Discussion #4411

Reminiscing on Kathy Grant

60 min - Discussion


Learn more about Kathy Grant's life and dance career with this discussion with Carolyn Digovich, Sarita Allen, and Gia Calhoun. They share stories that Kathy told them about her experiences performing at the Cotton Club, in productions like Finian's Rainbow in addition to how much she advocated for the arts. They also share painful experiences with racism and discrimination that Kathy faced and how she overcame every obstacle.
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Feb 25, 2021
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Hi, my name is Gia and I'm here talking to Sarita Allen and Carolyn (indistinct) about Kathy Grant. It's Black History month and we wanted to honor her by just learning more about her life beyond Pilates. Carolyn and Sarita, thank you for talking me. I'm really happy to have you here. First off, I wanna talk to Carolyn and just find out how you're related to Kathy and what your relationship was.

Well, I'm Kathy Grant's niece. There are a couple of us and she was the sister of my dad, and I'm a third generation dancer in the family. Her mother was a dancer and she was my idol growing up. She spent many Christmas Eves with us and we would sometimes go to New York when she lived in Manhattan and you know that was a long time ago. (laughing) She was in Brooklyn for a long time and I don't really know how to speak about it. But when I was younger, when I was in my 20s I remember talking with other family members and saying you know, in my family of origin my parents were very dependable, stable, loving disciplined; we were raised in a very loving and supportive family.

But it seemed like when my aunt would come and visit us that she brought all of this energy and she was extremely well-read and extremely well-traveled and was working in a field that she was so passionate about was lucky to have found a career that she really was very passionate about. And this was before the Pilates. And I remember saying, you know it's almost as though I have this stable loving, but somewhat unadventurous family of origin. And then I have this aunt who comes on the train from New York. And it's as though my family was the bread in the sandwich and Kathy Grant was the meat.

Talking to a friend who is a psychologist she said, you know, "You don't get a sandwich without both of those though." So you actually need both. It was like a nice balance. A very nice balance, yeah. And I learned so much from just being around her and you know, we were talking about a little while ago about that face-to-face nuanced intimate interactions, over little nothings, you know not big, huge eventful discussions, but just little things. Like, you know she encouraged me to read beyond what I was reading, having to read in school.

My first discussions about homosexuality were through literature like, you know, she'd say like, "Where are your books?" You know, "Where's your Oscar Wilde and James Baldwin?" Then I was like, "Oh yeah." (laughing) Yeah, she really was an amazing influence in my life. That's amazing. Did you grow up near where she lived or did you always have to travel to see her? We were in Boston and she was in New York the whole time. Usually she was in New York.

So was an Amtrak trip away, not that far. And she was very (indistinct). She was very what? She was very busy, I mean couldn't just pop in there, you know. (laughing) She had to plan. Had to plan.

How many siblings did she have? So she had two brothers. My dad was the baby in the family and her older brother, Victor. And all three of them were movers, we call them movers in the family. So her brothers were athletes and she was a dancer.

(indistinct) athletic physicality that was kind of in the family gene. That's amazing. And then Sarita, we all know that you're a dancer. I wanna know like when and how did you meet Kathy? Oh, wow.

Well, I met Kathy when I first went to New York city. I received a scholarship to the Dance Theater of Harlem and it was my first time coming to New York and I had not even graduated high school yet. I think I was 14 or 15, really young and that's when I first met her. And she was the Administrator at the school but she also taught a class called Special Exercise which was actually Pilates. So that was my first encounter with her because we know she helped Arthur Mitchell found the Dance Theater of Harlem.

So she was instrumental in their whole development. That's amazing. And were you drawn to her right away or were you a little bit nervous around her or what kind of drew you into acting? Well, that is such a funny... First of all, it's such a long time ago but I remember it wasn't like love at first sight in terms of the work, the Pilates, you know you have to remember in those days, ballet was ballet.

Modern was modern. If you were a jazz dancer, you did jazz. So all of us came all these black dancers came from our various cities. Like I came from Seattle, Donna Wood who later became a big star at Ailey, came from Ohio Gary Deloatch from Philly. Anyway, we all came to Dance Theater of Harlem to do ballet.

So we find ourselves on the floor pumping our arms and doing these crazy things and she used a lot of vocals. So in order to activate the muscles so she also used nursery rhymes. One in particular was "Mary had a little lamb." So, you know, of course when you're 14 you think you're grown anyway. So the fact that we're pumping her arm singing "Mary had a little lamb" and we were whistling we were humming and we had no idea. And we were so are physically and mentally naive that we didn't find how that was helping us right away.

You know what I mean? That came later when we realized how the technique of Pilates and the things she taught us would make such a lifelong difference, it makes such a profound difference. All we know is, "What are we doing here?" So that was my first introduction. (laughing) And I just remember, I wasn't impressed at all. I don't, you know, that came later. Yeah, no, I think that's common with Pilates.

I remember as the Director of the school you know, as she remained, she was no nonsense, you know. And she had to be in some pledge lean company. They had no money, so she's trying to find funding and trying to find places for the company to perform as well as develop a school. There was no school so when you're trying to develop something and teach, she had a lot of pressure so there's not a lot of time to be touchy feeling. Right, and plus she's teaching herself simultaneously how to be an administrator.

Right, yeah. You know, you come from the arts field she's always said, "I really wanted to take time out to go to school, to learn how to do that." You have to learn how to be an administrator. You know, but she taught herself. That's right, yeah. I kind of learned from her that if you have a life in the arts, I worked with a dance company for about 15 years in Boston, you have to recreate yourself every 10 years because the body, the physical body of a dancer doesn't last that long, you know, like athletes.

So, you know, you learn admin and then you write grants and then you teach and then you, whatever, you know you sort of roll it over into something else and you have to just kind of recreate yourself. She, I remember her saying, you know, "I can't just (indistinct) off into the sunset." (laughing) Going back to Kathy's dance career did she share any interesting stories that people might not know about her time dancing in Europe or just anything about her dance career at all? Oh my god. (laughing) Yeah, well, you know, she performed with Louis Armstrong at the Cotton Club. And they called her the baby because she put on red curly haired, you know barely out of her teens when she was there. And she would take, and Sarita I don't know if she ever shared this with you, but she said that one night, Louis Armstrong said to her, "Come here, I want you to go up to the microphone.

And I want you to say," I don't know whether you want me to say this. I know, the curse story (indistinct). You can say it. (laughing) That's a good story. "Showtime motherfuckers." And she said, "My mother would kill me," you know, her mother in Boston, "Would kill me if I were to do that." I mean, we don't curse, right? And you know, they told her, you know it would be very funny.

Of course the whole house fell down in laughter because she looked about 12 years old. And so they waited her to say that. So she got a kick out of that later in life. But she also (indistinct) the Cotton Club and that there were a lot of people involved in the mafia who would come in to the Cotton Club. You can imagine, you know, at that time.

And they were probably running the Cotton Club. They were (indistinct). And she said once, you know if you know Kathy Grant, she loved to eat. And she was so tiny. She was tiny and she had a veracious appetite.

And she said, you know, "You're performing, you're hungry." And she said that one of the other chorus girls came to her after one of the shows and said, "We're invited to go to this house outside of New York to a big party and this is gonna be, you know and they're gonna get well fed." And she said, "We got in the car with the most suspicious looking man. (indistinct) And we drove way out of the city." And it sounded like they drove (laughing) into the house that the Corleones lived. Behind these barricades and everything. And she turned to her friend and said, "What the heck did you get me into?" And excited, once she got there, there was a huge spread of food. She said, "Well, damn and I'm eating." (laughing) One of these guys came up to her and said, "Don't worry, don't worry you're eating.

I don't know whether it's Italian food or what it is, the way you're eating this food, you're okay, don't worry." "I have nothing to worry about." (laughing) They were concerned for themselves 'cause you know, they were chorus girls in those days. Well, so just being people of color too with how everything was going around then (indistinct). The fact that she had to go to Europe to dance 'cause she wasn't able to get a job here is just I mean, she paved the way for a lot of people like me 'cause I'm a dancer too and just I could imagine having to go somewhere else to dance so I was able to dance here and I feel really lucky that people like Kathy paved the way for me. Yeah. Right.

Well then just want to tag onto that story. And speaking of the Cotton Club because years later, she was hired by Francis Ford Coppola when he directed the movie, "The Cotton Club." And she worked with many, he went through various choreographers because most of the choreographers, he said, "It looks too polished." He said, "It's not authentic choreography," because they hired and I was on that, the skeleton crew we were polished dancers but Francis Coppola said, "No, it's not right," so they brought in Kathy. They also hired however many, or whoever of the Showgirls they could find who was still alive. But none of them had kept in shape. Most of them, you know, they just lived their life.

She was the only one that could actually show us. So they, I remember there were 20 people, 25 women everyday lined up just watching. And they would tell us stories, little background but Kathy was the one that can actually show us. And I remember she would always say, "You gotta do it like your feet hurt." She said, "Remember these women were trained," and the style, we were doing it perfect. And so the style that she showed us is the style they ended up showing in the movie because it was authentic.

Yeah. So she was really instrumental in getting the authentic style, what he wanted from those days, right. And then she also performed at the Zanzibar but because she was the only train dancer they made her the dance captain. But again, as Carolyn said, she was like the youngest one, have very (indistinct) proper and I think someone there, I mean she remembered the Louis Armstrong story he said, "You have to curse to get these women's attention," or do you have to be more forceful. You can't say, "Okay, it's time for rehearsal." So she really had to step out of her comfort zone you know, otherwise they would have run all over her.

And she did, even though it was uncomfortable for her but she said, "That's the only way it was gonna work." Right? Yeah. So she really kind of grew into herself doing like-- Yes, she had to like you're completely out of her, you know she came from, you know, classical ballet while shooting the train classical ballerina and now she's up in Harlem with, you know, as Carolyn said there were the mafia running, that's what the audience, majority of the audience and socialites put the backstage. The upside was that she got to work with Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway and she said, Louis Armstrong, the list goes on because they, in those performance, even though they were the top performance at that time but they didn't have money to have, you know, their dancers like Beyonce travels with their whole entourage, the money; there was nothing like that. So the house women, which was Kathy, was the dance captain they became the backup show for all the different performance so she had work with everyone.

So that was the upside of her not being able to do classical ballet because in retrospect historically she worked with all the greats. Even though that wasn't her dream, but how amazing it was. Like you're on stage with Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway Louis Armstrong, but this is (indistinct). And those stages were small, so you're right there. Right.

What were you gonna say, Carolyn? Yeah, I mean, and black entertainers, they sort of coalesced around each other as well because she knew Lena Horne who wasn't really, you know she was a performing artist, but she wasn't a chorus girl you know, and she was in musicals but you know she had very close friends who Eartha Kitt, for instance, she babysat for Eartha Kitt. That's so cool. And I remember when she went to Africa and came back and she came to Cambridge where I was living on the East Coast and I was performing that and the Dance Theater of Harlem came to the Cambridge Repertory Theater I think it was, in Harvard square. And who would bear with sunglasses and so forth?

Cicely Tyson. Why? Yeah. So, I mean, I met a lot of Harry Belafonte and she were very close, you know. I mean, you know, the black performers really had a bond and you can understand why, you know.

Especially ones on a certain level, you know on a certain level and certainly she was recognized on their level in her field. So, you know, as she said, (indistinct) invited her to go to Africa to (indistinct) you know study all their music and their dancing and she was in charge of chronicling that, you know and then she also trained Cicely Tyson and Eartha Kitt; they were also her clients but they had a deep respect for her. As her dance name, you know as a dancer and a performer. She was amazing. Yeah, I wish I could've seen her dance.

That would have been amazing. Thinking about the tight knit community among black performers, I know Kathy had a huge involvement with the Clark Center. Can you kind of elaborate on how she got involved and what her role was with that? Well, the Clark Center is I say is, because it's still alive. There's a woman, Jill Williams and Ramona Candy have taken it upon themselves to keep it alive, you know.

And the list, when you hear the list of people that came out of the Clark Center it's like the who's who, not only in just the dance world because originally they had theater, they had opera but the original purpose was to give people who were talented, a space, a place. If you're a choreographer, you need a studio, right? You need party dancers; you have no money for rehearsals so that was like the basics. They would also provide administrative assistance. They would also like, say, for example one of the things that Kathy did when she was there after her Broadway years, she, as you said, you know it's a tight knit community, you become friends.

Also as a performer you usually become friends with the crew, if you're smart. Those are the first people you become friends with. So traditionally the theater is dark; all theaters are dark on Monday. So she would schedule the performances, they also allowed them to perform so people could see their works on Mondays. So she would ask her friends to take people on Broadway if they could borrow lights, all those things that you need for a show, which are super expensive.

And because they loved and respected her they brought them over, so that's huge. So these small companies they can actually have professional lights and they acted as stage managers, you know. Alvin Ailey, (indistinct). Huh? Donald Mikael, right?

Donald Mikael, Gus Solomons. But they also had very experimental like Meredith Monk. I don't know, the gamut it wasn't just one type of dance. It wasn't just African black dance, they really gave, I mean, the list is so long and she knew Alvin, you know, from the Broadway again, going along as Carolyn said it's a small knit community. So they were friends from that world and of course him wanting to start a company that also coincided with her dream of wanting dancers to be able to dance especially black dancers.

So she helped him, like she helped Arthur Mitchell you know, throughout the career. So they were really good friends as well. She really was like a true advocate for the arts in general, just across the board. Yes, because again, you're a young choreographer somebody sees talent in you but where are you gonna dance where are you gonna rehearsal, how are you gonna get money how are you gonna advertise? They would also advertise and do the publicity and the PR.

And from that, these companies now they're all, most of them are iconic people in the modern dance history of not just the American dance but they're international artists; and they started thee. Langston Hughes was also a part of it. Alvin Ailey started a children's program so, you know the Ailey School has a huge children's program and a huge just general arts program, arts and education. So his love and his passion started back then, he started a poetry group for young children, which is amazing. And he asked his friend Langston Hughes to kind of be the director of that program.

So again, so she was around Langston Hughes, all the elite or the people that were really making a difference in terms of social change and cultural change. Yeah, I mean, she's right there along with them helping to make the changes, it seems. Yeah, absolutely, absolutely. I'm gonna go back into... I'm gonna go back to a memory of just talking with her about something that this was two years before I was born, she was in Finian's Rainbow which was the first truly integrated Broadway cast.

And of course she did two years after that I think it was "Kiss me Kate." Neither one of these (laughing) had great narratives for black people, even though they were in the cast, the narrative structure, you know. But I remember her saying that when she was performing that one of the big problems they had was the fact that black performance couldn't touch a white person on stage so that she would be in this huge production. And they would try, because this was actually how she developed a relationship with Dance Theater of Harlem. And the founder was that he was the male dancer and she was the female dancer of color and they had to go through all this rigamarole to get these two people together on stage because they weren't allowed to interact physically with anybody else. So this had nothing to do with the choreography, it just was a cultural norm and you know, doesn't make any sense obviously.

But she used to say, "We used to have to go way out of our way just to get the choreography to work for us to come together on stage." Wow. Yeah, there were a lot of different hurdles for a black performing artist. Right. And speaking in that same vein in the Broadway world I know she also spoke about her having certain problems because then they did have that law that black people couldn't dance or even touch a white person. A lot of them questioned the fact that they said on stage she looked kind of maybe too light.

So maybe the audience would question, is she white or black? So there was a lot of... They wanted her because she was such an amazing performer but just the fact that they came up I mean, that subject came up and she was like, "I'm black, what are you gonna do? (laughing) So I'm gonna look, I can't touch my partner because I look white?" And so, you know, there was conversations about putting makeup and I mean, it's just ridiculous. And I have to tell you a story that is so painful for me to say. And it's interesting because as a person of color I don't like talking about family things that are painful, you know. (indistinct) I'd rather not air laundry anywhere (indistinct) here anymore but I think in honor of her journey and her life, she growing up grew up in a black neighborhood.

Her mother and father were the backbone of the black community. When the black community was one cohesive everybody was inside the community from the homeless person to the service worker to the, you know, dentists to the... everybody was together in the black community. There was no place else to go, you know. She said that when she was very little that she would be playing outside and that the women who would sit on the stoop with her mother would be talking and then maybe somebody that she didn't know or didn't know her would come by and the women would always sit and talk on the stoop.

The men would sit and talk on the stoop. And that more often than not when she ran by the women would go, "Oh, no! Oh no, what is that?" Because she was so light-skinned, she had these freckles. And I mean, maybe couldn't tell as she got older but she had very red hair and it just hurt her to not be accepted in her own community. This was a black family. This was the blackest family in the blackest part of Boston.

And her father, her stepfather and her mother were people that really were linchpins in the community. My grandmother, her mother was also a dancer. And when a black kid would get in trouble in Roxbury, Massachusetts, which is where they lived and he had to go in front of the judge, the judge would give the kid two options. You could either go to the, who do you report to when you get in trouble, the parole officer, or you could go to Cathy Grant's father who ran the Road's Opera Company. The Road Opera Company trained some of the best character actors of that time that actually, you know, performed in movies and so forth.

And they work together as a team. And so that was the home that Kathy grant was raised in. I mean, the governor used to come and visit my grandparents and it was about issues that had to do with the black community. And so she describes herself as really basically being a shy person, but she had all of this energy and all of this upbringing and sense of responsibility. And she carried that.

But there were some really painful moments for her. And I actually ran into a dancer I ran into dancers all the time that are friends of mine, they don't know that I'm related to Kathy Grant. She trained everybody. And then, you know, once in a while I'll run into someone who says, "Oh, I didn't even know she was black." The way we looked, you know. They come in all shades.

Yeah. Right. Wow. Can I just slip in? I just want to comment on I mean, there was so much that Carolyn just shared but particularly about the amount of dancers she trained.

Of course she had all different demographics, she trained concert pianist, just socialites just normal people, artists. But one of the things I don't think she's given enough credit for I don't think the dance community would have been as amazing or prolific during her time had she not been there because there was no place else for us to go to get rehabilitation. Like she would be adamant, she says, "No, don't call me a physical therapist." But she was actually more than that. All the companies, New York City Ballet, Paul Taylor Martha Graham, Alvin Ailey, and Lisa Monte, the list is long that was the only place that we had to go that could really get us back dancing. Just like how she went to Mr. Pilates because she was injured and they said, "This man over here, he'll get you back dancing." I cannot tell you how many people were there and she had like the top people from all the companies.

If we didn't have a place to go, I don't know. You know what I mean? 'Cause they were so many, all the top ones went there and she got them back dancing. I mean, it was pretty miraculous. Not just a couple, not just that, you know as teachers, we have a couple of success stories but she had a lot.

Yeah, she had many. She had many success stories. (laughing) Sarita, remember when she had the stroke? Yeah. She had a stroke and-- She was in Colorado. She was in Colorado and I got a call from, I don't know whether it was (indistinct) and I go out there and she was getting ready to be thrown out of that hospital because she was arguing with the physical therapist.

(laughing) She was arguing with the physical therapist and I happened to walk into her (indistinct) when she had this little diminutive Asian woman and she's sitting in a wheelchair and the woman said, "Can you kick your foot, you know move your foot like this?" You know how she would look at you. Yeah. (laughing) She kicked her foot at the wheelchair. "I've been kicking ass for years." (laughing) And when they left and the poor woman was just, you know so demoralized and she looked up at me and she said, "These people don't know what they're doing. They can't help me." And she brought herself back. She brought herself back to get back into that NYU class to stay, "They don't know what to do.

I know what to do." Yeah, true story. True story, just like her hands because she was so hands-on holding people in place and the muscles would fight so bad she developed like terrible carpal tunnel. Like her hands were in so much pain she figured it out, she healed herself. Wow. She healed herself doing just, I think she went maybe to a few people that she really respected but she found things like shuffling a deck of cards.

Like she'd help, you know, she was always ingenious and thinking outside of the box and that was one of the things she would just sit there and shuffle when she wasn't doing anything. But you know what, Carolyn, I remember when she was at one of her places, you know soon before her passing, she was in I guess they call them halfway homes, I don't know what the name is, they're kind of like rest homes the null hospitals or something like that. Like the rehab, yeah. The rehab, yeah. But the same thing happened, I think they were going to throw her out because she stopped going.

She says the PT was so frustrating for her. She said, "All they do, they look at my age and they think this is all I can do. They don't look at me. They don't ask me, they don't ask the person. They would say things the same thing.

Can you lift your arm?" And she says, "I'm a person, ask me my background. Look at me, I can do more. But they only look at the age and they just get stuck there." (indistinct) (indistinct) about the looking part. 'Cause she would see the smallest nuance. And if you don't look, you ain't gonna see.

Yeah, that was her x-ray vision. That was one of her things she had x-ray vision. All those thousands of hours of looking and seeing there's just minor differences, you know? And she was a healer. She was a healer.

Oh yeah, there's no question. There's no question because when she would hold you and then she would listen, you know you talk about the horse whisper, but she would listen to muscles. She would have her ear next to your knee and then she would kind of feel around, just feel she could feel the muscles, her touch could do it but also she could hear when you were getting better. She would hear grinding or she goes, "Sh, I'm listening." And then she could say, "Okay, it's better." And then just while her manipulating you then all of a sudden she goes, "Okay, that's better. Will start to ease." Yeah, so between all of her techniques that she made up just doing simple things but also her intuition and her hands you're right, she was a healer, absolutely.

She got so many people back on stage that, well, she helped me, gave me my whole career I wouldn't have had a career. The most dramatic thing was when I had a brain concussion in Israel, I fell off of a (indistinct) and I had to stay in Israel for months and months. I was with the Ailey company and they had to leave, they had to finish tour. But when you have brain concussion, you can't fly. So it was terrible.

And they said, you know, "I'm sorry." And I was really young at the time, I think I just joined the company. They said, "Well, you're never gonna dance again, I'm sorry." Because it was mainly to one side and I remember all the blood was going up one side. So I had hearing loss. So hearing is (indistinct) balance. If you can't hear, so how can you dance if you're not balanced?

And so they go, "I'm sorry, miss, I'm sorry." And I went to specialists with the opera singers and had things. And I went on to have a career I don't know, I'm still dancing. And this was, you know, the beginning of my career. It's such a long time ago, I can't really remember what she did but I remember when I started turning, she would put mats I had to put extra mats around in case I would fall. And then she just kept doing different things you know, using her intuition and she said, "Well, let's try this." She didn't know how to do that, she never worked with a person with a brain concussion and how to get them back dancing.

She figured it out though. And Sarita, I know you said she helped you with specific pieces just to prepare. Do you have any examples of like what in your career she helped you with specifically besides recovering from the concussion? Right, well, the cool thing about Kathy is despite her amazing knowledge of the Pilates system and how, she also added her own special touches. The fact that she was a dancer helped, and the fact that she was a classical dancer and she was a show girl and she studied African and she studied modern so she knew the different styles.

So in the Ailey company, you have to be not only versatile but you have to be good at all those things. It wasn't like doing a variety show, "Okay, now we're gonna do a country number. Now we're gonna do a Western gladiators number." You know, and this is the same people and they'd just have on different costumes, but their style isn't really changed. Yeah, now you had (indistinct) on everything. You had to.

So I remember one of the first things that Alvin choreographed on me was a ballet called the Mooch. And it was about four women; Judith Jameson played Bessie Smith then Cherry Yarbrough was Mahalia Jackson. There was another, Estelle Spurlock was a famous tap dancer. And I played this woman, Marie Bryant who I had never really heard of before. She was also kind of a hidden figure.

Jean Kelly said she was one of the best dancers he had ever seen. So she was, I guess, I don't know what you would call it, a sensuous sexy, I had to have a wig and the show girl, but that style, that was her style. And all the movie companies, 20th Century, Fox, MGM they hired her and she trained like Ava Gardner and all those people that you saw, those women who were like the sex symbols, she taught them how to move and with the hips in that very sensual style, that was her and she also choreographed it. So I was portraying her. So because of Kathy's knowledge in, you know the Zanzibar and the Cotton Club as a showgirl she could show me and I came from the ballet world like her.

All I knew at that time I had just been doing modern maybe like a year. I have been doing ballet my whole life. Like she really but Elvin helped me, of course he showed me really what to do. But then Kathy showed me the subtleties and how to because she could do that, right? And another example that, Elisa Montay was a client of hers.

And Elisa Montay was from Martha Graham and Martha Graham, she would always push her dancers to explore other things that they, you know she expressed interest in choreography. So Martha said, "You should do that." So she was choreographing a ballet and somehow she got injured, I can't remember but her foot ended up in a cast and Martha said, "Well, you still have to keep going. Just find other ways." That ballet was treading and it turns out her having that challenge she was forced to make things where the woman barely puts her foot on the ground. And it became very creative. So if you're doing things on stage with one foot because her foot, this was my cast but you still having to probably nod and move effortlessly a lot of is partnering.

And it's very centralized, very acrobatic. Like really like stripped to select. So she would train me because of course I had to have a flexible back, but it was core, core, core, core, core because our performing schedule is so much if I did that without any string, I would be out in one week, I couldn't go into six month tour. So she would prepare me the flexibility, combined with the core, combined with things on balance like doing things on one leg. So I had lots of things, lots of things, lots of things.

And so that was one, another ballet which was completely different was called (indistinct) which Alvin choreographed. He was influenced by what was going on in South Africa. So supposedly it took place in a cafe in South Africa all the different people who would be in the cafe all the different characters. So the character I played was like an Angela Davis type; very sharp, very aggressive the opposite of the smoothness of treading. So she would give me lots of jumps with the jumping board and I used heavy Springs and I had to be sharp.

Everything was sharp, I had lots of weights. I wasn't allowed to be soft and lyrical. It was the opposite, doing things very, yeah. It was mainly like strength training that she added to my repertoire, my classes lots of extra ankle weights. And then she put the weight and shoot on me 'cause everything was sharp into ballistic.

And she knew the ballet because she would also go to everyone's performances. So not only did she know the various styles but she went to all of our shows. So she would say, "Okay, you're doing best McKayla? Okay, this is what you have to do tonight." I mean, it was extraordinary. That's amazing. Absolutely extraordinary.

Carolyn, when you were dancing did she go to all of your performances as well? She came down from New York a couple of times, but she had a very, very full schedule. (indistinct) even when she would come one-on-one when I was very young to be with her, you know family over the holidays, before she got married. And I remember, oh, when when she brought this little French poodle Renee with her. She loved her little dog. And we didn't have a dog.

so of course we were just so thrilled, you know to have her and the dog. And I remember begging her. I remember, you know, in the 50s, in your kitchen you had a sink that you did your dishes in and probably in New York and then you have a very deep like utility sink that's right next to it. And I remember her washing her hair in the utility sink and I'm begging her, I kept, "Please stay, it's Christmas. It's just the day after Christmas, please stay." And I remember her rolling her hair in a towel and she just gave me that look, she said, "Girl, you know, I have a job.

I have rehearsal. And this is like a factory job. You gotta show up whether you're sick whether you don't feel like it, whether your family is in town, you need to show up. This is a job." And I got from her the way she talked about performing that it was that not only did she have a passion for it, but her sense of discipline, the same thing that you probably got from being one of her students, the training and the Pilates, she was very disciplined about her work. And there was this sense that, you know you know I'm doing this musical and everything but this is hard work, this is not glamorous.

That's the sense that I got. It might look a certain way, but this is hard work. And I just remember that thought as a young child, "Oh, this is the art, arts is not easy; arts is hard." You know, nevermind the whole piece of being able to support yourself, just the delivery of your craft was gonna be hard. And so when you make that decision to go into the arts I mean, I did it with my eyes wide open because she didn't give me any illusions about what that world was gonna be like. So, great woman.

You know Carolyn, you just reminded me. Oh, I'm so sorry. Another deep part or profound part of our education especially my education with her was those same things. You know, so in your session you didn't just talk about Pilate. She would go off, she would talk about history but she would say, "You gotta be strong." She always said, "You gotta be strong, man." So she would prepare you, you know when I would be kind of going by the wayside and just she didn't really lecture you, but it was, you know hers was a tough love, but she let you know that there was 10,000 people out there waiting for your job.

(laughing) But she would, you know it was all her classes we learned Pilates but probably usually within one of the hours, every day she would have some kernel of what I call them, gems her gems that she would say. You know, just a little piece of advice you know, how to conduct yourself; how to conduct yourself when you had to talk to the Executive Director. When you go on tour, you have to keep yourself together. You have to be responsible for your own to keep your body going. She goes, "Your body, if you wanna work, you gotta keep your body." That was her main thing and then she goes, "You gotta be strong to survive this tour.

Otherwise there'll just be next." But you also have to have your attitude correct. So she would also, you're right, teach us you know, the law of the land. You know, in terms of show business. And just life; how to carry yourself, how to conduct yourself and just try to be as strong as you can to withstand, you know, life. Can you imagine going to New York when you're 18 as a black girl and going to the Cotton Club with what all was going on in New York just to live all those years.

Back in those days, I know. Just to live and thrive in the city is a testament of some kind of strength. Is she tiny too? How tall was she? Like 5'4, 5'2 yeah, between 5'4, like that.

As Carolyn was saying her hair they called her rusty back in the day. Awesome, I love that. She did not think she was a beautiful person physically and I thought she was the most beautiful woman. Oh, she's so beautiful. Especially all the photos I've seen of her as a young woman, she was gorgeous.

It's those things that happen when you run by and somebody that you look up to says something about you on the stoop that goes through the core and that's a long haul. (indistinct) And I just thought she was gorgeous. I think one of the reasons she stayed in Europe so long because you know, she was free there and also she was federated and they thought she was beautiful. And not just as an exotic kind of animal but you know, how men in Europe are more open with their flattery and not in a bad way. They're honest, they're open.

They go, "Oh, you're very beautiful." You know, and so you're not used to that. I remember being in Italy and this was 1979 and I was working and I went to one of these markets that's open during the afternoon, you know and then they shut and everybody has lunch and some man came with a bouquet of flowers and put it in my basket and walked away, stuff like that would happen. Stuff like that would happen all the time. (laughing) You were, "What was that?" She must have had a bowl. Yeah, well that's why Josephine Baker, Miles all the artists went to Europe.

They all went to Europe, so they could do their thing and also not have to worry about like can they go on this restaurant, can they go to the hotel? And they considered artists like we consider our football players or pop stars. You know, you're respected. Yeah. And so it was hard to come back because you'd come back, you're free for all this time and people are respecting your art saying, you're beautiful and you come back home and it's like the same shit different day, just like when she left, not too much had changed.

And she was like, "Oh my goodness." So that was hard. I'm enjoying listening to you guys talking but I know we could keep going but I wanna wrap it up a little bit just so we have a little bit of a conclusion but my last question to both of you is, what do you hope people will remember most about Kathy? I know that's a tough one. I would have to say, if I would put it in the short sentence, that she cared. That she honestly cared about humanity in general.

Right, and she cared in all of her actions, whether it be Dance Theater of Harlem, at Bendel's, at the Tisch not just getting people well, but all of her actions really were beneficial for actually the world. You know what I mean? Her helping, not just black people, white people her having a studio that was multicultural, that in itself was different, right? So that in itself, you're showing all these age groups, all these nationalities, especially when she had all the famous, very, you know socialized Caucasian people from Bendel's and they're forced to like be next to this black person, they'd probably not around black people or Asian people but if they wanted to go to her, they would. So just that having people in that space is a cultural and a political statement.

So she was always teaching; teaching through actions, through doing. I mean, like when she was in the national endowment for the arts, traditionally, they only gave money to white companies to even ballet companies or very conservative modern companies. So she advocated, so they've started opening their eyes when they called it, you know, but we called it downtown modern dance but more ever garde artists, people of color and she got them grants. Yeah, so she would in turn (indistinct) on that board. She was blacklisted on the national endowment board.

And that money goes all over the United States. So yeah, I would say it's very hard to narrow this down but I think just for me, her sense of you know, find something that you're... find something to do that you can put your whole life into. If you wake up and you should be ready to do your life with whatever you choose to do for work, if that's not the case, then, you know have the strength to follow something that you're really passionate about and put every ounce of your being into it. And if you do that, guess what?

It's not work, it's not work. You know, even though you work yourself really hard it's not work. And whatever you have to put up with, put up with but do that thing, you know it's your one and only precious life. So do that thing and pay it forward. That's the other thing; pay it forward.

One last thing, I remember her telling me that when Pilates became like the thing to do and everybody marketing Pilates-Bilates, you know, I'd call it (laughing). And Oprah Winfrey wanted to do a show on Kathy Grant. And Kathy Grant said, "I do not have time for you. I have clients that need me, I do not have time." I guess they went maybe they did some things like we did this morning with the microphones. And she said, "I'm out of here, I'm not wasting my time.

I have people that need me and that's what I'm here to do." You know, Oprah (indistinct). (laughing) And I said, "You wake up Oprah?" "Yeah, I waked up Oprah." (laughing) She would, she did. That's amazing. She really cared about people first. Yeah, that's amazing. That's a perfect ending.

Yeah, thank you for sharing all of these amazing stories and just giving a little bit more insight to who Kathy was as a person. 'Cause I know a lot of us already know about what she did in Pilates but just knowing more about everything that she's done in the arts and just in her life in general is just so wonderful to hear. So thank you, Sarita and Carolyn I really appreciate you doing this for us. Glad to meet you Gia and so great to hear your backstory Sarita. And like you know, what can I say?

Thank you so much. Thank you. Looking forward to a day when we can all meet in person.


Jessica C
2 people like this.
Wonderful! Thank you so much for posting this interview. It is exciting to hear about Kathy’s life as a dancer and her deep involvement in the arts. I know so many of us have found Pilates through our dance education and teach Pilates to subsidize our dance careers. This is such important information about the history of Pilates but also the history of dance in America. Thank you!
3 people like this.
This is full of precious gems.  Thank you Gia, PA and Sarita and especially Carolyn for sharing more of the beauty of Kathy Grant's story.  She sounded like a humble but strong and disciplined healer who truly lived her purpose.  My heart is full and so inspired. 
Thank you for touching on the duality within the Black community and then the irony of not being able to touch white dancers and at another time being mistaken for white and not being able to touch Black dancers -- this is history and recent history at that.  
Frances H
2 people like this.
This is one of the most heartwarming and entertaining things on PA.  
"Find your thing.  And pay it forward."  You've certainly done that here by sharing these wonderful stories.   What a treasure. 
I'm so glad you enjoyed this discussion, Jessica CRoxana M, and Frances H. Sarita and Carolyn shared so many amazing stories, it was a joy just to sit and listen to them!
2 people like this.
Thank you PA for working to become more diverse in terms of both your teachers and content. Looking forward to more instructors of color. It matters.
1 person likes this.
Thank you to Gia, Sarita, and Carolyn.  This was wonderful.  I saw Kathy at PMA and the thing that stuck with me most was her talking about how she taught herself to swallow again after her stroke using visualization.  What a gifted and fascinating lady. Thank you again for sharing some more personal memories. 

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