I had an unusual gym teacher in high school, her name was Connie-Joe Hepworth – CJ to her friends and students. She taught Modern Dance, and created a high school dance company that was not only renowned throughout the state, but also raised the physical education budget for all the sports disciplines for our school each year by putting on a dance concert that drew people by the thousands.
CJ was a vital, thoughtful teacher. She commanded without demeaning and guided without stifling. Everything that dance was seemed to flow from her with ease. How she ever got such a highly developed Modern Dance department going in a high school in Salt Lake City, Utah could only be a testament to her extraordinary talent.
I discovered dance at a young age, seeing the joy with which Fred Astaire performed. My early ballet training won me a slot as the youngest and one of the few men in her dance company. I auditioned and was accepted even before my first day as a freshman.
Her class was more than an amazing education in dance for me, it was also a home away from home. As a Mother of two CJ had an uncanny ability to understand where children were at, and how they needed to grow. She also exemplified a woman in her own authority. She knew she had power in the school and she used it for the benefit of her students and her program.
She also provided me with an extra dose of mothering to help me through my rough days as a male dancer in a conservative school. In those days dance became a truly nourishing part of my life. I worked as her student aid extra periods, another opportunity to hide away from the hostile high school halls. But it was working at my weekend job as a dishwasher that I met her husband the musician.
He was one of many quiet, ponderous forms haunting the bar in the dim lighting of Big Ed’s Restaurant, the university burger joint where I worked. He seemed fairly well known and liked, performing with local orchestras and teaching in the music dept. It wasn’t until after he committed suicide that I looked back and saw how depressed he was.
This was my first image of someone who was publicly labeled as depressed, albeit posthumously. I had seen others stricken mortally by grief and sorrow. Mr. Hepworth seemed to suffer from something much more sinister and haunting. It was as if everyday someone smeared him all over with a milky greyness that stifled any brightness that approached him. He belonged to the darkness of the bar, drinking in its dinginess and intermittent anonymity.
I watched him hold his depression back most of the time, engaging passers by in sensible conversation with a sensible look of optimism stretched like colored saran wrap across his face. And when he thought nobody was watching he would sink back into another landscape, his brightness floating off as if it had never been there, a transparent convenience quickly discarded.
The day I saw her in class after it happened, CJ looked as if she’d been hit by a train. It seemed that she had no idea this was coming, though I heard rumors he had attempted suicide before. Some weeks after the funeral her son nearly lost his life, driving his car into a tree at high speed.
I didn’t see CJ for years after that, not until she showed up with a date at a party for a play I performed in. I could see in her eyes the need not to discuss that chapter of her past – seeing me was a discourteous reminder of a former life, but I also saw the resilience of a woman who embodied a true sense of inner power and inner beauty. Her survival was a testament to what our hearts can hold.
Her husband demonstrated to me that this darkness teaches the people it approaches to hide their suffering. It turns us into cleaver spies, creating false identities to serve the moment, allowing us to nestle back into its world. I have become more skilled at spotting his agents, though its still not hard to fool me.
I pray here that some of the radiance that CJ sent out into the world found its way back to her when she needed it. These forces, when they take one of us, might also scrape away some of the brightness of those standing nearby. We’re a little burned, maybe more than we realize until much later.