Thursday April 03, 2014
Heads turn when she walks into the room. Maybe it’s her delicate frame, or the way she holds her head up high. When you meet her, you wouldn’t know that she is nearly ninety-two. How has she managed to maintain her state of grace? She danced.
Last week, South Burlington resident Sharry Underwood shared the trajectory of her life as a dancer with guests at Young at Heart Happenings, a program for senior citizens held every Wednesday by South Burlington’s Recreation and Parks Department. “I knew I wanted to be a dancer before I knew anything,” she said, shifting forward in her seat, as if she were about to get up and pirouette. She sat back and smiled, perhaps reminiscing about decades earlier when she was limber and brisk.
Ms. Underwood then introduced a video of her dancing during her younger years. The guests fixed their attention on the screen, watching Ms. Underwood spin lightly on her toes, like a ballerina. She skipped and twirled with the notable dancer Ted Shawn, an American pioneer of modern dance and founder of Jacob’s Pillow, a dance center in Massachusetts. “If I die tomorrow, I shall have lived,” she said after the film, when sharing how she felt at the moment her agile body floated, arm-and-arm with Shawn.
The high she felt from gliding across center stage with Shawn lingered with her, and one of her dance instructors encouraged Ms. Underwood to make good use of that energy: ‘“take your ideas and dance them out.”’ She did. A pacifist in the 1940’s, she performed in shows like Bloomer Girl and Finian’s Rainbow, which illuminated controversial human rights issues, such as racism. She embraced her artistic freedom: she danced barefoot, and “I let my hair hang down in ballet class,” she said, running her pink-painted nails through her classically styled bob.
But being an artist of any kind does not come without its challenges and roadblocks. She spoke of how she struggled to make money and, when she lived in New York City, she often had only five dollars in her pocket. She collected unemployment and waited tables. She became so destitute that she attempted to sell her blood, but was too anemic. Being poor didn’t discourage Ms. Underwood, “as long as I could eat every now and then,” she said to the crowd, and laughed. The guests laughed with her.
In 1949, she made her way from NYC to Vermont, where she worked at a summer camp for girls, and met Wynn, with whom she fell in love and soon married. Ms. Underwood was relieved that she and her late husband, Wynn, moved to Boston, where he attended law school. She was a city girl and, in Boston, she had ample opportunity to immerse herself in dance: she taught at various colleges in the city, took ballet classes, and performed for the Boston Opera.
A few years later, Ms. Underwood and Wynn returned to Vermont, where he pursued his political career, and they raised their five children. When they first arrived, though, she worried what would become of her hard-earned dancing career: “We drove through forest after forest. Whom would I ever dance for here?” she asked. She danced for children as a teacher: she skipped and ran and swung her arms freely with them, teaching them what it’s like to feel the music.
Ms. Underwood once ran her own dance company and wrote for Dance Magazine. A couple of years ago, she brought dancers from all over Vermont to perform at the Flynn Center.
At ninety-two, Ms. Underwood celebrated her pinnacle achievement: the publication of her book, No Daughter of Mine is Going to Be a Dancer, the story of how she persisted in fulfilling her dream to be a dancer, against her father’s will. She shares a story of courage, vulnerability, love, and the need for acceptance.
Now that Ms. Underwood’s book is complete, a larger community can now enter her world: feeling the pain of her calloused feet, the throbbing sprained ankle she once suffered, and the joy she felt when she landed a lead role in Bloomer Girl.
Ms. Underwood’s story appeals to the young, yet older readers will be inspired, too. Completing a 350-page book as a nonagenarian is proof that aging does not mean it’s necessarily time to slow down, to sit back in a rocking chair and stare out the window, passively watching nimble dancers whirl and leap across the stage. During a recent conversation with Ms. Underwood, I learned that she has spoken at various senior centers in the area, and that she recently traveled to NYC to reunite with her dance contemporaries from the 1940’s
At the closing of Ms. Underwood’s presentation, a guest approached her and said, “You look great. Do you still dance?” Ms. Underwood sat up straight, and stretched her arms above her head, as if she were performing a ballet movement. As she says in her book, “You continue to be a dancer all through life.”
SOURCE: Melissa Cronin, Guest Contributor