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Beloved on this Earth
A Tribute to Terrance Curtis  by Marlan Warren (11/1/03)

On October 18th, I attended a memorial tribute for Terrance Curtis, the dance entrepreneur who created the Silver Lake dance haven known as Studio A.  Curtis passed away suddenly at age sixty-five on September 24th of complications from a long battle with leukemia.  He left behind stunned students, bereaved friends and neighbors, and even relative strangers who mourned his loss.

On the studio's website, Terrance's picture was posted with a quote from Raymond Carver's poem about what he answered when asked what he wants out of life:

To call myself beloved, to feel myself beloved on this Earth.

I've danced at Studio A for twelve years, off and on.  Although my focus is on jazz and Terrance's was on ballet, whenever our paths crossed, he always "knew" me in the deepest sense of the word.  In the end, I had more long phone conversations with him than actual sightings; yet he will always be a key figure in my life.  At the memorial, I learned that I was not alone.

After Terrance passed last month, we were invited to post our condolences on the Studio A website.  I simply wrote my favorite memories:

Terrance at his birthday party ten years ago raising his glass and calling out, "Live, dahling, live!  Until there's nothing more for them to take."

What he said when I told him that my lawyer brother is afraid that my starving artist's life might require him to take care of me someday: "Say, 'Brother dear, you must take care of me, because I have tousled hair.'"

His multiple calls that always began with "Don't worry, dahling, I have the bounced check right here and won't deposit it until you tell me to...oh, these banks!"

Terrance was elegant and flamboyant.  Auntie Mame in drag.  Always looking on the bright side—not because he couldn't see darkness—just because he liked the view better.  He took care of the ballet and co-owner Bill Brown took care of the jazz.

Bill is my jazz dance teacher.  He is one of the few people I've met in the dance world whose personality is closest to my own.  Maybe because he's also a writer.  He can hold his own in social interactions, but tends to take a back seat to the front when he's not teaching class.  A week after I got the sad news, I saw Bill at the studio before class, and he filled me in on details while we cried.  Then he told me that the charming studio with its courtyard of flowers and lovely skylights is rented.

"Terrance was always saying, 'We must buy the building,'" Bill said.  "But I was always wondering how we could afford it."  Adding that "T"'s sketches and paintings would be auctioned off at the celebration to get money for the "building fund."

On my way to Studio A for Terrance's memorial, I wondered how the space could hold all of the mourners.  It is made up of two small rooms.  In one room, I found crowds mulling through Terrance's amazing artwork, reviewing his documented photographic life, and nibbling at a buffet of shrimp and pastries.

As naturally introverted as Terrance had been extroverted, I couldn't force myself to be more social, so I sat in the corner for a while (about my dancing, Terrance said to me once: "I have seen you ALIVE!").  Then finally wandered into the next room where folding chairs were set up around the stage area.  A few people were already sitting, but the majority of chairs appeared to be "saved" with small objects, or even people sitting with their hands over chairs, protecting them for friends.

"Is this seat, saved?"
"And THESE?"
"Yes, I'm sorry"
"Oh, come on, people!"

I looked around in helpless agitation.  "You can sit on my lap," a man called across the empty seat in front of him.  I told him to be careful what he offered because I might take him up on it.

Then I noticed little flat squares of pillows lying in front of the chairs.  Ah, that's the ticket.  Sit in front of someone who thinks they're in the front row.  Block their view while sitting on the floor.  It wasn't revenge but it'd have to do.

So I sat on the floor in my long black dress.  But a dancer came up to caution me that I could get danced on if I sat there.  Well, if I get danced on, so be it.  Terrance wouldn't have wanted it any other way, I rationalized.

Minutes later, the gentleman in the cowboy shirt—the one who offered his lap—came over, stooped down to me and said: "My wife says those are tissues on the seats—they're not saving the chairs.  You can probably sit there.  See?  Right next to me."

I saw he was right.  Little tissue packs were spread randomly on seats.  I thanked him.  "No problem," he said.  "We hated to see you sit on the floor when you could sit in a chair."

After we were settled, I asked his name.  He said his name was Marc, and when I asked how he knew Terrance, he answered: "We own the building.  Terrance has been to our ranch many times."  That led to stories about their stables where they board horses and have their own.  "Then we go and pay to ride herd at the cattle drive in Montana."

Marc's wife had left the room before we sat down.  Now she came back.  Good looking redhead with a gold chain belt looped through her jeans.  She said she was glad that I got the seat.  Her name was Royan.

The "celebration" started.  Allen—Terrance's neighbor—was the emcee and as soon as he began speaking about how wonderful Terrance was, I felt a hand dig in my lap.  It was Royan digging in the tissue pack there, grabbing some tissues and handing some to her husband.  That's all it took.  All 3 of us started crying.

Royan got up and spoke about what a great friend Terrance could be.  How she'd tell him her problems and he'd solve them and then he'd tell her his problems and he'd solve them.  How his interest in people was immediate, his care genuine.

And it went on like that for hours.  People getting up and telling how grateful they were to him for being in their lives, even for an hour—a couple of people had barely met him and been affected.

Terrance's lifelong friend, Zo Harris (a woman he often said he'd marry if he wasn't gay) recalled that when they took walks, she'd be clipping along, chattering, and he'd stop and say: "You really must learn to me-an-der, dahling..."

Zo told about a roll of film Terrance had shot that wasn't developed until after his death.  The last shot was of their driveway at dawn in a filmy gray light.  "Why would he take a picture of our driveway?" she wondered.  After hours of studying the photo, she finally noticed a speck of a figure.  A magnifying glass revealed the speck was her, outside in her bare feet.  Then she remembered Terrance calling to her from upstairs and her turning to him.  A photo he'll never see, but one that reminds her of the power of "Meander."

What can happen when you wander away from agenda.

Terrance's memorial was full spontaneous recollections.  A woman who lived across the street from Curtis told how he'd invite her for Christmas at his place:

"You'd walk in his door and there would be the one perfect decoration."  Then she'd invite him and he'd go from room to room examining her lavish decorations piled everywhere:

"You have such good taste, my dear," he said.  "And so much of it."

She wiped away tears as she laughed along with the rest of us.

Excerpts were read from his journal.  Each "chapter" poignant and humorous.  Infused with Terrance's simple enjoyment of life itself.  One began: "It was a very nice foot."  About a mother who was proud of her little girl's ballerina feet.  Yes, and we'll take care of the rest of her too, Terrance's journal mused.

"He brought over a cherry Danish as big as my thigh," Allen's wife recalled in her moving testimony.  "And it was a pleasure just to watch him eat it."

Terrance Curtis was nothing if not quotable.  His students shared in their eulogies every repetitive classroom exclamation they could think of:

"Don't look at the floor!  Look out!  The floor has nothing to offer but dust.  And the dust will always be with us."

"You should be able to balance a ham sandwich on your foot.  Did anyone bring a ham sandwich today?  I'm starving."

One mourner opened with: "Terrance will be a little late.  He's with Robert (with the French pronunciation "Robair")."  An in-joke because whenever a dancer was late before a performance and everyone was stressing, Terrance would casually say: "She's probably with Ro-bair."

Everyone who spoke proclaimed that a spirit like Terrance's could never die.  And it did feel as if he was indeed in the room.  But more than that, I saw how healing love is.  How all of us crave it.  How grateful we are to receive it.  Person after person stood and testified how this man made them feel encouraged, supported, cared for.  Because Love was who he was.

Person after person testified how unlike "L.A."  this studio was.  How unlike "The Ballet World" Terrance's classes were.  It is a neighborhood place.  Where anyone could come and dance and be welcomed.

A heavyset woman stood and recalled her first meeting with Terrance; when he had said: "You must dance!"

Another student told of returning to ballet after years of being away and weeping at the barre during her first exercise.  Terrance whispering to her as he strolled by: "Yes.  Movement releases emotion."

Nobody dared think of tomorrow in that room.  Life without Terrance.  The studio without him.  Co-owners Terrance Curtis and Bill Brown complimented each other.  Terrance's get-up-and-go with people and Bill's upbeat, sweet ways.

It will be interesting to see what shape things take now.

Royan, in her memorial, described that first business meeting with Terrance and Bill—when they first sat down to talk about renting the space.  "Bill sat there nodding his head to everything and Terrance kept saying 'We could do this and we could do that...now, if we do this and that, will you take off this and that...?'"

Normally, I'd be concerned that the landlord might close down the studio or refuse to sell the building.  But he and his wife sat next to me, clearly devastated by the loss of Terrance.  And I think that's a good sign.

Someone recently said to me, when I was talking about having to dispose of my mother's ashes: "I don't believe in 'Closure.' I believe in 'The Defining Moment.'"

Terrance's memorial was the epitome of The Defining Moment.  Defining not only his life, but our own.  And teaching us what a life lived in compassion, humor and kindness can do and be.

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