By Ed Staskus
“To live is to keep moving.” Jerry Seinfeld
“My grandfather had a 16mm camera,” said Julia Sauve. “He walked around taking home movies of everyone, all the family, our real relatives and our adopted relatives, all the kids. Everybody would come, it was like a party house, their house in Brooklyn.”
While visiting New York City recently and at a family reunion, she had a look-see at film footage, transferred to a DVD, of her childhood. “I watched myself as a baby, a toddler, and a little kid. I was an active child, always running around, very physical. I thought, oh, yeah, that’s why I am the way I am.”
Coming around the corner from her house in the small town of Victoria on the south shore of Canada’s Prince Edward Island the block-or-so down Howard Street to the family-owned Landmark Cafe, where in the summer season she works with her son, daughter, and ex-husband, she is the easiest person on her feet on the walk.
She is footloose over the cracks in the pavement.
“I started ballet when I was 7-years-old,” she said. “I took my first modern dance class when I was 16.”
She ‘s been an artist dancer performer choreographer and teacher ever since. Dancing might be the only walk of life whose aim isn’t to get anywhere, but is rather a process of the steps along the way. It’s not a discipline whose ambition is to be better than anyone else, either, but one whose purpose is simply to dance better. It’s a kind of solitary self-mastery nevertheless done in public.
“Dance is the only art of which we ourselves are the stuff of which it is made,” said Ted Shawn, one of the pioneers of modern dance. There may be abstract art, but there is no such thing as abstract dance.
Growing up in Spring Valley, just west of the Hudson River and just northwest of New York City, Julia Lachow grew up in a family invested in the arts.
“My parents were both artsy,” she said. Her father Stan was involved with community theaters and was in the original cast of “On Golden Pond” at the Apollo Theatre on Broadway in 1979. Her mother Barbara transitioned from stay-at-home mom to dance teacher to psychologist, still practicing in NYC.
“They were always supportive of my brothers and me in the arts.” One of her brothers is a musician and the other one is a filmmaker. “They never pushed us about how much money we were going to make.” Never mind that Andy Warhol once slyly said, “Making money is art and the best art is good business.” When it comes to Andy Warhol, however, sometimes it’s better to simply believe in his art, not necessarily his bank account.
She was on the swim team at Suffern High School when she saw the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. The company, a troupe of 32 dancers founded in 1958, first performed at the New York Young Men’s Hebrew Association, otherwise known as the 92nd Street Y. They are credited with popularizing modern dance in the United States. Their signature choreographic work “Revelations” is the best-known and most often seen in contemporary dance.
“The lights went on,” she said. “That was it. That’s what I want to do.”
She started taking modern dance classes at a local studio. She kept it up at a nearby community college. When she transferred to the State College of New York she majored in dance. After graduation she moved to New York City.
“That was where you were going to get the best training.”
For the next nearly four years she got the best training.
She studied with Joyce Trisler, who was keen on the technique of Lester Horton, the West Coast dancer whose demanding style featured fast small steps and spirited ups and downs, combining elements of jazz and ballet and contemporary hoofing. Alvin Alley once described Joyce Trisler as “just a crazy floppy girl from down the street.”
She studied with Milton Myers, who since the early 90s has been the director of the modern program at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival. He routinely stole shows in the 70s and 80s coming out of corkscrew actions with quick vertical jumps, always active, always strong. He subscribed to the Horton technique of training, describing it “like physical therapy in its approach to creating a balanced body, training and freeing the body through constant movement.”
She studied with Matthew Diamond, who at the time was with Jennifer Muller and the Works, and went on to become the director of the TV show “So You Think You Can Dance”, which has since won seven Primetime Emmy Awards for Outstanding Choreography.
“It was great when he got that gig,” she said. “Dance is hard to film since it’s so fast, and he was a dancer.”
In late 1977, while working with the New Dance Group in Manhattan, she took a few minutes to talk to a fellow dancer
“I just got back from Prince Edward Island,” said Cathy Cahoon. “I danced with a fellow from there.”
“Wow, if you ever go back, I’d love to go with you,” said Julia, even though she barely knew Prince Edward Island from the man in the moon.
The next year the two of them joined Don Burnett and formed the Montage Dance Theatre. They wrangled free space at Trinity United Church in Charlottetown, the provincial capital. They stayed for five weeks. “We danced 25 hours a day, no kidding,” she said. They put on a show at the end of their residency.
“I fell in love with the place when I first came here,” she said. “There was so much space here.”
The next summer she went back for the whole summer. “We danced, gave demonstrations, and did a series of lectures. Don was cast in the Charlottetown Festival and we performed in the Maud Whitmore show.”
In the fall she went back to New York City.
“I was sad.”
The following January she got a call from Don.
“Meet us in Charlottetown,” he said.
“Yay!” she said, happy.
She packed a suitcase and moved to Prince Edward Island in February 1980. When she left New York City she moved from where there were 27,000 people per square mile to where there were fewer than 70 people per square mile.
Artists may starve for their art, but there’s no starving for space on PEI.
She moved to Charlottetown, working with the Montage Dance Theatre, teaching and performing in their studio theater, and soon met her husband-to-be.
Eugene Sauve, recently arrived from Montreal, was helping the troupe as their technical director. Julia and he hit it off. She even got him on stage, dancing, once or twice. “He was so nervous,” she said. “He’s got good rhythm, but I was leading, so all he had to do was rock back and forth.
Two-stepping led to high-stepping. They got married, Julia light on her feet, Gene trying not to rock back and forth. They soon had a son, Olivier. They started looking for something bigger than their cramped apartment in Charlottetown. Gene was working at a new theater in Victoria, on the Northumberland Strait 20 miles away. Julia drove out to the small town.
“I’ve lived here before,” she thought. “There’s something here, a past life regression. It was fun and creepy. I felt like I needed to live here again.” They bought a house across the street from the fire hall and moved in on June 1st. Two weeks later her daughter Rachel was born.
“Everybody tells you never move when you’re about to have a child,” she said.
Some people say, now that you’re eight-and-a-half months pregnant, you’re going to give up the house-moving thing, right? Some women say, I’m not crippled, I’m only having a baby.
“We did it box by box.”
She has lived in Victoria ever since, except for two years teaching at a boarding school in New Hampshire. “The kids grew up in that house.”
When the family moved from the capital city to greener pastures in the mid-80s they moved from where there were 15 thousand-some residents to where there were about 150 residents. Even though in the biggest cities everybody still lives in a neighborhood, Victoria is so small the whole town is the neighborhood.
Julia Sauve had moved from the jam-packed Big Apple to a minor-key metropolis to a seaside village.
The next year Montage Dance Theatre’s building burned down. “That changed everything,” she said. In the meantime, she, a modern dancer, met Peggy Reddin, whose background was ballet. They started getting together, “in a secretive way, in coffee shops,” talking about starting a dance school. “It was all just talk.” Several months later the secret was out. They decided to become business partners.
“We just did it.”
Their business venture, dance umbrella, opened its doors in 1989 in a second story rented space above Froggie’s, a used clothing store somewhere in Charlottetown. Since then they have become one of the best and brightest dance schools in the Maritimes.
“We are not a ‘line ‘em up and shuffle ’em through’ school,” said Peggy, while Julia added, “We’re proud of our students. They are getting to be very good dancers.”
In 2006 dance umbrella merged with the Confederation Centre of the Arts, expanding their programming, and last year rounded out their 28thseason with their annual end-of-the-year showcase in the Homburg Theatre. “We had everything from a Tragically Hip tribute to ‘Dance of the Snowflakes,’” said Peggy Reddin.
Juia Sauve has long been involved with Act Community Theatre, helping stage their showcase shows, worked with the Colonel Gray High School for two decades choreographing their school musicals, and has taught at Holland College School of Performing Arts. She founded the Luminosity Black Light Theatre, the only black light performing company in Atlantic Canada.
Many of Luminosity’s themes were environmental. “Water is a life force that is in us and all around us,” she explained. “Water has no sense of itself. It just is. It doesn’t sit still.” You dive into the water, but most of the time you can’t tell how deep it is.
“I used to pretty much take every gig I could get,” she said.
“There’s no escaping it. I was the person in my grandfather’s home movies who had to be a performer and a teacher. That’s not so off from who I am now.” She even attempted the improbable back in the day, trying to teach ballet steps to her two young brothers. It was a daring if doomed effort.
Although she hasn’t settled back into a rocking chair on the back deck of her house, she has recently retrenched.
“When did I stop teaching like a crazy person?” she asked herself. “It was maybe five years ago.” She continues to teach a class at dance umbrella. “But I let the younger dancers do the heavy work.”
Rocking chairs may give you something to do, but they don’t get you anywhere. Where she has gone the past three years is where many stroke survivors have trouble going, which is getting out of their chairs. What she has done is rolled up her sleeves on a project of helping restore some liveliness to lives that have been impacted by a cerebrovascular accident.
“How do you take someone that is so compromised, where maybe one side of the body is just not working, and help people feel better in their bodies,” she asked. “How can I get these people moving?”
A stroke is a brain attack. It happens when blood flow to a part of the brain is cut off. When cells lose oxygen they start to die and whatever the affected parts of the brain control, like memory or muscles, are then bewildered, or lost. It can happen to anyone at any time. It can be catastrophic. Most survivors suffer from some kind of disability.
Some survivors turn the disability to their advantage.
“When you have a stroke you must talk slowly to be understood,” said Kirk Douglas, the actor who appeared in more than 90 movies and won Academy Awards, Golden Globes, and Emmys, and who suffered a severe stroke in 1996. “I’ve discovered that when I talk slowly, people listen. They think I’m going to say something important.”
He wrote a book about his experiences, calling it “My Stroke of Luck”.
It was a book called “Move Into Life” that got Julia Sauve going. She was volunteering at the Omega Institute for Holistic Studies, an educational retreat center in New York north of Poughkeepsie, when she met the author. Anat Baniel, a former dancer and clinical psychologist, developed her method of treating chronic pain and physical limitations by emphasizing activity and becoming aware of the entire body, how it feels and moves, so that the brain can map the body anew and evolve a person’s ability to feel and move again.
Back home in Victoria her life partner Reg Ballagh suggested she talk to his brother-in-law, the head of the stroke unit at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Charlottetown. He in turn introduced her to Trish Helm-Neima, the Provincial Stroke Coordinator for Health PEI. They started working together at community centers.
“We did our first session near the end of 2015,” said Julia. “It was just a once-a-week thing.” Once a week clears away the rust of the rest of the week.
“We do 75 minutes, a combination of seated and standing exercises. Everyone spends time in a circle after that integrating what we’ve done. I pass around handouts. It’s when people work at home that you really see results.”
Her goal is to help stroke survivors help themselves rewire their bodies and brains. “It’s about creating plasticity, developing the neural activity in your brain,” she said. “These people had big lives. Stroke just knocked them over the head. Our goal is for them to have success. From a teacher’s standpoint it can be very rewarding.”
Except when it isn’t.
“Some people will give up,” she explained. “One of our participants, she was doing well, and then I heard through the grapevine she succumbed. She succumbed to where she was, succumbed to the idea that she was just going to sit around.”
One of the reasons efforts like Julia Sauve’s efforts are important is because it’s not just about exercise or therapy. Stroke support groups challenge survivors to get past society-imposed doctor-imposed self-imposed limitations. It’s about feeling connected, about being in the same boat with others, about having a can-do attitude, sailing the waves, no matter how storm-tossed.
In time Julia Sauve created a program called “Moving Life Forward with Movement and Music” with funding from a PEI Wellness Strategy grant. One week, while the Festival of Small Halls, a series of music venues, was ongoing on Prince Edward Island, she played jigs and reels during class.
“Wow,” I told them. “You’re doing really good. That is awesome.”
“That’s because the music is so good,” said one man.
“It’s because the music is so familiar,” she thought. “You’ve been going to ceilidhs your whole life. You’ve been listening to fiddle music all your life.”
“In rehab we talk about the repetition of movement and the pattern of movement is what’s going to make you learn that movement,” said Trish Helm-Neima. “So if you can find a fun way to do that you are more likely to continue doing that repetition and gain that function back.”
Getting up in the morning is only the half of it. Having fun is the other half. It’s always fun to do what might seem the impossible.
The next week Julia cued the fiddle music again. “They did it so good,” she said. “I ask our participants all the time, what’s the first part of your body that dances?”
“Legs, arms, feet,” they say.
“No, it’s your ears,” she tells them. “You hear the music you get the beat. I haven’t had a stroke survivor yet who wasn’t able to key the beat to the music.
“Sometimes we have them do a kick line holding onto chairs. They astound me.”
Even though Julia Sauve has slowed down she has no plans of slowing down.
“There’s something you’re put on earth to do,” she said. “That might sound woo-woo, but we’re put here for a purpose. Where I’m coming from now is, I want to learn more and help people more.”
When you’re always coming or going somewhere, at the family’s eatery dishing out some of the best meat pies on the island, on the no-stopping dance studio floor, or unfolding a folding chair helping a stroke survivor get a groove on, every day is moving day.
Click here to see more writing between fiction and non-fiction by Ed Staskus.