Italian books: Orienta ... She is the Dance
- WTI Magazine #138 Apr 17, 2021
Orienta Badia was a woman ahead of her times. The daughter of Italian immigrants, she discovered her passion for dance at an early age – she amused guests at a 1924 wedding by dancing the Charleston at age 6 – and spurned tradition by pursuing her dreams of stardom. In doing so, she turned her back on conventional expectations – marriage, a family, and housekeeping – in a bid for fame.
Making a career in show business as a 16-year-old brought hard lessons and tragedy.
Her career as a dancer and acrobat is the focus of a lightly fictionalized autobiography, “Rina,” written in her later years and discovered in a cardboard box in her basement. “Rina,” along with other writings and poetry, forms the basis for a book edited by her daughter, Patricia Badia-Johnson, Orienta … She is the Dance (362 pages, Dorrance Publishing Company, $23, available through Amazon and Barnes and Noble.).
Orienta…She Is the Dance is a compelling look at the world of Italian-Americans in the Detroit area in the years leading up to the Depression, at times a warm, nostalgic look at a close-knit community that prized “la famiglia” first and foremost while forging strong ties with their neighbors as all struggled to make ends meet. It’s also the story of a talented young girl who refused to settle for what tradition dictated, instead forging her own path with the reluctant support of her parents. As Orienta begins winning dance competitions and earns a reputation for her acrobatic skills, she uses the modest prizes to pay for dance lessons.
“Beauty without character is nothing but a shell,” Orienta wrote in 1987 as she neared 70. That sums up one of the hard-earned lessons she learned as a teenaged dancer. A classic beauty with luxurious dark hair, she found herself growing up fast – too fast – as she made her way from local dance competitions to nightclubs to a traveling troupe led by a predatory manager who stole her earnings and ultimately took advantage of her. Writing “Rina” was a means of enabling her to give voice to her ordeal. Long before the #MeToo movement, she learned of the powerlessness of women. At times, “Rina” reads like a stage door melodrama, but in the end is an unflinching account of what she endured,
Her career took her across the country, working as a dancer and acrobat while raising three children with her first husband, whom she divorced. She made ends meet as best she could while experiencing tragedy, including a near-fatal accident involving her 8-month-old daughter who was severely burned in a fire and endured years of surgeries. A second marriage left her with two more children before it, too, ended in divorce. Her final marriage brought lasting happiness for more than 40 years.
Orienta Badia’s writings are remarkable, not the least because she didn’t complete her high school G.E.D. until she was in her 50s, but because of her frank account of what she endured – indeed, survived – a tale that fully engages the reader, leaving one to hope that this talented young woman will come out on top in the end.
Her other writings, which included submissions to the Detroit Free Press, Mademoiselle and other publications, are similarly engaging, introspective pieces from the perspective of an outsider looking in. Some are lyrical memories of an Italian-American upbringing that included tables filled with food and holiday celebrations with dancing and accordion music; material poverty is far different from poverty of spirit, and the richness of her life is evident in these tales. Another story, “The Voice,” is a thriller worthy of Rod Sterling. She also includes commentaries on the declining fortunes of Detroit, which was one of the nation’s largest cities in her youth. All are written from the perspective of a woman who has found her voice and longed-for stability.
Photos from the Badia family document the life of a woman who remained a dancer well into her 80s, smiling broadly as she entertains her grandchildren and great-grandchildren in a dance leotard wearing kitten ears and whiskery makeup.
“You’re still alive in those you’ve left behind,” she wrote in a poem in 1984. The book lovingly compiled by her daughter ensures that Orienta will not soon be forgotten.