Geoffrey Holder 1930- 2014: From His Son Leo

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Geoffrey Holder 1930-2014

October 5th

A little more than a week after developing pneumonia, Geoffrey Holder made a decision. He was calling the shots as always. He was done. 2 attempts at removing the breathing tube didn’t show promising results. In his truest moment of clarity since being rolled into I.C.U. he said he was good. Mouthing the words “No, I am not afraid” without a trace of negativity, sadness or bitterness, he sincerely was good with it. He had lived the fullest life he could possibly live, a 70 + year career in multiple art forms, and was still creating. Still painting, a bag of gold (of course) fabric and embellishments in his room for a new dress for my mother, sculptures made out of rope, baseball caps and wire hangers. New ideas every second, always restlessly chasing his too fertile mind. A week of breathing tubes and restrained hands had forced him to communicate with only cryptic clues which I was fortunate enough to be able to decipher at best 40% of the time. The fact that we all struggled to understand him enraged him to the point that he could sometimes pull tantrums taking up to 4 people to restrain him from pulling out the wires. He was head strong (understatement), but he was also physically strong. Iron hand grip that no illness could weaken. 9 days of mouthing words that, because of the tubes, produced no sound forcing him to use his eyes to try to accentuate the point he was trying to make. But this didn’t mean he wasn’t still Geoffrey Holder. This didn’t mean an end to taking over. Holding court as he always did. Directing and ordering people around. Choreographing. Getting his way. We still understood that part, and the sight of his closest friends and extended family brought out the best in him. Broad smiles in spite of the tubes, nodding approval of anything that met his standard (which was very high), and exuding pride and joy in all those in whom he saw a spark of magic and encouraged to blossom. The week saw a parade for friends from all over the world checking in to see him, hold is hand, rub his head, and give him the latest gossip. But he was still trying to tell me something, and although I was still the best at deciphering what he was saying, I still wasn’t getting it.
Saturday night I had a brake through. After a good day for him, including a visit by Rev. Dr. Forbes, Senior Minister Emeritus of Riverside Church who offered prayer and described Geoffrey’s choreography as prayer itself, which made him beam, I brought in some music. “Bill Evans with Symphony Orchestra”, one of his all time favorites. He had once choreographed a piece to one of the cuts on the album… a throwaway ballet to fill out the program, but the music inspired him. From his bed, he started to, at first sway with the music, then the arms went up, and Geoffrey started to dance again. In his bed. Purest of spirits. Still Geoffrey Holder. Then he summoned me to take his hands, and this most unique dancer / choreographer pulled himself up from his bed as if to reach the sky. It was then I broke the code: he was telling me he was going to dance his way out. Still a Geoffrey Holder production. If it had been up to him, this evening’s solo would have been it. The higher he pulled himself up, the higher he wanted to fly. I had to let him down. Not yet. There are friends and family coming in from out of town. He resignedly shrugged his shoulders, closed his eyes and went to sleep.
I got it. Really. I got it. I walked out of the hospital elated. Ate a full meal for the first time in days, slept like a baby after. The next day would be his last. I was not sad. It wasn’t stressful for me to deal with him in this state. It was an honor and a privilege to tend to anything he needed. This impromptu dance was his dress rehearsal.
Next morning, I show up early. Possible second thoughts? Should we wait? What if he changes his mind? Did he understand what we were talking about here? Thoroughly. Mind as clear as crystal. “You still game for our dance tonight?” A nod, a smile, and a wink, with tubes still down his throat.. We’re still on. But he still wants to do it NOW. NOT later. He’s cranky. Sulks a while. Sleeps a while. Eventually snaps out of it.
From noon on, a caravan of friends and family from all over the globe comes through the ICU wing. Ages 1 to 80. Young designers and artists he nurtured and who inspired him. Younger dancers he encouraged to always play to the rear balcony with majesty. The now “elder statesmen” dancers on whom he built some of his signature ballets. His rat pack of buddies. Wayward saints he would offer food, drink, a shoulder to cry on, a couch to sleep it off, and lifetime’s worth of deep conversation and thought. Closest and oldest friends. Family.
They know they are here to say goodbye. He knows they are here to say goodbye. He greets them beaming with joy to see them. By this time I’m reading his lips better and am able to translate for him as much as I can. The last of them leave. It’s time for his one true love to have her time with him. His muse. Her champion. This is their time. 59 years distilled into 5 minutes of the gentlest looks and words as she caresses his noble brow one last time. She puts a note she wrote to him in is hand. She leaves.
Everyone is gone except me. My moment. I will be with him as he goes.
One more time: “you good?” Nod & faint smile. ‘you ready?” He is.
I have asked the doctors to not start the morphine drip right away, because I want him to have his solo on his own time. Knowing him, he might stop breathing right after his finale. For dramatic effect. He’s still Geoffrey Holder.
They remove the tube that has imprisoned him for the past 9 days and robbed this great communicator of the ability to speak. I remove the mittens that prevent his hands from moving freely.
I start the music, take his hands and start leading him, swaying them back and forth. And he lets go of me. He’s gonna wing it as he was prone to do when he was younger. Breathing on his own for the last time, Geoffrey Holder, eyes closed, performs his last solo to Bill Evans playing Faure’s Pavane. From his deathbed. The arms take flight, his beautiful hands articulate through the air, with grace. I whisper “shoulders” and they go into an undulating shimmy, rolling like waves. His Geoffrey Holder head gently rocks back and forth as he stretches out his right arm to deliver his trademark finger gesture, which once meant “you can’t afford this” and now is a subtle manifestation of pure human spirit and infinite wisdom. His musical timing still impeccable, bouncing off the notes, as if playing his own duet with Evan’s piano. Come the finale, he doesn’t lift himself of the bed as he planned; instead, one last gentle rock of the torso, crosses his arms and turns his head to the side in a pose worthy of Pavlova. All with a faint, gentile smile.
The orchestra finishes when he does. I loose it.
They administer the morphine drip and put an oxygen mask over his face. and I watch him begin taking his last breaths.
I put on some different music. I sit and watch him sleep, and breathe… 20 minutes later, he’s still breathing albeit with this gurgling sound you can hear though the mask. Another several minutes go by, he’s still breathing. Weakly, but still breathing… then his right hand starts to move. It looks like he’s using my mother’s note like a pencil, scratching the surface of the bed as if he’s drawing. This stops a few minutes later, then the left hand begins tapping. Through the oxygen mask the gurgling starts creating it’s own rhythm. Not sure of what I’m hearing, I look up to see his mouth moving. I get closer to listen: “2, 3, 4….2, 3, 4… He’s counting! It gets stronger, and at it’s loudest sounds like the deep purr of a lion, then he says “Arms, 2, 3, 4, Turn, 2, 3, 4, Swing, 2, 3, 4, Down, 2, 3, 4….”
I called my mother at home, where she was having a reception in his honor. She picks up. There are friends and family telling Geoffrey stories simultaneously laughing and crying in the background.
“Hi, honey, Are you alright?”
“Yes actually… he hasn’t stopped breathing yet.” I tell her about his solo, which brings her to a smile and a lightening of mood. I continue:
“Can I ask you a question?”
“Sure Honey. What?
“Who the hell did you marry?”
“What do you mean?”
“You’re not gonna believe this. He’s got a morphine drip, going on over half an hour, an oxygen mask on, his eyes closed, AND HE’S CHOREOGRAPHING!”
This brings her to her first laugh of the day. She now knows we will be alright.
He continues on like this for quite a while, and a doctor comes in to take some meter readings of the machines. I ask the doctor if this is normal. As she begins to explain to me about the process, his closed eyes burst open focused straight on us like lasers and he roars with all his might: ”SHUT UUUUUUUUUUUUUP!!! YOU’RE BREAKING MY CONCENTRATION!!!!!!!”
We freeze with our mouths open. He stares us down. long and hard.
Then he closes his eyes again, “Arms, 2, 3, 4, Turn, 2, 3, 4, Swing, 2, 3, 4, Down, 2, 3, 4…”
He continued counting ’til it faded out, leaving only the sound of faint breathing, slowing down to his very last breath at 9:25 pm
Still Geoffrey Holder.
The most incredible night of my life.
Thank you for indulging me.

Love & best,
L

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 To See Geoffrey Holder’s Banda Click Below

http://outandaboutnycmag.com/shalll-we-dance-friday-banda-excerpt-geoffrey-holder-and-carmen-de-lavallade/

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53 Comments

  1. OMG. Leo. I cannot believe this most beautiful account. It has brought me to elated tears. Thank you. What a man your father IS, not was! And, your parents have brought forth another amazing man in YOU! Thank you. Peace and Grace, Ty Stephens

  2. wow!! How amazing it was for you to witness such a transition. May your Dad rest in eternal light and peace. Peace and Blessings to you and your family.

  3. What a gift, Leo. Wonderful of you to share it with us all.

  4. Leo, I AM SO PROUD OF YOU! Thank You for this love letter. (Julia Danielle BREEDLOVE-Cohen) From “Timbuktu” –Blessings

  5. Leo, I met your father three times in my life: once at a speaking engagement, in which he gave me the best advice to becoming a great actor & mime: “Notice everything, and how it moves”. I met him twice afterwards and thanked him for his advice. I had him sign a 007 Tarot Card Game for me and another Live & Let Die soundtrack advertising card, and he was gracious as he obliged me. I will always cherish his wonderful nature and friendliness, and will miss his presence in this world. Thank you for a wonderful, moving tribute to this powerhouse of a man.

  6. Tears streaming. Beautiful image of God, creating with rhythm and ease. You’re a good son. Thank you for letting us inside of this master class with your dad Leo. I needed this.

  7. +S. T. Davis, Sr.

    Amazing…

  8. Leo, tears flow like a fountain from my eyes as I read this… you inherited the majesty!
    May you carry his sacred dance forward in your own craft, embraced and encouraged by the infinite, eternal love that is your birthright. thank you for sharing this beautiful moment with us.
    -Maija Garcia

  9. Pingback: When death is a life-affirming choice « WORDVIRUS

  10. Thank you for sharing your father’s last dance on earth. Peace.

  11. Mr. Leo, I have never met you but I owe you a tremendously for what you just shared. My dad is 94 and winding down after an amazing medical career, 5 kids and everything imaginable. I know I’ll be reading this story again and will share with my siblings when the time is right. My condolences to you and your family. Thank you, again.

    James Bozian

  12. Thank you for sharing your story. It is so touching…

  13. Such a befitting farewell for you and your Dad. Thank you for sharing it with the world.

  14. This is the most beautiful account I have ever read about the transition from life to death. How poetic that this amazing choreographer would choose to leave the way he lived. Thank you for sharing this most precious treasure with us, thank you for allowing us to feel the spirit and soul of your father’s last moments.

  15. Leo…you and I have never met…but you wouldn’t believe how deeply this account of yours touches me and my own story. Thank you. – Louis

  16. Beautiful. Thank you.

  17. No words, tears. Tahnk yo for sharing. My mother and your father may now dance together. She loved watching him, though she was not able to see him live. Ah….. she will now. Thank you!

  18. Your report made me cry, which is very hard to do. Thank you for sharing.

  19. Leo, met your dad once and he indulged me and did the uncola for me. Met him through Peter Glankoff who I was working for at the time. A true gentle man. Will always remember his kindness.

  20. Thank~You for sharing these intimate details of your father’s exit from Stage Earth. From the bottom of my heart. May you find comfort in the joyous celebration of the life and Love you shared. ☼ ♥ ☮

  21. Your loving tribute gave me chills and brought tears to my eyes. My Dad just passed in August. I hope your Dad and my Dad get to meet in Heaven. They’d enjoy each other.

  22. Amazing story, Sir! Vivid. Powerful moment.

  23. So moving, so beautiful.

  24. This is the most beautiful and moving piece I’ve ever read. God bless you for sharing such an intimate and inspiring account. I’m in tears and so touched. Thank you and may peace surround and envelop you and your family…

  25. A Very artistic, eloquent, prominent, and creative visionary. Dance on way to heaven great Son Of The Soil….Trinidad & Tobago.

  26. Thank you for sharing this beautiful, painful story. In my mind, he will always be dancing up the stairway to heaven.

  27. What a beautiful way to say “Goodbye”!!!

  28. that was beautiful, and I am sure you father is and will be always proud of you and will always be with you in spirit and in your heart, thank you for sharing. Priscilla a friend

  29. Leo-your willingness to share this most private of moments is an act of immense generosity. I am profoundly moved by you, your father, and his divine exit. It is inspiration at its finest.

  30. Thank you for this lovely tribute of your father…

  31. Leo!! You’ve been in my thoughts daily since the news of Geoffrey Holders transition. You probably don’t remember my story of moving back to NYC from London in 1984 and trying to purchase a tiger print comforter from a shop in soho but the guy wouldn’t sell it to me bc it was on hold for your dad. The shop owner proudly explained how much fabric your Dad would buy from him.

    More significant was how you and I connected several years later. I feel a debt of gratitude to you for caring about my life the way you did at that time. Have made attempts to find you through the interweb over the years. I would enjoy reconnecting with you.

    Andrew Spigelman

  32. He brought a lot of joy into the world. My friend Valentino was the scarecrow in the Wiz so I got backstage insight of the work & magic. I thank you for sharing these last days and hours with us. Precious on his terms…Bless u all. Frann

  33. Dear Leo,
    Your father and I had a mutual friend named Phyllis Jenkins. I am sending you my condolences on her behalf because I know that she adored your father, not only for his amazing talent but for the kind of man he was. She told be that I’d probably crossed paths with him when he was choreographing for Harkness Ballet in 1967 and I had first started at the company school. Then realized that that was before everyone was in one building. I am certain that she would have loved your tribute to your father because it contains so much of what she tried to convey to me about him.
    Thank you so much. It’s been a privilege. Now, take care of yourself,
    Liza Gimbel

  34. WOW.. What A wonderful gift you got to share & witness of your father’s last days..w/ tears streaming down.. I applaud you for sharing these last moments w/ us… Thank you & God Bless your family @ this Most Difficult time!!

  35. Touching indeed. Proud to be Trinbagonian!

  36. As an inspiring young dancer a number of years ago. Mr. Holder was a role model and an inspiration to me. I pray he is dancing and choreographing the wonderful and talented dancers of whom have passed on before him. He was an original a marvelous role model and a man within our community in which was a great example as a role model, father, husband, philanthropist and leader to us all for many years. Thank you Mr. Geoffrey Holder…..you Sir were amazing!! Say hello to my mom….she loved you too!!

  37. Leo, thank you so much for sharing this very personal moment with us, your father is in a much better place today where they dance every day

  38. What a beautiful tribute to,your dad. Brought tears to my eyes, because I too lost my beloved dad in June. Though different, my dads transition was a peaceful one, and am so grateful for that. Unlike your dad, mine kept trying to remove the oxygen mask, we did not want to intubate. When we finally removed it, he began to breathe calmly, after terrible struggle breathing. 45 minutes later he passed on. Blessings to you.

  39. Jennifer Groebe Rodriguez

    Leo, for you to write of the honor and priviledge was so beautiful. I sat next to your dad at an event in the SF bay area. As a person with Caribbean heritage I am especially proud of him.

  40. This is beautiful and thanks for sharing. May Geoffrey Holder continue his dance with the angels in Heaven

  41. How very eloquent, Leo. Brilliant and beautiful. Touching and inspiring. I had ever so brief contact with your father in 1969 when he was asked to “doctor ” a suffering, out of town, Broadway bound musical called DEAR WORLD, starring Angela Lansbury. He turned down the request, saying that his particular brand of artistry was not what was lacking, and that he didn’t think he could be of any assistance. I was privileged to have a brief conversation with him when he was gracious enough to actually speak with each member of the cast, albeit too briefly. I’ll never forget having to look almost straight up to catch his gaze and then hear that glorious bass voice. And when that beautiful sound combined with a most eloquent manner of speaking, you simply wanted to melt just listening to him. Thank you so much for that ever so moving tribute to such a magnificent man.

  42. What a beautiful story. Reminds me of the last days with my mom. Thank you for sharing and God bless you.

  43. Thank you so much.

  44. Thank you for sharing these sacred moments with us.

  45. Leo, I met you last night in front of the Majestic. You have an incredible and loving energy yourself. I do believe your incredible parents blessed you- what great people they are!
    I’ve never heard a story of a transition out of this life as beautiful as this one. I am amazed.
    What an amazing life your father Geoffrey Holder has had. Now he has eternity; He will never die. This is what your mother meant when we talked briefly last night. Sending my love to you both. Everlasting….Amen.

  46. Mr. Leo: Thank you for sharing the last moments of your beloved and theatrical-gifted father with us. How brave of you!! May God bless you and family.

  47. What a great man and what a wonderful blessing for you to be apart of his transition. The circle of life God is good!

  48. Thank you for sharing this awesome gift of love. Blessings to you..

  49. Wow. Wow wow wow what a fantastic read! Truly inspiring, touching, magnificent really. You father…such beauty…I just can’t put these feelings I have into tangible ideas.

  50. Leo, I didn’t know your father and I only met your mother a few times when I was very young … but my father knew them both. In fact a painting my father did of your mother hung in my family’s home until my father’s death several years ago. Your mother now has it. I grew up knowing your father’s work, respecting him, being inspired by him and always thought that one day I would get the chance to meet him … I’m sad that I missed the opportuity.

    I am sorry for your loss, but increadibly pleased and inspired at the way you’ve shared his passing with the world.

    Sincerely,

    Stephen Gould (Arthur and Martha Gould’s son ….)

  51. Leo, my parents knew your dad many years ago. They adored him and he was the loveliest person, and always such a presence. This beautiful story does not surprise me in the least. Mr. Holder would not have done anything, if not in his own inimitable way. I hope he and my mother are laughing and remembering the “old days” together.

  52. I love you Leo for telling this story of hopefulness! Aaaahhhh!

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