Like most parents, Connie Gatlin wanted the best for her daughter Abbe and much more. So to see her only child step onto the Radio City Music Hall stage as a Rockette for the first time was a dream come true for both. Gatlin, the director of the Cleveland City Ballet, wanted to start the new year by sharing her true-life story of a girl with a dream who later became a mother with a daughter who fulfilled those dreams — bringing her joy beyond belief.
The following is Gatlin’s story in her own words.
“I was always a loud child — I talked loud, I sang loud,” Gatlin said. “I grew up with my parents constantly telling me not to be so loud.” Her favorite place to be loud was her Mamaw’s front porch, she said. “Nola Belle and Jim, my papaw, lived on a corner of a busy street with a red light that stopped traffic right in front of the house, and had a porch that ran the width of the house, Gatlin explained.
She described the great old Southern porch as an excellent shady haven on hot sunny days and a perfect playhouse when the rain drizzled.
“Mamaw sat there and broke beans,” she said, “Papaw sat there and read the paper. Everyone sat there after supper, fanning themselves with funeral fans and listlessly talking about the neighbors, or listening to the revival music that was always coming from the small Pentecostal church just up the street.” But Gatlin said she “played there.”
Her favorite part of the porch was the wide steps which were painted a worn-out grey. The steps were very wide, running the width of the porch and quite deep — “I loved them,” she said.
“Long before my youthful spirit had even dreamed of theatrical platforms and stage focus and proscenium arches,” Gatlin said, “my young soul instinctively knew that these steps were a perfect stage.”
In Nola Belle’s old dresses with her Papaw’s walking stick for a cane, Gatlin would act out all of the stories she knew. “I would sing and dance,” she said, “quite often performing for the captive audiences of the folks stuck at the red light on the corner. “
The best time of day to “work my stage” was right after lunch. A few minutes before the day’s cornbread came out of the oven, her Mamaw would call her to the kitchen, give her a nickel, and set her off out the back door and across the street to Wright’s Grocery. “Each day,” Gatlin said, “it was my pride and privileged chore to pick out the Kool-Aid flavor of the day — orange, grape or cherry?” She said she would study this wire rack of small flat packets until she grew hungry, and then hurry back to Nola Belle’s kitchen to help mix the flavor of the day.
The daily lunch of pinto beans, corn bread and Kool-Aid was followed by Gatlin’s very favorite part of the day — time on Mamaw’s porch steps. “After lunch, Papaw would always take himself to the small woodshed in the back corner of the lot, hand roll himself a cigarette with his Prince Albert, and sit on a stump, studying his near-crippled hands in that far-off, distant way he had.”
Gatlin said her Papaw disapproved of her ... “not in any threatening way, but he, too, thought I was too loud.” She said he wore those tiny wire-framed glasses and looked at her over the rims with his watery, faded blue eyes, and scowled at her several times daily. But after lunch, he was holding court in his woodshed, and “the porch was mine.”
Garbed in an old print dress, Gatlin would perform songs, perfecting dance routines and undoubtedly providing much hilarity for the folks in the cars at the red light. “You Are My Sunshine” would segue into “B-I-N-G-O” and then provide entry into her favorite story of Jonah being gobbled up by that whale.
On a really good day Gatlin said she could keep going for more than an hour, and “if I was really wound up I would sing away the time and still be at it when I heard that old, blackened screen door creak and know that Papaw Jim had arrived.
“Noh-leeeee, come get this chile ... she’s a’goin’ to hay-ell!” would bring down the curtain on Gatlin’s daily performance. Twas time to take off the costumes and retire to the “wings” of her theater — underneath the huge weeping willow in the side yard of the house.
Although Gatlin’s adult career path certainly did not lead her to a performance stage, it did lead to an educational stage. She said she felt it was a career blessed with the opportunity to work with talented youth all over the region on the local stages of the community.
And then along came Abbe, a sweet, sweet child who very early began to grow into a dancer.
“Who’d a thunk?” She was signed up for dance classes because “that’s what I had wanted as a child,” Gatlin said. By her first recital, however, it became quite clear to Gatlin “this was something my girl-child was meant to do.”
Gatlin said this clearly became her dream, and not hers. Years later, Abbe came home from a dance class saying she wanted to study dance somewhere other than Cleveland. “That statement put me on a fast-track learning curve to figure out just what that would entail,” Gatlin said.
A summer program here ... a summer there ... choosing college based on dance offerings.
“Who’d a thunk?” Gatlin asked herself.
And then came the day in June 2012 when Gatlin got the call. “We both screamed — we both cried.” Abbe’s professional career took flight as she joined the New York cast of the Rockettes. And after a thousand telephone calls later, there came the day when Abbe stepped onto the Radio City Music Hall stage for the first time.
“She had not cried in rehearsals,” Gatlin said. “She had not cried when her feet blistered and ached and bled. She didn’t cry after miles of notes on pursuing precision perfection. But stepping onto that stage for the first time — she cried.”
The Radio City Music Hall stage remains eons and light-years removed from Nola Belle’s front porch, Gatlin mused, “but they are forever connected by the tears of a momma and daughter.”
That scabby-kneed child had instincts way beyond Mamaw’s porch, Gatlin said. “And those instincts have been overwhelmingly fulfilled in the blessing that has become my daughter’s life — who’d a thunk?