I spent Sunday with my best friend at her home in the Jersey Shore, sorting through closets full of the gorgeous, petite-sized, vintage clothes of her late mother.
When Allison’s mom, Cecilia Joy (aka Diane Leslie), passed on last August, it took everyone by surprise. The magical creative muse who seemed ageless to most had suddenly left us. I did my best to be there for my friend and help her cope through the most painful time of her life.
(You can read more of Allison and her mom’s story below.)
It happened during the final month of rehearsals for the premiere of Swan Canal, the first dance show I had ever created and choreographed, in which Allison was part of, preparing to perform for the first time in 10 years. (She is a doctor by day, dancer by night :) ).
Allison took her mother’s mantra of “The Show Must Go On,” and decided to continue rehearsing and perform with us.
As painful as it was for her - for many reasons - she also recognized how extremely important it was to continue dancing through it.
Allison told me a couple of months ago that one night in her living room, she had started choreographing a dance.
It worked through her complicated relationship with her mother, and despite all the therapy she had been engaged in, this seemingly simple act was incredibly healing and transformative. She asked if I would help her develop the piece and bring it to a performance space. I said yes, of course.
And so on our drive back from Jersey, the backseat full of salvaged furs and floral print dresses, we talked more about that process and I got the nudge from the universe that it was time to make this an experience that more people could benefit from.
And such was birthed:
a dance lab for creating through loss, love, & everything in between
Over the years, I’ve worked with many clients who have dealt with the loss of loved ones in the past, and I’ve seen how so often unresolved relationships cause blocks in their experience of full creative expression and happiness today. I’ve witnessed clients start dance companies, start singing again, and get on stage for the first time in years through our program together. And while the work I do is not therapy, it is the art that helps them work through these deep wounds.
So I’m creating a new dance workshop series which is for you if:
- you have a complicated or unresolved relationship that you sense is weighing on you, such as: you’ve lost a loved one, lost your home, stopped talking to your mother, broke up or got divorced, etc,
- you identify as a dancer - even if it’s been years since you’ve actually danced
- you sense that self-expression through dance and creating a movement piece are what your heart and soul are craving right now.
If you are not in the area but still interested, send me a note, because there are other ways we can work together in this capacity.
I'm curious to know -
Has creative expression ever helped YOU cope with a loss?
I encourage you to share your story in the comments below.
And, I’ll leave you with a beautiful piece written by Allison in honor of her mother and their dance through this lifetime. The pictures and music alone are worth a thousand words…
My mother was the epitome of creativity. She devoted herself to creativity, to art, to expression.
She was born with perfect pitch, which my grandparents, Ida and Norman, realized when my Mom – born Cecelia Joy Notov on November 26 - was just five years old. She never forgot to remind me about it. “Did you know that’s in D flat minor?” she’d say when I was 12 and we’d watch old black and white movies over ice cream sundaes on Saturday nights (which I’d label with “A” for Allison and “M” for “Mom” in Hershey’s syrup) and listen to the orchestrations accompanying the credits. I had no idea it was D flat minor. My pitch is relative at best.
By the age of 14, Mom was a soloist with the Pittsburgh Symphony, playing the Grieg Concerto to a sold out audience at Heinz Hall. By 17, she was booked on dates in NYC, Canada, and cruise ships as a concert pianist, singer, performer….a creative genius. She was “Cee Cee Joy,” the newest sensation from Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh. And she was GORGEOUS.
Soon after, she moved to NYC and took a stage name – “DIANE LESLIE” – less Jewish, she was told. But in recent years, just 8 months ago in fact, in summer 2014, she told me she wanted to go back, “I think I’ll be more successful as Cecelia, what do you think?” (Notably, when I was 6 and got my first professional gig on stage with the Dallas/Fort Worth Ballet I was given the stage name “Allison Joyce” and kept it throughout my dancing career. Perhaps I should go back?).
After college at NYU where she studied Music Education, Mom made it big as a concert pianist, singer, composer, actress, and TV anchor in NYC. And lucky for her, she met her prince charming (and the most amazing dad in the world) in a recording studio, where she was recording a hit for Warner Brothers Records, and he was heading up the music department. As she tells it, she saw my father and told her best girlfriend, “that’s the man I’m going to marry.” And so she did.
Over the course of her career, Mom concertized across the world, Alice Tully Hall, Heinz Hall, Steinway Hall, the list is endless. She wrote music for stage and screen. She was a creative director behind and television anchor for the News Center 4 show, “Kids Stuff” for years. She wrote the theme song to the show Small Wonder. She played the “Snow Queen” on ABC’s Pinocchio’s Christmas. She played guitar. She sang. And excuse my language, she played the F*** out of the piano. There was no piece that she couldn’t master. Greig concerto? Done. Layenda? Got it.
And composition? She composed her own music. And she was creative with the works already out there. She took all of Schubert and made his themes modern. Bach? Scarlatti? Brahms? All of them. She was dear friends with Helga Sandburg – the daughter of the great poet, Carl Sandburg – and months before her passing put all of his poems to music (an album I am confident is going to sell, just like her first album, which can be found here: http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/dianeleslie ).
But, like most artists, Mom also struggled.
The career is not an easy one, especially as you age. “What’s my age range?” was a daily question. She wanted to be eternally her 17 year old self. And I believe she is at this very moment.
My Mom was on the adjunct faculty at NYU, teaching piano to students worldwide. She was also my first and most difficult piano teacher. Most importantly and dear to her heart, she was named a Steinway Artist in 2010. The title allowed her to go to Steinway Hall weekly and practice the piano in her beloved Rachmaninoff room, as it was called (interestingly, the Hall closed a month after my mom left this space-time).
My mother was a musical genius. She never really learned to use a computer keyboard, but made up for it on the real keys. She never really learned to manage her finances, but she could somehow understand the math behind the rhythm of the music.
A month before she left, she told me “If I cannot play the piano, I don’t want to live.” Her death was untimely. Unnecessary. Unfair. It had nothing to do with her capacity to play. She died while getting ready for a gig, putting her makeup on. She wanted to go to the studio. I know with all of my heart that she did NOT want to leave. She yearns to still be at her baby grand, playing the F out of those keys.
Professionally – as Dr. Applebaum, and not Allison Joyce – I work with families dealing with chronic illness and the possibility of death and dying. But sudden, untimely death is a different beast. On a scale from 1 – 10, with 10 being the worst emotional pain one can feel, I’d say this was a good 5,000 for me, and still is. The world lost a creative genius, a good 20 years too early. But much more importantly, I lost my Mom.
My Mom left at the worst moment in our relationship. The days of ice cream sundaes were long gone in August 2014. But they didn’t have to be. I wish I could have been more creative emotionally, to allow more of the good to remain when other things were hard. I don’t have one recorded voicemail from her. No recorded conversation. And most devastating, no recording of her annual happy birthday message to me, which would be her classical rendition of the Happy Birthday song, played loud and clear on her Steinway baby grand, after which she’d say “Happy Birthday, Baby.” I’ll never forgive myself for erasing that last message. While I don’t have a verbal conversation between Mom and myself recorded, I do have a recording of our playing the Schubert Fantasie in F minor. I was about 14. We were recording it for my grandma Ida to hear. I played the bass and she, the treble. We were a bit off, she was showing off, I was trying to keep up. A musical conversation, perhaps resembling our life-long relationship.
We never know when we will leave this world. We can anticipate it for years, fear it for years, prepare for it for years, but in cases like mine, my 93 year old frail father is still with me, and my “forever 17” mother is gone. Much too soon. What I’m left with is her music. Her CD’s. Hundreds of them. Recordings of every one of her piano lessons. Recordings of her in the studios. The musicals she composed. Her unpublished work. Literally hundreds of notebooks with sheets with the letters “a” “d” “g” and so on written (my mother wasn’t one for writing notes on the musical staff). Beautiful songs the world may never hear.
I’m hoping to use creativity to help me cope with the vast emptiness left by my (incidentally just 5’1 and 92 lb) mother’s absence. She left on August 25, 2014. Two weeks after her passing I got back on stage and danced for the first time in 10 years. It felt awful and wonderful. It felt deceitful and right. And I’m getting back on stage this coming month. Always and forever in honor of my Mom. I also have promised her and myself that I am going to learn Chopin’s Fantasie Impromptu. I’ve started working on it on her Steinway baby grand. It’s like re-learning a language I learned years ago. Doing it is frustrating and painful, but connects me to her. I want to learn it. And I want play the F out of those keys like she did. Perhaps even someday to a small audience.
I’ve also promised myself to be more creative, generally. To create new spaces for me to express what is so painful. To be more creative in the work I do professionally, and more creative in how I care for myself.
Clearly, nothing is for sure in life. What I do know for sure is that there is no amount of creativity that can bring our deceased loved ones back. But creativity can bring the possibility of good things to accompany – note, not fill – the void. I’m looking forward to a creative life. To telling my closest girlfriends about my prince charming, and to engaging in the greatest creative act when I’m ready – to create a new life, and hopefully have a daughter, who will be named Cecelia Joy, after her grandmother.
Until those happy days, I will do what I know is healthiest and most painful: listen to her music, cry as she plays, and create a new way of life. Learn to get off the elevator and not hear her playing down the hall, not have her millions of once-bothersome texts and calls, but somehow learn that she’s sitting with me, leaning on my shoulder, living my life with me, in her own new creative way.