For some time now, I’ve been thinking about a series of blog entries that would profile people who have really enriched my life. While I have been very fortunate to enjoy the support and friendship of many people, there are some who stand out as giving me something I couldn’t (or didn’t) find anywhere else.
This past weekend, CASA of Dunklin County had a “Dancing with the Stars” fund-raiser. My brother Matt told me, “I’m supposed to get you to do something.” Since I’ve been a CASA volunteer and used to tap-dance, I felt honor-bound to get to work.
A week to work out a routine, another week to practice, and there I was. If I’d had more time, I’d have either been better, or crippled. I’m not sure which. Next time I’m picking a tempo I can stay with instead of a song that’s just a bit too fast. I know one thing: if not for “Mr. Bill” Westbrook, I’d have just been in the audience like everyone else.
When I was a kid, I’d see Gene Kelley or Fred Astaire dancing in the old movies, and think, “Wouldn’t that be great to be able to dance when you felt like it?” So, in 1980, when I saw an ad in the paper advertising dance lessons for children three and up, I thought, “That’s ME!”
Mr. Bill Westbrook (and his wife "Miss Bess") had been teaching children to dance since I don’t know when. My sister had taken lessons as a child. He hadn’t been teaching in the area for a while. From his home in West Memphis, he traveled to Paragould, Arkansas regularly, and now he was putting Kennett back on the circuit.
My wife and I and several other folks took lessons from Mr. Bill over the next seven years. We even danced in the recitals, had our own routine after the little kids (not to mention some young ladies who could REALLY dance). Libby danced through both pregnancies.
I didn’t have much aptitude, but made up for it by working hard and looking at analytically. I’m not like my young friend, Grace Andrews, from whom the tap steps flow like water from a faucet. Once I thought I was getting pretty good, so I put on a Fred Astaire movie, and found he was dancing TWICE as fast as I was. I could hardly walk at that tempo, much less dance it. I definitely learned enough to have fun, though.
We participated in “The World’s Longest Chorus Line”, miles of dancers on Riverside Drive in Memphis, tapping to “Mississippi Mud”. Mr. Bill put it together, and got Rufus Thomas (inventor of the funky chicken) to be “premier danseur”. As class members, we were team leaders, with cool pink shirts, instead of black ones. Some technicality kept it out of the Guinness Book of Records, but it was a really fun way to spend a Saturday.
Mr. Bill also taught us ballroom dancing. We had lessons in the basement of the First Christian Church. He was apprehensive about dancing in a church, but the pastor and his wife were in the class, so it had to be all right.
When Blair was old enough to walk, she had a few lessons (and a costume). He really did teach kids to dance instead of just “bounce that hip”. You would never see an 8-year old doing some kind of cootch dance, or made up like a prostitute.
In all the time that I was privileged to be in his company, I never knew him to lose patience or utter a harsh word. Dozens of little girls and moms and costumes at a recital, wardrobe malfunctions, technical problems… he never lost his cool. He was truly a gentle man.
He was no spring chicken when I met him (maybe even older than I am now). When he suffered a heart attack and no longer felt up to the travel each week, it was a great loss to us. If he were teaching now, there would be stuff all over the internet. I treasure all the memories of what he taught me and the pleasure of his company. He was a great gentleman.