jackie and june

If I had it to do again, I would live each moment more.
~Nadine Stair

Only sixteen dancers were chosen when it was over. Though there were seven hundred and fifty dancers who appeared for the grueling three-day open audition, hundreds were eliminated through tests of stamina and specific dance requirements including equal proficiency in tap, ballet, and jazz. We, of course, had to demonstrate an ability to learn complex dance combinations quickly and accurately. This rigor and pressure for six or more hours each day was gladly endured for if any one of us showed signs of fatigue, we soon learned that that dancer would not make the next round of tests. Our ability to kick high and steady for exhausting lengths of time was only one of the challenges we had to pass in order to surface  “the strongest, most versatile, and best-of-the-best dancers” according to the choreographer, June Taylor.

It was the final hour of our audition. A large, round electric wall clock with thick black Roman numerals on a white face hung next to an old stained standpipe. It showed that it was four o’clock. Twenty-one dancers out of the seven hundred and fifty that arrived three days ago stood waiting on a sultry August afternoon in the mud-brown basement-cum-audition room of the Henry Hudson Hotel on West 57th Street in New York City circa 1962.

We were informed that Jackie Gleason was en route from his penthouse suite to help in the selection of sixteen female dancers. Along with being physically and emotionally weary, our leotards were saturated with sweat, our hair was wet and clinging to our heads and necks, and little of our face makeup remained due to the previous five hours of constant perspiration.

I heard him before I actually saw him. Jackie was talking to his colleagues as he emerged from the elevator bank and as he strolled through the double glass doors that opened into the basement, I was struck immediately by his gracefulness. Despite his size, he moved so easily, almost as if he were gliding rather than merely walking. His curly raven-black hair, only slightly tinged with silver at his temples, set off light-blue eyes that reflected a spirit filled with both joie de vivre and an indefinable sadness. He was wearing a gray suit with a crisply starched white shirt and his necktie was casually loosened. And, in his jacket’s lapel he wore a boutonnière — an ever-present red carnation. His eyes were as azure as pictures I had seen of Greece’s clear blue waters reflecting a depth and inner drama within him. Jackie held a cigar in his left hand as he carried a china teacup and saucer. He smiled at us and said something but with my heart pounding loudly in my ears, I couldn’t hear him. I knew that within minutes we would know which five dancers would be dismissed.

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