by Camille Sanfillipo
A mother’s love and a teacher’s kindness gave a young girl’s life meaning
I have been a dance teacher for more than 40 years and have run a dance studio for 35 years. But when I was a little girl, growing up first in the Harlem projects, then in the Bronx, I could never have imagined such a life for myself.
In the 1950s my parents decided to divorce. Being in a single-parent family in the ’50s was difficult, but my mom found a job in a bakery near home, and I would go there after school every day. After about a year she enrolled me in a dance school—she loved to dance and wanted me to experience the same joy. I was not quite as enthusiastic as she was, but I went along with it, starting out in tap and adding ballet and jazz two years later.
My father was not interested in my dance lessons, so he was not very helpful about paying for them. At that time dance classes cost $1.25 per hour. Each week I would go to class with a one-dollar bill and a quarter wrapped inside it. The students would stand in a line and the teacher would move down it with the roll book, taking each child’s money and writing it in the book. Sometimes my mother couldn’t afford the $1.25, but she didn’t want me to miss the lesson. Since she was allowed to take a loaf of bread and a container of milk home from work each day, she would send me to class with a loaf of fresh rye bread and the milk in a paper bag. She told me to tell my teacher, "Mom will pay you next week." The first time I had to do that I cried, but I went to class. My teacher would always say, "That’s fine," and thanked my mom and me. Because she always made a fuss, as though the bag of goodies was a present, the other kids got a little jealous. I don’t know how many of them realized I didn’t pay for the lessons. This situation went on for quite a while; sometimes, when I had the money to pay, my teacher would look disappointed (the bread was delicious!), but I was thrilled to hand over the money.
She told me to tell my teacher, “Mom will pay you next week.” The first time I had to do that, I cried.
Occasionally I asked my mom, "If we can’t afford to send me to dance class, why do I have to go?" Her reply was always the same. "You have to do something—you need the exercise." I guess she was right; I was kind of lazy! Each year my mother enrolled me in more and more classes until I was taking everything the studio had to offer. Although we paid most of the time, occasionally my mother would be short on cash. The brown paper bag was a little bigger then, packed with extra goodies.
By the time I was in my teens, I loved every minute I spent in the studio. When my teacher asked if I would be interested in helping with the classes, our financial obligation changed quite a bit. I worked in exchange for my classes; my mother had to pay only for the private lessons, which cost about $7.50 an hour. My father finally realized that all those lessons were not a waste, so he began paying for my lessons and costumes. When I was 16 he presented me with flowers after our annual recital. He had tears in his eyes, and I knew he was proud of me.
Sometimes sacrifices do pay off. If it weren’t for what my mother did to keep me in dancing school, and the kindness and understanding of my dance teacher, Vicky Sheer, I would never have had the wonderful life I now have. I recently celebrated my 35th year in the studio, and 23 years ago I opened a dancewear store. Both businesses have been very successful. I have experienced many wonderful things through dance and made many wonderful lifelong friends. Many of my students have gone on to professional careers on Broadway and around the world. Without my mom and Ms. Sheer, I would not be where I am today.