This week’s teacher feature takes a look at a different area of teacher, one that teaches the fine art of dancing outside of a regular classroom. As with athletics out of the classroom, many lessons are learned about the importance of team work and commitment. Thank you, June Gray for your dedication to an art you love and to Margaret Miller Curtis for sharing it with our readers.
When June Peel Gray was a toddler, she started dancing for the pure joy of it. The Bible mentions dancing as a celebration and as a part of worship many times, first in the book of Exodus, mentioning dancing as a celebration following the miracle of the Red Sea. Health experts also recommend dancing for people as a preferred form of exercise. It helps reduce stress, arthritic pain and even guards against dementia.
Dancing must have been in June Gray’s DNA because at the age if five, she started buck dancing, the oldest form of dancing practiced in our country, preceding even clogging. Brought here from the British Isles to the Piedmont area of the South, it was a flat-footed form of dancing, engaging just the feet which rapidly tapped out a rhythm. It was taken up by slaves, who added other movements while moving around, helping it evolve into what we now know as tap dancing, June’s specialty.
While living in Malvern Alabama, June’s Mother noticed her dancing on their front porch and called neighbors over to come over to see her little girl buck dance, giving June her first experience in dancing for an audience. After she finished the fifth grade in Greenwood, her family moved to Marianna, where her parents enrolled her in Patricia Beard’s School of Dance.
June and I became friends in the ninth grade when we were assigned to share a locker. As she was taller, I put my piano books on the bottom of the locker and June put her tap shoes on top. I remember June frequently dancing for our high school assemblies, sometimes with John Gause as her partner. (I had forgotten, but she remembers that our classmate, Andy McMullian was given responsibility for reading the Bible for the assemblies.) During the late forties, her dad, Sam Peel, who lived in Dothan, Alabama, also drove her to Fort Rucker, where she performed in USO shows for troops stationed there.
Her father wanted her to get a college education and her Mother wanted her to become a star on Broadway, but Charlie Gray interfered with both their plans. While he was enrolled at Chipola College, playing baseball, Charlie was also courting June. When he was drafted into the army, he pressed June into agreeing to a secret marriage before he left.
June also enrolled at Chipola, and while there, she began performing for schools and community clubs throughout Jackson County. She began giving dance lessons, because her Mother, angry when she discovered the secret marriage, insisted that June start paying rent. She said that if June was old enough to get married, she was old enough to start supporting herself.
After being wounded by exploding shrapnel, Charlie was transferred to Columbia, S. Carolina. June disappointed her father by dropping out of Chipola to be with Charlie. By the time they came home to Marianna, June was expecting their first child, Pam. Charlie found work with the State of Florida, so when Pam was six weeks old, they moved to Tallahassee, where they added a studio to the back of their house. There June resumed giving dance lessons. After their second daughter, Cindy, was born, Charlie told June she should get a “real” job and sent her to interview for a job with the Florida Sheriff’s Bureau.
June would have preferred continuing to give dance lessons and made no real effort to impress the man who interviewed her. “Ya’ll don’t need any help around here, do you,” she asked, hoping he would say no. When he learned she was from Marianna, he asked if she knew Andy McMullian, “Of course I do,” she said. “We’re old friends. Andy was a classmate of mine.”
June told me that was the only reason she got the job. Apparently, among state employees, Andy was held in high regard. “Everybody loved Andy,” she said. At first, she wished she had not taken the job. It seemed to her that the woman they hired to care for the girls made more than she did, but she was glad she had a job when Charlie was diagnosed with ALS, better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. They were going to need her income, and she learned to love her job in the Crime Lab, where she worked for 37 years. After Charlie died in July of 2010, she also began to work with her daughter, Cindy Gray, a private investigator in Tallahassee, who owns and operates LawDawgs Private Investigations.
Even so, nothing could keep June from dancing. She became known as “the dancing lady,” performing for retirement homes, various charities and special events. She danced with other women too, a group of other older women dancers who called themselves “The Hot Flashes.”
One of her toughest assignments was performing for a surprise Birthday party for Representative Jimmy Patronis at the state capital in Tallahassee. The weather was terrible as a hurricane warning had been broadcast. In full costume, she had to make her way against the wind, carrying a boom box on her back as she climbed up a flight of steep outdoor stairs into the capital building, where she was supposed to hide until the surprise was revealed.
Probably her most disappointing appearance was at a nursing home, where she arrived to find her audience sound asleep in their wheelchairs. “They just had lunch,” the attending nurse apologized, but June just laughed and performed for the nurses anyhow. She never complained about having to take Charlie and his wheelchair with her wherever she went. She knew he liked to get out of the house and interact with other people too.
June was never seen on Broadway, but even so, she has entertained more people than she can count, and doing what she loves most keeps her happy. Both daughters followed in their mother’s footsteps. Pam operates the Pam Nobles Dance Studio in Apalachicola, Florida and includes June in her dance recitals every year.
Cindy went into law enforcement and includes June in her work as a private investigator. Luckily, law enforcement is also part of June’s DNA, inherited from her father’s side of the family. She finds that work not as much fun, but dancing helps reduce the stress. Even after June suffered a fall, resulting in a torn meniscus in her leg, Pam asked her mother to appear in the National Inspire Dance Competition held in February of this year in Valdosta, Georgia. Much like Fred Astaire, who once danced with a chair as his partner, June decided she could work a dance arrangement around her walker. “I can’t risk another fall,” she told Pam.
June has danced with many different companies and now has a closet filled with costumes and trophies. In Valdosta, she was the star of the show, winning two more trophies, including the top honor of the year, First Place Over all. Now 82, she will compete again with the Inspire Dance Company on June 28th 2018 in Savannah, Georgia.
June tells younger dancers that they can dance, sing and perform so long as they are able and want to. She will prove it once again when she sings and dances in Pam’s recital in Apalachicola on June 2, 2018. June likes to announce, “THERE’S NO BUSINESS LIKE SHOW BUSINESS,” but even so, she will keep that walker nearby.