“I hated the fact that my mother was taken away, and I’m sure I took a lot of that out on my stepmother.” Perhaps smarting from what she took for rejection by her father, Madonna threw herself into the world of the fantastic. In eighth grade, she appeared in her first movie, a Super-8 project directed by a classmate, in which an egg was fried on her stomach (even then he knew). She watched old movies at revival houses. She acted in plays at the series of Catholic high schools that she attended. She danced to Motown hits in backyards. Indeed it was dance that became the consuming passion of her adolescent life. She’d take all her classes early so she could leave school and head into the big city to take yet more classes. She saw world-famous companies whenever they came through town. And her ballet teacher became what she calls “my introduction to glamour and sophistication.” He showed his charge a world she didn’t know existed. “He used to take me to all the gay discotheques in downtown Detroit. Men were doing poppers and going crazy. They were all dressed really well and were more free about themselves than all the blockhead football players I met in high school.”
Rigid, but with a sense of humor, he became Madonna’s first mentor: “He made me push myself,” she says. By all accounts, she was a wonderfully talented terpsichorean, and he thought she could make it big. “He was constantly putting all that stuff about New York in my ear. I was hesitant, and my father and everyone was against it, but he really said, ‘Go for it.'”
Boasting a solid grade-point average in addition to her dancing skills, Madonna graduated from Rochester Adams High School in 1976 and won herself a scholarship to the University of Michigan dance department. Once there, the seventeen-year-old Madonna – no less luscious in a short, spiky, black hairdo – pored through poems by Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath (“any really depressed women”) and attempted to wreak all manner of havoc in her hoity-toity ballet classes.
One former classmate of Madonna’s recalls a grim plié exercise – deep knee bends with the stomach held in and the posture perfect – that dissolved when Madonna emitted a huge belch. Or the hot day when the lissome lass moaned what a drag it was to have to take class in leotards, and why couldn’t she just wear a bra? “I was a real ham,” she says, chortling. “I did everything I could to get attention and be the opposite of everyone else. I’d rip my leotards and wear teeny little safety pins. And I’d run my tights. I could have gone to a nightclub right after class.”
That’s exactly where she wound up one night: the Blue Frogge, the U of M’s pastiest preppie disco. She was dancing away – engulfed in right-assed white boys doing their John Travolta imitations – when around the corner came this black waiter.
“He was real cute,” she recalls. “Someone all soulful and funky looking you couldn’t help but notice. First time in my life I asked a guy to buy me a drink.” And he did. The guy she’d picked up was a musician named Steve Bray, and he would eventually change her life. Bray – witty, sophisticated, cool – was a drummer in an R&B band that did the lounge circuit. Madonna became a regular fixture at their gigs.
“She wasn’t really a musician back then; she was just dancing,” says Bray today. Aside from her beauty, Bray recalls being captivated by the veritable aura around this feisty, footloose female. It was unmistakably the aura of ambition. “She stood out, quite. Her energy was really apparent. What direction she should put that energy in hadn’t been settled, but it was definitely there.”
“Those were good days,” Madonna recalls. “But I knew my stay at Michigan was short-term. To me, I was just fine-tuning my technique.” After five semesters, she turned her back on her four-year free ride and headed for New York City. Steve? Oh, yeah. “Looking back, I think that I probably did make him feel kind of bad, but I was really insensitive in those days. I was totally self-absorbed.” It wouldn’t be the last time.
Every item ever written about Madonna touts her membership in the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Not so. Soon after her arrival in New York, she apparently won a work-study scholarship and was later asked to take classes with the troupe’s third company, which is a little like getting a tryout for the sub-junior-varsity team. Still, it was her first encounter with people who were as driven as she. “I thought I was in a production of Fame,” she giggles. “Everyone was Hispanic or black, and everyone wanted to be a star.”
Madonna was not to the minors born. She left Ailey after a few months and hooked up with Pearl Lang, a former Martha Graham star whose style Madonna describes as “a lot of pain and angst.” This was not a match made in heaven, and she left the company soon after.