Etta Dixon, Brooklyn born, began dancing as a child, starting to dance at Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom (the only integrated ballroom in New York), eventually becoming a competitive dancer in exhibitions, competitions and contests, and she’s still dancing. She also worked for DC 37, the municipal employees union, and works today in dance and health and wellness outreach. She advises neighbors about diet, exercise and a more stress-free life at Brookdale Hospital and the Mt. Ararat Center in Brooklyn. She was a Clara Lemlich award winner in 2016
Interview by Julia Gagliardi
Whenever I talk to younger people, I always ask them how old they are. I say, “How old are you, twenty? Well. I was sixty-four when you were born.” You don’t ever hear older people say, “Wow, I was sixty-four when you were born.” Why is that? But I say it. It makes an impression.
I need to make an impression. I’m a walking wellness witness. But I’m an example in the flesh. Because I’m not having the same problems my peers are having. They have arthritis. Or they have high blood pressure. They have all these health problems. But I help them by telling them what they need.
I teach workshops for the elderly at the Brookdale Hospital and the Mount Ararat Center. And every Thursday of the month, I hold an open house for the neighborhood at my house, on the corner of Bushwick and 2nd Avenue. We only serve the healthy stuff, like salads. That’s probably the only good thing people eat all week. And they need it! They also need all the wellness advice they can get!
Every week, I go to the Senior Citizen Center to do bodywork and wellness work. One time, I came and I announced, “I’m here to do bodywork!” And all the old people there look at me and they told me they don’t need bodywork. They don’t need my health advice. They say, “I’m going to meet my Maker. I’m going to a better place. I’m going to meet my Creator.” When I got through to them, they changed their minds. You know what I told them? You’re going to hear it, you’re going to get a good hearing. I told them, “We don’t have one Brittany or one Whitney. We have a whole barrage of them, a tribe of them out there. They’re trying to get through a storm. And here you are, who survived the storm. You need to be here, to let them know how to get through that storm and survive them. And guess what? Since you’re the only person who knows how to get through the storm, you are the most important person on Earth. When I told them that, they changed their minds. They were so happy to be the most important person on Earth!
We put them aside. They talk, we don’t listen. But I recognize that each is the most important person on Earth. Older people are shoved away. We can’t move, we need help.
Everything has to be done for us. So younger people are sick of us. But they don’t realize we’re the most important person on Earth. And we don’t realize it. But I tell them so they know. So now they’re not going anywhere.
They’re not going anywhere until I tell them all my wellness advice. People listen to my advice because I’m a walking, talking example in the flesh. People see my health and they believe my advice! I’ve always been healthy. I was never like my family.
My mother smoked until the day she died. When I was five years old, my mother would send me to the store to get three loosies for a penny. Who wants to burn something? It doesn’t make sense to me. It’s common sense. I didn’t like those cigarettes. I thought that was ridiculous.
But I thought it was ridiculous because I had common sense.
My mother, she burned because she smoked cigarettes. She only lived to sixty-five. I already twenty years older than her. I outlived my sisters, even my younger sisters. My sisters had so much weight. But They couldn’t live with that weight. I buried my mother and my sisters. They didn’t burn anything. Their eating wasn’t like mine. They were hungry all the time. And so was I! But I burn with my movements. I burn. But instead of burning cigarettes, I burned calories. I was moving all the time. When I was in my mother’s womb, I had to do a movement. This made up for the fact that during the Depression, she only had bowls of soup to eat. It was why I survived. But movement made me happy. I couldn’t understand anybody sitting. And they couldn’t understand anybody running. As a child, I come down two steps at a time, back up the stairs, going down to the park and playing handball, dancing. Anything that didn’t cost us any money, I did it. I walked to school. I had come to Dean Street to Fulton Street. It was five, six blocks. I ran past Pacific, then Atlantic and Herkimer. This is my movement.
When I was a teenager, my movements turned into dance. I wore out my shoes more quickly than my sisters. I had to put cardboard in my shoes before turning on the radio in the kitchen or the living room to dance. But I wore out everything. But my family didn’t understand.
They felt threatened by my movement. They didn’t understand why I loved movement. So, I would waltz with my friends to the ice cream parlor to play music on the jukebox and dance to Benny Goldman and the Orioles. We would turn on the radio and dance. We didn’t care what they played. Whatever the big bands played, we danced to it. My dance partner’s favorite song to dance to was “Stompin’ at the Savoy.”
Oh, and we danced at the Savoy! That’s where I spent all my time dancing after ice cream parlors and living rooms. I danced at Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom as a teenager. It was the only integrated ballroom in New York. Oh, we came through our teenage years with no problems because we danced with each other. I met my husband when I was a teen-ager and we married when I was eighteen. My husband, when we got married, we never danced again. But he wrote songs about me. I was his inspiration, but he didn’t know.
But I had a dancer partner for twenty years after my husband and I divorced. My dance partner, Norman Davis, we were partners for over twenty years. He was divorced too. He started dancing because he dancing made him interact and meet other people. He went to a dance school and he knew twenty-nine dances. Twenty-nine! When we first met, I like dancing with him. But he didn’t. He said I was leading myself. Oh, but we danced. Seven dances, one after another. I never knew a man who could do seven dances one after another. The fox trot. The tango. The waltz. The cha cha. The merengue. And we did the rumba too. And we topped off with the swing and he would always take off his jacket. We danced over twenty-years. Isn’t that something?
We were performing for three seasons. We danced for eight-year-old parties and at Marcus Garvey park. We danced all the time.
I dance with high energy as the original jazz bands and dancers. I’m way back. We are the original way to do it. Just like the originals. But the originals ─ like Norma –they’re all dead now.
When older people die, their knowledge dies with them. The older people only have the correct information. A lot of the information is distorted. But old people have it. You have to say, “I want it. I want all of the information you can give me.” The knowledge that I have, I’m only scratching the surface. I’ve got to get this information to you.
And you‘ve got to pass it on.
Interviewer and author Julia Gagliardi was enrolled in Fordham University professor Chris Rhomberg’s Fall, 2017 urban sociology class. Students profiled women honored as part of Labor Arts’ annual Clara Lemlich Awards, celebrating women in their 80s and 90s who spent a lifetime involved in social justice issues. More at laborarts.org.