She walked funny

CTALK - Cito Beltran - The Philippine Star

She walked funny.

In a room full of ballet dancers, artists, singers and serious business people, it struck me as odd that they all spoke in unison about “how she walked funny.” I never really noticed because the few times I got to talk to her was with me inside a car and her standing in front of her house. We came to know each other through our daughters who are best buddies and who both attend Victory Christian International School. I heard she was a teacher, later my daughter would clarify further by emphasizing that she was a ballet teacher at “Steps.” Truth be told, that added to the puzzle. Ok, she walked funny and in the stereotype of dancers maybe that explains why she walked funny. But how did she ever become a “Ballerina” or a Grand Dame of the school considering she looked more like a shooting forward for a women’s basketball team?

Unlike the Swans I’ve watched and known in my lifetime, she was tall, unusually tall and as a student put it, “long.” Her motions whether instructing or actually dancing were rhythmic and elongated enough to make you back off or dodge a hand or two, just like Ariana Grande dodging angel wings at the Victoria’s Secret Fashion show. Of course no one dared to mention that she was also dark and a complete counterpoint to the “Giselles” and gazelles in tutus with their porcelain white skin and hands that remind you of fine china. This lady they called “Mother Duck” was the sort that would fit in the movie “300.” She struck me as unabashed, proud and full of life. She could probably handle a battle-axe with as much force as she can pirouette on a plate.

Her sharp features, her dark skin and her commanding voice and presence, certainly made her beauty more impressionable and challenging. But what always gets you was that she was always in control.

Yes all her student’s love her but that did not stop a number from sharing how they cowered in the corner or tried to disappear in the back of the class, or hoped against hope that their mother would give up on theater dreams and performances at the CCP. “Mother Duck” would not have any of it because she spent her life proving her naysayers wrong, all her life. Some people had actually told her that she could never be a dancer but she did, she became one and went further by making many more like her, by helping the bow legged, two left feet ducklings defy gravity, defy peer pressure and defy the cruelty of others.

Even the school where she taught defiantly stands in a neighborhood known more for girlie bars, booze and old men. If anything the school certainly adds a thousand points to improve the questionable class of the district. I don’t know if it was merely a practical decision of the owner, an opportunity or a coincidental reflection of Mother Duck’s live and let live attitude, but their location certainly adds to her testament of defiance as if saying it’s not the location but the quality of education that makes the difference. Clearly the school in itself is a standard of excellence, why else would famous names and faces grace its halls, offices and dance studios in spite of the awkward location? Yes, “Mother Duck” I can almost hear you quacking: Life is not always as it seems.    

Apparently she was tenacious and it was that tenacity and love for the art or craft that made her such a great teacher who towered, and stared with big eyes while telling you to “learn to dance if you are a singer or learn to sing if you are a dancer.” It was never “either/or” and that was how she lived her life. She would walk to “school” just to be a better dancer, she would stand at the corner with her very own brood of dancers while patiently believing for a cab or whatever four-wheeled means of transport they could flag to get from their rented flat near Valle Verde to “Steps” on Kalayaan Avenue. Even when she was seriously under the weather that was her true love.

One day, I learned that the “Mother Duck” was seriously ill. I secretly questioned the wisdom of the heavens why such an illness had to come into the life of someone so young, so needed by her very young children and someone who had served God and others diligently? I never talked much about it but every morning after I dropped off Hannah at school, I would slow down in front of “Mother Duck’s” home, stretch out my hand towards her home and like some aging Jedi petition God to take away the illness, to put it into remission, to give her more years as he had done for a king in the Bible. She got a few months. She got up on her feet, walked funny and began to dance. I never saw her dance, we never got to talk about her down time, it seemed like it never happened. Then she was sick all over again. My wife Karen rushed to the hospital to donate blood, we posted and shared the call for donors and prayers, and I really really thought she would dance her way out of this one again.

I have to confess that this episode frightened me. Just the thought of losing my own wife was so emotionally paralyzing, so painful to imagine that I found myself staring at the ceiling or glancing over at my wife from 2 a.m. until I got out of bed at 5. Little did I know that during that very evening as I tossed and turned in bed, “Mother Duck” had passed on to become the beautiful and graceful Black Swan in the mist covered lake of our memories:

Mother Duck a.k.a Liesl Lopez-Vito LaForteza

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