Gayle Martin began teaching dance at 15, and 35 years later, she’s still going full-force
by PAULETTE PARKER
The beat of a hip-hop track pulsates through the hardwood floor. Arms and legs move methodically under the bright lights, mimicked by reflections on the mirrored walls. In the dance studio in Washtenaw Community College’s Morris Lawrence building, dancers’ emotions emanate from their bodies.
Fair skin, blonde hair and blue eyes, her personality projects through the roof. Her ebullient laugh reverberates through the room. Her beaming grin is magnetic. Her aura is warm and welcoming.
“I’m an Ann Arbor-ite,” Martin said, born to hardworking, upper-middle class, social parents. Among numerous accomplishments, her mother, Shirley D. Martin, was a founding administrator of the WCC nursing program.
Christmas, church on Sundays, visiting family in St. Louis, years as a student at St. Paul Lutheran elementary school – Martin’s traditional upbringing makes up her fondest memories.
Friday nights with a phonograph were a ritual in the Martin home.
“Every Friday night (my parents) would be home,” Martin said. “They would put on the record player and they would dance (and sing).”
“It’s always been around me,” she said. “There was always creating, always music, always dancing.” At the age of three Martin knew she would be a performer.
“I got the bug,” she said. She began with studying Cecchetti ballet. She performed in studios and on stages, but in a time when a prima ballerina was relegated to a certain mold, she faced challenges.
“Back in those days if you had too much bosom or too much behind, they didn’t consider that you were going to be able to become a prima ballerina,” Martin said. “Well look at the top-three prima ballerinas now.” At the age of 15, she was asked to take classes at the University of Michigan. Through that experience, she had a revelation.
“That’s when I realized there’s African-American dance, there’s Congolese dance, there’s tap, there’s modern; I don’t have to be a prima ballerina,” Martin said. “So at 15 I said, ‘This is a done deal, I can do this.’” There was no turning back. Her parent’s opinions were mixed.
“My dad always said, ‘Do what you love, money will come later,’” Martin recalled. “My mother? No. She was more practical,” she laughed.
Martin was drawn to the arts because it provided her “soulful enjoyment,” she said, and she never had any interest in sitting behind a desk.
“Singing is a wonderful way to let go of everything. Acting, you can be on stage and you can be anybody you want to for 30 to 45 minutes. You can be different people,” Martin said. “You can dance a different way. You can let the music move you in a different manner, and each time is different.”
Another motivating factor in her pursuit of the arts was not seeing anyone like herself while growing up. As an African-American albino, Martin has endured discrimination and misunderstanding. How she has handled adversity has shaped who she is today, she said.
“Being an albino, there’s a very fine line, as far as I’m concerned, that you walk because you’re not really accepted,” Martin said.
Although she has often dealt with ignorant, negative portrayals of albinos in the media and has even been mistaken as Caucasian, she takes it all in stride.
“You can go through life being very angry, because every day there’s always something stupid said to you, or you can find humor in everything that happens,” Martin said. “I choose to find the humor in it.”
At 14 years old, Martin was seen in a talent contest by renowned WCC musician, Morris Lawrence, for whom the Morris Lawrence building is named.
“He asked my father if I could come dance with the WCC Jazz Orchestra,” Martin said. Her father agreed. By 15 years old, Martin began substitute teaching at WCC, and by 17, she was teaching a class of her own.
“I didn’t say how old I was in class.” She chuckled. “I don’t know how Morris did it, but he did.” After graduating high school, she officially enrolled at WCC in preparation to transfer to the University of Michigan.
The grounds were barer than they are now. Apple trees paved the path to temporary buildings that housed the arts department. Where there were fields, parking lots now sit. And it was a time of great diversity, Martin said.
“Not only in the color-wise, but age-wise,” she said. “There were people coming back to school; people taking classes because they wanted to hone up on what they already knew.”
Students could take a class more than twice, allowing them to perfect their crafts. WCC music instructor and musician John E. Lawrence learned under Morris Lawrence’s guidance alongside Martin. The two still perform together.
“He not only is a guitarist, he’s an artist,” Martin said. “He mastered his guitar not over a two-semester or a year thing. It was years.” Studying at the University of Michigan, Martin met and befriended her long-time colleague, WCC dance instructor, Noonie Anderson. Martin was an undergrad, Anderson, a graduate student.
“It’s funny, because we were in school together, and we came to Washtenaw and ended up working together, and it’s been the dynamic duo ever since we’ve been there,” Anderson said.
She was awestruck when she first witnessed Martin perform.
“She performed in a musical that Morris Lawrence had written and I remember thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, that young woman is incredible,’” Anderson said. Martin remains as passionate as she ever was, Anderson said.
“Teenage Gayle was equally as energetic and effervescent and creative as she is now,” she said. “She still has that same sort of contagious energy.”
There has never been competition between the two artists, and their relationship has extended beyond the boundaries of WCC, Anderson said.
“Our families are very close. Not only are we family within the WCC connection, but we’re family outside,” Anderson said. “I kiddingly say, it’s probably one of the best relationships I’ve had outside my marriage.”
As Martin dances alongside her students during her class, she weaves her way through the room. Her manner is encouraging. “Can’t” and “won’t” are words she doesn’t accept.
“Just because you’re new to whatever form it is, I push you,” Martin said. “I don’t accept, ‘I can’t,’ because you’ve never tried it, so how do you know?”
WCC culinary and hospitality management major, Ashley Bedwell, 25, of Superior Township, is in her second semester of Martin’s hip-hop dance class.
“Her choreography is amazing and it will kick your butt,” Bedwell laughed. “Her choreography challenges us to do things we didn’t know our bodies could do.” Martin jokes that she’s also a counselor to her students.
“I treat them like they’re my kids,” Martin said. “I don’t care if you’re 80, you’re still my kid.” She feels that dance is like therapy, and her students concur.
“Gayle can take you on your worst day, and turn it around and make you completely happy that day,” said nursing major, Sheena Riley, 28, of Romulus. “Just seeing her face, she’s just positive energy at all times.”
“She truly listens, and she truly cares,” Anderson said.
“She makes us laugh all the time, which makes the class more fun,” said WTMC student, Maya Koziol, 16, of Ann Arbor. “It’s more laid back; it doesn’t feel like it’s serious.”
In 2012, Martin started the Rare Paragon Gem dance company. She doesn’t believe dance is limited to a certain body type, age or dance background, and trains students to become the dancers they’ve always wanted to be.
“A lot of people have told me they couldn’t because of how they looked, or where they were in life or whatever,” Martin said. “I don’t believe it.” Martin has never shied away from a challenge, and has taught students with Downs Syndrome, some who spoke different languages, and three students who were deaf.
“I’m waiting for someone to come in there, who is brave enough, who is blind,” Martin said. “I can’t wait. I want it to happen because it’s possible.”
“It’s amazing that she can have total beginners and advanced students all in one class and still be able to challenge every single person,” Riley said. “She makes it a safe, comfortable place for everybody.”
When Martin isn’t working, she continues dancing. Volunteering her time at the Children’s Creative Center in Ann Arbor, she teaches dance to preschoolers, and teaches praise dancing at two churches.
Once she tucks away her dancing shoes, she wants to be remembered by her students as someone that inspired them to give to others, to share with others, to be the best person they can be and to be totally honest and truthful about who they are.
“You should not be ashamed of anything that has happened, because it made up who you are today,” Martin said. “Never give up. Things may not always work out the way you planned it, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not going to work.”
“Washtenaw is really lucky to have her,” Bedwell said. “She’s the coolest lady I have ever met; I really believe that.”
“I have the utmost respect for her and I truly know how lucky I have been to have her as a colleague for all these years,” Anderson said.
Although she has been teaching since she was 15, Martin does not foresee retirement anywhere in the near future.
“I truly believe that my last breath will be either singing in a microphone or on a dance floor,” Martin said. “As long as I can move, I’ll be doing it.”
SEE VIDEO: Gayle Martin’s hip-hop class
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