June 2008 Archives

A Little Later

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from Venetia
Georgette Heyer

Beyond the stream lay the Priory itself, a rambling house built in Tudor times upon the foundations of the original structure, subsequently enlarged, and said to be replete with a wealth of panelling, and a great many inconveniences.


". . . Fair Fatality, you are the most unusual female I have encountered in all my thirty-eight years!"

"You can't think how deeply flattered I am!" she assured him. "I daresay my head would be quite turned if I didn't suspect that amongst so many a dozen or so may have slipped from your memory." . . .

"Spiteful little cat!" he said appreciatively. "How the devil was I to recognize Miss Lanyon of Undershaw in a crumpled gown and a sunbonnet, and without even the chaperonage of her maid?"

"Oh, am I to understand then, that if you had know nmy quality you wouldn't have molested me? How chivalrous!"

Her first encounter with the infamous Lord Damarel goes none-too-well and so provides the reader with delights of the first order.

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Georgette Heyer

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It is a shame that Mrs. Heyer's novels have always been marketed as "Romances," indeed, that she is considered the founder of that most infamous of romantic genres "the Regency romance," not because her stories are not romances, but because we no longer truly understand what is meant by the term and many potential readers are alienated both by the genre and its marketing. How many young men are likely to pick up a book with a bright yellow cover showing a young woman as though filmed through cheesecloth accepting a yellow rose from a young man in a rather too frou-frou shirtfront and jacket? There was a time in my life when I deprived myself of the enormous pleasures of reading Mrs. Heyer for reasons no better than these. And it is still a little embarrassing to be "caught" in the act of flipping through one of the Harlequin editions.

Thank goodness a trade paperback publisher has recently reissued much of Mrs. Heyer's work in editions that look much more like what Ms. Heyer has written--comedies of manners á la Jane Austen. Romance is the predominant thread and the binding glue of each of the stories, but they are crackling with with poise and pungent observations about the human animal--in love and otherwise. In the new editions, which features covers that look like portraits of the John Singer Sargent age, no self-respecting man will have any difficulty picking them up and reading them. Well, perhaps there is a lingering aura that is no so easily diffused, but the covers go a long way toward helping with the image problem.

I'd like to share a small portion of Venetia that gives you a sense of the snap and crackle of dialog and the undercurrent of a deep and sensitive intelligence that drives the work. Additionally, Mrs. Heyer does her research--her characters are always "in time, in dress, and on the right stage" as it were.

from Venetia
Georgette Heyer

"I can't, of course. What is it?" she returned, glancing at the volume. "Ah, Greek! Some improving tale, I don't doubt."

"The Medea, he said repressively. "Porson's edition, which Mr. Appersett lent to me."

"I know! She was the delightful creature who cut up her brother and cast the pieces in her papa's way, wasn't she? I daresay, perfectly amiable when one came to know her."

He hunched an impatient shoulder, and replied unctuously: "You don't understand, and it's a waste of time to make you."

Her eyes twinkled at him. "But I promise you I do! Yes and sympathize with her, besides wishing I had her resolution! Though I think I should rather have buried your remains tidily in the garden dear."

A castoff, a mere bauble of dialog that sets the story rolling and we know Venetia and the brother to whom she speaks. More than that we see an oxymoron--a gentle spitfire who knows a great deal, knows how to use it, and yet does not pull out all the plugs.

Georgette Heyer is a skilled writer whose works continue in print not because of a small population of readers of romance, or even because of a large population, but because the books are good--well researched, well written, witty, and sharply observant. I wonder how many men have already become acquainted with Mrs. Heyer dispite the nearly insurmountable difficulties of the schlock heaped on them by marketers who inadvertantly narrow the market rather than broaden it. I think Michael Dirda hit the nail on the head when he said in The Classics for Pleasure that the nearest things to Mrs. Heyer's novels were not the chain line of modern factory-produced romances, but the very different romances of Patrick O'Brien with Aubrey and Maturin. There is, I think, a good deal of justice in this comparison. While I have found the Aubrey and Maturin novels unapproachable because of the sheer odiousness of the main characters (or because of my finicky taste, more likely), I find Mrs. Heyer's company perfectly amiable--someone to take aside on a summer's rainy afternoon into the book nook or windowseat and spend a while chatting with. Someone who has much to say and says it both well and beautifully.

Man or woman, do not make the mistake of dismissing Mrs. Heyer as the queen and founder of the modern romance novel. You will be giving up a great deal if you do.

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Books Carefully Considered


Before loaded into luggage--see TSO, the wonders of that slender machine:

The inimitable master: The Ambassadors Henry James
The End of the Affair Graham Greene
Venetia Georgette Heyer
Arthurian Romances Chretien de Troyes (includes Erec et Enide, Yvain, Cliges, and Lancelot.

While here in Texas, I am going to try to seek out a half-price books and see if there might not be some Georgette Heyer (mystery and romance) on the shelf. Of particular interest The Grand Sophy, which I just re-read about in Michael Dirda's Classics for Pleasure. However, I'll probably snap up anything I can find.

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San Antonio


Traveling for work again. Arrived in San Antonio today. After checking in to conference, went to Rosario's for lunch--highly recommended if you're stopping by San Antonio. After lunch went on the mission trail--Concepcion, San José, San Juan, and San Francisco del Espada. This last is most interesting. Within the mission Church there is a stature of San Francisco (supposedly Assisi) dressed in wildly inappropriate golden garments and looking a lot like someone from China, with something that looks like a black lace halo on his head. In addition, the Saint is standing on a skull. The name means something like Saint Francis of the Sword. (The del Espada may refer to the patronage of a family that helped to build the mission.)

San Antonio is a wonderful, bright, friendly city. There isn't all that much to do within the city and so it becomes a perfect place for relaxation amidst some beautiful scenery.

Once I return home and have some of my other devices, I'll try to post some pictures of these wonder missions.

Dinner at Rudy's (of course)--absolutely no atmosphere whatsoever, but the really excellent food more than makes up for it.

Tomorrow perhaps more.

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Hollywood Celebrities

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I try very hard not to think about Hollywood celebrities, particularly when I'm trying to enjoy a film. And there are some lives and people that are nearly deliberate freakshows, but I have to admit to a not-quite-grudging, not-quite-full-fledged admiration of Jolie-Pitt--four children of their own, twins on the way and this. Anyone who encourages us to pay attention to the plight of children. Well, it's just plain hard not to admire that.

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from The Ambassadors


The Ambassadors is one of three books acknowledged as "great" from Henry James's late period. With the other two Wings of the Dove and The Golden Bowl, it made the list of the top 100 books of the 20th century. If it is like The Golden Bowl at all, I would say that it deserves its place among the top novels, probably more so than many others on the list. And my reading so far suggests that such praise is not unwarranted. Additionally, this book, at least initially, seems to have a somewhat lighter tone than either of the other two, or indeed, than much of James's work outside of the short story.

Here's an example.

from The Ambassadors
Henry James

"Ah, they couldn't have come--either of them. They're very busy people and Mrs. Newsome in particular has a large full life. She's moreover highly nervous--and not at all strong."

"You mean she's an American invalid?"

He carefully distinguished. "There's nothing she likes less than to be called one, but she would consent to be one of those things, I think," he laughed, "If it were the only way to be the other."

"Consent to be an American in order to be an invalid?"

"No," said Strether, "the other way round. . . ."

This conversation takes places between the protagonist, Strether, and the catalyst for the story Miss Gostrey. And it leaves little doubt in the reader's mind regarding Miss Gostrey's opinion of Mrs. Newsome.

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Reading List


Jesus of Nazareth Pope Benedict XVI
The Ambassadors Henry James
Say You're One of Them Uwem Akpan (a very talented Nigerian Jesuit writing about life in Africa today. Five stories about African children in appalling situations.

For more on Uwem Akpan (an interview that I haven't yet listened to): NPR Interview

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The Gabriel Hounds


Mary Stewart was one of my mother's favorite authors. I had nver read much of anything other than the Merline/Arthur books, but I had glanced through some of the books and formed a favorable impression of the prose in general.

Because I had spent some time with the Misses Archer and Sloper, I thought I had earned a little vacation from slow-going but enriching literature and spent it with three books--Agatha Christie's Appointment with Death, John Dickson Carr's The Man Who Could Not Shudder and Mary Stewart's The Gabriel Hounds. Perhaps more about these former two later. But for now--The Gabriel Hounds.

Mary Stewart, like Georgette Heyer, is one of those people capable of writing a "romance" which is engaging to whomever wishes to read it. The modern day "romance" elements of this book are slender indeed, confined to a couple of moments largely in the last twenty pages of the book. While I've seen her typified as a modern day "gothic" writer, nothing could be further from the truth--at least as far as this book gives evidence. She is a writer of suspense novels/mysteries set in exotic locations which she renders with an incredibly deft touch.

It is difficult to imagine a write more able to create atmosphere and setting with a lighter hand than can Mary Stewart. The Gabriel Hounds is set in Lebanon and Syria of the mid 1960s. Apparently, at that time, Lebanon was still a fairly pleasant place to visit. And the story takes place in the Dar Ibrahim, a palace located between the sources of two rivers--one of them being the river at which Adonis was killed by a wild boar.

The story centers around a visit made by a dutiful great neice to the eccentric aunt who inhabits this rambling wreck of a palace and all of the mayhem and havoc that ensues.

Given that this is my first encounter after the Merlin novels (about which I have mixed feelings), I have no doubt that I will be visiting Ms. Stewart more frequently in the future. This book provided an enjoyable respite and a few quiet moments with a very capable writer.

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We leave, for a moment, our discussion of Miss Archer, although, God willing and time enough, I do hope to return to it, and consider the case of Catherine Sloper, cellulose and celluloid. Washington Square is considered the first novel of the so-called "middle period" of Henry James's writing.

I was attracted to Washington Square by a recent trip to New York in which I was able to take in some of the historic sites. While I did not see the Washington Square arch by daylight, I had seen it on a previous trip. I was also attracted by the fact that it was the novel that immediately preceded The Portrait of a Lady and seemed to have some of the same concerns.

Catherine Sloper is the plain, dull, somewhat dimwitted unwed daughter of Dr. Austin Sloper, a complex, demanding, tyrannical figure of a father who dominates Catherine's life in the same way that Gilbert Osmond dominates the life of his daughter Pansy--possibly to similar effect. And that is part of what makes Washington Square such an interesting study.

At the beginning of Washington Square, poor, plain Catherine is approached at a party by dashing and handsome Morris Townsend. Out of the blue he comes to her and starts to be entranced by her charms. She is alarmed, never having recognized any charms within herself to charm anyone, and pleased. The courtship soon begins.

Within days, Austin Sloper is disapproving of the whole thing. The disapproval grows until he decides that he will disinherit Catherine if she continues the relationship. While this does not deter her, it does throw a monkey wrench into her relationship with Morris.

The subtle psychological complexity of the novel is thrown into high relief when one views The Heiress, a William Wyler film adapted from a play, in turn adapted from Washington Square. As the movie sets out, much is similar to the progress of the novel, but it is in the complicated windings of the ending that the rock-solid superiority of the book is brought forward. From this point on, let only those who have no intention of enjoying either continue, for here be spoilers.

In the novel, Catherine Sloper is ultimately jilted by Morris for whom her mere 10,000 a year is insufficient when he could have 30,000. As they plan their elopement, he leaves for a "California business trip" from which he does not return. Catherine stays on in her father's house, becoming a spinster. After a number of years, her father becomes ill. On his deathbed, he asks her to renounce her intention to marry Morris Townsend and she refuses. He alters his will and substantially removes her from it. Morris does return after the death of Dr. Sloper and he takes up where he left off, somewhat older, but not all that much the worse for wear. Catherine receives him once and then tells him to stay away.

In the movie, much of this dynamic is gone. Catherine comes to an awareness that her Father "doesn't love her" (doesn't value her and is constantly deriding her is more to the point). In the book, the realization is more like the latter. Catherine plans an elopement with Morris and embraces the idea that she will be disinherited by the disagreeable old man. In the book, the idea of being disinherited is a horror for Catherine, not so much for the sake of the money, but for the sake of the injury it will do her father and the family. While she celebrates the disinheritance with Morris, she plans their elopement that evening. Of course, he never shows up. In the course of a short time, Dr. Sloper dies, with Catherine refusing even to come to his bedside. He does not disinherit her (the cinematic Dr. Sloper being a good deal more compassionate and kinder than the literary Dr. Sloper). In fact, in the book, one gets the sense that Dr. Sloper is being almost entirely arbitrary in his "testing" of Catherine, relishing the challenge of wills more that being particularly concerned about how Catherine will turn out.

In due time (in the film) Morris returns and offers an excuse for not running away with her. Catherine appears to accept it and arranges to leave with him. When he returns to elope, she refuses to answer the door to him.

The two works have their own strengths and attractions. I doubt any but the most skilled and subtle director could have brought Washington Sqaure as it stands to the screen in the 1940s. Indeed, we needed to make it into the postmodern era before the logic of the ending could appeal and resonate with us. We have an nearly instinctive understanding of Dr. Sloper and Catherine and the dynamics of their relationship now. That James was able to see, understand, and chronicle all of this in the 1880s stands as a remarkable testament to his acuity as author. Catherine Sloper is "a type" who, as I implied, shows up again with Pansy in The Portrait of a Lady. We do not know that Pansy will come to the same end as Catherine; however, when she tries to exert her own will even a little, her father sends her away to a convent for additional "finishing."

But back to Catherine Sloper. The Catherine of the movie becomes hard, brittle, hateful, and harsh. She internalizes what she thinks of her father, not what her father actually was and did. She turns herself into the image she has made of him. In the book Catherine falls into a kind of dazed submissiveness. After Morris turns her down when she has come to terms with her disinheritance and offer to go away with him, she returns to her father and, essentially, shuts down. She becomes his companion in physical person, but her spirit is largely absent. She never deliberately hurts anyone, Morris included, but one gets the impression that she never engages anyone in anything more than casual conversation.

Washington Square is an amazing portrait in minature of profound psychological complexity, and, it seems to me, accuracy. Catherine Sloper is taken from hopeful debutant to reclusive spinster on a vector of her Father's making but only with her nearly complete cooperation and acquiescence. In some sense, Washington Square is even more "feminist" than The Portrait of a Lady, showing at once how subject a woman's life was to the life of the men around her and how that subjection profoundly colors her life, her interactions, and her person.

While I find the book a better exercise and a better piece of fiction, both the book and the movie have their own individual rewards--the rewards of the movie being Olivia de Haviland and Sir Ralph Richardson in some very fine performances.

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More About James

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Yesterday's post was unsatisfyingly vague because I didn't want to disrupt the enjoyment of anyone who had not yet encountered this truly wondeful book. Let that serve as a warning to all who have not yet read it as they proceed into this post.

The Portrait of a Lady:Genesis of the Anti-Hero?

It seems reasonable that if Hamlet can be listed in the rosters of the anti-hero, so too can Isabel Archer. Like Hamlet, Isabel might otherwise be considered a tragic hero, but here "heroic flaw" pierces so deep and so profoundly divides her character that it is really impossible to sympathize with her dilemma. She has so thoroughly compromised herself with her uncompromisability that she is no longer emotionally accessible to the reader.

This last point is interesting. In a discussion with a friend the other day, he suggested that James never intended Isabel Archer to be emotionally approachable or even likeable. If indeed, this is an accurate reflection of James's intention, he succeeds admirably. If, on the other hand, the reader is supposed to be engaged by Miss Archer, James has failed miserably to make her engaging.

Looking through the Jamesian Canon, one finds a plethora of female characters in similar situation. Neither of the leads of The Golden Bowl is particularly attractive. Catherine of Washington Square is anything but likeable, approachable, or even in any real sense knowable. The principles of The Spoils of Poynton are so thoroughly offputting one is put in mind of Anne River Siddons Fox's Earth. The nursemaid of The Turn of the Screw is even more a ghost that the ghost she may not see. And Daisy Miller is made to be unlikeable start to finish--once she meets her end from one or another disease, the reader breathes a sigh of relief and moves on. The catalog is not exhaustive, nor is my acquaintance with James's work, but call this a working hypothesis. What is fascinating about James's work is how he manages to engage the reader without giving the reader a central figure who is particularly sympathetic or engaging.

In The Portrait of a Lady, the engagement comes largely from the characters that fill Isabel's world--Mr. Touchett, Mrs. Touchett, Ralph Touchett, Lord Warburton, Caspar Goodwood, Harriet Stackpole, Mr. Bantling (on the good side), the Countess Gemini (in the ambiguous mode), and Gilbert Osmond and Madame Merle (on the bad side.) Pansy, Isabel's stepdaughter, seems to take after her stepmother in the realm of unsympathetic heroines. In a way akin to Catherine of Washington Square, the demur submissiveness of Pansy is an appalling spectacle to behold, and Isabel's inadvertent assist of this least attractive of Pansy's qualities is another point that deflects the reader's sympathies from Isabel.

In this swirl of interesting and mostly likable characters, Isabel stands out as something of a vacuum, a black hole of sympathy. Watch her interactions with others and read her interior monologue and the reader becomes become progressively chilled, as the realization dawns that one is in the presence of a committed egomaniac--a person without any outside anchor in reality to ground her theories and notions, and thus a ship untethered in fair weather or foul and likely to run aground at the first shoal.

And the reader sees this again and again as first she rejects the advances of Lord Warburton, and then of Caspar Goodwood, and even the gentle non-advance of Ralph Touchett, who is wise enough to understand that he is not even in the running. And it is through the kindness and thoughtfulness of Ralph that Isabel achieves the wealth to allow for her destruction. Ralph entreats his dying father to alter his will to leave a living to him and to his mother, but to settle the bulk of the estate on his cousin Isabel Archer. It is this wealth that precipitates the decline that occupies the second half of the novel.

Because she is now a woman of means, she becomes attractive to a pair of schemers (somewhat similar in mode to The Wings of the Dove, who proceed to plan her "demise." Madame Merle, whose name indicates "blackbird" in French, and whose name, the book notes informed me, is supposed to remind me of Madame Mertuil of Les Laiasons Dangereuses, is the primary instigator. It is her chance meeting with Isabel and her acquaintance with Gilbert Osmond that defines the action of the remainder of the book.

I must leave off at this point, and if I can, I will return to the declining action of the book. But, I have a quick trip to NYC and Boston in the interim, so I don't know where I'll be by the time my head settles.

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Henry James, Redux


More properly titled

Some Notes toward Coming to Terms with The Portrait of a Lady

The Portrait of a Lady is a difficult book to characterize; there is little in the way of plot or setting, and much about the interior lives of the characters, even if much of that is viewed from the exterior. Isabel Archer clearly occupies center stage and she presents her own difficulties to the reader. Frankly, it is difficult to like her and even more difficult to sympathize with her plight. The whole arc of the book can be described by the adage, "She has made her bed, now she must lie upon."

Why is Isabel Archer so difficult to like? The answer to this question probably boils down to the definition for a "tragic hero(ine)." A noble, otherwise likeable person, with one major fault. If fault there be in Ms. Archer it is an overweening pride. The bible instructs that "Pride goeth before a fall," (and after, as well, as anyone who has taken a tumble in public can testify). And fall she does, from a great and dizzying height.

And yet one is left with the impression than much of the angst and anguish of that fall is unnecessary--dictated only by the odd and hard pride that drives Ms. Archer. In fact, contemplating what has happened to her in the course of her marriage, she considers for a moment ending the pain by walking away, only to conclude that she cannot do so because then her error will be brought to public notice.

So where are we left with Ms. Archer? It's odd, her pride leads in two directions. In the beginning of the book, she is unwilling to be "tied down," to consider marriage because it would be a compromise of all the possibilities that seem to open up before her. She flouts conventionality and the "normal" way through life. Once she has abandoned her better judgment and entered into marriage, her pride leads her to cling to the conventional way of things so that her error and her shame will not be broadcast into the world. It is interesting the way in which this most primal of sins pulls Ms. Archer in two ways, never offering a moment of piece or tranquility. In her ascendant phase, she rejects the approaches of two men who really love her, breaking down in tears after she sends one of them away--tears of anger and even rage that she should have to tell him to go away. In her decline, she once again breaks down into tears when she realizes that her pride leaves her no way out of her dilemma.

Pride is the central issue of the book. It is the cross on which our heroine is hoisted, and it is such an ugly sin that many will look upon it and say that perhaps she deserves what she has made for herself. As in many of James's works, the heroine is not particularly attractive. We're told that she's beautiful and has a way about her that seems to fascinate men. But the reality is that to the reader she presents a rather formidable, stern, and completely self-interested facade that does nothing to provoke any sympathy. Hence, the book cannot really be viewed as a tragedy. No more can one view it as "realism" or "life as it is," because this life is so warped out of any possibility of viewing it as normal. All around her, she has examples of women who have stepped out of conventionality to live a life that is more compatible with their spirits, but she disdains these role models in favor to the model she has built in her head. And so, she condemns herself to a life of misery or at least a long pause on a possible life of happiness. More wicked and horrible than that, she has it within her power to free another trapped in the same web as she is, and yet she refuses to do it--possibly creating another life in the image of her own. Oh, how our sins come home to roost and how that roosting increases them and their effects.

I'll end this jumble of part I for now, because if I do not do so, nothing will ever see the light of day. But there is much to think about in the case of Ms. Archer, and perhaps these notes have provoked some of you all to look into for the first time or refresh your acquaintance with Ms. Archer if you had perhaps the pleasure of make such a friend earlier on.

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A Weekend in the Arts

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This was Sam's weekend with Saturday given over (the entire day from 9 am to 10 pm) to his dance recital and Sunday to his Royal Academy of Music Piano exam. About the latter, there is little or nothing to relate, so the bulk of this post shall refer to the former.

Sam was in five dances on Saturday--tap, hip-hop, ballet, acro, and jazz. (Doesn't this begin to sound like the set-up for a logic problem?) In each case, as the only boy his age in the troupe, he was noticeable and something of a centerpiece.

The theme of the recital was "A Trip to New York" and this first tap dance was called "Tourists." It was danced to a song that sounded vintage 1920s or 1930s but could have been of more recent day. The entire troupe acquitted themselves very nicely given the rehearsals and the classes we had seen. In fact, more than very nicely, they were all pretty much in synch and the dance went off without a hitch. He has also passed the age at which he spends a lot of his time looking off-stage expecting prompts and help from the teachers.

The second dance was our least favorite dance-class of the year and the one I keep threatening to withdraw him from. Unfortunately, it is also his favorite. The Hip-Hop dance was titled "Double Decker Bus" and was danced to some piece called "Double Dutch Bus." He was the busdriver and I have to admit, as a performance, the piece looked far better than it did in rehearsals and practices and he did a really fine job (I suppose). It's really hard to evaluate whether one is doing a good job in hip-hop because much of it looks like a barely controlled seizure to me. However, the audience appeared engaged, and that, I suppose, is one sign. Even among parents ardently interested in their own children's performance, it is difficult to get much of a reaction to the performances of others' children--and this received a warm welcome.

The third dance was his ballet and it was really spectacular for me to see. Titled "Little Italy," it was danced to a vaguely classical sounding Tarantella. After a balletic version of a folk dance, Sam had a short solo consisting of a run around the half-circle of girls, four "air-splits" (or whatever the move is called, where the dancer jumps straight up with legs outstretched) and two tournes-en-leve--a simple jump and spin. What was really neat about the whole thing was that Sam managed to keep toes pointed and good form throughout the dance. Throughout this year of dance, he had been afflicted with a severe case of spaghetti arms, but there was no sign of it during the recital.

The acro piece was done in rainbow colored Tina-Turner wigs and danced to The Chipmunk's version of "Funky Town." Sam is still coming into his own on acro, but I was astounded by all of the moved I saw, including a set of one handed cartwheel two girls did while holding hands. I can't imagine the coordination that takes.

The final dance was Jazz. Performed to "Jailhouse Rock," I was once again astounded by two things--pointed toes and "jazz hands." Jazz hands, for those who don't know the terminology are hands shown with fingers widely splayed. Sam's spaghetti arms also tended to afflict his Jazz hands, but he managed them quite capably.

Overall, the performance showed to me something that I seem to see time and again. For an audience, Sam can do amazing things. The audience energizes him and really brings out the very best in his performance. While practicing and running through the routines, not so much. But wow, give him an audience and he'll have them eating out of his hands.

As soon as I transfer them, I'll try to have some picture for you all.

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About this Archive

This page is an archive of entries from June 2008 listed from newest to oldest.

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