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Taught Dance Until She Died : Disease Didn't Conquer Joan Orr

February 02, 1989|ANNETTE KONDO | Kondo is a free-lance writer from San Gabriel

Joan Orr never canceled a dance class. When unable to stand, she taught from a wheelchair. When her voice became too weak for a microphone, she scribbled notes to an assistant.

Almost a year has passed since Orr's last class. Yet her life continues to teach lessons.

"She showed us courage," said her husband, Verne Orr. "And a message about not giving in and still trying to give to others."

That determination to help people--even in her last days as she struggled with a debilitating disease--is the subject of a video documentary, "A Question of Balance, the Life of Joan Orr."

It will be presented at 7 p.m. Sunday at Polytechnic School in Pasadena as part of a tribute honoring Orr. A contribution of $5 is requested. Seating is limited and reservations may be made by calling (818) 795-0825 or (818) 793-0760.

The Light-Bringer Project, a group of artists and writers, and the Pasadena Community Access Corp., a nonprofit organization run by Pasadena to provide public access to cable, co-produced the documentary. Orr was filmed in some of her last dance sessions before her death last April at 69.

Her spirit was challenged but never dominated by the ravaging effects of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a degenerative neuromuscular disorder also known as Lou Gehrig's Disease.

In the video, dancers bend, sway and twist to music as Joan Orr encourages them to explore their creativity and their emotions.

"All of her dance had therapy in it," Verne Orr said. "She found that it was a tremendous release of emotions, and she was extremely successful in helping people." Through the medium of dance, Orr was able to reach out to a diverse range of students.

Dance was always a part of her life. In the late 1930s, she danced while she was a student at Scripps College in Claremont, and later taught there. When the Orrs, both natives of Des Moines, Iowa, moved to Pasadena in the 1940s, she began to teach dance classes at local churches and schools--up to seven classes a week. One day her pupils might be 5-year-olds; another day she'd work with alcoholic women from a halfway house.

Her talents extended beyond the dance studio. As president of the Pasadena Arts Council in 1977 and 1978, Orr is remembered by those who worked with her as a rare and inspirational leader. She presided over monthly board meetings, aiming to bring more cultural events, including dance, to Pasadena.

"She brought out the best in others and was dedicated to the belief that all cultural arts were not a luxury but an essential part of the community," said Randell Makinson, curator and director of the Gamble House in Pasadena.

During her terms as president of the arts council, Orr became acquainted with dancer Bella Lewitzky. The two became friends and shortly thereafter, Orr became the first person to chair the Lewitzky Dance Foundation and the affiliated Dance Gallery Foundation.

"She was gentle, beautiful and good," Lewitzky said. "Very few people fit that adjective: good ."

In 1981, President Reagan appointed Verne Orr secretary of the Air Force. Earlier, when Reagan was governor of California, Orr had served as state finance director for five years and as head of the Department of Motor Vehicles.

"She probably visited 100 bases," Verne Orr recalled. "She never went to museums or went shopping. She was on duty."

As her husband peered inside aircraft hangars and inspected flight lines, Joan Orr visited hospitals and child-care centers, meeting Air Force wives and families. She was sensitive to their lonely, often transient life styles and lent a supportive ear to their problems, her husband said. At Christmas, the Orrs would travel to remote bases in Greenland and Alaska to visit servicemen separated from their families.

Verne Orr's tenure as secretary of the Air Force was cut short when his wife was diagnosed as having ALS in June, 1985. After doctors predicted that she had only three years to live, the Orrs decided to return to Pasadena. The Air Force honored her by initiating the Joan Peak Orr Award, to be given annually to an Air Force wife who makes an outstanding contribution to the service.

When she returned to Pasadena in the fall of 1985, Orr walked with the help of crutches. A month later, she required a wheelchair.

"She refused to be pitied and never asked for sympathy," her husband said.

Several months later, a former student, Carole Babcock, suggested that Orr start her dance classes again. With Babcock's assistance, music and dance soon filled the Orr's living room each Monday afternoon.

"It was wonderful to watch Joan in class," Babcock said. "You could see the strength coming back to her body. She said that she felt energized; that in a sense, she was dancing through us."

Weeks passed, and with each Monday session, Orr's disease weakened first her voice, then her other muscles. Gradually, her microphone was replaced by a writing slate and Orr jotted dance instructions to Babcock, who then acted out the movements.

Orr taught the class until two weeks before her death.

Lewitzky remembers calling her a week before she died. "She spoke so positively and with a sense of well-being," Lewitzky said. "She was determined to make every moment count."

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