photo by Steven Meisel
[Editor’s note: Liner Notes chronicles how Chelsea Schlievert Yates discovered music through the ’80s and ’90s while growing up in Norfolk, Neb. We hope to post a new installment every other week. Read more here.]
Dance classes were very popular with the girls at my grade school. Tap, ballet and jazz were all offered at the dance studio in downtown Norfolk. But I never took dance class.
I didn’t participate in the after-school carpool to the studio, never was in a spring recital, never owned tap shoes or ballet flats. While the other girls in the second grade learned basic ballet positions, shuffle steps and toe taps after school, I would walk to my mom and dad’s store at the mall, get a chocolate ice cream cone dipped in chocolate from the Dairy Queen and read my Little House on the Prairie books in the back room of the shop while I waited for my parents to finish their workday.
I didn’t mind so much. My best friend Ali was in dance, and the moves she’d show me on the playground at school always looked incredibly hard. I was glad I didn’t have to learn them.
However, there was one aspect of dance lessons of which I was completely jealous: dance recital costumes. Ali’s mom kept all of hers in a spare closet (there were a lot; Ali had taken multiple dance classes a year since she was about five). I often spent Friday nights at Ali’s; sometime between finishing an exciting game of Hungry Hungry Hippos and watching The Neverending Story, we’d open the costume closet and explore the sequins, sparkles, ribbons, bows, hats and tutus that took up residence there.
I was particularly excited about any item in the closet made of tulle. It reminded me of the wedding dress Madonna wore on the cover of Ali’s “Like a Virgin” cassette tape. One night I mentioned this to Ali. Her face lit up. We had studied that photo over and over: Madonna, her make-up heavy and hair unruly, constrained by a white bustier and a belt with a buckle that read “boy toy,” engulfed by satin sheets and the polka dot netting of her skirt, her sultry gaze direct and bold, targeting anyone who dared to look at her.
I had watched Madonna writhe and roll around on stage on TV in that same dress during her now-legendary performance at the 1984 MTV Video Music Awards. I remember my mom shutting off the television near the end of her act.
Madonna mesmerized and terrified me, and I loved her for it. She was pretty and trashy, chic and messy. She swore in interviews. She made my mom blush. Ali and I had no doubt that Madonna did pretty much whatever the hell she wanted (when we talked about her, we would use words like “hell” and “damn,” provided that no adults were around. We always figured that Madonna would have wanted us to do so).
Madonna was one tough cookie all right, and it was clear to me that she was someone not to mess with. She knew what she wanted. And took it. And owned it. I didn’t understand “sexy” at the time, but I knew it was something significant. And Madonna was a different kind of sexy than most women I saw on television or in the movies: She was confident, unashamed, and in charge.
Soon, all of the dance costumes were pulled out of the closet. We tried on anything that was light in color, comprised of tulle, or included some sort of full, layered skirt. (The crinoline lining attached to Ali’s poodle skirt would have been perfect, were it not for the felted outer layer. For a moment we contemplated cutting the skirt apart but decided against it when we realized the amount of trouble in which we’d find ourselves.) There was nothing in the closet that came close to looking like Madonna’s bustier — after all, Ali was only eight — but fortunately she had lots of leotards, and so we made due.
Pop beads were all the rage amongst the girls in our class, and Ali had a bunch, so we snapped them together to create jewelry for our ensemble. Madonna wore a lot more bracelets than we could recreate out of pop beads so we wound ribbons around our wrists and arms to help us achieve her look. I think that Ali may have even snuck into her mother’s room to borrow a few bangles and chunky necklaces.
With Madonna’s “Dress You Up” on in the background, we got into our outfits: leotards, tights, skirts, gloves, ribbons, bows, bracelets. We weren’t allowed to use makeup, but no one had forbidden us from playing around with our hair, so we attempted to make it big by flipping our heads over, brushing it out and hair-spraying it (we had yet to learn about the technique of “ratting”; that would come in junior high). We didn’t need Maripol, who had helped Madonna create her signature style: We had each other.
We pulled the piano bench into the middle of Ali’s bedroom. It would function as our giant wedding cake platform, just like the one on which Madonna danced at the MTV Awards show. At the last minute, we realized we could benefit from an audience, so we lined up all of Ali’s stuffed animals. She queued up the tape player to just the right spot. With hair brushes for microphones, we lip-synched our hearts out to “Like a Virgin.” Ali created a short routine for us, and even I danced. As Madonna, how could I not?
“Like a Virgin” ended, and though we had selected “Angel,” the second track from side A of the tape, for our encore, we never got to it. Ali had taken a leap off of her bed–something we thought would make for an impressive end to our performance. Her intention had been to land gracefully and perfectly poised on the piano bench. She achieved neither. Hitting the bench feet first, she immediately bounced off and smacked the floor with a thud. A crumpled mound of tulle, she writhed and rolled around on the carpet for a moment. She made a few squeaks–possibly laughter, possibly cries of pain, I couldn’t quite tell. It was all surprisingly Madonna-esque, and as concerned as I was for her well-being, I was also rather impressed: Ali had managed to stay in character despite the botched landing. After a few minutes, she confirmed that she was okay, and we both erupted into a fit of giggles. But it was too late. The thuds and bumps had attracted the attention of Ali’s mother, who had been watching television upstairs. And, just as my mom had turned off one performance of “Like a Virgin,” her mom shut down another.
We tried to recreate the dress-up experience on a Saturday afternoon once when we were home with a babysitter. But it wasn’t as fun, especially when I couldn’t find my clothes afterward and had to ride my bike home in a borrowed leotard (it turned out that the family’s cleaning lady thought my clothes, which I’d left wadded up on the bathroom floor, were Ali’s and threw them in the wash with the rest of the laundry).
It would be years before I understood the “virgin/whore” dichotomy with which Madonna cleverly toyed throughout her career. Hell, it would be years before I knew what the lyrics to “Like a Virgin” actually meant. But that Friday night with Ali and Madonna taught me some very important lessons: that music could be about movement, attitude and style, and that one didn’t need to take dance classes to get into the groove.
Chelsea Schlievert Yates is a Hear Nebraska contributor. She grew up in northeast Nebraska and now lives in Seattle, Washington. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.