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Ethel Bruneau – An elegy to a dance legend

There is something so magical about being a family doctor.

Now that I am in the twilight of my career and no longer really have the continuity of care practice that I had for so many years, I relish the opportunities I do have to be that small but important bit player in people’s lives.

I have known Suzanne Bruneau for over twenty years. She came to me when she was pregnant with her second child, after a disappointing experience with her first delivery. She stayed my patient until I left for Toronto, and I delivered four of her five children. 

When my son, Josh, was about 10 years old, I enrolled him and his next oldest sister in a summer arts camp. I did this mostly because it was three blocks from the hospital and had really good extended hours. At this camp there was a hip-hop dancing activity and Josh fell in love with it. He wanted to continue dancing. After an abortive attempt where he was the only boy in a class of little girls wiggling their little butts to Spice Girl songs, I consulted Suzanne. 

“Your Mum runs a dance school, right?” I queried her doing an appointment. “Does she teach hip-hop?” 

“Well,” said Suzanne, “my Mum has just added a hip-hop class on Saturday morning every other week with her tap class.” 

When I ran this past Josh he was interested but hesitant. “I don’t know about tap” he said.

“Well, try it out.” I said, “If you really hate it, you can withdraw.” 

The next weekend we went down to St Henri, not far from my office, and entered into the basement of UNIA, the venerable Universal Negro Improvement Association, a historic organization of the North American Black community, founded in Montreal in 1919.  

As Josh and I descended the stairs I had no idea that I was about to meet a legend. 

Ethel Bruneau sat in a chair at the front of the room, like a queen on her throne, beating time on the floor with a walking stick. In front of her was a room full of youngsters, both boys and girls. In a distinctive gravelly voice she called out tap dance moves.

Some of the more advanced students were practicing their moves in front of her as she gave them feedback, correcting an arm here, a foot there. Josh was transfixed. His feet began tapping involuntarily as he watched the older boys move with rhythm and elegance. Then a young woman stepped to the front of the room, and the hip-hop class began. Suzanne was there, her kids participating in the hip hop class. We sat in a corner of the room and had a little gossip. At the end of the class Josh was happy. “That was a real dance class,” he said. Any hesitation he had about taking tap evaporated, and we were initiated into a subculture I never knew existed, the world of competitive dance. A world of late night practices, long weekends of dance shows and so much glitter!

Over the next few years I learned more about Ethel. I heard about her arrival in Montreal with Cab Calloway in the fifties, her marriage to a francophone Quebecois and her unparalleled place as a teacher of the classic Harlem tap dance style of “Hoofing.” I knew that every great tap dance artist in the world, like Gregory Hynes and Savion Glover, would make a pilgrimage to Montreal to learn from her. She was an inspiring teacher. While Josh was in her classes he really grew as a person and an artist. 

With my privileged position as the family’s doctor and a mom in the classroom, I argued with Ethel about getting her hips replaced, even though I never formally saw her as a patient. I warned her that her arthritis was getting to the point where she would be immobile. She always refused. “I’ll go out with the parts that I came with,” she declared. Even though she could no longer dance or even walk with ease, she was highly suspicious of medicine in general and surgery in particular.

I also knew from Suzanne that she was not the easiest person to have as a mother. She was demanding and inspiring but also sometimes hasty tempered. Good enough was never quite good enough.  

Once I returned to Montreal from Toronto, relinked with the family as I took care of two of Suzanne’s children when they had their babies. 

Ethel has become very old. She is increasingly demented, almost immobile as her hips are frozen. She is confined to a hospital bed in Suzanne’s small apartment, being cared for by the home-care team from the CLSC and by the dedicated care of her daughter and oldest granddaughter.

One day I get a message from Suzanne. Ethel has had a stroke, she is dying. Suzanne asks if I would like to come and say goodbye. 

I arrive at the apartment, filled with children’s toys and drawings and photos. There is tap dance memorabilia everywhere. The bedroom is almost completely filled with the hospital bed and a large TV where Travis Knights’ tap dance YouTube channel is playing. Ethel is in the bed, her makeup on, a sleek wig in place. I know that Suzanne has done this for my visit because Ethel would have been humiliated to be seen disheveled and not made-up.

I take Ethel’s hand and look into her eyes, I am not sure that she can hear me. I thank her for being part of my life and Josh’s life, how she was so important in him becoming the composer he now is. I tell her that she can let go, that she is free now, that it is time to leave this earth and start teaching tap to the angels. Every once in a while she squeezes my hand, it may be a reflex. I am not sure that she can hear me but I know that Suzanne does. I kiss her goodbye on her forehead.

Then Suzanne and I hug in the other room. I hold her as she cries a bit. I tell her that she is the best of daughters, that she has given her mother a last great gift. 

The next day I hear that Ethel died in the night. I am glad that I was there when the family needed me.