The Arts, Etc.


By Olly van Driest-Young

    I was born on the Isle of Borneo in the then Dutch East Indies where my father worked for the Dutch government. His job was to show natives how to improve their crops. Because of the remoteness of the islands, a government plane flew him to and from his destinations. My earliest memory is of a white-haired man giving me inoculations before our travel to Holland. I was two years old. Every six years my dad had six months leave which he used to visit his mother in Holland. One time when my elder brother and I were playing in the street in front of our house in Holland, we heard an enormous racket and saw a huge shape above the houses. We banged on the door and screamed to get back in the house. We had seen the Hindenburgh.

    My sister was born there, the only one of the four of us born in Holland. When my father's leave was up, we left for Ternate, a volcanic island where tremors were an every day occurrence. Large pieces of furniture were hooked into the walls to keep them from falling over. My younger brother was born there. One night my parents woke us up to go outside. There was an earthquake going on and the volcano erupted. I was fascinated by the oranges, reds and gold against the night sky. Then ash clouds covered the starlit sky and next morning there was a layer of ash everywhere.

    After four years we moved to New Guinea. Manokwari was a small place on the north side. There were no horses or cars, only bicycles, boats and planes. There was a two-room school on the beach. Our relief stations were built at the end of a narrow wooden pier. Two cubicles had a hole in the center of a wooden floor. There was no toilet paper but we brought our own water containers to wash ourselves. I thought nothing of the Papuan women who suckled piglets or the men who wore nothing to cover their genitals except a preposterous long adornment, some as long as three feet. Not until I was a few years older did I realize that the Papuans were a bit different.

    Once we went to visit Uncle Henk who lived inland with his wife. We boarded a large outrigger and then we needed to cross a primitive bridge where we saw crocodiles on the banks of the river.

    After two years we left again for Holland. This time I remember the trip. We boarded a smaller cargo ship. One day when we steamed through a sea of many hued jellyfish, although still miles away, we could smell the aromas of the spice islands. While visiting those islands, I saw an elaborate miniature sail ship made entirely of cloves.

    Our destination was Batavia, now called Jakarta, where we boarded an ocean liner for the trip to Europe. On our first island stop, we visited Ceylon, now called Sri Lanka. Lots of small outriggers came to the side of our boat and sold artifacts and souvenirs, while young men and boys dove into the water to retrieve coins that were tossed from the boat. During a visit to a zoo, a monkey reached out through the bars of its cage and grabbed my younger brother by the hair. Bystanders helped to free him.

    Our next stop, after sailing through the Red Sea, was Suez. The trip through the Suez Canal was slow. The next stop was Genoa in southern Italy where we boarded a train which took us through Italy, Switzerland and Germany to The Hague in Holland. While going through Switzerland, we saw snow for the first time and were allowed off the train for a few minutes so we could touch the snow.

    During the months in Holland, we attended school. My grandmother was a smallish woman with a huge bun of hair on her head. She wanted to keep me with her, but my mother wouldn't allow it.

    When my dad's leave was up we returned to the Indies. This time we went to the Island of Celebes, now called South Sulawesi, part of the Republic of Indonesia, where we lived in the capital -- Makassar. It was 1937 when I watched a hula dancer at a fair. I was fascinated by her movements. At home, I spent many hours trying to emulate the hula dancer. I practiced in front of a mirror, swaying my hips. I was determined to duplicate the hula dancer's graceful dancing, and eventually, I did. That was my first exposure to a dancer. I was nine.

    Our houses had no indoor plumbing. Bathrooms and the kitchen were connected by a roofed corridor at the back of the house. Food was prepared over a charcoal fire by a kokkee. The laundry was done by a baboo chuchee at the well, a batcho was the gardener, and the djongos did the housework including serving the meals. A bathroom was a large room with a cement floor that sloped towards the back. There was a tiled receptacle filled with water from the tap. We used a gayung to take the water out of the receptacle and pour over our bodies. New houses had a shower. No hot water was necessary because in the tropics, water temps were almost tepid.

    Then came 1941 and the Jap's attack on Pearl Harbor. I was 13. At Celebes, a Japanese invasion was expected. That December, we were all bundled up, packing only the most necessary things, and left, in buses, for the mountains. Automobiles had been commandeered for use by the military and supportive personnel. We were housed in a large building that had been used as a children's vacation camp. In February we heard Jap planes coming over. They strafed an area where all the automobiles were gathered. Several days later we heard the clanging noise of tanks on the road. Behind them marched columns of Jap soldiers. They entered our building with bayonets.

    A period of relative calm followed. However, it was not long before we were bundled up again. The women and children, including my brothers because they weren't 15 yet (the age when a boy was taken from his mother and moved to the men's camp), were loaded on trucks, taken to a lower elevation, and moved into a barbed wire compound called Kampili. Heretofore it had been a sanitarium for tuberculosis patients. There were several concrete buildings, but we were housed in large bamboo barracks for 100 people each. There were 18 of these bamboo barracks for almost 1700 women and children. Bunk beds were made of bamboo. At night, we could see rats scurrying across the rafters. My father was placed in a military POW camp in Makassar which was 20 miles away. One year later, my elder brother, Jan, was placed in a camp for civilian males in Pare Pare 50 miles away from Kampili. There was no access to a radio or any other kind of news sources. No electricity or running water which was provided by several wells in the camp. Keroxene lamps provided light in the evening.

    Teenagers had to line up every morning at seven and march to work in the fields where crops were grown for Jap forces. Not until the end of the war, when we were bombed by the Allies, and Japs sprang up from nowhere, did we realize that Jap troops surrounded our camp. Our meals were mainly rice, a soup of native ferns and young sprouts of yams, and a scant tablespoon that one buffalo provided for all of us, including its blood, lungs, etc. After living a life where others did for you and then being thrown into a situation where you had to work for everything, we had to adapt, to roll with the punches. All adults had assigned positions in the camp. There were nuns who taught school, were nurses, and worked in the central kitchen like everyone else. For recreation there was a choir for both women and children. Once a Jap commented that Japanese women would have committed hara kiri if they had to live the way we did. In the afternoons, we went to school.

    But as teenagers, sometimes when the moon was out, we gathered in the evening and danced with each other -- ballroom dancing. One of the girls managed to have a phonograph and several old records which we played over and over again. I'm sure the Jap commandant knew what was going on, but left us alone. I watched and learned; pretty soon other girls asked me how to do certain steps. I guess I was a fast learner. I embraced the leisure moments, enjoying them to the full.

    And then, Daisy O'Keefe appeared, an English woman, about 30. She showed me several paper clippings of her ballet performances with the Sadler's Wells Ballet. Recognizing that sharing her background could provide a diversionary focus for fellow prisoners, she organized a ballet dance class designed primarily for teenagers. While prisoners in a Jap concentration camp, riddled with rules and reprisals designed by a brutal hierarchy, existing on a starvation diet that helped create a platform for illnesses, especially dysentery with the power to kill, Daisy O'Keefe became my first ballet teacher. She taught us the rudiments of ballet. Dance appealed to me because it was so physical. There was no mirror, indoor floors were dried up clay. You can hardly call our camp ballet classes "formal" but then I had nothing to compare it with, since I had never been exposed to a formal ballet practice room.

    Also in the camp was a Russian who had been a concert pianist. On certain festive occasions, like the birthday of Queen Wilhelmina, we performed in a large bamboo building, with the Russian supplying the music -- on an organ that the Japs provided. After the war when I learned about the conditions and treatments other Jap prisoners endured, our camp seemed to be a paradise compared with similar camps on the Isles of Java, Borneo and Sumatra.

    I was hooked. I knew I wanted dance to be an important part of my life. My goal was to attain a higher level of dance. It was only when I realized there was very little chance for me to achieve my goal that l sought another direction in my life.

    To become a prima ballerina requires not only a commitment to the dance but a singular dedication to the art. Ballet training is demanding -- of the body and the mind. Its physical exercises must be done correctly, expertly and repeatedly, not only by a prima but by all dancers, regardless of expertise. Very few attain the status of prima. I had started too late in life to become a serious and professional dancer, but love and respect for ballet, its rigorous discipline, have stayed with me, literally, for the rest of my life.

    After the atomic bombs were dropped on Japan, we waited to be freed. Sometimes, usually on the second night following a full moon, I heard Wagner's music in my head. Next, an Allied plane came around and dropped bombs here and there. We stayed in a shelter on earthen floors while red ants bit us. The shelter was covered with tree trunks. The following day we found pieces of jagged shrapnel.

    On the day we were liberated from Kampili, the Allies totally destroyed the camp in two hours. Since the Japs were shooting at the Allies from the ground, the Allies shot back at the Japs. When we fled the camp, which was peppered by incendiaries, two young Jap soldiers covered my white top with a khaki shirt so that I was not as visible to the planes that were strafing us. We scattered everywhere outside the camp, since the camp was the obvious target of the Allies and no, they didn't know we were internees. After all that, the Japs finally placed huge POW letters on the lawn adding Dutch women and children written along side the large POW letters.

    We -- my parents and siblings -- Moved back to Makassar where we stayed until 1948. Those three post-camp years marked an upheaval time in my life. I was not the child I had been, but a young woman of 17. At no time had I been gradually introduced to the complexities and subtleties of becoming an adult. I coped as best I could.

    I continued, whenever I could, with ballet classes under Daisy O'Keefe's leadership. I also attended chaperoned dances with the military. One time a contest was held and two sailors wanted to dance with me. I chose one of them and we won the contest.

    In 1948, when I was 20, we left for the Netherlands where I continued to dance under the tutelage of Yvonne Georgi. She had toured the US in the late 1920s and early 1930s with her partner Harald Kreutzberg. They both had been students of Mary Wigman, the same teacher of Martha Graham. I met Martha in the '70s, when I lived in Colorado Springs where I had my own dance school. Her troop was performing in Denver. She remembered Yvonne and Harald well; they had rehearsed at her studio in New York.

    After about three years of ballet, I realized that I could never support myself as a ballet dancer because there were not many opportunities in that field. I climbed on my bike and peddled to Schiphol airport. During a meeting with a personnel manager, he advised me to apply for a stewardess position with KLM. After three months of training, I became a flight attendant. For the first nine months I flew all over Europe, then the Mid East and the Far East and Australia. During that time, I visited my old studio and kept up with my ballet lessons.

    When the Paris ballets rehearsed at our studio in Amsterdam, the dancers showed a remarkable ability for acrobatics. I wonder if that is still so. One French dancer was Irene Skorik, the principal dancer, who had an unbelievable developpe en avant, so high. She joined the Covent Garden Ballet in London for a while, as did Sylvie Guilaume years later. I saw this gal in the US on TV; Maurice Bejart of the Belgian ballet company made a ballet for her. I tried to see more of her but, sadly, nothing was available with her on the program. Yvonne Georgy, my teacher, did the choreography for a French ballet movie, which was based on Ravel's Bolero. Violette Verdy starred; she was only 15. Later she joined the NYC ballet.

    One time, returning on a charter flight from Singapore, I boarded a plane in Cairo for the homeward trip to Amsterdam. That's when I met my future husband, an American Air Force Judge Advocate. Nine months later, we married in Amsterdam and were stationed in Naples, Italy where my eldest son was born. He was four months old when we left for the United States. During the time I spent with my husband in the Air Force, I taught rudimentary ballet to children of military personnel. I also created dances for performances at the Officer's Club on many occasions. Whenever I choreographed a dance for men to perform wearing tutus, I insisted that rather than goofing around, they expend serious effort to dance correctly because sincerity heightened the humor and hilarity.

    In 1970, I started my own school of ballet where I also taught belly dancing. The latter I had picked up during my many stops in the Middle East. As a child I watched native dancers, mostly women, do Balinese dances accompanied by a gamelan. Gamelan music can now be heard over New Age music stations. As children we imitated these dancers. We referred to this kind of movement as "Tahndahk". It involved elaborate hand movements and lifting one's legs with bent knees and feet bent up, not pointed. Later in life I observed the rigorous East Indian dance in India. One of the dance books I have is a rare volume that was written by Ram Gopal about classic Indian dance. He was a foremost dancer of his time in India and performed in Europe too. Chinese and Japanese dancers didn't appeal to me, too tame. All of these influences are represented in my own dance, the one I danced repeatedly over the years. It reflects my background very well. There was one dance that was a favorite of many: a mix of ballet and several Oriental dances, to the music of Ipolitov-Ivanov's Caucasian Sketches. It was the last dance I performed when I was in my 70s.

    I derived a lot of pleasure from watching students blossom into dancers, both children and adults. Most of them didn't enter the hugely competitive environment of dance, but each one of them learned something that would be part of them during their life, something they would never regret.

    When one of my students moved to New Jersey with her parents, I received a letter from her mom saying that the head mistress of the Princeton ballet school commented on the high quality training Laura had received. She was placed in a senior group, being the youngest. I've wondered if she continued studying ballet.

    From being exposed to cigarette smoke while living with my father and then my husband, plus all the times in airplanes when people would light up after lunch, dinner and in between, I came down with pulmonary hypertension. I never smoked. Now I cannot tolerate any kind of fumes. Now, in 2009, at age 81, my exercising has been severely limited, but I do sneak in a set of plies now and then. I still do floor exercises, but it pains me not to be able to do the thing I love -- dance. I watch 'Dancing with Stars' on tv and am amazed how dance has changed in the world. For the better I may add. It pains me that so little ballet is shown on TV programs, but then, sports are a more lucrative form of entertainment.

    Because of the years as a POW -- the near-starvation diet, the beatings and atrocities, the demands that prisoners be servile as befits a defeated people -- I swore that I would never bow to another person again nor can I bring myself to say "Japanese" instead of "Jap."

    I am so greatful there is something like ballet in this world. I started late. If I had started at a much earlier age, I believe I would have become a great dancer. Nevertheless, I have loved sharing my knowledge with others who were eager to know more about ballet, to dance.

    Olly van Driest-Young is one of the last surviving members of an old Dutch family that traces its lineage back to Amsterdam in the 1500s. Her schooling was strikingly different from USAs; for example, students did not have three months of vacation. Before she arrived in this country, she spoke six languages fluently. When her husband retired, she attended the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and earned two bachelor degrees -- in psychology and sociology. "This was a great experience for me, although some of the subjects were repeats for me." While Olly traveled with her husband to different duty assignments, she took advantage of what the locals had to offer. In Hawaii, she learned scuba diving and worked up to two dives a day on weekends. "I could eat anything I wanted and never gain an ounce." She also learned the Hula and the Tahitian dances. Her third son was born there. While stationed in North Carolina, she learned to fly two kinds of single engine Cessnas and an Air Coup which was her favorite "because you couldn't stall it."

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