Kissing Michele

To say Michele’s  kneebuckling beauty and charm made English my second language would be a falsehood. To say her beauty and charm (along with the scent of Tabu) put my ability to complete a coherent sentence at risk would be closer to the truth.  We were 12 or 13 at the time of this all too brief flicker of romance.

Michele and I  danced with the Orange County Ballet Theatre (OCBT) just outside of Newburgh, New York. At the time this story took place I was dancing a lead role in a ballet called Elegy for the Joffrey Ballet. I would join OCBT for performances on a regular basis.  My first teacher and mentor, Regis Powers, was the co-founder and director of the company. Very often I’d dance the role of the Nutcracker Prince. Michele, as I recall, danced several roles in that ballet, one of which was an Arabian dance in which each of the girls wore a costume that exposed their bellies and lower backs. How I didn’t collapse into a puddle of helpless smittenfication when I watched her in that role was and is a mystery to me.

Never did the phrase head over heels in love find itself more accurately applied then when it was applied to my reaction to Michele. Being head over heels for someone (at any age now that I think about it) can toss many things related to good judgment right out the proverbial window. At the time, I lived in Nyack, roughly 50 miles away from where Michele lived in Newburgh. I couldn’t stand being apart, so, one night I climbed behind the wheel of my grandfathers Mercedes! (I’d never driven a car before, only go karts) and drove to her house in the dead of night just to, well, look at her house. The fact I got there and back safely is a miracle. A few years ago I had the chance to talk to Michele on the phone and told her about this middle-of-the-night drive. “Why didn’t you come in?” she asked (I could feel her smiling). I said it was something like 2:30 in the morning and I figured her family might want to know why on earth was I knocking on the front door at that ungodly hour and, by the way, Peter, whose Mercedes is that?

After a performance of the Nutcracker one night at, I believe, the Valley Central High School in Montgomery, New York, Michele and I walked down a dimly lit school hallway until we were alone. (It was then I learned exit lights are some of the most romantic lighting known to humankind.) There near the wall lockers, I summoned up my courage and kissed her. Our first kiss! When it was over and we began walking back down the hallway I swear I was floating! First, the romance of exit lights, then the greatest kiss that ever took place in the history of the world, and it was true, you could walk on air! At one point I stopped walking and asked, “Can I kiss you again, just to make sure that was real?” And we kissed again! It was real, and I was still floating.

Well, that was, I am sad to say, the beginning and end of our romance. But, then and now, it was a moment I will never forget and always be grateful for. Recently, a close friend of mine sent me a picture of Michele and me. When I saw the picture for the first time I swear there was a hint of Tabu in the air. I even looked down to see if I was floating again. I won’t tell you whether I was or not. (You’d never believe me.)

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Dancing with Laurie

I fell completely in love with her the moment I saw her. And then, when I saw her dance, even more so. The fact Laurie Scandurra was slightly older than me, combined with the sadly unavoidable reality that I was 10 or 11 at the time, probably explains why I didn’t propose marriage to her on the spot.

Laurie was and is one of my favorite dancers – ever. And I’ve seen, without exaggeration, hundreds of dancers.

For quite a few years I was a ballet dancer. And, once a dancer always a dancer, at least that’s how I see it.

I wouldn’t trade in my dancing days for anything. I had the privilege of dancing a lead role for the Joffrey Ballet and I danced quite a number of roles (and quite a number of times) for a regional dance company in Orange County, New York called, the Orange County Ballet Theater. It was there that I met Laurie.

She was then and remains now my favorite female dancer. We all had our favorite dancers back then. We’d compare favorites much like kids would compare favorites in their collection of baseball cards.

My love for the ballet preceded my love for Laurie by about five or six years. It happened when, at age five, my mother took me to see the New York City Ballet’s “Nutcracker” at City Center. At the end of the ballet I was sure of three things: I wanted to dance, marry Clara, and beat-up her brother Fritz for breaking her Nutcracker in the first act. I even mailed Clara a love letter addressed to, well, Clara.

I’m still waiting for a response.

My favorite male dancer was, without question, Edward Villella of the New York City Ballet. When Rudolf Nureyev defected from the Soviet Union in 1961 and became all the rage, I wasn’t having it. As far as I was concerned he was no match for Villella. And, for pure depth of artistry, no one was a match for Erik Bruhn of the Royal Danish Ballet. Bruhn was, without question, the Laurence Olivier of dance. I’d rather see Bruhn do one pirouette than anyone else do 10.

But when it came to women, Laurie, as I said, was my favorite. She wasn’t just good, she was great. Why? Because like all great dancers, the all of her being, physically, emotionally and spiritually, was present in her every movement. There wasn’t an emotion on the life-scale of emotions that couldn’t flow out of her with breathtaking power and completeness. I could’ve watched her dance forever. And, oh my, how I wanted to dance with her.

Like me, Laurie did not have the over-valued and over-hyped George Balanchine-body, meaning tall, lean, and absent even a hint of curve. As a result, she didn’t get cast in roles like the lead in Sleeping Beauty or Swan Lake (she would have soared in both). Had she ever been given the chance to dance the lead in “Firebird” she would have come close to matching the greatest female lead in that ballet, Maria Tallchief. Francisco Moncion and Maria Tallchief owned the “Firebird.”

Back then Balanchine, in the eyes of many at the time, could do no wrong. He was seen as almost a God by some. Not me. Yes, he was a brilliant choreographer, but I was not a fanatical fan of Balanchine like my mother and so many others. In fact, when I first saw his ballet, “Agon,” my mother positively blanched and nearly lost her footing when, as we were leaving the theatre, I told her the only thing that needed to be done to fully capture my opinion of the ballet was to add a Y to the end of its name. I was seven.

I did like some of Balanchine’s ballets very much. I would have given anything to dance “Tarantella” with Laurie. There are other ballets I would have loved to dance with her as well. “Afternoon of a Faun” comes to mind and then, of course, she would have been spectacular in the role of the ballerina had I ever had the chance to dance the part I coveted more than any other, the role of Petrushka in the ballet “Petrushka.”

I’ll tell you this, if we get a do-over in life,  my plan is to propose marriage to Laurie the second I see her, so what if I’ll only be 10 at the time! And then, of course, I’ll ask her to dance.

My Mother Dancing

When someone I love dies the years seem to pick up speed. They fly by. My mother Leona was 68 when she died nine years ago yesterday. It doesn’t feel that long ago. She was and always will be one of the greatest discoveries in life for me. She had to give me up for adoption when I was a baby. We had my first seven days together and that was it. She was only 20 when she handed her son over and returned home utterly destroyed. This is not the missive to explain all this, or how I know all this other than to say we left nothing about the subject and circumstances of my adoption untouched by conversation.

We were reunited on January 8, 1987, a moment in both our lives so filled with emotion for the both of us I’m surprised we didn’t burst. But then again, we were cut from the same cloth. To be more precise, I am cut from hers. She had the ability to not only allow moments of enormous amounts of emotion, she welcomed them.

She also loved to dance, and dancing contains worlds of emotion. She may have suspected that, like her, I found it and still find it impossible to remain physically still when music is on. To this day I find myself utterly baffled by people who can sit still while music with, say, Latin rhythm is on. I always want to tap them on the shoulder and ask, Don’t you feel that? However, she certainly had no idea I’d danced professionally and when I was a little boy my family would play music just so I could keep dancing, I couldn’t get enough.

The evening my mother and I reunited and found each others arms again we went to her home, after first going out for coffee. There my “new” sister, Sunday, said, “If you’re in this family you better love to dance.” My friend Dane was with me. Dane looked at me and said, “You want me to tell them.” And so he told them about my days dancing with the Joffrey Ballet and dancing pretty much every time I ran into music.

On October 2, 1987, the first birthday we had together since the day I was born, my mother and I went out to dinner, and then we went to a club and danced all night. She was a great dancer, the greatest dance partner I’ve ever had.

I love you, Mom, miss you terribly, and I’m still dancing.

REMEMBERING GERALD ARPINO

I loved Gerald Arpino very much. A choreographer and one of the founders of the Joffrey Ballet, Mr. Arpino died this week at his home in Chicago. He was 85. I learned a great deal from him. He was a man of kind and gentle heart. His intelligence was formidable and his choreography was both courageous and extraordinary.


In 1967 at age 13, I danced a principal role in “Elegy,” one of his ballets. Set to Polish composer Andrzej Panufnik’s extraordinary 22-minute anti-war symphony, Sinfonia Elegiaca, “Elegy” was the story of a Confederate soldier from the American Civil War, danced by Maximiliano Zamosa. Just when he is blindfolded and tied to a tree to be executed by a firing squad of Union soldiers, he has a flashback to the halcyon days with his wife and children.



I danced the role of his son and Charthelle Arthur and Susan Magno took turns dancing the role of his daughter. Noel Mason, as beautiful and elegant a ballerina as I have ever seen, danced the role of his wife. It is at the end of a dance between father and son that the flashback ends, the father is pulled back into the horror of his reality and executed.


The rehearsals were extraordinary experiences. Hard working and sweat filled with Mr. Arpino focused and intense, pushing us to breathe life into our characters, and never failing to seek the input of the dancers, including mine!


After the execution, there was a funeral scene. I had a small wooden sword tucked in my belt. At one point I break free of my mother’s hand and dance a solo wielding the sword because, as Mr. Arpino said, “You are following in your father’s footsteps and at the same time you are trying to kill those who killed him.”



Mr. Arpino turned me loose in my solo. He never told me what steps to do and instead sat back and freed me, allowing me to pour my all into it. The solo ended when my mother took the sword from me, determined that her son would not die the way her husband.


But Mr. Arpino taught me more about life than just ballet. He and others in the Joffrey helped me discover that those who are gay are no different than anyone else. I had fallen in love with the ballet when I was five and began training in earnest when I was eight. I was an ignorant little homophobe whose idea of homosexuality had about as much to do with reality as the Wizard of Oz. And, while my dancing career was cut short by a series of unforeseen circumstances, I left that career no longer burdened by the poison of homophobia. Mr. Arpino and others taught me that you you don’t have to be heterosexual to be a real man.


When Mr. Arpino died this week, the world lost a wonderful human being and a real man. Like I said, I loved him very much. Still do.

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HOW DO YOU WRITE A MIRACLE?

This year I will try to write the impossible; an essay about my father. I say impossible because I know anything I write will fail to fully express how much I love him, how much he means to me, and how much I still miss him.

Writing about him begs the question, how do you write a miracle? My father was and is the greatest gift life has ever given me. I know writing a miracle takes a miracle. Unfortunately, this particular miracle is nowhere to be found in my repertoire of writing skills, a fact that has many times stopped my pen from attempting this essay – until now.

Why now? I’m not sure. Perhaps it is because my health took a run at me last June or perhaps it is because I will turn 55 on my next birthday and my father was 55 when he died. Perhaps it is because I have this year been reintroduced again to the miracle that was my father, in part because I have had some who claim to love me drive knives of betrayal into my back, proving once again that it is easier to say you love than it is to love. In other words, talk is cheap.

The only wrong my father ever did me was a wrong he could not have foreseen. He loved me for me so completely that I adopted the mistaken impression that people who would love me throughout my life were like him: they would accept me for me without judgment or guile. For the longest time I believed when someone loved you, you were safe being yourself with them; when someone loved you, loyalty, kindness and the absence of cruelty were sure things.

It would be more than 35 years before I fully digested the reality that none of this was true. That in fact, my relationship with my father was a remarkable exception to the rule; it was a miracle.

Last year and this year I was betrayed by people who, if you asked them today, would stomp their feet and swear up and down they love me and care about me. Yet, there is a reason they say actions speak louder than words. Yeah, I know it’s a cliche. Once when I was a boy I groaned to my father about something being a cliche. He smiled and said, “Well, Peter, there’s a reason they become cliches.” Very true.

My father, Sanford Cleveland Kahrmann, was born on February 20, 1914 in Elizabeth, New Jersey. He loved to read and was, by all accounts, deeply creative. His brother, Harry, was born a year later. The two remained close throughout their lives. Both fought in World War II. My father was in the 20th Armored Division. I knew this about him because he told me and showed me his patch. I still have it. However, he never told me that the 20th Armored Division was one of three American divisions that liberated the Dachau Concentration Camp. He never said a word about that, and I can’t say as I blame him.

My father taught English in Columbia University and John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. It was my father who gave me the world of reading. I was about eight or nine. One day I wandered into his room. He was sitting behind his desk marking papers. Behind him was a wall filled with books ceiling to floor. To this day I think a wall full of books is just about one of the most beautiful sights on earth.

I said, “Daddy, you got a minute.”

He leaned back in his chair and said, “Sure, what’s on your mind?”

I looked at the books and then back at him. “I’m not a reader like you and Mommy.”

“What makes you say that?”

“Every time I try to read a book I can’t finish it.”

And then he said what struck me as a curious thing. “What makes you think you have to finish it?’

“Aren’t you supposed to finish the book?”

“No no. You’re thinking about school assignments. People are always confusing school assignments with reading.”

“Really?”

“Don’t you think the author has some responsibility to keep you interested?”

This made perfect sense to me. “Yeah!”

“Well then. Forget about finishing books. Pick 10 books here that perk your interest. Read them until you don’t want to read them anymore. Forget about page numbers, just read and enjoy them.” Suddenly all the books in the world belonged to me. I’ grabbed piles of books from the shelves and retreated to my room and looked through them all. I was free! I could read anything I wanted and if I didn’t feel like finishing the book, I’d put it down and move onto the next book. It is worth noting that during the dark days of homelessness, the says of solitude after the shooting and during other dark times, books have always been a safe refuge.

When I fell in love with the ballet at age five and began classes at age eight and at age 13 found myself dancing a principal role for the Joffrey Ballet, my father was very proud of me. He didn’t like missing my performances. But, unlike my mother, his happiness with me was not contingent on my being a dancer. Many years later my mother would tell me that my quitting dance hurt her more than the death of my father and her parents rolled into one. My father loved me because I was me.

My father and I not only loved each other, we liked each other, and enjoyed each others company. I can’t remember a single fight or argument between us that stemmed from a disagreement between us. When we did argue, which was rare, it nearly always revolved around one of my fights with my mother. My mother and those in the dance consistently made it clear to me that I was a dance prodigy and destined for greatness. It was a given, they said, that dance was my destiny; I was different from other children. My mother and many others expected me to be another Nijinsky. So I did what any other boy would do; I expected the same. Many a child’s life has crumbled into dust under the weight of expectations like these.

My father liked me and loved me because I was me. When we had dinner with his colleagues, no one pointed out that some might find it unusual for a 13-year-old boy to be an equal part of conversation with college professors. We were all friends. It was just life with Dad.

When he taught me how to tie my tie or when he taught me how to ride a bike, it was the two of us, internally illuminated by the love we had for each other, a love that was so strong and complete that on reflection, I am surprised we did not glow. And I was like most sons who learned to ride a bike with their father’s running along side with their adult hands stabilizing the bike, the moment I realized he was no longer running alongside me holding the bike steady, I did what any young boy worth his salt would do, I crashed.

My father taught me chess. He gave me a slender book on chess one Christmas. Inside he wrote a note saying he knew the day would come when my expertise in chess would surpass his. And it did. I suspect it did because the adult mind deals with far more than the child mind, thus allowing the less cluttered child mind to concentrate more fully on the game at hand. We studied chess books together. We played out the games of the great players: Capablanca, Lasker, Alekhine, Rubinstein, our mutual favorite, Sammy Reshevsky and, of course, later, Bobby Fisher.

We went to an American Chess Championship tournament held in a New York City Hotel. Six or seven games were taking place on a raised area in the front of the room. Hung on the wall behind each game was a chess board with pieces that would be moved when the players made their moves so all in attendance could see. Small chess sets were out throughout the room as we all studied the games and tried to determine what the next moves would be. We went the day Fisher played Reshevsky. To our great joy Reshevsky won the game. Fisher would go on to win the tournament. We went up to the table and congratulated Mr. Reshevsky and Mr. Fisher. Mr. Reshevsky dabbed the sweat from his forehead with a white handkerchief.

I said, “Good game,” to Mr. Fisher who shook my hand, looking none too pleased.

My mother and others in the world of dance brought me to the belief that anything short of greatness in the world of dance would mean I was a complete and utter failure. The pressure and strain was immense. But I had my father, he was my refuge. Our relationship was my safe haven. But that all came to and end on August 16, 1969 when he died unexpectedly. I was 15.

Freed of my father’s peacemaking presence, my mother put me in reform school on a PINS (Person In Need of Supervision) petition 16 weeks after his death. That was the end end of my family life. It took all of 16 weeks. My father dies, family disappears, I am orphaned.

When I was released from reform school a year later I was not allowed back into the family. I was homeless for more time than I like to remember. It would be nearly 10 years before mother and I reconciled. And while we became friends the last 10 years of her life, I was never included in family events. In fact, when she committed suicide in 1992, she left word that I was not allowed to speak at her memorial service.

Over the years I have come to believe that loving heart-to-heart loyalty between two people is crushingly rare. But, I am blessed with my father, my miracle, who, while I can not write him and do him justice, lives inside me.

I would not be alive today without him. And today is the 39th anniversary of his death.

When my father died, my ability to feel safe in the world died with him. When I got sober more than six years ago now, my ability to feel safe in the world began to return. It is not back all the way, not yet. But it returns more and more every day.

I know he is glad that once again his son can again be happy and at peace simply by being who he is. I can be me, and that is enough. After all that’s all he ever wanted for me in the first place. Come to think of it, it’s a miracle.