I asked for karate lessons when I was seven. While music was a shared ritual in our family since I was born, I discovered karate as a way to develop my identity separate from the usual family musical traditions. As far back as I remember, after every winter holiday meal, we would play music in the music room with the family and friend dinner guests. My dad played guitar, banjo, and drums while my mom sang and played piano. While my mom gave my sister piano lessons, she did not enjoy them and did not partake in any of the holiday singing and playing, often just watching as a bystander or excusing herself to go up to her room to talk on the phone. My sister’s social life was her identity outside of our family communal one. Karate lessons ended up being my answer to finding my own independent identity. It was not musical theater, but it was physical. And it was a tough masculine activity. Besides, I figured nobody would want to pick on a kid who was good at karate.
My dad took me to and from the Teaneck School of Self Defense for lessons Wednesday nights, Saturday afternoons, and sometimes Sunday mornings up until I was about thirteen. For the first few years I remember having to be torn from Saturday morning cartoons around 11am to go to my karate class. The early eighties was the golden age of Saturday cartoons – PacMan, Q-bert, Plastic Man, Captain Caveman, Smurfs, and my favorite Dungeons and Dragons. I would wait to the last possible second to leave to go to karate and then complain to my dad for not getting their fast enough so I could get there on time. Whenever my dad would be fed up with my perfectionist, spoiled attitude, he would simply calmly say, “You want me to drive you there or not. I’m not going to drive you if you keep being miserable.” Most times when I would want to skip was because I wanted to watch television. As much as I would complain about having to go some Saturdays, I always relished the feeling of when it was over. I’d be sweaty, and my body felt extremely fresh and invigorated. Very few activities besides karate made every limb of my body feel that loose, worked, and even sore. Sore was good. Sore meant that the next day I would feel lighter and stronger on my feet, making me more able to withstand any other competitors in other physical challenges. Exercise became a great escape. Most heroes I saw on television were the products of exercise. Rocky trained and exercised to make come backs and win in his movies. Perseus trained with his sword in Clash of the Titans (1980). Feeling sore meant I was that much closer to being able to kick someone else’s ass and get higher status. But aside from the prospect of status, I really just enjoyed feeling strong and my body in motion. Another great incentive for me to go Saturdays was that a Blimpie’s sandwich shoppe was right next door. Literally there were doors within the walkdown building that connected Blimpie’s and the dojo. I would always get a number 1 Blimpie’s Best, with salami, cheese, ham, lettuce, tomatoes, onions, hot banana peppers, and my favorite oil and EXTRA vinegar. I loved the salty sour taste of that sandwich, which felt well deserved after a two-hour workout.
Perhaps the best thing I loved about karate was that every one of my movements represented me either beating the shit out of someone, defending myself, or getting stronger. I did not even need to be actually sparring with a partner. I actually preferred not to spar. I loved just punching and kicking the air, showing what I could potentially do to someone without actually doing it, or getting retaliated. The school’s patch my mother had to sew onto my gee, the karate uniform, was also pretty cool. It was a picture of a fist knuckles facing outward along with the profile of the thumb curled under the fist. Around it, it said Shudokan-Karate-Do. When I first started out, Phil Rogers, the founder of the school, taught me and some other youths and beginners the basics – break falls, how to get out of certain holds and grabs, etc. Rogers was a squat older white guy in his late 40’s early 50’s who was a carpenter on the side with big forearms and a beer belly. He learned Shudokan while he was a soldier stationed in Okinawa, Japan.
When I passed a test to get my second belt, a purple one, I started training with the bigger kids. (After I got my purple, my mom threw me a surprise purple party with everything Grape, one of my favorite flavors. A grape cake my mom baked, grape soda, grapes. Unbeknownst to me, a number of the students my age at the dojo and their parents were invited. It was one of the few times I did not cry, but I did remember being a little disappointed because I really wasn’t THAT big a fan of grape. I knew I should have been grateful so I put on a face. I stayed away from grape for a while after that.) After my promotion, I started the drills of punches and kicks up and down the floor along with the rest of the more advanced class. I enjoyed learning all these violent aggressive moves, and I seemed to catch on pretty fast.
A different sensei (karate teacher) was in charge of running these drills and lines for the older and more advanced students. His name was Lou Hatchett. He was a brown belt at the time. He was a tall fit, lithe black guy in his early 40’s who was a UPS truck driver on the side. Getting a chance to be in front of the line for the drills because of my skill, I started feeling my mischievous oats. I decided to count in French (what I was learning at the Bede School) every time Sensei Lou counted in Japanese. I was proud of showing off both my multi-lingual skills, and my impressive ability at kicking and punching the air up and down the studio. As sensei Lou looked around his lines of students finding where this annoying little voice speaking after him as he counted was coming from. Feeling like I got one over on him, and wondering what he was gonna do about it, he calmly picked me up by the neck part of my gee and shoulders (I eight after all) and put me in the back of the second line. I got the message and never spoke up again. That was the beginning of what would end up as being one of the most important student/teacher relationships I ever had.
I was mesmerized by Lou’s strength when he moved and practiced kata. For a guy that supposedly did not dance, I wanted to very much be able to move with the power he had. He had the most crisp side kicks and lines with the blade of his foot. Nobody would want to be at the end of the blade of his foot. The first time I heard the word “dynamic” was within the context of Lou’s movements. He could move simply but powerfully. Every thing was centered and grounded and like Bruce Lee, there was a lot of power in the turning of the hips along with the rest of the body. I wanted to move just like Lou. I wanted that power. Sensei Lou was not a coddling teacher. He was firm but very matter of fact at explaining why and how certain moves should be performed.
Some times when Sensei Lou give me a ride back home, I felt a little nervous about saying the right things. He was not the best conversationalist himself. I remember him mentioning how when he went to school, when it came to jazz most kids only knew about Louis Armstrong. We never discussed music much more beyond that. Still, he even said himself that him and the other teachers and advanced students were like my godfathers and god uncles. I only did a couple of tournaments with the school. We did a few exhibitions performing katas and demonstrations at some school events and even a Teamster fair down in south Jersey. Sensei Lou seemed proud that under his tutelage I was the youngest student ever to test for black belt. And I took pride that he had a picture of me on his shoulders coming out of a demonstration we performed at where I remember high school kids calling me “little Chuck Norris” which was funny to me because once again, to be clear, I was never very good at sparring. I just looked really good punching and the air doing katas.
While I was aware of race as a kid, it did not affect my daily life and most interactions I had with kids and adults of other races. Sometimes I sensed a tension but could not really put a finger as to why I felt it was there. In the case of Sensei Lou, I have to give credit to the way I dance to him for two reasons. Sensei Lou gave me the foundation of the principle to have no wasted movement. Every movement had a purpose both for defense and counter offense. Secondly, from years of copying the way he moved, even though it was karate, it gave me the foundation to learn dance steps. Most of my mirror neurons as a youth were exercised watching and learning karate sequences from Sensei Lou. Because he was so nurturing, making me feel comfortable, focused and unthreatened learning from him, the issue of color never seemed much of an issue at all. And because of that experience, it was much easier to ignore the issues of differences in color, shape, or even mannerisms in the future. It was always thrilling It ended up being the content of the movement, more than its source that mattered most for me. I did not care what any teacher looked like as long as I got to learn what they had, got to learn how to use their power. For those experiences, I will always be indebted to Sensei Lou.
Mirroring dance moves I see others do was something I did since I first started watching Dance Fever dance on television in the 80’s when I was 5. After each show on Saturday Night, I would go downstairs, turn on the radio in the music room and then put on a show for my parents in the living room based on the moves I had watched Danny Aterio and the various contestants do. My mom used to say that I was going to be the next Baryshnikov. Suspicious of being called a sissy, when I was shown a picture of Baryshnikov with muscular arms, I thought this was an okay prediction. Even though I was a fan of musical theater, somehow I was a little homophobic. This is why, for a while, I preferred taking karate instead of dance lessons. Karate lessons were less geeky and I’d be less of a target. However, between seeing the masculinity Baryshnikov and karate validating my own masculinity, I felt safer experimenting with dancing in the living room without the comfort of my sexual identity being threatened. Somehow, dancing always felt like a natural way to express myself. Listening to the music on the radio, I just let my body freely move and react rhythmically using the dance moves I learned from both television and karate.
When I danced to any music I played on the radio and eventually CD’s, a whole scene would play out in my mind. The main character in my mind was a silhouette that was supposed to be me. It was a silhouette without any race, gender, or sexuality. It was just pure expression. It could take the shape of anything, even animals. The silhouette I pictured in my mind was a shiny gray being with two arms, and two legs (think of Mummenschanz on acid) that would dance in kind of pitch black environment saved for the shiny gray that sparkled from its being. This silhouette in my mind would occupy my body. As I internalized in my body how the silhouette danced in my mind, so my body would move. This was the method I used any time I learned f any movement from anyone else. The silhouette in my mind would record and copy the movement of the person I wanted to copy, like Sensei Lou, and then that silhouette would occupy my body and I would become the object of my imitation.
Dancing was a way for me to become somebody else, and escape into another person’s experience or at least their feelings, or experience what I would expect their feeling would be if I had their life experience. I would spend an hour or even more just getting sweaty imagining scenarios where my life turned into a musical or that I was actually performing for thousand or millions on various types of stages in my mind. It was the closest thing to prayer I ever felt as a youth. I suppose in some ways since the dancing silhouette in my mind, the source of my soulful identity, was not fashion conscious, I did not think that wearing the most fashionable clothes were that important either.
As much as Sensei Lou, musical theater, and the prospect of Baryshnikov fame influenced my first approaches to dance and music, my very first influence to even allow myself to let go was my father. One of my dad’s best gifts was to be silly. He was my first male role model. While my sister would get embarrassed, I always thought it was pretty cool how my dad would dance with my mom in the middle of the supermarket as elevator music played over the loudspeakers. He didn’t dance a whole lot around the house but when he did he would mostly do some simple hip and weight shifting, and walking side to side while pointing his hands and arms in and out. His silly dances could rival the best of Bill Cosby’s. In fact when the Cosby Show came out I noticed a lot of similarities between their “old man” dances. He always danced unashamedly. We had a running on joke between us if some funky music was on in the house or in the car. He would make up funny sounds and words to different rhythms and music that would be on. He would often go into some fake Yiddish words from our Russian heritage. One of these was saying the phrase “Hashi Kashi Kikula” over and over again in rhythm until it devolved faster and faster into unintelligible words and phlegm coughing. It was a lot of fun. And in hindsight, it was sharing these first silly rhythmic musical rituals with my dad that gave me the go ahead to feel like I could shamelessly immerse myself into music and dance of any kind in the future.
Table of Contents
Part I – My Material (Physically Having) History
- Chapter 1 – Race, Money, Fashion
- Chapter 2 – Plants, Pets, and Education
- Chapter 3 – Jobs
- Chapter 4 – Connections, Opportunities, Genetics
Part II – My Sensual (Feeling) History
- Chapter 5 – The Satin Edge
- Chapter 6 – Gifted, Hyper Competitive, and Overly Sensitive
- Chapter 7 – Puppy Love and Status
- Chapter 8 – Busy-ness as Salvation
- Chapter 9 – Karate and Self Image
- Chapter 10 – Homophobia and Musical Expression
- Chapter 11 – Digging a Pond, High School, and Music Camp
- Chapter 12 – Heterosexuality, Self Esteem, Avon Fashion
- Chapter 13 – The Opposite Game, College, and Sex
- Chapter 14 – Cruise Ships, Internet, and Control
- Chapter 15 – Saturn’s Return, Delayed Gratification, and Aging Dreams