An Afternoon with Elsie
It's hard to manage a straightforward answer to the question: How did you become a dancer? Where do we even start? Home movies from childhood can provide some telling signs (I know mine do). Here, we see the early impulses, the need to move around, often ecstatically, unencumbered by our own self-consciousness (which will set in later--probably around the age of twelve). To feel the impulse is one thing, to begin saying, "I'm a dancer" is quite another. The road to that realization can be circuitous and long.
For the past five years, I have had the pleasure of dancing with Elsie Murgida. Elsie began taking dance lessons at the age of 79. Now 84, she has competed and performed at countless regional and national dance events. To ask Elsie how she became a dancer, to look back on the early impulses, is to look back on a time when partner dancing was widely done--a common social activity. We see a twenty-something dancing around the kitchen table with her young children. We later see a seventy-something dancing around the same table with her husband in the final years of his life. Last month, I had the privilege of sitting down and talking to Elsie about the road she took to becoming a dancer. Excerpts from that conversation are below.
MW: What brought you to the point where you decided you wanted to start dancing?
EM: Well I always liked to dance. All my school years, I went to all the school dances. And danced with my classmates. I danced at family weddings, not so many parties, mostly weddings. And I always liked to dance. My mother played the piano and my father played the saxophone, and I always liked good music. I remember my dad dancing in the living room, with all the family gathered around with their instruments. And the only dance my father ever knew was the two-step. And he applied it to all music. And I used to love to watch him.
MW: Because he was good?
EM: Because he thought he was good.
EM: When I became a teenager, there used to be a one-room building in the center of town, and Saturday nights was a community dance. They had a piano player who was a woman, and they had a bass player who was a woman. And they played the whole evening. All my family went to this. Everybody in the community went. And so I had a wonderful chance to dance with men of all ages. My own age and the older men--and boy, could the older men dance!
MW: I bet. So would you say this was the first time that you…
EM: That I really became interested in dancing. I was fifteen, sixteen--in high school. And a lot of these men were the local men, in town. They knew my father. They would be family men in their 40’s, maybe their 50’s.
MW: Yeah, I find that--something about the formality of it--that social dancing can allow people of different generations to connect like that.
EM: This was the fun of that dance--because there were all ages there. And they could all mingle with each other because they all danced with each other. The young learned from the old. Some of the older men knew how to do the fast dances--the polkas, the jitterbugs. Jitterbug was my thing when I was in high school. It was just a lot of fun. And I enjoyed dancing with the older men because they were good leaders. And they knew how to dance. The young people like me were just learning. At 75, my father decided to branch out and take lessons.
MW: That was how old he was?
EM: He was 75 when he and his lady friend decided they were going to take dancing lessons. It was some Mildred Something-Or-Other Dance Studio in Brockton. And he was elated when he came home. He’d say, “Guess what? I can do something besides the two-step!”
MW: Did you have that same feeling that you recognize in him? To be so excited at what you learned?
EM: I think he would have liked the idea of me having lessons that late in life. Instead of having, “just” kids. I had seven children in ten years.
EM: And I used to dance around the table with them.
MW: With the kids?
EM: With the kids. And I would play out in the yard with them, on the bicycle and the tricycle and the cart. I was either pulling a cartload of kids, or I was dancing out in the driveway with them, just having fun with them more than anything. Then, of course, they grew up and one thing led to another, and I knew I had to go to work.
MW: So when you became a nurse, that was the thing you had wanted to do. Did it live up to all your expectations?
EM: It did. It was hard work, but I was determined. I took my training at the original Jordan Hospital in Plymouth. It was the LPN class, and when we got our state license, our class came in third in the county. And that’s an excellent standing. I stayed at Jordan Hospital for one year in the coronary unit. And I liked it. This is what led me back to the nursing home. I had an injury to my right leg. I had ten sheets of wallboard fall on my leg. I went to work that morning at Plymouth County Hospital. They x-rayed it and said, “It’s not broken, but you really need to have some more care. You really should see a podiatrist.” I said, “I know a podiatrist!” It was Dr. Murgida. Who came to the nursing home where I had worked cleaning.
MW: So you would see him. Casually.
EM: I would. But then I called him that afternoon. He treated my leg for a couple of weeks. Then he offered me a job. I stayed for twenty years...
MW: Now, also, your name is Murgida.
EM: ...which led to our marriage down the road.
MW: How far down the road?
EM: Twenty years.
MW: Twenty years.
MW: So you waited a little while.
MW: Was it hard to get on a first name basis after you were married?
EM: For quite a while.
MW: Was it?!
EM: Because anytime that I would say, “Oh, Dr. Murgida…” he’d say, “No, it’s Joseph.”
MW: That was after you were married to him?
EM: This was even after we were married. We got married at the nine o'clock mass at Our Lady of the Lake church because we were going to the nine o'clock mass for several weeks and months before that. Because he had retired. And so when we got married, our guest list just included his family, my family, and the parishioners at the nine o'clock mass. And all the people that came to that mass--didn’t care who was in church, they were invited to have breakfast with us at the Halifax Country Club. And when it was over, I wish somebody had taken a video of Joseph. He was so happy--he took his walker and he walked it along the pews, “I did it! I did it! I did it! I did it!”
MW: He did what? He got married?
EM: To get married. He was 85. I was 74, you know. This was on a Saturday--and so we were there the next morning and the priest said, “Dr. and Mrs. Murgida, where did you go on your honeymoon?” And Joseph got up and he said, “Oh, we went to China, sir.” “Pretty fast flight was it?” “Yeah--and it was fun!” We got married, had the reception and went home.
MW: Did you dance at your wedding reception?
EM: When we got home. Around the kitchen table.
MW: What do you mean?
EM: Well, he never learned how to dance. He wanted to know how. He said, “Now we’re married. You can really teach me!” It was wonderful. It was probably the best period of my life. Knowing him all those years I think was the best time--I love my children dearly--but I think that was the best time of my life. I think probably the most productive part of my life. And I became more interested in dancing because I knew he couldn’t do it. But I just wanted to, you know, keep him moving. And keep him happy. Before we got married I could see some signs. There was a little forgetfulness. Forget his keys and things like that. I’d say, “Don’t you have an appointment with your doctor in town?” And he’s say to me, “you put it in the book, didn’t you?” Things like that. And he’d say, “You’re going to go with me, aren’t you?” “I will if you want me to.”
MW: But he was never that dependent before?
EM: No he wasn’t. Just little signs. And it happened so gradually that you’d hardly notice it. And I’ve known other wives or husbands that have noticed the same. We had several patients that came in, that had some of the leading signs of Alzheimer’s, and yet the immediate family--the spouse--couldn’t see them. So we’d try to enlighten them. We’d say, “You know, you really should take him to his medical doctor and have a talk with him.” They’d say, “I don’t understand.” Some of them didn’t want to.
MW: Oh, I’m sure.
EM: Nursing is basically being aware of what’s going on in the patient. So all my life, in all the training that I had--it’s an awareness of what’s going on. Not to diagnose, but to help somebody, if you think there might be a problem, lead them into doing the right thing.
MW: So it’s not your job to diagnose, but to be intuitive and right there with them.
EM: It’s an awareness.
MW: So how long had you been married before…
EM: We were married a year and nine months before he passed away from Alzheimer’s.
MW: That’s not a very long time?
EM: I miss him terribly. I had the pleasure of knowing him for probably thirty-five or forty years, working for him for twenty of those years, happily married to him for a year and nine months.
MW: How did it come to be that you actually wanted to pursue dancing--as something you wanted to invest your time in?
EM: Joseph was gone 3 years. I needed to do more than just stay home and do housework and brood about things. I just wanted to learn to dance better than I was doing. I didn’t have a male partner. But I liked to go to dances. And if I went to dances, I thought I might meet people. Just to be able to do something more sociable than...nothing. I don’t want to stay home and watch television. Or sit in a chair and crochet my life away.
MW: You were getting bored.
EM: Definitely! That’s what I’d been. Until I came here.
MW: So we danced some of the popular social dances together. You did Waltz and Foxtrot, which you took to right away because you’d done them, right?
EM: I did. And I loved it! I loved every minute that you trained me.
MW: At some point, I proposed to you the idea that you should compete and perform. And what did you think about that? I mean you did it!
EM: But I wasn’t sure that I would qualify to do it. Because I was always so self-conscious of my appearance, and when I played the piano, which was not very well, I was so self-conscious they had to draw the curtain and I played my solo behind the curtain.
EM: When I played the piano. Because it made me so nervous [makes thumping in chest noises]. Really! And this was when I was in, probably fifth or sixth grade. So I’ve always had that feeling.
MW: Stage fright?
MW: Well, I guess I saw a little of that when you started. But I feel like there came a point--around the time you did the routine Bad to the Bone. I don’t think anyone would look at you doing that routine and think, “Oh she must be really nervous.” I mean let’s talk about this. You come out and you have a little hood on. And you’re all covered up and you sit on the bench, and you start feeding the birds. You’ve got a little bag of birdseed. And I come by dressed as this punk, right?
EM: And when you walk by me, you turn around and you look at me, and I think, “He’s not going to do this to me!”
MW: I snub you a little bit, don’t I?
EM: You do! And I think, “He’s gonna find out!”
MW: And then you stand up and you take off your little cape. And let’s describe what you have on underneath.
EM: Well I have the leather pants on, and the bright red shirt, and a leather jacket on. And my hair has been spiked.
MW: Yeah, we gave you a faux-hawk. To match my faux-hawk.
EM: Yes-and you had put color in it.
MW: Oh that’s right! We did dye it at one point.
EM: Yes you did. You put red in it.
MW: So there you are in your leather pants and your spiked hair.
EM: And at the last minute I think, “I can do this.”
MW: You had that feeling?
EM: I have that feeling the minute I take the cape off. Before that you had said, “You can do it!” And I thought, “I’m going to make a spectacle out of myself!”
MW: That’s the point!
EM: But I said, “My age--I’m gonna do it!” And when you ever gave me that look!
MW: So you were in character! I don’t know if you’d ever felt so much in character before.
EM: No, that was the first time. And after that I got a little more encouragement. Or a little bit more brazen.
MW: Well people would be screaming for you. The audience would go crazy. They would just jump to their feet.
EM: But you know, I could never hear them. I knew there was some noise, but I really couldn’t hear them. Because I was concerned about how I was going to dance. And I thought, “I’m not going to make a fool of myself. I’m gonna do this!” I had fun. I guess I really felt the character after I did the first one. I think the next time I did it, I had more confidence in me. Which I don’t have a lot of.
MW: So I’m assuming you’d recommend this as a hobby.
EM: I do! To anybody. At any age!
MW: Let me ask you one last question before we go. Over the years, I’ve been there when a number of people have come up to you after you performed or competed and say that you’ve inspired them.
EM: If I can do it, any age can do it. And if this is an inspiration to any age, I always like to encourage. Get up and dance! It’s good for you. It’s healthy. Nobody’s getting hurt. It’s a lot of fun. Where else can you have such a good time? Because growing up--when I was growing up--the only thing we could do was go to the movies on a Sunday afternoon (if the homework was done), and go to the dance on Saturday night (if the homework was done). I always made sure mine was done so I could do both.
MW: And now you don’t even have to do any homework.
EM: Now I don’t have to do any homework! That's not true--I have to practice.
MW: You do, you have to practice.