A Real Life Hero

There is nothing like middle-of-the-night sleeplessness to make me re-think some of my previous posts.  And by “re-think,” I mean writhe in regret.  I am talking about this post, where I mused about Lance Armstrong and Tiger Woods, both fallen heroes.

Most of you knew I was talking about my own need for heroes in the flesh, something beyond flawed sports heroes or the rascally Greeks from mythology.  (Medea, would you like some Zoloft?  How about the maximum dose?)

I hated my Lance/Tiger post for lots of reasons, which I won’t go into now, but I will say that I have been thinking about the real heroes I have known and how they deserve space on my blog ahead of Lance and Tiger.

So, here is my amends post, which I dedicate to one of the most important true heroes in my life.

I give you my former ballet teacher, Denise Brown, who appeared in my life when I most needed a hero.

Denise Brown: hero, survivor, teacher, mentor (Photo by Kye R. Lee)

Denise Brown: hero, survivor, teacher, mentor                 (Photo by Kye R. Lee)

Salient facts: she survived the Holocaust, she spoke with a French accent, she had beautiful hands, and she used to drive me home from late-night class in her Mercedes while telling me stories about dancing with the Ballet Russe.  I had no idea her father died in Auschwitz or that the Nazis killed her first fiance. She never spoke of that.

When I was 14, however, she choreographed a piece called, War, set to music recorded by prisoners in concentration camps.  It was the most mournful music I have ever heard.  Denise cast me as a recently-arrested mother, who had to hand over her young daughter to Nazi guards, who never appeared on stage.  I can still hear those searing Hebrew lyrics in my head.  It was the sound of agony.  Still, I didn’t know how autobiographical the piece was.

I would have done anything to earn her praise.  As a chubby child growing up in an alcoholic home, I was a deeply committed people pleaser– I ached for authority figures to love me and give me approval.  Having landed in the care of Denise Brown, I landed in her lap of love.  I do not take for granted that I ended up somewhere safe– in the hands of someone sick (see Sandusky), I would have become a victim a thousand times over.

And Denise was no one-dimensional archetype.  She wasn’t afraid to disapprove of my bad habit of sticking my tongue out when I concentrated on new steps.  She was also opposed to my poofy stomach.  Once she recommended that I try the “all egg” diet to lose weight. (That’s the diet where you eat 3 eggs for every meal, and nothing else.)

She wasn’t perfect, but she was so good to me.  Once night, I showed up to class crying.  Two days before, I had auditioned for the Boston Ballet, and the director refused to process my application because I was “too overweight.”  Devastated and ashamed, I couldn’t tell anyone except for Denise how poorly the audition went and how much I hated myself.  Because I was too fat.  She held me and made it okay to be an aspiring ballerina in a hopelessly fat little body. She did for me what no one else could do– gave me comfort, wiped my tears and inspired me to keep dancing, even though I was fat and felt like nobody loved me.

History made Denise a hero long before I was ever born.  Before she passed away, I wrote her a letter and told her what her love meant to me during the 12 years I danced with her.  I closed the letter by saying that I hope my children find teachers like her, though, honestly, I hope they don’t need her as much as I did.  Still, every child deserves a Denise Brown.

To read more about Denise Brown’s life, please click here and/or here.

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28 thoughts on “A Real Life Hero

  1. What a great story! Yes, it’s people like these who are the real heroes, not people who make little contribution to society but get paid scads of money anyway.

  2. Denise Brown was a beautiful woman and left an incredible legacy. I was honored to dance for her, especially in “War” with you. I remember that dance so well to this day. But, like you, I had no idea how much meaning there was behind those mournful notes. Thank you for bringing a little Denise Brown to my Saturday night….put a smile on my face for sure!

  3. I thought this was beautiful. You were so fortunate. What a testament to what amazing people there are who walk quietly and with love and compassion, when they themselves may have been deprived of, well everything. Hero indeed. Thanks for sharing. I love stories like this.

  4. What a beautiful post! It is amazing how we all affect the lives of other people without even being conscious of it! We should live our lives so one day another person can write a post us as their heroes!!

  5. How beautiful. I’m glad she was a part of your life. I cannot wrap my head around how anyone could survive the Holocaust. Emotionally. I feel like I’m barely surviving having a baby and that’s supposed to be a good thing.

  6. Sometimes I think that each post you write is a tiny jigsaw piece that fits into a larger puzzle about the person you are. I think this is one of my favorite posts. What a wonderful woman.

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