Irving Berlin and Liz: Ragtime Lives On

Irving Berlin and Liz: Ragtime Lives On
Irving Berlin entertaining the troops during WWII

My family’s story intersects with Irving Berlin’s at least twice, through my grandmother who played piano in the ragtime era until arthritis silenced her hands in her old age. My mother tells the story that during the war, probably 1943, when she and her brother had been evacuated during the Blitz and were living high on the hog on a farm in Scotland, eating ham and bacon that they’d never tasted before, Irving Berlin brought his show, “You’re In The Army Now” to Glasgow. Her mum, my grandmother Elizabeth, took them to see the show and they went backstage afterwards. Mr. Berlin took one look at her, and yelled, “Liz!”, and threw his arms around her in a huge bear hug, surprising the cast and crew and greatly impressing my mother and uncle, especially because they knew that no one, but no one, was allowed to call her Liz.ElizabethNS1pink500

Irving Berlin is considered the greatest and certainly most prolific composer of popular music of the 20th century. Born in a poor Jewish ghetto in Russia with the name Israel Balain, he emigrated to the US with his family in 1893, when he was 5, settling in the Lower East side of NYC. Israel was the son of a cantor, and earned pennies singing on the streets of NY to help support his family after his father died. He never learned to read music, but sounded out the melodies of his songs using the black keys of the piano, letting someone else write the tunes into music notation.

Irving Berlin worked out the tune for In My Harem in 1912 while on the 20th Century Limited train to Chicago, and it was published with witty lyrics early in 1913. These lyrics allow the singer to choose between an Irish or Jewish protagonist (Pat Malone or Abie Cohen) who finds himself with “wives for breakfast, wives for dinner, wives for supper time” while taking care of a harem for a Turk who goes off to war.

In My Harem cover 1913
In My Harem cover 1913

That same year, 1913, my grandmother Elizabeth was 16. She was already an accomplished ragtime pianist, accompanying silent movies in her mother’s movie theatre in Brooklyn. She dropped out of school and ran away from home to marry my grandfather Harry Gilbert, a Kosher butcher. When my grandfather promptly lost his job soon afterwards, she went out looking for work, and was hired by Irving Berlin to play his tunes in the window of his music publisher in Tin Pan Alley. This was her job until her first pregnancy the next year. It is likely that In My Harem was one of the tunes she played every day, with her rollicking left hand keeping the syncopated rhythm of the time. Listen and watch this fine four-hands piano rendition.

Now, I’m a dancer with The Academy of Danse Libre, which performs dances like In My Harem in ragtime costume, at Cubberley Auditorium in Palo Alto, California, next on June 6 and 7, 2014.  The full program includes 16 dances from the Victorian, Gay Nineties, Ragtime, and Golden Age of Hollywood eras, in authentic period dress and mannerisms, performed by 24 fine dancers.  In 2015, catch us performing with the Peninsula Symphony at Flint Center for the Performing Arts in Mountain View, CA. Visit for YouTube links, more info, including photos and performance schedule.


Agile Aging Secret: Dance Every Day!

Agile Aging Secret: Dance Every Day!

Valerie Baadh Garrett, founder of Agile Aging as well as The Movement Academy Project. is a lifelong dancer, still going strong.  Take a look at this photo by Jason Chuang of Valerie dancing with Craig Chen in a performance of “Alle Tanzen” danced with the company of Academy of Danse Libre at a 2012 show in Palo Alto, CA.  “Although it isn’t always easy to keep up the fast pace our directors set in rehearsals, I work hard to train outside the rehearsal studio so I can do my best,” says Garrett.  At age 60, she’s certainly not old, but she is the eldest of the dancers in the young company of 20 – 40 year olds.

Taking advice from her own teachers and mentors, she points to Daniel Nagrin’s book “How To Dance Forever” as inspiration.  “Basically, Nagrin says we must dance every day.  What that means to me is to stay connected to my body’s spaces inside and out, and to how music moves and flows with me.  I do yoga.  I stretch and work out  incognito at my gym, Gold’s Gym in SOMA, where I’m just one forgettable older lady among the eye candy there.  I take special time for the health and strength of my hardworking allies, my feet, which ache for the first time in my life after dancing for hours in heels while in costume with DL (Academy of Danse Libre). I travel a lot nowadays, to China and Taiwan and the east coast, leading workshops in movement for executive leadership, for women’s wellness, for teacher training, for caregivers of the elderly, and for schools and parent groups.  Fortunately, everyone loves to move and to dance with me, so dance is usually a part of my work day too.”

“I’m forever inspired by two special dance teachers in my life, Bella Lewitzky, who was my teacher in my teens and early twenties, and Sybil Shearer, whom I met when she was in her late 80s.  She told me I needed to get back into performing again, at the ripe age of 40 at that time. When I whimpered something about being old, she shook her head at me and shouted, ‘You’re in your baby shoes!”  I’ll never forget that moment.  She was right.”

Here’s a short video of Valerie dancing Etude #1.

Dance every day.  Dance alone. Dance with a pillow.  Dance with your friends and family.  Just shake it loose, and get moving.  Everyone can dance!

More about Valerie here. 

More about Valerie’s upcoming workshop schedule here.

More about Academy of Danse Libre here.

Watch videos of Academy of Danse Libre on YouTube here.

Six Best Exercises You Never Heard Of

Six Best Exercises You Never Heard Of

As a young dancer training in ballet and modern dance, I didn’t think much about longevity.  My body was my musical instrument, and I figured if I got it polished and kept it tuned, it would last me a good long time.  Now, at 58, I’m still a performer, dancing with Mountain View’s Academy of Danse Libre, the nation’s leading vintage ballroom dance company and doing a dozen shows a year – some in high heels!

As a movement coach and educator working with the mind-body connection, I study and teach movement to everyone from little children to the fragile elderly.  Along the way I’ve learned some very unique longevity secrets that have helped me and many others to feel great, avoid injuries, relieve pain, and stay active.  Here are some of my favorites – some may surprise you! Read more