Talking Hands

Black clothed figures move, fluid ease, gliding. Golden faces, golden hands, yes those hands, expressive, conversational, reaching to communicate, desiring to speak. Those magical window-framed figures with talking hands move amid festive lights and decorations, gifts and wrapping, chestnuts roasting, horse drawn carriages and children, always children, eyes filled with wonder.

For the past five years, one of the highlights of Hudson’s Winter Walk has been the mysterious figures inhabiting the Warren Street shop windows. Usually decked out in Victorian finery, or other magical attire, their magnetic mechanical behavior is irresistible. I thought it appropriate to introduce the woman responsible for creating these fascinating characters; meet Abby Lappen.

Abby was born in New Haven, Connecticut. Her father owned a furniture store. Little Abby loved the store, loved playing in the rooms filled with furniture. To her the store was a set and the furniture, props. She loved climbing on, over and under the furniture, but most of all she loved to dance around it. When she was six or seven a local radio station held a live broadcast from the store’s front window. Abby sneaked into the window and danced for the crowd gathered outside.

She loved dance, modern and ethnic movement and rhythms that attracted her, so she studied Martha Graham and Haitian dance. She studied Cunningham in Junior High and became a dance theatre major at Antioch College. Following graduation she moved to New York, “I wanted to be in the artistic hub of the world.”

She refused offers to join dance companies, “I wanted to make up my own work instead of picking up the tricks of someone else.” It takes a lot of courage to go your own way, to cut your own path in the dance world. “I don’t like doing someone else’s work and calling it mine. Inventing and reinventing as you go along, constantly letting the process unfold, that’s creativity. I mean, are you there to mirror and appease or to shape and shake it up?” She pauses a moment toying with the string on her tea bag, “I give up me by not doing my own work.”

Abby and her husband Martin Baumgold, whom she met at a dance rehearsal space, have been married for twenty years. In 1987 they moved to Columbia County. In 1992 they purchased the old Dutch Reform Church in Mellenville and established the Amble Dance Movement Arts Center. Abby teaches dance of all kinds, even tap, holds movement workshops, private classes, open-mike coffee house nights and rents out the space as well. It’s hard work, but she’s driven by the need to create.

Abby is passionate about dance. When she talks about dance excitement involuntarily overtakes her, eyes brightening. Several times during our conversation at a local restaurant she jumped up from the table to clarify or illustrate a point.

“What is dance?” I ask.

“It’s about energy that flows from your center. How it flows is where the movement varies.”

Communicating with people through her work is important. In past years the Winter Walk characters she choreographed were mechanical figures. “In the mechanical ones I was trying to look into the soul. I wanted people to ask, is it real or not?”

This year she was inspired to take a risk; this year her dancers would speak. The language would be that of the American Sign Language, their voice would be their hands. Four weeks of rehearsal ensued to choreograph the ten minute sequences each window dancer would perform. Affected by the events of September, Abby also wrote the script. You may have watched these extraordinary dancers without knowing they were speaking to you. Even without knowing, I’m certain they moved you.

At our lunch, Abby demonstrates the sign gesture for magic and I am instantly affected, I smile, the movement so uplifting and expressive. In part, here is what those golden, talking hands were saying:

Maybe we mean something and maybe we don't.
Maybe we have something to say and maybe we don't.
Maybe we have a story, and maybe if you look deep inside
you might find you have a story too, more alive and revealing than any other.
Come celebrate life with us, with lights and peace and love.

“What’s your dream?” I ask.

“To be okay, to be who I am,” falls out then she thinks, puzzled. “Music,” she’s been spending time with her guitar writing songs. “I want to make a CD, maybe audition for Falcon Ridge.” She also wants to write and says she may give up dance. I don’t believe her though, about giving up dance, that is. I figure Abby could do just about anything creative she put her mind to, but not to dance, not to move, not to choreograph? No, that’s impossible, like Fred Astaire selling used cars. To steal a line from Joni Mitchell, “It’s in your blood like holy wine.” Thanks, Abby, for holiday dance, for the joy you bring us all.

We’ll talk next time From The Road.

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