January 9th, 2011

Gil Marsh cover

The 1976 Montreal Olympics

In February 1976, our gym teacher asked for volunteers to learn a series of dance routines for a performance. I had missed the announcement, but a couple of my friends dragged me along. “It’ll be fun,” they had said.

We were a motley assortment of girls, aged 13 to 16, and only a handful of us had any real dancing experience. (I was not one of them.) We were taught simple box steps, lines, basic patterns, done to a beat. One afternoon, a gentleman we had never seen before watched us perform.

“No, no, no. Tighter! Make the arms swing wider. Faster!” He picked up the beat. “ONE, two, three, four. ONE, two, three, four.”

We moved faster. Still not quite in unison, we managed a tighter circle. We swung our arms wider. But all in all, we were unimpressive. Yet a week later our teacher announced, “You have been chosen to perform at the opening ceremonies for the Olympic Games.”

I was thrilled and aghast. We had no idea that we had been auditioning. And I had somehow missed that the performance in question was the Olympics. In theory I knew this was an honor, but I never quite grasped its import. That’s probably because rehearsals were boring, repeating the same motions over and over.

The music did change, though, and each of us was issued a piece of brown, gauzy nylon cloth that we learned to twist before us, lift, swing, and twirl around. One Saturday in May, we congregated at an outdoor track along with hundreds of students from other schools. Some held nylon cloths of different colors, others carried flags of various sizes, and a few gorgeous women wielded long ribbons attached to sticks.

The day proved tedious. We sat around while people in charge moved groups of us here and there. Our group was placed in a circle near a bend in the track. Boys and girls from another school sat in a square around us. More patterns of circles and squares formed all around the track—a dozen, total. By early afternoon we were all sun-burnt and tired, not once having performed our pieces.

“Now,” the man in charge said. “Places.”

The kids with flags stood. The women with the ribbons positioned themselves between the patterns of circles and squares. The music started.

The flags twirled, were launched and caught, and kids moved about us. The ribbons swirled in complicated patterns. It was breathtaking. Our cue sounded. We stood and began to dance. We were still a motley crew of girls who didn’t quite move in unison, but we nailed the in-and-out motion of our circles, we swung and twirled and twisted our cloths, and we saw the look of surprise on the other kids’ faces. Another musical bar and we all began to move at once, flags, cloths, ribbons, circling, twirling, hopping, weaving. We couldn’t watch what the others were doing since we were concentrating on our own small portion of the entire production, but we could hear the flapping of cloth, feel the stamping of feet, catch glimpses of the swirl of motion around us.

And then we were done. We returned to our buses and back to practice, but now with renewed effort.

On July 17, 1976, I wore a brand new white leotard rimmed in blue, with a matching white and blue-rimmed twirly skirt and pretty white slippers. I had a new gauzy nylon cloth, blue to match the trim. I marched into the Olympic Stadium with hundreds of other students, positioned myself with my group in our designated corner of the inner oval.

The Olympian athletes marched by. The flag bearers, who had spent the prior week practicing with us, winked in our direction. The one from the Soviet Union particularly impressed me. A giant of a man, he held the Soviet flag out, straight out, with one arm, the entire length of his march. It’s a feat that amazes me to this day.

The familiar strands of music started.

In unison, hundreds of us stood. In unison, we position ourselves around the track. In unison, we circled and swung and twisted and hopped and wove about. I heard the claps, the occasional cheer. And when we finished the dance, the stadium roared. And roared.

When we returned to our spot by that curve in the oval, I spotted the Soviet flag bearer. He was grinning, giving us a giant thumbs up.

[In this video, quite remarkably, you can see me (among many others) at 0:23-0:25, I'm the one making faces next to the tall boy in a red t-shirt and glasses. And you can see the wonderful Soviet flag bearer at 3:17-3:20.]