Grape Soda Wins

Bob Cole’s dancers in parade in Inglewood

“See that ‘T’ word?  T-o-panga?  See that off ramp?  When you see that, you know we’re almost home.  About twenty more minutes.”

Driving from Westlake to Inglewood every Wednesday after school was a chore.  The dance lessons were enjoyable; those I didn’t mind.  I minded the drive.  It was hard not to squirm all over the car, which made Mom nervous.  I would lay down in the back seat for a while, looking at the ceiling of the car, feeling the road bumping below us.  I’d wait and wait an eternity before popping back up and asking Mom how much longer.  But each eternity was measured in four or five-minute snatches.

“Can I change the radio?”  I threw my leg over the top of the seat and slid down into the front.  Mom drew a muffled gasp over closed teeth, putting her arm out across me.  The demonstration conveyed that I was making her nervous.

“I don’t mind, honey,” Mom’s brow was furrowed in distraction.  She turned her attention back to the freeway.

Mom always let me switch the radio stations.  She didn’t care if I spent the whole ride flipping channels.  She was just glad that I was keeping busy.  I’d sit up front, criss-cross applesauce on the front seat.

It’s always been enormously difficult for me to sit still when good music plays.   A catchy beat filters through my ears and straight into my soul.  If I try to remain still, my mind gets all jumbley.  I can’t do it.  Well, I can but it takes every bit of my concentration.  My body wills synchronicity, sometimes all over the front seat.

“I wonder where you get that sense of rhythm?” Mom smiled, casting a sideways impish glance.

When we were in polite company, Mom would never make such a joke.  When others were around, she would refer to her paternal ethnicity as French and Indian.  But Mom was in fact French Creole from her father’s side, and when she spoke to me she would sometimes joke about the possible origins of her curly hair, or mention that my Grandfather loved Creole cooking and culture.  She’d listen to fellow Missourian Scott Joplin’s ragtime and recount how her dad loved to eat pigs feet.  That was “real Creole cooking.”  Once in Los Angeles, Grandpa would buy them in a jar.

According to Israeli researchers, two variant genes account for the inclination to experience dance compulsively and transcendently.  However it was mapped and for whatever reason, Mom was right about my inheriting the dance gene.  We had it all over the place.  My Irish grandma stayed up until “wee hours” dancing jigs and reels at Hibernian Hall in Saint Louis, simultaneously tipping a glass.  And on Dad’s side, he could match polka for jig any day.  All that dancing energy funneled straight past my three brothers and poured into me.  This is still true today.  I can’t even sit still during mass.  Put the slightest beat to a hymn, and I feel that beat tickling up my sides, over my ribs, and liquefying my shoulders.  Once the shoulders get going, my backbone slips to jelly.  Sitting still becomes hopeless.  Mom recognized early on that I needed some kind of channel for all this energy.  As soon as I was steady on my feet, she signed me up for dancing lessons at Bob Cole’s Dance Studio.

Bob Cole’s was in Inglewood, about a two-mile scoot from our house in Westchester.  I remember the great, old building on Arbor Vitae Street and Hawthorne Blvd.  There’s no trace of it now.  But back in the 1950’s and 1960’s, it was just above Ketcham’s Sporting Goods.  Dancers entered the building on the Arbor Vitae side and took a narrow, wooden, creaky staircase up to the second floor.  The studio was directly above Ketcham’s.  The staircase had once been an orangeish wood but was stained dark from years of use. Half way up the stairs a soda dispenser promised cold sodas for a quarter, cold as can be.  After class, Mom would stop long enough to comb through her coin purse, put in a quarter, and buy me a grape soda. It dispensed in a glass bottle.  All those little glass bottles were in the right window.  The machine had a bottle opener built into its side.  Slide the soda top in and pull the cap off.  That was half the fun.

Up we’d thump, up those stairs and into the studio.  Bob Cole was big news.  His studio participated in all the local parades, including the Santa Claus Lane Parade.  If children worked hard enough, they could march in the actual Santa Claus Lane Parade, in Hollywood.   Mr. Cole not only had dancers in the parades, but also marching baton twirlers, pom-pom girls, and “tumblers.”  My cousin Maryann was great at tumbling.  I wasn’t allowed to do too much of that.  Mom always said Bob Cole was an older man, and what if he had me in the air and suddenly got a heart attack, mid twirl.  No aerial work for me.

Mr. Cole was talented and had been in the business a long time.  He had an important aire about him. Like a cartoon of success, the chrome on his Rolls Royce would gleam in the Southern California sunshine as he drove behind us in parades, waving, the marching music pouring across Los Angeles. He knew celebrities like Soupy Sales. Signed pictures hung inside his studio, famous people he knew, including pictures of Russ Tamblyn.  Russ had been Mr. Cole’s student.

Siblings and parents filed in and would wait on hard wooden benches just inside the studio door.  Kids slipped off their toe, tap, and soft shoes and warmed up on a huge trampoline and on soft tumbling mats.  Mom didn’t want me using the trampoline unless Mr. Cole was right there.  Trampolines were neck-breakers.

Basic Position. Arabesque. Saut de Chat. Tour Jete.  Pirouette.  Plie`.  Heel and toe.  Heel and toe. Schubert, Brahms, Tchaikovsky.  By the time I was three years old, Mr. Cole took Mom aside and told her he felt I had some talent.  He wanted me in toe shoes so I could learn more advanced routines.

“My little dancer!”  Mom was so proud.

I got brand new, hard-toe ballet shoes, which barely came in my size.  They had beautiful, long, satiny black laces which tied half way up my leg, nearly at my knee.

“Here, sit down,” Mom patted the bench next to her.  She helped me lace my new shoes just perfectly.  I never was allowed to wear my dance shoes in play- only at Bob Cole’s studio or at home if I was practicing on our clean floor.  When I finished dancing, Mom taught me to flatten out the satin laces, so they wouldn’t get “rumpley.”  I should wind them, and not too tightly, around my shoes and place them in the hard compartment of my purple dance case.  The lower section was just for shoes and had a black snap.  My tap shoes also went into that compartment.  By separating the shoes, it kept the upper portion clean.  That section held my leotards and pink tutu.  It also held 45 records for the ride home, on days Mr. Cole handed out new records.  But that was rare.  I only had a total of about seven or eight.  Mom said since my soft shoes didn’t fit in the lower snap place with the new shoes, I should place them at the bottom of the top compartment, soles down.  All my official costumes – with sequences and feathers- were at home, in my closet on the far left, dry-cleaned, and wrapped in plastic.  I would wear costumes when we paraded or if we visited the old folks homes.

I felt nervous when we visited old folks homes.  I didn’t know where to place my gaze.  I’d look at my feet and feel rude, look in their faces and feel scared and panicked, and look around the room and run out of room to look at very quickly.  To get through my nerves, I’d look at Mom.  She’d smile.  If I forgot to smile she would tip her head up and smile, lifting her chin east to west, as if to suggest I smile at the audience.  I couldn’t.

“You were the best little dancer in the whole room!” Mom would assert. “You made their day.”  Older people seemed to especially enjoy our noisy tap routines.  Or maybe they clapped loudly because we’d deafened them.

Mom loved tap because it reminded her of Shirley Temple.  We danced “I’m a Little Teapot” and were given the 45 record to practice at home.  I would practice, but flush with embarrassment because the words were silly.  Sometimes it made me want to disappear, but Mom was so proud of me, I did the routine anyway.  We also learned “Tea for Two,” and were given that record.  Mom would talk about the great dancers to me.  She would love to tell me about Shirley Temple, but also Ginger Rodgers, Fred Astaire, and others.

I didn’t have friends in dance class, but there were two girls whose mothers would talk to Mom.  One was an Asian girl, very petite and pretty.  Another was a blonde little girl who looked like a beauty pageant.  Her Mom had her wear make up, even though she was only four years old.  Her hair was fluffed out really big. The girl’s Mother said her daughter would be discovered, that she already had an agent.  She seemed so glamorous.  On the other hand, kids at my school were teasing me about my looks.  I confided to Mom.

“You are so pretty,” Mom told me, sitting on the hard bench.  She had been helping me on with my shoes.  She slipped her arm around my shoulder and brought her face near mine.  Mom did that when she was trying to convince me of something. “You know you are ten times- a hundred times- prettier than that little girl.  Honey, you have classic beauty.  Do you know that? You have that little pointed chin.”

“But I’m fat,” I felt out-of-place next to my would-be-movie-star classmate.

“No, no….oh gosh…”  Mom rolled her eyes and went on, pointing, “In fact, you have dancers’ legs.”

“But Mom, dancers have fat legs!”  I offered as proof.

Mom laughed, “Since when?!  They do not.  They have legs that are shaped nicely, because they spend so long dancing.  They just don’t look like they belong in a concentration camp.”

“But I want to look skinny, like Cher,”  I went on.

“Cher doesn’t have nice legs. She is all bow-legged,” Mom explained.

“But being bow-legged makes her look even skinner.  I want to be bow-legged.  How can I get bow-legged?”

“You can’t.  You don’t want to be bow-legged!”

“Yes, I do.  It looks skinny,” I had my mind set.

“Well, you can’t.  I think some people get bow-legged from riding a horse too long,” Mom conjectured.

“Can I have horse riding lessons instead?” I begged.

“No,”  Mom was smiling.  “No, honey, people break their necks on horses every day.”

“But people break their necks on trampolines, too.  And you would save me from that if I switched to horse riding.”

“Honey, listen, no, you can’t have horse lessons.  And you don’t want bowed legs.  God gave you dancers legs.  In fact, you have your father’s legs, not mine.  Talk about bad legs.  You should be down on your knees thanking God for giving you your father’s legs instead of mine.  Do you think your father has fat legs?”


“Well then you can’t think you do either.  Now, go on, Mr. Cole will be waiting.”

I can’t remember if I got my grape soda that night or if Mom got me a chocolate dipped Foster’s Freeze, which was my alternate after dance treat.  But either way, I had set aside my worries, if only temporarily.  It’s hard to worry about weight too much when you have a choice between grape soda or ice cream.


  1. Cindy

    I too took lessons at Bob Cole’s studio. I hated it! I was a better tumbler and did fine, but when he introduced toe shoes that was it. I told my mom to spend her money on cigarettes because I didntbwantbto dance. Oh, I remember, shuffle shuffle tap tap tap. I was in the inglewood parade a couple of times. Mr. Cole would twirl me up in the air and I would twirl my baton. Just have been 1961-63. Thanks for the stroll down memory lane… Or up that creaky staircase 😉

    • I’m so glad to hear from another Bob Cole student! 🙂 Your post made me smile. So you hated it? haha! I’ve been gathering up pictures of the old parades we were in. I think they would be close to 1970, maybe ’69. Nothing like those old parades nowadays!

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