Time Steps: My Musical Comedy Life

Time Steps: My Musical Comedy Life


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Time Steps: My Musical Comedy Life by Donna McKechnie, Greg Lawrence

A poignant and revealing memoir from a legendary entertainer.

Donna McKechnie began her love affair with dance as a child in Detroit. At fifteen, she ran away from home to join a touring dance troupe, and in 1961, she was cast in the Broadway smash hit How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. She soon won acclaim as Michael Bennett's show-stopping muse in Promises, Promises and Company. In 1975, with her Tony-winning performance in Michael Bennett's masterpiece, A Chorus Line, McKechnie vaulted to stardom as a unique Broadway "triple threat" who could do it all -- dance, sing, and act.

Moving among the circles of artists, dancers, and musicians who inspired and challenged her in myriad ways, McKechnie writes about the trajectory of her career as it intertwined with and influenced her personal life and the lives of those around her. Recounting her dazzling career, McKechnie also reveals the dark side of fame: from her parents' troubled relationship to a searing account of her own marriage to Michael Bennett and her inspiring triumphs over depression and the rheumatoid arthritis that nearly ended her career. With affectionate reminiscences of Bob Fosse, Gwen Verdon, Stephen Sondheim, Fred Astaire, and many other well-known friends, McKechnie exhibits all the warmth, sensitivity, and verve that have endeared her to legions of fans over the years.

Filled with behind-the-scenes stories and anecdotes, Time Steps is a candid, funny, and deeply personal memoir by a vivacious woman with an indomitable spirit and an illustrious, ongoing career.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781439191910
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: 11/23/2009
Pages: 308
Sales rank: 314,811
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Donna McKechnie is the legendary actress best known for her Tony Award-winning performance in A Chorus Line. She made her Broadway debut in 1961 with How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Her other Broadway shows include Promises, Promises; Company; Sondheim: A Musical Tribute (which she also choreographed); On the Town; Sweet Charity (national tour); and State Fair, for which she won a Fred Astaire Award in 1996. Reviewing her recent one-woman show, My Musical Comedy Life, Ben Brantley wrote in the New York Times: "She remains the essence of the heroic drive that A Chorus Line celebrates." She lives in New York.

Greg Lawrence is the author and coauthor of five books, including Dance with Demons: The Life of Jerome Robbins; the bestselling autobiography of Gelsey Kirkland, Dancing on My Grave; Colored Lights; and The Shape of Love.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

A Make-Believe Childhood

"The nominees for best actress in a musical are..."

I am sitting in the orchestra section of the Shubert Theatre, on theaisle, seven rows from the front of the stage, next to Michael Bennett,the director of A Chorus Line and my dear friend. I hear the words spokenfrom a podium onstage, and the speaker is Richard Burton. I makea concerted effort to keep breathing and stay in the real world, as I watch the dreamlike scene unfolding before me.

But it's not a dream. Richard Burton is real. The Antoinette Perry Awards are real. And so are the CBS television cameras. It is the spring of 1976, and the awards are being televised live. I hear a voice cut through the charged atmosphere inside the theater. "And the award goes to..."

Did he say my name? Yes, he said my name. "Donna McKechnie." And after my name, time stops. I should get up. I turn to Michael, who grabs my hand and kisses my cheek. I hear the applause accompany my quick, measured steps up the aisle to the stage. Don't rush, I tell myself. Don't fall. Keep breathing. Despite my efforts, I am no longer in the real world. I feel like I am on a high wire, performing a great balancing act, as I climb the stairs one at a time, meeting the gaze of the most beautiful blue eyes I have ever seen. As Richard Burton presents me with the award, I am still ungrounded, yet manage to be composed as I take the award and turn to the microphone, searching for the first words of my not very well prepared acceptance speech.

Before I begin to speak, my mind is racing with directives from an inner voice that I recognize as my own.Be here. Be here now. Whatever you do, look out there and take all this in. It is a special moment in your life and it may never happen again.

I look out into the theater and see so many people I know. I see Michael, beaming. How marvelous to be able to say in front of millions of people, "Thank you, Michael." I look into the wings on the other side of the stage, and I see the glitter of the Chorus Line finale costumes, and the smiling faces of the other cast members. I say how happy I am and proud to share this honor with the rest of the company, acknowledging the personal and collaborative experience that brought us all successfully here tonight. I think of my mother, who is out there in the audience somewhere, and even though I can't see her, I can imagine her happiness. And I think of my father, who died only a few months before this night. I dare not mention his name with the others I thank. I am determined not to allow those feelings to surface, afraid that I may not be able to continue unless I keep them locked inside.

I finish my thank-you speech, and during the applause, I turn and follow Mr. Burton off the stage. When we reach the shadows of the wings, he turns to me and says, "You deserve it."

All this, and a personal moment too!

I was doing so well, but now have to remind myself again that I'm not dreaming. Remember this moment, dictates my inner voice.

Don't worry, I say to myself, I will.

A Chorus Line won nine Tony Awards that night. It was the show of my dreams as well as my dream come true. Or so it seemed at the time. The chorus dancers portrayed in the musical were drawn from some of the personal stories of those of us in the cast. The script was based on our own struggles and dreams, and the stories we told would become the inspiration for the songs. Some of my childhood memories were given to Maggie and to several other characters, while the role that I performed, Cassie, took on aspects of my life in later years. Maggie's lines reveal part of my childhood drama when she says, referring to her parents, "I was born to save their marriage, and when my father came to pick my mother up at the hospital, he said, 'Well, I thought this was going to help. But I guess it's not.'"

My mother told me that story when I was a teenager, I imagine, as a way to share with me how difficult it was for both of them to adjust to certain realities in their young marriage. She then told me, "I said to myself, if my husband won't love me, I have this baby to love, and she will love me."

It was a sad thing to hear, though it made it easier for me to justify those born-to-help feelings that took hold in early childhood. Yet I know my parents had been deeply in love when they first married, because when I was a teenager I found letters my father wrote to my mother during World War II when he served overseas. Army censors had blacked out some of the words that might have given away location and activity, but what survived were beautiful expressions of his love and longing. He wrote how much he missed my mother and his baby, Donna, and how he couldn't wait to be with us. And he went on about all the wonderful things he was going to do for us when he came home. It is such a poignant letter to read now, because it makes me realize how rarely I saw that loving and affectionate part of my father in later years.

I was born in Pontiac, Michigan, on November 16, 1942. My parents were practically still kids when they met and fell in love and married a few months later. When I first heard the story of how they met on a blind date, I remember thinking how romantic it must have been when passion and the pressures of wartime led them to marry. Had it not been for the war, they might have waited rather than rushing into it the way they did. I always preferred to think it was love at first sight. My mother, Carolyn Ruth Johnson, was nineteen. She left Cass Tech in Detroit, where she was studying commercial art, and soon became a war bride when my father, Donald Bruce McKechnie, was drafted into the army and went off to fight in Europe. As a soldier, he would later distinguish himself taking part in the Normandy invasion and the Battle of the Bulge.

While my father was away, my mother and I lived with her parents, Dillard and Gladys Cowling Johnson, who had a home in Huntington Woods, Michigan. My beloved grandmother was my early salvation. When my inexperienced mother was afraid to lift her wailing baby from the crib, my grandmother was the one who picked me up and bathed me. She and my grandfather were from Albion, Illinois, an early English farming settlement that went back to the seventeenth century. Their background was a mix of English and Irish. My mother was their first child, and then a few years later, her brother Francis came along. The Johnsons moved to Detroit to raise their family. I was their first grandchild, and they both doted on me.

My grandfather was a big, kindhearted man, a former schoolteacher who had gone into the insurance business. He took great pleasure in teaching me numbers and the letters of the alphabet, and I swear to God the first word I learned to spell was "show." That was just after my grandmother took me to Detroit's Fisher Theatre to see my first "movie show," The Snake Pit, starring Olivia de Havilland. In retrospect an odd choice for a four-year-old child. Well, it terrified me. I sat curled up in my seat, with my hands in front of my face, peering through my fingers only when my grandmother said it was safe for me to watch. I sensed her embarrassment after we got home when she said, "I had no idea it was going to be like that!" But I guess she felt that since she paid for the tickets, we had to sit through it, no matter what.

My grandmother wasn't overly religious, but she was preoccupied at times with behaving in a proper way. For example, she had very definite ideas about hanging the wash out to dry. She would instruct me to make sure that all the underclothes were hung on the rack in the basement, because she believed it was highly improper for underwear to be seen in public. She was raised to be a lady by a very strict mother, even if she did have a few rebellious episodes in her life, like marrying my grandfather partly to get out of the house.

I have a photograph of her that she gave me many years later. It pictured her in her teens, sitting on the fence on the family farm, dressed as a man. It seems that there was a social club in town that didn't allow women, so she "borrowed" her brother's clothes and snuck in and fooled everyone. I loved her for that. That took a lot of spunk in those days, before Marlene Dietrich wore pants.

My grandfather, Dillard, had a very loving nature. He encouraged me when I was very young to recite poems and nursery rhymes for him, and I remember how happily surprised I was when he gave me a dollar bill for one of my performances. I hardly knew what it meant, but his gesture made a lasting impression. These earliest years while my father was away were idyllic and carefree. I didn't see much of my mother, since she was working as a telephone operator during the day to help make ends meet, but I felt safe and comfortable in the home my grandparents provided for us.

I loved my grandparents' quaint brick house with its faux Tudor leaded-glass windows, and morning glory vines climbing up the trellis. The house was surrounded by acres of fields, and in my memory, my grandmother's flowers were constantly in bloom, and her garden in back was always filled with rows and rows of vegetables and berries. There were few homes near us and few children my age for me to play with, so I created a Lilliputian world in the garden bed, making tiny pebble houses for the ants. And I invented a large "family" of imaginary friends. I remember one time I was sitting in the back seat of our car, chattering away, with my grandmother driving and my mother beside her. They heard me, and my grandmother said, "Donna, who are you talking to?" I told her, "My brothers and sisters up in heaven. I have about a hundred of them up there."

In recollecting that time when I lived with my grandparents, I see a little girl holding a picture. My father was gone almost three years, and practically every night while he was away, before I went to sleep, my mother had me kiss his photograph. Sometimes she would read me his letters full of loving promises. Then one morning a telegram arrived and my mother learned that he was coming home that day. I can still remember her excitement when she brought me in from the rain-soaked garden where I had been making mud pies. She bathed me and got me all dressed up to take with her in the car to the train station to meet him. "We're going to see Daddy!" she kept telling me. I was a wisp of a girl in my new white pinafore and little white shoes and socks.

When my father finally appeared at the station, he was wearing his uniform just like in the photograph, but I didn't recognize him. As he embraced my mother, the sudden passion of their reunion frightened me. Who was this stranger? I became hysterical and tried to push him away from her. After we came home, it took me quite a while to warm up to him. I had been living with an eight-by-ten photograph, not this stranger who had moved into our life. I was also possessive of my mother's attention, and now I had to share her with someone I didn't know.

What made the situation even more difficult for us was that he came back from the war suffering from shell shock. He would have flashbacks and terrible nightmares, and when he was awake, he was quiet and distant. My mother later told me that it was months before he seemed to come back to normal. He never talked about the war. I would learn later that my father was by nature a gentle man, much loved by his friends and the people who worked with him. But those early feelings of estrangement stayed with me, even as I tried during my young years to be the picture-perfect daughter to please him.

My father eventually found work as a tool-and-die maker, and my parents moved out of my grandparents' house to begin their life together on their own. I imagine it must have been a trying time for them, getting to know each other after such a long separation, and now saddled with the demands of raising a child, and with my father's job hardly paying enough to support his family. There were times when Gladys and Dillard helped out financially, which created tension between my parents, as my father was a proud man and not one to accept help easily from anyone. But still, I was my father's daughter, and eventually, as daughters will do, I put him on a pedestal.

My father's father, James McKechnie, had a Scottish background and was born in Toronto, Canada. That was where he met his future bride, Edith Poole, whose family had come from Bath, England. They had eleven children, but only eight lived to adulthood: Robert, Dorothy,Margaret, Donald, Gordon, Merwin, Betty, and William. They settled in Detroit after they started raising a family, and James worked in the car industry. They went to a Presbyterian church, but religion never ruled James McKechnie. He was the true patriarch of the family, and they were all very close and devoted to him. Edith was a loving mother and was worshipped by her family. I grew up hearing stories about their devilish shenanigans and all the fun they had growing up. This was a clan in the true sense of the word.

But the grandfather I knew in my early years was a repressive figure, not so much because of his religious beliefs, but because of his narrowminded ideas, like anyone who is different is unacceptable. This view also extended to the women who married into the family. When my father's older brother Robert married, his wife, Allene, was able to cope for several years, then finally gave him an ultimatum: "It's either me or your father!" They soon moved to the other side of the country, settling in California.

My father and his seven siblings were all expected to be on call for "the old man," as he was affectionately nicknamed, for whatever he or his family might need. The sons were all expected to work in their father's company, C&M Manufacturing, which supplied parts to the auto industry. James expected complete devotion from his sons, even if they were grown men with families and obligations of their own. Many times my father essentially held down two jobs, with no pay for the extra hours that he put in at his father's shop. And all the while he had to put up with his father's criticisms of the way he and my mother were living their lives. You name it, and "the old man" had a better way of doing it. He was especially critical of my mother when I started my ballet classes. He called them, "a waste of time and money."

It was important to my mother's mother, Gladys, that I would be confirmed in their church, so she saw to it that I went to Lutheran catechism. I didn't like being reprimanded by the pastor for asking too many questions. He expected us to memorize the given questions and the given answers. But I was confirmed anyway, and at least I made my grandmother happy. Gladys wanted to influence my education and upbringing so that I would succeed and marry well. She had little trust in her daughter's ability. I painfully observed the difficulty she had trying to hide this opinion from my mother. And this was troubling for my mother, who found it increasingly difficult to cope as her father-in-law insinuated himself into our lives, demanding more and more of my father's attention. It was a no-win situation for her.

Yet there was love in my family; it just wasn't openly expressed. I recall seeing little in the way of physical affection between my parents, and when I was older, I yearned for the kind of warmth I saw in other families. I never felt unloved, but I was raised in silence, which felt like neglect at times. My parents' way of coping was not to discuss unpleasant things. "Don't say anything if you can't say anything nice" was a mantra handed down from my grandmother Edith. That was how it was for us in the 1940s and 1950s before the word "dysfunctional" had been invented. When we were unhappy, and we didn't know why, we didn't talk about it. There were fights with harsh criticism and accusations, but rarely was an effort made for clarity and mutual understanding. There were so many things that we didn't know how to talk about, and it always felt to me like there was a lot of tension in the air.

We moved around the Detroit suburbs several times, eventually settling into a small house on Royal in Berkley. It seemed that my poor parents were struggling all the time just to survive. By that time, I shared a bedroom with my sister, Barbara Ann, who came along five years after me. She was followed six years later by my brother, Ronald Scott. I had mixed feelings when my sister was born, and wasn't sure if I wanted her to live with us. How could there be enough love to go around? I remember the day my mother brought her home from the hospital, and I looked into the carriage to see what all the fuss was about. Barbara Ann was an adorable baby; "cute as a button" became her nickname. As a toddler, she looked up to me as her older sister and followed me around -- too much, I thought.

But my sister did provide a ready audience for me. I'm ashamed to recall how much I liked the feeling of power she gave me. I remember one time taking her behind my parents' bedroom door and giving her a haircut. I left her bangs uneven in front, like one of those spiky hairdos, but years ahead of its time. I kept after her with the scissors and tried my best to make her look better, or at least more even, but I just made it shorter, and worse. My mother was furious with me. A slightly exaggerated version of that story was given to the character of Judy in A Chorus Line when she says, "I shaved my sister's head."

The age difference and shared bedroom made for sisterly quarrels and mischief. One time when we were visiting Gladys and Dillard, on their farm in Albion, I put my ear to the tracks at a railroad crossing near their home. I told my sister, "If you put your ear on the track, you can hear the train coming." She trusted me enough to do it, and then became frightened and pulled away when she thought she heard the train. She warned me to get off the tracks. I said, "No, I'm going to wait right here until it comes." She cried and cried and begged me to leave the tracks. We each had been given a quarter that day, and she gave me hers so that I would take her back to our grandparents' house. Then my sister tearfully told my father how I had scared her, and without raising his voice, he made me give her back the quarter.

As I try to balance the good and bad memories of my family life, I do take pleasure remembering the joyous times that my parents created for us children, especially when we celebrated Christmas. Our Christmases were always modest, but we were all together, and it seemed the giftgiving ceremony enabled us all to express our love for each other more easily. Even after I no longer believed in Santa Claus, I loved helping my mother with the little ritual of placing cookies and milk on the banister for him. Of course, they would be gone on Christmas morning, and I loved that too.

I remember fondly McKechnie and Johnson family reunions with our many young cousins. These were eagerly awaited annual events. Even then, I knew I was lucky to have so many cousins, and I treasure the relationships I still have with them. In fairness to my father, even though his work kept him away from home much of the time, he did make special efforts on our behalf. There is no question of his affection for his children and the pride he took at times in raising us. He built a swing set for us in our side yard, and one day he brought a horse and sleigh home for a winter ride. Later, he surprised me by giving me a necklace with a mustard seed inside a clear plastic heart. It was especially meaningful because he did it privately. I was so touched by his gesture that I didn't know how to thank him and promptly lost the gift.

But it was the gift of his love that I later felt I was losing, especially as I grew older and I began to get more involved with my dancing. The issue would invariably come down to money, and that clearly reflected my grandfather's influence. My mother took time out of our family life to escort me to classes or to make my first costumes, and I sensed my father resented that. In my childish way, I started to believe that he resented me. I didn't understand why he wasn't happy for me the way my mother was. The pride she took in my achievements seemed only to make matters worse. At times, the atmosphere was terribly stifling, and it affected all of us, but especially my mother. I sensed her sadness, and sometimes it propelled me into improvised skits imitating silent film stars, like Pearl White in The Perils of Pauline or Charlie Chaplin doing pratfalls. I loved to make her laugh.

With my mother usually distracted by her sadness and daydreams, and my father working such long hours, I found a sanctuary in my imagination. As Maggie puts it in A Chorus Line, repeating my own words, "I did have a fantastic fantasy life. I used to dance around the living room with my arms up like this. My fantasy was that I was an Indian chief. And he'd say to me, 'Maggie, do you wanna dance?' And I'd say, 'Daddy, I would love to dance.'"

I couldn't have been more than four or five years old then, and I would dance to the music I heard on the radio. It was like being pulled into another world, and my mother would see me with my arms reaching up high over my head. Not realizing there was a bare-chested Indian chief wearing an enormous headdress holding me while I danced, she assumed I was trying to be a ballerina. I was a rather anemic and spindly child at this time, having been hospitalized for a time with cellulitis. After my recovery, my mother's concerns about my health reinforced her decision to have me take ballet, and she took me to beginner ballet classes that were given on Saturdays in a grade school, Pattengill Elementary, just down the street from our house.

My first classes were taught by an elderly Italian gentleman, Mr.Causetta. I remember the classroom with its linoleum floor, the desks pushed against the wall, and the folding chairs in a line that we children used as a barre. Holding on to the chairs, we learned the basic positions and did our pliés and tendus. I was completely enthralled, learning the steps, despite the scratchy 78 rpm records my teacher played. One night when my father was working late, my mother took the initiative to invite Mr. Causetta to come to dinner at our home. I felt embarrassed with her humble offering of a ready-made chicken pot pie, and I was further unsettled after Mr. Causetta finished eating and fell sound asleep at the dinner table. Still, I was grateful to my mother for making this effort for me. I could sense she was trying to guide me to a better place.

When I was six, my mother took me to see the movie The Red Shoes, and I was immediately swept away. As the character Sheila in A Chorus Line says of the movie's heroine, "I wanted to be that redhead." So did I. I fell in love with the idea of becoming a ballerina, and my life would never be the same again. A short time later, I saw my first Swan Lake when the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo performed at the Masonic Temple in downtown Detroit. The famous Cuban ballerina Alicia Alonso danced the role of the white swan, Odette, and it was my first experience hearing a live orchestra. To sit in the darkness and to see her dance with such power and beauty to such rapturous sounds made me want to cry. With her passionate interpretation, she brought the music dramatically to life.

After that magical experience, I wanted nothing else but to enter that world of dazzling light and make-believe. As I embraced this dream even at such a young age, the ballet classes were my escape, and my mother became my accomplice as she invested in me the love and support that she wasn't getting from my father.

Grandpa McKechnie saw dancing as a frivolous pursuit, and his influence took hold of my father.. His Calvinist sensibility would rear its ugly head from time to time, and I would be admonished for showing too much enthusiasm. I was told, "People will think you have a swelled head." Too much pleasure was equated with sin, and dancing certainly looked pleasurable. On the other hand, Grandma Gladys was proud of my training as long as it was ladylike and in keeping with the pure look of white ballerina tulle. The family was divided, as were my mother and father.

Over time, it seemed to me that my father became jealous of the attention my mother was giving me. I remember hearing them argue at night about how much time she was spending with me, taking me to classes and recitals. She was usually shy and submissive, but she would assert herself when it came to fighting for me, in lieu of being able to speak up for herself. She was never a pushy stage mother. She simply took pleasure in my dancing, and could see how important it was for me. I also suspect she was expressing her own frustrated artistic aspirations.

My mother loved movies, and sometimes she would take me with her to matinees. We were dazzled by the likes of Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, and Leslie Caron. When my mother was a girl, Jeanette MacDonald was her favorite. At one time she had wanted to be a singer. When I asked her years later why she hadn't pursued a singing career, she would only say, "Oh, that was just not done." It dawned on me what a shame it was that she didn't have a mother like her, who would help her realize her dreams.

My father also had creative leanings. He was something of a dreamer and invented machinery and all kinds of gadgets. He loved building each one by hand, so much so that he never wanted to sell his ideas. He once told me that if the choice had been his, he would have preferred raising orchids for a living. I don't know if he meant that, but his telling me gave me the feeling that he wasn't happy with what he was doing. Looking back, I can see that both my parents possessed abilities and talents that never found expression.

Because of my father's recurrent money problems, paying for my ballet classes was an issue that repeatedly put me in the crossfire between my parents and my grandparents. My mother devised a way to cut the cost of lessons by volunteering to make costumes for the dance recitals. While my father stayed late at work, she would be at the sewing machine all hours, and many times, late into the night.

The ever present tensions at home caused me to avoid the subject of my dancing as much as possible. I tried to hide my excitement about it, especially in the presence of my father. Though he tried to discourage me and often seemed contemptuous, he never quite forbade me from taking classes.

My mother was my only ally. In addition to supporting me with my ballet classes, she took me to auditions for various plays, for which I was unprepared, not yet having studied acting. Nevertheless, at eight, I was cast by local community players in Thornton Wilder's Our Town, and my mother took me on the bus at night to rehearsals in downtown Detroit. I played Wally, the seven-year-old boy in the play; it was my first role. The other characters were played by adults, and it made me feel very grownup. I went through the rehearsals, but I wasn't able to perform in the show because of school. At about this time, my mother enrolled me in a performing arts school called Roth-Berdun Theatrical School, which operated at the downtown Convention Center. At first I took classes on weekends. The school's claim to fame at the time was that the movie star Joan Leslie, a Detroit native, had studied there. Her dancing image graced the front of the school's brochure. I took more advanced ballet classes there, and was also enrolled in an acting class, which was really a class in elocution called "dramatics".

I was soon cast in a school play, Princess Tenderheart, in which I played a princess who defies her overprotective father, the king, by refusing to marry the prince chosen for her because she is in love with a humble footman. At the end of the piece, her heart breaks and she dies when her father forces her to marry against her will. My mother, being a gifted seamstress, made the costumes. I wore a red satin cape, a beautiful light blue chiffon dress with sequins, and a tiara, all very feminine and precious. In the play, I had a scene in which I was to throw a tantrum, stamping the floor and screaming, "I won't! I won't! I won't!" During the performance, my mother was offstage making the sound effects of my heart breaking by shaking pieces of broken china in a paper bag. I hadn't quite anticipated the impact of having an audience since we had been rehearsing without one. On opening night before my big scene when I saw all those people sitting out there, I experienced stage fright for the first time. I wasn't sure how to weave this reality into my rehearsed make-believe world on stage. My royal tantrum abruptly stopped as I stared back at the audience. Then I looked desperately to my mother in the wings. She brought me back into the play by miming excitedly, "I won't! I won't! I won't!"

There was an unspoken understanding between us that we were in this together. She made costumes for two other presentations of poetry that I was in, The Poor Little Match Girl and The Moth and the Flame. Her costumes were always gorgeous, and my chiffon moth wings were tiedyed before it became a fashion statement. My mother recited the poems and I would dance to the words underscored with recorded music. I remember how beautiful she looked onstage, tall and statuesque. But her hands trembled as she read from the page, betraying her fear.

My picture was later spotted on a wall at the school by the producers of a local television variety program, The Auntie Dee Show, and I was invited to recite a poem on the air. It was made all the more special when my mother bought me a beautiful white blouse with red piping on the sleeves to go with my red skirt. The show was televised live, and when the director behind the camera made frantic gestures with his hands trying to hurry me as I was reciting, I promptly froze. Auntie Dee came over and asked me to continue. I couldn't, and I was mortified. I was then quickly ushered off the set. My mother tried to console me, but I knew I had let her down.

The next day I was distraught going to school, knowing my whole first-grade class had seen me. But my teacher, Miss Ulp, kindly offered me a chance to redeem myself. She said to me in front of the class, "We all watched you yesterday, Donna, and you weren't able to finish your poem. Would you like to recite it for us here?" Overcoming my fears, I went to the front of the room and managed to get through the poem, and the applause of my classmates and my teacher's gentle praise dispelled my sense of defeat.

I remember when I was nine going to Thanksgiving dinner at Gladys and Dillard's house where our family usually gathered for holidays. With the family looking on over the dinner table, my father set the tone of our relationship for years to come. I made the mistake of enthusing about my ballet classes and my father suddenly lost his temper, which was shocking because he so rarely did. In a harsh voice, he said, "Don't think this dancing is ever going to amount to anything, Donna! Don't think you will ever achieve anything with this!" I got up from the table in tears, and as I fled, I heard my mother say, "Don, don't spoil her dreams! Don't take them away from her."

From a different vantage point now, I hear my father's voice and the words he spoke as an anguished cry of frustration for the disappointments in his own life, perhaps his own sense of failure. Even then I could see how hard he worked and how much he wanted his father's approval, which he never received. I tried to avoid "the old man" as much as possible. He sometimes tried to be friendly in his rough way, but kids were obviously a nuisance to him. I was meeting all kinds of people in my classes in Detroit, including those from different cultures. My best girlfriends were Lithuanian and Armenian, and my first little boyfriend from dance class was Jerry Goldberg, who performed recitals with me at local YMCAs. My grandfather especially frowned upon Catholics and Jews, and he disparaged me when I spoke up to defend them. Years later when I was pursuing a career in New York, in a letter to one of my aunts, he wrote, "It's a shame about Donna, but I guess there's a black sheep in every family."

At this time, I was taking ballet classes from Pamela Dunworth at the Roth-Berdun school. I adored her. She taught a strict discipline at the barre, and with the combinations in the center, she encouraged us to interpret the music. That direction freed me to bring my imagination and feelings to bear through the steps. It was as if she were showing me a gateway to paradise. She was the first to inspire me with the idea of never letting the movement stop, even when you're standing still, that your energy keeps moving beyond your fingers and toes.

When I was ten, my family moved to Royal Oak, another Detroit suburb. I had followed Pamela to a new studio in Dearborn that her sisterin- law, Loretta, ran with Pam's husband, Jack. It required a longer bus trip, and sometimes my mother allowed me to travel alone. A couple of years later I had to change ballet teachers after a grown man sitting next to me on the bus ride home made some untoward advances and Gladys insisted that my mother find a dance studio closer to home. Pamela suggested I study with Rose Marie Floyd, who owned a dance studio on Main Street in Royal Oak, about ten minutes from my home.

I hated leaving Pamela, and went back to her from time to time, but Rose Marie's studio soon became my home away from home. Rose Marie was a wonderful teacher and offered classical training according to the system developed by the Italian ballet master Enrico Cecchetti. The Cecchetti Council in the Detroit area held annual summer conventions through which I had the opportunity to study with guest teachers, including Muriel Stewart from American Ballet Theatre in New York.

I was twelve or thirteen when my parents let me go to Toronto for three weeks to study with the National Ballet of Canada. It was my first trip away from home and I stayed in a hotel with my dancing-school friend Nancy and her mother. I remember being totally taken with meeting some of the professional dancers from the company. We were invited to take some of the professional classes, and I came back home reveling in the whole experience, feeling more confirmed in my life as a dancer.

In Rose Marie's school, we trained in the Cecchetti curriculum in order to qualify for demanding dance exams that were given to determine our levels of ability. I was proud of my intermediate status, as very few were taking classes at the advanced level. Rose Marie was a resourceful teacher, and she created a company for her young dancers called the Contemporary Civic Ballet. With the South Oakland Symphony, she produced traditional ballets like Les Sylphides, as well as ballets that she choreographed for us like Romanian Rhapsody, and dances set to many of Leroy Anderson's compositions. I especially liked them because they were character driven.

I found that my dancing improved quickly when I was able to perform with a full orchestra and a more professional setting. We were sometimes invited to perform at the Art Institute in Detroit. Once we danced Les Sylphides in a mental institution. I remember at first being frightened when some of the patients in their white gowns walked up to the edge of the stage. Then I was touched to see how they stood there quietly, swaying to the music, transfixed by the ballet.

When I was thirteen, I started teaching ballet classes in my basement, and a year later I produced a recital for my young students. Sometimes my father's critical attitude would soften, and he would surprise me, as when he bought a large used mirror for one wall of the studio, and fashioned a long wooden barre, then mounted them so I could teach my classes. I charged 50 cents a class. Eventually, my class attracted enough local children for me to make as much as $50 a week. I gave my earnings to my parents, and during periods when my father was strapped for cash, my dance money put food on our table. I liked being able to help out.

That I was able to work and earn this income instilled in me a growing sense of independence, but it was hurtful to my father. To have his daughter paying household bills wounded his pride, and we had frequent battles over the dinner table. He vented his anger on me, and I would taunt him by saying things like, "You can't treat me like a child when I'm paying for things." I tried to defend my mother and myself with my own accusations and sarcasm, provoking him even more. Invariably, I would end up in tears and retreat to my bedroom, slamming the door behind me. I sometimes found myself wishing that my parents would break up, thinking it would be better for all of us.

There were bleak winter mornings when I would warm my underwear and socks in front of the oven, then leave for school without breakfast, because my mother was sleeping late. I came to understand later that she stayed in bed many mornings because she was suffering from depression, which was a common but unacknowledged syndrome in those days. Over a short span of time, two women friends of my mother committed suicide and one was institutionalized. It seems horrible that back then women didn't feel they had options. I remember thinking, I don't want to grow up to be like these women. I don't want to kill myself. I must plan my escape. I'll run away, but I can't do it yet. I'll do it later when I'm taller and I look like an adult.

In 1956, the local Cecchetti teachers banded together and established a ballet company, the Detroit City Ballet. They invited William Dollar, a well-known dancer and choreographer who had worked with the American Ballet Theatre in its early days, to choreograph a new ballet for the company. Rose Marie submitted some of her dancers as can- didates for the new company, and before I knew it, I was a founding member in a troupe of thirteen. I had great respect for Mr. Dollar. He was always very kind, even though he was apparently in pain much of the time and walked with a severe limp. I remember I often saw him taking aspirins washed down with Coca-Cola.

Mr. Dollar recruited an eighteen-year-old dancer from Texas, Paul Sutherland. Paul had only been dancing eighteen months, but already he had the poise and bearing that would one day make him a ballet star. When I was fourteen, Paul became my first partner in a ballet that Mr. Dollar choreographed to the music of Mendelssohn's Concerto in G. There was no story per se; it was more like Balanchine: dancing for the sake of dancing, with the geometric patterns of the dancers fulfilling the dynamic of the music. It was a challenge for me to keep my interpretive skills in check in order to blend with the other dancers, as the beauty of the piece depended on us moving in unison. Only two times, once when I danced a pas de deux and once when I led an adagio section, was I able to interpret with my emotions, one of the qualities I would later use to advantage in musical theater.

These experiences with the Detroit City Ballet took hold of me like a religious conversion. I was a strong dancer, but with my long torso, I didn't have the perfect body for ballet. I later found out I was born with an extra vertebra, which gave me a supple back, but one that also was prone to weakness. And my feet weren't really suited for pointe shoes, though I tried to mold them by sitting for hours rolling them over Coke bottles. I did have a lyrical quality and fast footwork; I could do beats and jumps and turns. But I always approached dancing instinctively, as an actress. The music always gave me a story line or an image for me to connect with, and then I could interpret the music and create my own world. Through the choreography, I could make the character come to life, as well as enjoy the athleticism and technical feats of dancing. This was when I started to win some attention. People who saw me dancing at this age would say, "When Donna dances, it's like she's in love."

And I was in love, completely in love with dancing, to the exclusion of everything else. Admittedly, I had started dating and daydreaming about boys, but there was hardly time for that. In an interview for my hometown paper years later, I described myself outside the dance studio as "a nonperson, supersensitive and shy." The only real identity that I had in my life at the time was dancing. It was the only area where I had confidence and a sense of accomplishment. I was finding myself artistically, but beyond the make-believe of the characters I was performing, I had little sense of myself. In high school, I was taking classes after school, rehearsing at night, and getting up to do my homework at five in the morning. I was driven, and I kept myself immersed in activities that allowed me to block out the feelings of rejection I got from my father, and my mother's sadness.

I attended Dondero High School in Royal Oak, and I was a good student -- serious, quiet, and well behaved -- until school started to interfere with the pursuit of my dreams. Then I began to resent my studies. At some point during my high school years, Gladys offered to pay for my college education. At first I was delighted to hear of her offer, but then she told me that she would only pay for a Lutheran college, because she wanted me to marry a nice Lutheran boy. My interest in college ended at that point, and I felt that my sainted grandmother had betrayed me by trying to exercise that kind of control in my life. I pushed my hurt feelings away with a new resolve to maintain my independence.

Everything changed dramatically for me and my family when we had to move again during my junior year. This time we moved to grandfather McKechnie's home in Troy, on Fifteen Mile Road, which was about that many miles north of Detroit. James retired and moved with his wife, Edith, to Florida. The deal was that we got the house if my father took over his father's shop and assumed its debt. I had no idea at the time how important it was for him to come to the aid of his father, how much he needed "the old man's" love and approval. Nor did I understand the pressure my father was under now that he was running the company.

For me, the move was traumatic, because I had to leave friends behind and go to a new school. For a while I was able to stay with my cousin Marge in Royal Oak in order to continue going to school at Royal Oak Kimball High School, but at fifteen I switched schools and started my senior year at Troy High. Commuting to dance classes and rehearsals became more of a problem, and the cumulative effects of my home life and my hormones were pushing me toward a breaking point. When my rebellion finally came, it would be all the more shocking to those who knew me because up until this time I had always been sweet and ladylike.

In the fall of my senior year, I was encouraged by one of my friends to try out for a winter stock repertoire that was coming to the Cass Theatre in Detroit. Four shows were being produced: The King and I, Bells Are Ringing, Guys and Dolls, and Bittersweet. The director, David Tihmar, was from New York, as were the stars and most of the dancers. Betty White played Anna in The King and I. Peggy Cass starred in Bells Are Ringing. Bittersweet boasted Jeanette MacDonald, and Bob Horton had the lead in Guys and Dolls. The company needed to hire one female dancer from the Detroit area.

The audition was held at the old Cass Theatre, where I had once visited backstage with my mother and been entranced seeing dressing rooms for the first time. I really wanted to go just to observe the audition, since I had never seen one before. And I felt some apprehension about subjecting myself to such an unfamiliar situation. I certainly hadn't planned on auditioning so I didn't even bring my dance clothes. But after we arrived and I saw all the dancers eagerly warming up, it didn't take much persuasion from Nancy, who was auditioning, to entice me to try out as well. She also was kind enough to lend me a leotard.

It was very exciting to go out there under the stage lights and do on command all that was thrown at me. We were asked to perform combinations from the shows, as well as typical ballet steps: pas de bourrée glissade, jeté across the stage, and so forth. I remember feeling confident and happy as I finished my audition. I was told on the spot that I had been chosen, and though I had little experience, I felt the significance of this moment. I was going to be a professional! I raced home and delivered this piece of good news, and even my father seemed impressed. I soon had my Equity card and my first paying job in the theater.

I was to rehearse each show with the company for two weeks, and then perform each for two weeks. This experience introduced me to a variety of dance styles: the Eastern dances in The King and I, a ballet pas de deux in Bittersweet, jazz and Latin dancing in Guys and Dolls, and a cha-cha in Bells Are Ringing. The members of the company welcomed me, and I immediately felt like I fit into their world. Jeanette MacDonald invited me to visit her in her dressing room, and I remember the first time I saw her take off her wig. She had little tufts of red hair. I thought, Oh, my God, she has no hair! So, that's what an actress looks like. It gave me a lot of pleasure to take my mother backstage to meet her idol. Of course, I had to prepare her for the possibility of Jeanette without her wig. But Jeanette came through and greeted us with her stage curls. She was lovely and gracious and gave my mother one of the biggest thrills of her life.

At home the tears and ugly confrontations continued over the dinner table. Boys had now entered the picture as an additional source of trouble. Later, I started seeing an older boy who would meet me after rehearsals. Out of respect for his privacy, I'll call him Keith. He was college- age and living at home. My parents disapproved of him from the start, but I was already feeling independent enough to disregard their wishes. After the run of shows finished, I went to a party with Keith at the home of a friend whose parents were away. This was an era before drugs were fashionable, but kids there were drinking beer and carousing. Keith had aspirations to study political science, and he liked to hear himself talk. He was politically opinionated and we had discussions, though he was the type who always had to dominate them.

At some point that night, Keith took me aside to talk and make out, and I followed him into a bedroom. Knowing what he had in mind, I was frightened, but I hid my fear and maintained my outward bravado as if I were acting a role, all the while trying to convince myself that I was ready to take this plunge, that I was a big girl now. This was before there was such a thing as "date rape." He pushed me further into sex than I wanted to go, and I finally said, "No, I can't do this, Keith. I can't!" He then became angry and forced me in no uncertain terms. I wanted to say, "I'm a virgin and I don't want to do this yet," but my fear reduced me to silence and acquiescence. I just waited for it to be over.

It would be years before I was able to tell anyone, and it was not one of the stories that I later shared with the cast of A Chorus Line. The ordeal ended with a furious outburst from Keith when he discovered traces of blood. I don't remember how I got out of there that night, but I made it home. Everything then became twisted in my mind. Overcome by guilt, I shut myself off emotionally from what had happened. I thought that because I had let it happen, it had to be my fault. It defied all logic, but because I blamed myself for allowing Keith to have his way with me, I felt I had no choice but to continue the relationship.

The next time I saw him was at his house. Again he pushed me into having sex with him, and this time I left blood all over the bed. I couldn't stop bleeding, and I started crying. I was so terrified that Keith brought in his mother, who hadn't known I was in the house. She was outraged at both of us, but eventually led me into the bathroom and had me sit on towels until the bleeding stopped. Rather than take me to a doctor, she drove me home. I remember feeling so utterly horrid when she told my mother the story. Afterward, even as upset as I imagined my mother was, we never talked about what had happened. She told me to stay away from that boy, but her attitude was let's not tell anyone. After all, it was something shameful. As far as I know, she never told my father. I believe that was her way of protecting me. The nightmare was simply buried as if it had never happened, and I continued to see Keith secretly despite the pain and confusion.

A short time later I received a call from the director of the winter stock productions, David Tihmar, who invited me to join a troupe of performers who were going to tour the South, mostly one-night performances in each town. The group was to include a ballet couple, a modern, jazzy couple, a baritone singer, and me. I would fill in with the modern and ballet material. Mr. Tihmar offered me $75 a week, and asked, "Do you think your parents will let you come? It will be four weeks of rehearsal in New York and six weeks on tour."

I said, "I'm sure it will be fine with them." But it wasn't fine, of course, and this time my mother sided with my father. They insisted that I should stay home and finish school. I wasn't thinking of their feelings at all when I screamed, "You can't do this to me! I am not a child! This is my one big chance, and nothing like this will ever happen to me again in my entire life." Leaving the dinner table that night, instead of just going to my room and slamming the door, I went in and started tearing the room apart, sending things crashing to the floor.

My father quickly came into the room followed by my mother, with my brother and sister huddled behind her. I erupted like a little Vesuvius. My mother burst into tears, while my father pleaded with me to stop. In spite of my tearful sobs, my words were hurtful and angry. I felt like a cornered animal who desperately tries to break free. I knew I was crossing a line, and there was no turning back. I had had enough of the brooding, the looks of contempt, my mother's sadness, the stifled tears, and all the needs never met and I was tired of people not expressing themselves. I screamed at them, "No one is going to tell me what to do! No one is going to stop me from doing what I need to do!"

I really did believe it was now or never for me, that my being offered another paying job in the theater meant that my big break had come. Obviously, I couldn't afford to go to New York on my own. Working in Detroit was one thing, but New York was the big time, and I would be living and working in the protection of a professional company. Couldn't they see that?

The next evening, after we had all calmed down, I met with my father in the living room to try to plead my case. I invited Keith for moral support, but I found myself tongue-tied. My father kept asking me, "What do you want?" I didn't know what to say. Finally I stammered, "I just want peace of mind!" I saw the hurt and contempt in his eyes when he said, "Well, everybody wants that, Donna." I felt completely defeated. I also realized what a big mistake it was to have Keith there. I had wanted to talk and come to terms with my father, but with my boyfriend there, I was too inhibited to have any kind of heart-to-heart conversation. I can't say that I was thinking rationally, but soon thereafter, I began to plan my escape, with Keith agreeing to drive me to New York.

My getaway was a scene out of one of those B movies I had seen with my mother. I packed my suitcase in the afternoon, hiding it under my bed in the bedroom that I shared with my sister. That night after she was asleep, I quietly retrieved it and put pillows under the covers to make it look as though I were in bed asleep. With heart pounding, I opened the bedroom window, tossed my suitcase out, and climbed down into our yard. Then I ran across the street and hid in the bushes in a neighbor's yard until Keith picked me up in his car.

We had this farfetched idea that we would be all over the news, so we took the back roads. After driving all night and most of the next day, we stayed in a motel in New Jersey. At the mercy of my boyfriend's increasingly violent temper, I went to sleep that night racked by guilt and fears, but nevertheless determined to go through with my plan. The following day we drove into Manhattan, and I called a dancer I had met in the winter stock shows, with whom I'd arranged to stay. We went to her apartment, a walk-up on 54th Street and Ninth Avenue. As soon as she opened the door, she said, "I'm sorry, Donna, but I had to call your father."

My father suddenly appeared, coming up the stairs behind us. At that moment, I was relieved to see him, because Keith had been physically abusive, and by now I was feeling trapped. Keith was taken off guard at the sight of my father, who said to him quietly, "I want you to get in your car and drive home." Keith left without an argument. I had a scratch under my eye, and my father was concerned and cautious when he asked me, "Did he hurt you?" I denied that he had, fearing that I would only make the situation worse.

I was surprised that night when, instead of reproaching me, my father took me out on the town. It was like we were on a date. He was so friendly and attentive. We visited the Empire State Building and then went out to dinner. It was just my father and I spending time together in a way we never had before. This was now a special occasion, and I was happy to be with him. We didn't talk about what had happened. I had run away from home, and that had to mean something. But the fact that he was there now meant even more to me. Rather than blaming me, he treated me with tenderness. The little girl part of me was grateful that her dad had come to rescue her, though it distressed me to think that he must have borrowed money to pay for the trip. But in my young girl's life, it was the most cherished father-daughter moment. The next day we went to the airport together and took a plane back to Detroit.

But there was to be no lasting reconciliation. After being home for a few days, my father and mother announced, without warning, that they were taking me to juvenile court to have a hearing before a judge. This news came as a devastating blow, and I felt betrayed by both of them. The idea of having me go to court was apparently a scare tactic that someone had suggested to them, thinking that a judge might be able to talk some sense into me. I remember my mother crying in the hearing room and wiping her eyes with a hanky. The judge gave me a harsh lecture and finished by warning me, "Young lady, if you try running away again, we will lock you up in jail."

I don't know where I found my voice, but I suddenly spoke up in measured tones, containing my rage. "Well, you can do that, but I'll find a way to get out, and I'll run away again! And you can lock me up again, and I'll get out again."

The hearing was quickly adjourned, and it was left to my parents to decide what to do with me. Years later, I learned that they had consulted my ballet teacher, Pamela, who encouraged my parents to let me go on the tour. She told them, "Donna will either find a way to survive, or she will come home."

My parents never told me exactly how they arrived at their decision, but they soon relented, and I found myself heading back to New York City to rehearse with the company. My other ballet teacher, Rose Marie Floyd, had misgivings about my quitting high school to pursue an uncertain career, especially at the age of sixteen. Rose Marie later said in an interview, "It floored me when Donna said she was going to drop out of school because so few people know what they want in life at that age. But she did."

Or perhaps I only thought I did. After my big rebellion and all that effort to take my destiny in hand, I was actually scared to death to be on my own. And though I was the one to run away, I felt abandoned by my family.

I moved to New York with little money. The first place I stayed in was a fleabag hotel on West 69th Street between Columbus and Broadway called the Dauphin. Back then, Manhattan's Upper West Side was not the safe, gentrified neighborhood that it is today, and the hotel was a hooker haven. I soon moved down to the Knickerbocker Hotel on 45th Street, another sleazy place, which was frequented by sailors whenever the fleet was in. Nearby was a nightclub called The Peppermint Lounge, where Joey Dee and the Starliters were inventing the Twist. No one cared about my being underage, and I did have fun there on occasion dancing the night away.

I remember my first rehearsal at Variety Arts rehearsal studio on West 46th Street. I had a 10:00 A.M. call that morning, and not yet knowing my way around the city, I got lost and arrived about ten minutes late. David Tihmar gave me a fierce verbal lashing in front of the company. This was the same director who told me at the Cass Theatre that when an actor enters the stage door, it is like entering a church. His berating me seemed like the most horrible thing that ever happened in my life, but he knew this was my first job away from home and was no doubt trying to teach me a lesson.

We were a diverse group, and I was, by far, the youngest member of the company. Darrell Notara was a Ballet Theatre corps dancer, and his fiancée, Diane, was a budding ballet dancer. Darrell appointed himself my protector on the tour because I was so inexperienced, but he often lost his patience with me. On the road, I roomed with an older ballerina, who didn't like having to room with me because I was so nervous and chatty. Ignoring me for the most part, she wrote letters and kept to herself.

An older dancer, Arnott Mader, took me under his wing and provided emotional support. Arnott was a gorgeous classical dancer, very elegant, though nearing the time when he would have to hang up his ballet shoes. I confessed to him one time that I had run away from home and hadn't finished school. Arnott said, "You shouldn't go to college if you want to be a dancer. You've got to get out there on the stage. The time is now. You can always go back to school later, but a dancer's life is limited, Donna, so you have to do it now." Still plagued with guilt and insecurities, I needed to hear his reassurance that I was doing the right thing, and I took his words to heart.

We traveled in a station wagon, pulling a U-Haul trailer that carried our costumes and sets. We had to take care of washing and ironing our own costumes. I felt awkward at times in the presence of these grown- ups. When we stopped on the road to eat at diners, they would order dinner, I would order a hot fudge sundae, and Darrell would scold me. It was like I had joined another dysfunctional family, but I felt that I truly belonged here and most of the time I was elated with my new life.

I was the jazz baby of the show. I did some modern dances, like "Bringing in the Sheaves," a Martha Graham piece that the baritone David Chaney would sing as we danced. We performed to a reel-to-reel tape recorder and whatever sound system was available. We each danced in a couple of pieces, and then had a finale together. The tour was mostly one-night stands at colleges. Sometimes we played gymnasiums. Usually with very little time to set up, we would arrive, check into the hotel, and then go directly to the school or theater where we were scheduled to perform.

I remember our first stop in North Carolina. After checking into the hotel, I somehow became separated from the rest of the group. I may have wandered off to visit a local graveyard, which was my habit whenever we arrived early and had time for sightseeing. I loved the history that I was able to gather by reading gravestones and memorial plaques, and this was one way I found to continue my education. After returning to the hotel that afternoon, I had the address of the school where we were playing and tried without success to hail a taxi. At first I couldn't figure out why the cabs kept passing me by. Then I saw that some of the taxis were designated for colored only, while others were for white only.

This was 1959, and the South was still segregated. We were playing at what was then called "a Negro college," one of several we would visit. I was close to tears by the time I finally managed to flag down a "colored cab." I practically threw myself in front of him and begged the cabbie to drive me to the school. I could sense his fear when I was able to tell him where I was going. He reluctantly agreed to take me, but he said I had to lie down on the floor of the cab, so no one would see me. I stayed on the floor for the entire ride while desperately trying to hold my costume up to keep it from getting wrinkled.

For a sixteen-year-old girl from the white suburbs of Detroit, this was a stunning experience. I had seen religious bigotry in Michigan but little racial prejudice, and what little I did see was certainly nothing like this. I couldn't fully appreciate until later how this man was risking his life to get me to that performance. After arriving at the school, I rushed inside to find the dressing room and put on my costume. I was late again, but this time received only a passing reprimand from our stage manager. That night was our first live audience, and we were all delighted by the enthusiastic reception we received, which was repeated at each performance on the rest of the tour.

My success with the show bolstered my confidence. After returning to New York City, I had no intention of going home. My plan was to stay and somehow find a way to make a living as a dancer. I first moved into a dismal little room in a YWCA on 34th Street. The tiny space was such that if I was lying on the bed next to the wall, I could reach out my hand and touch the other wall. It was all that I cou ld afford, but the neighborhood scared me. After some desperate searching, I soon moved into another YWCA, this one at Eighth Avenue and 50th Street. There I made my first gal pals in New York, including Georgia Parrot, who was working as a secretary. Whenever she met someone, she would provide a way to remember her name, "Georgia like the peach, and Parrot like the bird." The accommodations weren't much improved, but it was a relatively safe place for young women like us. My other friend, Susan Lee, who was a singer, coached me to sing my first audition song, "Honey Bun," from South Pacific, because all dancers were expected "to belt it out."

Meanwhile, my parents were waiting. I guess they figured I would run out of money sooner or later and come home. I missed my family, even after all I put them through, but I was determined to show them that I could survive on my own, and that determination enabled me to continue, despite all the loneliness and guilt. I knew that my mother was having a difficult time, and that was especially disturbing for me. I received a letter from my Aunt Dorothy telling me that she was afraid my mother would have to be hospitalized because she was so depressed. It was a great sadness for her that I was gone, and the way I had left home made it even harder on her. I knew how worried she was about me, and I hated myself for causing her such grief. But I was headstrong, and the discipline of dancing enabled me to fend off the unsettling emotions for years while I gave myself to the music and the mirror. As a dancer, I had learned to perform no matter how I felt, and so it was with my life. I never talked to my parents about the dangers of living alone in the city or about the fears that I had. I would call home with only positive things to report because I wanted to relieve them, and at the same time I needed to keep myself pumped up. The theme of my life for many years to come would be, "I'll show them! I'll succeed." Little did I realize how much success was going to cost me. Nor was I aware that my emotional baggage and unresolved issues with my family were ticking away inside me like a time bomb that would one day have the power to cripple me.

Copyright © 2006 by Donna McKechnie and Greg Lawrence

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