no-kill shelter in North Carolina. When her dog died, she needed a new bro, and so she drove to North Carolina and came back to Florida with Guster Hambone Moore Fairbanks. The three words that describe his personality are sweet, sweet and sweet. He loves running in the woods and is prone to dancing when excited enough. His two favorite things in the world are cat food and getting towel-dried.

 

DiPietra

Love bug of the year goes to Michael “Mike” DiPietra, compadre of Maggie DiPietra, the Straz Center grant writer. Mike is a special breed of Golden Retriever/Unknown/Possible Moose Involved (“he’s all legs,” Maggie says). Recognizable for his chill, patient personality and his expressive eyebrows, Mike was all but guaranteed a home with Maggie after her husband brought home a pic of him as a puppy with a little cast on his hurt leg. He was the last un-adopted kid in his litter—well, until Maggie saw him.

 

Darby

Here is our resident Ears McGee, production manager Shannon Darby’s squeal-inducing buddy Haggie. Shannon saved Haggie from a kill shelter ten years ago, giving this “five kinds of hound dog” a pampered life of working hard to be spoiled rotten. “He thinks he is human, of course,” says Shannon, “and that we are the suckers.” Shannon reports Haggie’s greatest loves in life are rolling the ball down the driveway so Shannon can toss it (like a reverse-fetch) and sniffing diverse and inclusive amounts of poop. Haggie has a cat. His name is The Blot.

 

Potter

Miss Bedroom Eyes here is Harper, the dog-child of our senior marketing manager Caitlin Potter. Caitlin, who admittedly was not enthusiastic about adopting a dog, took all of about forty seconds to turn into a hard-core dog person whose life was drastically re-organized around the needs of this loyal, energetic and gentle girl. Caitlin and her husband adopted Harper from the Humane Society of Tampa Bay last year. Harper’s two favorite things in life are catching a frisbee and eating, which now happen to be Caitlin’s favorite things, too.

 

Siegler

The winner of our Most Magnificent Ears award goes to this booger, Zobi Thaddeus Siegler, the pup of our theater managing director of education Audrey Siegler and her husband, Gerard, who is our director of production services. When asked for three words to describe Zobi, Audrey said “hyperactive, disgruntled, emo.” Also sounds like a dog made for a life in the performing arts. The Sieglers fostered Zobi then adopted him from the Humane Society of Tampa Bay, and this adorbs terrier mix now has all the treats he can handle and a fine set of human siblings.

 

Douglas

Goofus here goes with LeeAnn Douglas, our marketing director of digital and experience marketing. This is Moose, and this is the face of a certified mama’s boy. LeeAnn adopted Moose, a regal chow-coonhound blend, from Humane Society of Tampa Bay. His two favorite things in the world are his green ball and LeeAnn. Three words that describe this pretty boy? “Smart, shy and loud,” says LeeAnn.

 

Denison

It’s hard to believe this t-shirt wearing snookums passed out in a bag of Christmas presents was found abandoned on a hiking trail in California. But, that’s where Brent Denison, our ticket office customer service manager, found him. Eden Topaz is a piebald dachshund making the most of his loving new home. Brent says Eden is comical and friendly, with his two fave things in the world being eating and rides in the car. Totally legit.

 

Livesay

This yin-yang super duo of Jack and Star keep plenty of drama in the life of our VP of Education Suzanne Livesay. Jack, a Golden Retriever, is a pedigreed boy and Star the Australian Shepherd was part of a BOGO deal at the breeder. “After having her in our lives for more than two years, we now know why she was ‘free to a good home,’” laughs Suzanne. Star’s favorite pastime is licking everything and Jack is completely unsurprising as a Golden: he loves people and the attention of people. The pair balance each other out—Jack’s friendly to Star’s awkward, his loving to her neurotic, his goof to her quirk. It’s like a very furry PB&J.

 

Piazza

Mookie “The Puppy Boy” Piazza has the full-time job of keeping tabs on our rap-loving, wrestling aficionado Jeanne Piazza, our program manager. “I gotta little of this and a little of that,” says Mookie about his heritage. “I think I am part Lab and part Staffordshire Terrier, which is a fancy name for a pit bull … don’t judge, we’re very misunderstood.” Jeanne and her family rolled up to the free adoption weekend at the humane society, adopted Mookie, then promptly spent three hundred bucks buying this #luckydog one of everything. “The two things I enjoy most,” Mookie says, “are pretending I am a lap dog and jumping in the water … sometimes when I’m supposed to be just strolling along the river.” Mookie’s big secret is that he is a huge fan of show tunes—which surprises no one at The Straz.

 

Gecan

 

This is a big week for Maggie Gecan, who celebrates her two-year adoptiversary with our senior marketing manager of events Sarah Gecan. Sarah, who can now count herself among the proud survivors of a Lab/Catahoula puppyhood, adopted Mags from New Horizons dog rescue. “Maggie is cuddly, goofy and energetic,” says Sarah. Maggie’s two favorite things in the world are taking hikes and playing with her neighbor dog friends.

 

National Take Your Dog to Work Day is fun but also a good reason to check with your local animal shelter about what they have on their “wish list,” or ongoing greatest needs. This year, the Straz Center’s staff donated food, toys, towels, treats and bedding during a Wish List drive for the Humane Society of Tampa Bay. You can usually find a shelter’s wish list on their website.

From Suzuki to Itzhak

Ten-year-old music student Mateo Valdes’ violin journey at the Patel Conservatory.

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Photo: Rob/Harris Productions, Inc.

Patel Conservatory violin student Mateo Valdes has a very deep and wise gaze under a flop of shaggy, dark bangs. He doesn’t make eye contact much, but when he does, he seems to possess a kind of old-soul way of knowing that belies his slight 10 years of age.

His mother, Natacha, trained in the Suzuki method as a child and continues to practice and play violin today. When her son was old enough to sit for an orchestra performance, she took Mateo to an afternoon concert. Like many people, initial exposure to the arts as a small child awakened his talent.

“I saw the violin,” he says simply. “And I knew right away I wanted to learn to play.” Natacha looked for schools with Suzuki classes, found the Patel Conservatory and enrolled her son in 2013, when he was five years old. The Suzuki method involves a triangle of teaching and learning among the teacher, student and a parent or guardian. So, Natacha and Mateo began this violin journey with Dr. Catherine Michelsen, the string specialist at the Patel Conservatory.

“It was different from what I expected,” Mateo says of his first lessons five years ago. “I had to practice putting my feet in the proper position when I was little and just starting. Catherine had a cardboard thing I had to put my feet on, and we would practice my posture. Then I got into playing. Book 5 is where I am now.”

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Suzuki Violin Camp at the Patel Conservatory, 2017.

But Mateo’s “where I am now” extends beyond the next book in a serial technique. Though he continues to train and learn from his enormous support system at the Patel Conservatory and at home, Mateo’s relationship to music and to his instrument denote a young artist in the dawning of his craft. “He’s been a true joy to teach,” says Dr. Michelsen. “His innate musicality was apparent early on, both in his playing and in his interest in other aspects of music such as improvisation. His sense of dynamics and phrasing is very impressive.”

Mateo’s versatility was impressive enough to land him a spot as one of the youngest violinists in the Suncoast Super Strings, an arm of the Itzhak Perlman Music Program in Sarasota. After rehearsing with an orchestra comprised of students from around Florida, the Suncoast Super Strings performed with Itzhak Perlman himself conducting in December 2017.

“I was very excited,” says Mateo. “I liked performing with so many people. Now that I played in that orchestra, I sort of have an image in my head of where I want to go, where I see myself with the violin. I see myself playing in a big concert and making recordings. And a lot of improv stuff.”

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Mateo gets a shirt autographed by Itzhak Perlman.

Mateo, who studies and practices rigorously, spends much of his free time with the violin recording himself on his computer in improvisations of what he’s learned. “I love improvising,” he says. “I work on my pieces to get better, but I do want to record and do something with that later.”

“I play with Mateo, too,” says Natacha. “I’ve seen a huge development in his technique because of Catherine’s style of teaching but also because he gets boosts with the Patel Conservatory camps. He’s more comfortable, happier with his own playing. I am most pleased about his desire to improvise, though. That’s not me or anybody else. That’s just him.”

Here’s a clip of Mateo improvising:

 

“Playing violin is very fun once you get it,” Mateo says. “After the first six months, I really started to enjoy it. It’s been great for me.”

If you want to get involved with Patel Conservatory summer camps and classes, see what’s available and register now at patelconservatory.org.

 

Mateo’s Teacher Offers Pro Tips for Starting a Child’s Violin Lessons at the Patel Conservatory

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Dr. Catherine Michelsen

We always welcome parents and children to observe the Suzuki violin group classes and lessons! Parents can get a “pass to class” in admissions to observe our Monday afternoon group classes and private lessons throughout the week. Because the Suzuki program has a higher level of parent involvement, we want to make sure that parents and students have a thorough idea of what the program entails. There is no need for parents to have musical experience themselves. However, the triangle of student, parent and teacher is part of what makes it such a rewarding experience. We can also provide help in renting or purchasing an instrument.

The Julie Andrews Appreciation Blog

We love Julie Andrews. Naturally, she’s on our mind since The Sound of Music opens tonight, June 5, and runs through the weekend.

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No, Ms. Andrews doesn’t make an appearance in the new staging of this masterpiece, but for many of us, we can’t even see the words “the hills are alive” without picturing her sweeping, open-armed twirl atop a picturesque Austrian meadow.

It’s worth noting that some areas of the Alps can receive 78 inches of rainfall a year (for comparison, Tampa averages around 46 inches annually), so capturing a lithe young woman’s pastoral anthem with a stunning blue sky in the background was a bit of a challenge. Couple that obstacle with the fact that the shot, filmed on a camera strapped to a man who was strapped in the doorway of a giant helicopter, required several takes. With each re-set of the scene, the explosive downdraft of the helicopter’s rotor blades knocked Andrews off her feet, toppling her into the grass.

But you’d never know, right?, watching her sail through the sea of grass as Maria von Trapp, her austere postulant’s uniform transforming—for one wait-for-it kind of moment—into a delicate black bell as she swirled into the unforgettable opening words of the title song. Andrews’s voice, itself pitch-perfect and bell-like, rang out across the mountain tops as though Maria von Trapp, not the hills, were alive with the sound of music. It was the kind of iconic filmcraft that changed a Hollywood actor into a Hollywood star.

Julie Andrews as Maria von Trapp made an odd Hollywood siren: she was a somewhat androgynous ingenue (see: hair-do) with a wizened sense of selflessness, a waifish warrior comforting children in thunderstorms and during Nazi attempts at world domination. She was, in a phrase, easy to love.

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Yet we loved her already from her turn as another non-traditional Hollywood heroine: the magical nanny with a really cool umbrella and the perfect solution to nasty-tasting medicine. The governess role came naturally to Andrews as she’d nailed the part of Mary Poppins with an Oscar for Best Actress in 1964, the year prior to the release of the film version of The Sound of Music (1965). Both musical films became staples of annual television broadcasts in the late 70s and early 80s, so Mary Poppins and Maria von Trapp seared themselves into the pop-culture subconscious of the pre-Information Age generation. Julie Andrews, with her clear, mirthful blue eyes and handsome face with its dainty features, produced a commanding on-screen presence even before her four-octave, crystal-clear voice turned a Richard Rodgers’ tune into gold.

Here’s a fun bit of Broadway-Hollywood history: the other voice-related role Julie Andrews made famous was that of Eliza Doolittle during the Broadway run of My Fair Lady in 1956. In the 1964 Hollywood film, the studio offered the role of Eliza to Audrey Hepburn instead, saying Andrews lacked name recognition. This was, of course, prior to Andrews’ Oscar win with Mary Poppins and Oscar nomination for The Sound of Music. Hepburn, who had earned icon status already with her portrayal of Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, confessed to Andrews backstage at the 1965 Academy Awards that Julie should have had the movie role of Eliza. Soon after, Hepburn and Andrews became friends. In 1969, Andrews married Blake Edwards, director of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Edwards later directed Andrews in Victor/Victoria (1982), which garnered Andrews a nomination for the Oscar for Best Actress and a Golden Globe Best Actress win.

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Audrey Hepburn and Julie Andrews at the 37th Academy Awards in 1965.

All of that being said, let’s shine a light on Andrews’ most important work (at least for the generation of children watching Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music on TV): The Muppet Show. Jim Henson’s ground-breaking prime time “show about a show” mixed A-list artists of the day in skits with his cast of wacky puppets—Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, Gonzo, Rowlf, Fozzie Bear and countless others. Not many people remember that The Muppet Show owes its success, in part, to an appearance on The Julie Andrews Hour in 1973. The Muppets joined Julie for several song-and-dance skits, including Rowlf’s duet, “Do You Love Me, Julie?” and the hilarious “Flower-Eating Monster” sketch.

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The Muppets landed their own show in 1976 thanks to the influence of British producer Lew Grade, who produced The Julie Andrews Hour. Andrews and the Muppets were a match made in heaven: full of magic, humor, a love for the ridiculous matched by a love of show business and an easy on-screen rapport. Julie and the Muppets worked together several times, creating some excellent comedic spoofs like the “Big Spender” sketch with Cookie Monster and the “Lonely Goatherd” reprise from The Sound of Music featuring a yodeling goat and Miss Piggy. So true was her connection to Kermit that Julie composed the dare-you-not-to-cry love song especially for him, “When You Were a Tadpole and I Was a Fish,” which aired during season two of The Muppet Show.

Here’s a clip of Julie singing the song to Kermit in season two of The Muppet Show.

In 2015, the Hollywood establishment spent the year recognizing the 50th anniversary of the film version of The Sound of Music. Vanity Fair published a darling interview with Andrews and “Captain von Trapp” Christopher Plummer with the requisite high-fashion-art photo by Annie Leibovitz. Lady Gaga paid tribute to Andrews with a special medley of The Sound of Music’s most memorable songs at the Academy Awards that year, training herself to sing in the exact key and pitch performed by Andrews in the original film. Jimmy Fallon and Stephen Colbert (who let Andrews stuff his mouth with grapes as part of an elocution acting exercise) hosted Andrews on their shows, neither one hiding his enchantment with her.

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To this day, at 82 years old, Andrew still casts her spell of elegant charm and exquisite comic timing.

If you love Julie Andrews as much as we do and you have 33 million dollars to spare, you can purchase her old house in London’s Chester Square. The palatial townhome, which she shared with husband Blake Edwards during the early years of their marriage, went on the market this spring. The place was also home to Andrew Lloyd Webber, Mick Jagger and Margaret Thatcher at various times although after a complete remodel, we’re assuming the renovation can’t be quite as supercalifragilistic as it was in 1972. 

Or, for a lot less money, you can just come see The Sound of Music at The Straz this weekend and appreciate the timelessness of this musical masterpiece. Get your tickets here.

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Ashe! Ashe!

The Florida African Dance Festival in Tallahassee Celebrates 21 Years June 7-9

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Photo taken during a class at the 2017 Florida African Dance Festival.

“Ashe,” pronounced ah-SHAY, similar to “sashay,” and also spelled “ase,” is the Yoruba word for a West African spiritual concept of the life-force energy. Everything has ashe. Everything has the power to transmit and communicate ashe—and two very powerful forms of working with ashe are drumming and dance.

Thus, the Florida African Dance Festival, held in Tallahassee every June and hosted by African Caribbean Dance Theatre, positively rattles the walls with ashe as drummers and dancers from around the world gather to learn and teach traditional African rhythms, dances and cultural heritage. The festival runs next weekend, June 7-9, at Florida A&M University Developmental Research School.

You can find out everything you want to know about taking drum and dance classes, being a vendor, attending the Saturday night performance or contacting FADF on their website, fadf.org.

congolese drummers

Last year we attended FADF and saw this finale performance of Congolese dance-drummers. Suffice it to say they alone are worth a round trip to Tallahassee.

In 2017, we packed our bags and trekked to Tally for the three-day event, overestimating our endurance and registering for three hours of class on Friday and Saturday. We had five options for classes that Friday and chose Makaya Kayos’s morning Congolese class first. Makaya is the middle drummer in the photo above with the red band under his knee. He’s probably 5’7” and appears to be able to jump that high as well before tucking into a front somersault. After the first half hour, when all of us students were pouring sweat, thighs hammering from non-stop deep squats up and down a basketball court in a college gym, Makaya and the drummers gave us a much-needed rest and boost of hype with a mini-performance that concluded with the aforementioned jump-into-forward-roll move. The students erupted into hollers and applause, buoyed by the energy (Makaya has a LOT of ashe), and we finished the rest of the class in exuberant spirits and spurting sweat.

Following Congolese class, we took Ismael Kouyate’s Guinean class. Ismael returns this year to teach his Guinean class Friday morning and Saturday afternoon, and we can tell you first-hand that his class, like Makaya’s, is outstanding. If you go this year, make sure you take it.

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Marie Basse Wiles and Senegalese percussionists perform at the 2017 FADF Concert.

On Saturday morning, we lined up for Marie Basse Wiles’s Senegalese/Sabar class, and we’re not ashamed to report that we were in way over our heads. About ten minutes into class—so, right after the warm-up—we chose to make the class a “growth opportunity.” Grow we did by artful application of humility—and a few Band-aids to our “beginner’s feet.” Marie brought an intricate Senegalese wedding dance for the festival, and we happened to be in class with several professional African dancers who were simply stunning. For us, even when the dances are more advanced than our training, just being on the floor with the drummers and witnessing the elegance and athleticism of the advanced dancers makes us appreciate the legacy and technique of African dance.

We have to mention that among these dancers were a few members of Tampa’s Kuumba Dancers and Drummers including USF’s Dr. Kya Connor, who performed in the Saturday night concert, and founders Natalie and Myron Jackson. Kumbaa Dancers and Drummers usually represent the Tampa Bay area at the festival, and we are super lucky to have them in town keeping the traditional African dances and rhythms alive. They also hold an open community African dance class every Tuesday night. If you’re interested, check their website for information on the when/where/fees.

Alicia Alonso: La Reina de Todo

Ella es la reina del baile. La reina de musica. La reina … de todo.

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Alicia Alonso, artistic director of Ballet Nacional de Cuba is such a superstar we gave her the Warhol treatment.

Ask Cubans “who is Alicia Alonso?“ and you will hear this short, comprehensive explanation: she is the queen of dance. The queen of music. The queen … of everything.

Alonso, born in Havana in 1920, possessed a gift for dance so profound, so prodigious that she and anyone who watched her early training knew she was a born legend. She became an instant star of American Ballet Theatre in the 1940s with searing portrayals of Giselle and Carmen that are still unequaled. She returned to Cuba in the ‘40s to establish professional classical ballet, and she did – creating one of the most rigorous, largest ballet schools in the world.

There is dance; then there is The Dance. Alicia Alonso is The Dance. They are synonyms. The words might as well be Spanish-to-English translations.

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Like everything else, dance and audience expectations of dance morphed with the digital age, ushering in a new era of commercial dance guided by the “wow” factor of competition dance broadcast on television reality shows and through social media. Often, today’s young dancers and companies possess hyper-flexibility, video-game standards of leaps and tricks and operatic emoting that, while exciting, suits a needs-to-go-viral aesthetic that misses the mark with The Dance.

Insulated and isolated from America after President Kennedy’s 1962 trade embargo, Alonso and Cuba worked, lived, loved and danced unaffected by the technological revolution. She taught and choreographed in the enduring timelessness of one anointed by the dance gods to transmit the heavenly conversation between dancers and their audiences. As Martha Graham noted, “dance is the language of the soul.”

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So it is with Ballet Nacional de Cuba. When they dance, it is a conversation of souls unlike any other ballet company. Alonso, la reina de todo, taught them that.

Alonso’s signature ballet, Giselle, arrives at the Straz Center on May 23 as part of an exclusive, limited American tour. The last time the company appeared at The Straz was in October 2003, so it’s been a long absence. The stop here this month, orchestrated in part by arts benefactor, Straz Center namesake and Liberian ambassador-at-large David A. Straz, Jr., took three years of negotiations and diplomacy. Straz, known for his enthusiastic embrace of the historic Tampa-Cuba connections and love of the island’s culture, visited Cuba the first time in 2001, eventually working on behalf of the Tampa Bay area’s Alliance for Responsible Cuba Policy Foundation.

 

As an informal cultural attaché for Tampa, Straz hosted a dinner party in Cuba between the Straz Center Board of Directors and President/CEO Judy Lisi and Cuba’s then-deputy minister of culture, Rosa Teresa Rodriguez, and the government representative for Alonso’s Ballet Nacional de Cuba. Because Cuba has such deep artistic roots in West Tampa, Ybor City and parts of Tampa proper, offering the country’s premier dance company a home on the Morsani stage seemed logical and necessary.

“It’s really important to Tampa to have them here because of the number of Cuban people who live here,” Straz says. “The places are so close to each other; we should have good relations. Their ballet is some of the finest in the world,” he continues. “Everyone should take the opportunity to see them; this is a big deal for Tampa, and who knows when the opportunity will come back. I hope Alicia will be able to come.”

Alonso, now in her mid-90s and almost completely blind after losing most of her eyesight early in her career, made an express trip to the ballet to sit with Straz during his visit to Cuba last October. In the state box at Gran Teatro de La Habana for an evening performance by Ballet Nacional de Cuba, Straz experienced the “Alicia effect” when she arrived, bedecked in her signature red head wrap with matching ruby red lipstick. Because of her health, Alonso had not been able to attend any other performances of the season.

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Catherine and David Straz (left) with Alicia Alonso and Ballet Nacional de Cuba staffers at The Gran Teatro de La Habana.

“I was with Alicia for the final performance of their season. She came that night and sat with me,” he says. “When she arrived, the place exploded in applause, everyone was on their feet. Everyone in the country knows her. At the end of the performance, she stood up in the box and leaned into the railing with her arms outstretched – it was such a balletic gesture and even at her age, so marvelous. There she is, in all red, arms outstretched, to thunderous applause and a standing ovation.”

Alonso and Straz spent time after the show conversing at length in her dressing room with the help of translators. “My Spanish is poquito,” he laughs. “That’s the extent of it. But she is so important. I invited her to Tampa. She said, ‘it’s possible.’ So, we’ll see.” Although a visit by the prima ballerina assoluta, the highest and rarest rank for a ballerina, is unlikely, we would love to host the grand dame of dance in the vivid red backdrop of Morsani Hall, befitting her majestic and magical legend.

GISELLE (cuerpo de baile) 002 Foto Carlos Quezada

Ballet Nacional de Cuba performing Giselle. (Photo: Carlos Quezada)

Ballet Nacional de Cuba performs their hallmark ballet Giselle on May 23 at 8pm in Morsani Hall. Get tickets here.

A Real American Story: Tampa’s Fortune and a Tale of Straz Land

historical marker

PROLOGUE:

JOSE PERFINO
EL INDIO
A CUBAN PIRATE
KILLED 1850

MR. HUBBARD
A CUBAN PIRATE
FOUND DEAD IN WOODS
JUNE 18, 1850

Just beyond these square chunks of gray granite nestled amid the carpet of dead leaves in Oaklawn Cemetery lurks the city bus station. People get on and off the buses. The buses heave, sigh, trundle into traffic. Beyond the bus station, cars streak across I-275 shuttling between St. Pete and Orlando, yet only several yards away from Mr. Hubbard and El Indio, a gleaming alabaster mausoleum looms. It’s the final resting place of an important man; that’s plain to see. This smooth rock shrine houses the remains of Vincente Martinez Ybor, patron of Ybor City, cigar boss and wealthy entrepreneur whom local history remembers as a man who charted the course for one of the most promising money-making multi-cultural cigar cities of the United States.

Between the pirates and the man who invented Ybor City rests yet another humble granite marker, about the size of a medium Amazon delivery box, of another Tampa entrepreneur who cultivated fruits from her large parcel of land next to the Hillsborough River, made pies and sold them to any one of the 6,000 people who called Tampa home back in her day.

This marker says

TAYLOR
FORTUNE
1825-1906

She shares the space on the granite’s face with her husband Benjamin; yet, if you dig, you won’t find their remains. Not under that marker, anyway. Their bodies are somewhere else in Oaklawn, cast into that nebulous, undocumented section of history called The Slave Section.

Even though neither one was a slave.

Not when they died, anyway. Which brings us to the start of our story. But you will have to stop and sit awhile, if you want to know what we just found out about Fortune Taylor and what she has to do with The Straz.

grave 1_edit

 

In the mid-1800s, there was a white couple named Howell using slave labor in South Carolina. Two of those enslaved people were a man and a woman. They loved each other.

Their names were Benjamin and Fortune.

The Howells moved to Hernando County to set up an orange grove, bringing Benjamin and Fortune with them. The end of slavery arrived in 1865. So, by 1866, Benjamin and Fortune had left the Howells in their rearview mirror and staked out a new life for themselves in a desolate, cattle-rustling, drunk and disorderly town called Tampa. For the Taylors, it was freedom. They went to the courthouse and married as free people.

fortune taylor marriage license

Fortune and Benjamin’s marriage license in the bottom right corner, deciphered below:

To the Clerk of the Circuit Court for the County of Hillsborough and the State of Florida. Whereas Benjamin Taylor, a Freedman and Fortune Taylor a freed woman have applied as one to join them in Marriage, And whereas they have lived harmoniously together as man and wife for several years. I have this day joined the above named Benjamin Taylor and Fortune Taylor in the bonds of holy Matrimony, according to the Act of the Legislation of the State of Florida passed as it’s late Session.

(signed) F Branch
Local Elder of the M. E. Church [South]
Tampa Fla
5th May 1866

They knew the land. They knew work. They knew how to use both to grow things that made life and money. On January 20, 1869, Benjamin filed a claim to homestead 33 acres next to the Hillsborough River. Benjamin and Fortune took to their land to make life grow: peaches, guavas, oranges. The ownership of self. Of land. Of labor.

The future looked like acres of sweet, delicious fruit. They survived the yellow fever epidemic of 1867 and the ensuing epidemic of Reconstruction Republicans who came shortly thereafter to enforce the post-Civil War policies of the federal government. But what is a Reconstructionist to a human being who survived enslavement to become a successful citrus farmer? Not much.

Then, Benjamin died. Late in 1869, less than three years after their wedding day, Fortune Taylor found herself widowed, newly free and now head of almost three dozen acres of land as an African American woman almost as far South as you could go.

But Fortune was fortune. She was an entrepreneur, too, beloved by her community, and anointed with a high title. Maybe she wasn’t a patron, or a tabaquero, or a mayor or city councilman—all of those titles were denied her because of her gender and skin color—but in her life, in her circumstances, in her neighborhood, they called her Madame. She earned that respect for building something meaningful and dignified in Tampa during a time when the town itself was struggling to be something more than a chaotic river outpost.

So, the woman with the baked goods, the woman with the land, was known around Tampa as Madame Fortune Taylor, by white and black alike. Remembered as a “short, stout woman,”* Madame Fortune Taylor donated some of her property to start St. Paul’s, the second oldest church in Tampa today. Another section she sold to Mayor Edward Clarke so he could develop a subdivision in 1878.

The road leading from downtown Tampa to her homestead? That became Fortune Street—the same one that exists in downtown Tampa today. Take Fortune Street to Doyle Carlton to the door of the Patel Conservatory and you’ll be on Madame Fortune Taylor’s old orange groves. We’d like to imagine she’d be happy with the legacy of her land becoming a place for arts education for kids, as she was known as someone who loved and was loved by children.

street sign

Take Fortune Street all the way to the end in the other direction and guess where you’ll be?

At the bus station that lurks right next to Oaklawn Cemetery. Somewhere, in there, she and Benjamin watch us now, pulling their names from the shadows of history into the light of our present day. They were not pirates; they were not slaves. They were builders and survivors, creators and lovers, free people with an important story to tell.

 

 

EPILOGUE:

Ersula & Gloria

Ersula K. Odom and Gloria Jean Royster, active members of the Friends of Madame Fortune Taylor society.

So, we wish we could tell you that we came into this amazing story on our own through our own coolness and research into Straz land history, but we did not.

We’re riding the coattails of people like historians Fred Hearns and Canter Brown, men who have dug, fought for and unearthed exquisite stories from African-American history, Tampa’s in particular, and who have been writing and speaking about Madame Fortune Taylor for years. We also relied heavily on Lucy Jones’s 2007 article on the history of the Fortune Street Bridge in Cigar City Magazine, and tampapix.com’s history of the bridge as well.

But, none of this would have happened if it hadn’t been for two important women working with Tampa’s history now:

We came to know Madame Fortune Taylor through two incredibly cool ladies, writers, researchers, and performing artists themselves, Gloria Jean Royster and Ersula K. Odom, who are active members of the Friends of Madame Fortune Taylor society. They contacted our executive administrative assistant extraordinaire, Patricia Griggs, to ask if The Straz would be interested in sponsoring the banner for the Fortune Taylor Bridge dedication ceremony on May 20, 2018—since we now sit on part of Madame Fortune’s estate.

Patricia 1_edit

Executive Administrative Assistant Patricia Griggs’ office overlooks the Fortune Taylor Bridge and most of the Taylor homestead. Today, we know the Taylors’ land as the area roughly from I-275 at the river to the Patel Conservatory.

We loved Gloria Jean and Ersula so much we brought them into our offices for an exclusive interview about the Fortune Taylor Bridge, their research into Madame Fortune Taylor and the kind of connection historical information awakens in people living today.

You can hear the highlights of that interview on Act2, our official Straz Center podcast, going live on our Soundcloud station May 10. Subscribe by finding Act2 on the iTunes Store, the Podcasts app for iOS, or on the Google Play Music app for Android by searching “Straz Center.”

The dedication of Fortune Taylor Bridge takes place Sunday, May 20 at 10 a.m. on the east bank of the Hillsborough River. You can keep tabs on this tale by following Fortune’s Friends on Facebook.

Madame Fortune Banner Art

We also wish we could tell you we know all of Madame Fortune Taylor’s story, but we do not know that, either. Some years have been lost, and some land transactions can’t be proven without records.

However, thanks to many devoted researchers working with spotty, racially discriminatory records that excluded so many valuable members of society, a skein of Madame Fortune Taylor’s story exists today. The Straz knows more about itself because of their efforts.

We would also like to thank David Parsons and Todd Ciardiello, librarians at the John F. Germany Library next door, who helped us tremendously in tracking down photographs and information from the Florida history archives. We used photos from the Florida Memory Project and the Burgert Brothers Collection from the Germany Library’s digital archives.

If you have any information on what happened to Madame Fortune Taylor from 1878-1885, please contact us. We are also looking for photos and for any transactional records about her selling her land after 1885.

*this quote is from Canter Brown’s oral history interview of Dr. Robert W. Saunders, Jr.