During the weekend of August 16, 2002, thousands of fans gathered at Graceland in commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the death of Elvis. The same weekend, hundreds gathered at the Embassy Suites Hotel in Englewood, Colorado for the Rocky Mountain Accordion Society’s 53rd Annual Competition. I was in Englewood.
In retrospect, 2002 turned out to be one of my golden years of performing with Parkinson’s Disease (PD) before the rusty years set in about a year later.
I took accordion lessons, performed and began competing in 1996, the same year that I was diagnosed with PD. I earned 29 trophies for solo accordion performances in adult competitions in Denver–first, second and third place trophies, some as tall as 20 inches, all emblazoned with RMAS, the Rocky Mountain Accordion Society. I played with accordion bands from Denver in concerts at Los Arcos in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, the zoo in San Diego, Disneyland in Anaheim, the bottom of the Space Needle in Seattle, in front of the Parliament Building in Victoria and near the totem poles in Stanley Park in Vancouver in Canada.
I wanted my performance in 2002 to be different – more daring as though I had a premonition of the end of my golden years. I hoped to dazzle the audience with my performance.
Sunday, August 18, 2002. I stay overnight at the hotel on Saturday. On Sunday morning, I wake up early, practice a little and dress for my performance. I put on a red dress, which flows so beautifully when I dance and lace up my jazz shoes. I wrap a long red, white and blue patriotic scarf around my waist.
I make several trips downstairs from my room in the hotel to outside the main ballroom on the first floor, schlepping my accordion, amplifier, sound module, sheet music, boom box and CD.
I thought I had allotted enough time to set up my accordion equipment, but find that I am rushed. I enter the ballroom, and it appears that everyone is seated early. My face changes to the color of boiled ham. Mike, my accordion teacher, a distinguished looking silver-haired man, jumps up to help me set up. He probably is the only person in the room that knows what I am up to.
Contestant number 512 is called up at ten minutes past 12 noon. I almost forgot that I would be called by number not name. I am being called. I move forward onto the stage. The ballroom is packed, and there are 350 people looking back at me. It is the first time that I remember feeling excited instead of nervous. I paste a smile on my face and hope it looks sincere. I flip on the big band switch on my electronic accordion and proceed with playing a big band medley that included “Moonlight Serenade,” “Tuxedo Junction,” “Little Brown Jug” and “String of Pearls.” I sound like a one woman Glenn Miller orchestra. Even I am impressed.
After playing the medley on the accordion, I carefully put the accordion down, move to another part of the stage, and click on the CD player for the next part of my performance. Blaring out of the boom box is the Andrew Sisters’ version of “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.” I worked with a jazz dance teacher over the prior four months, who choreographed this dance for me. Since the tempo was too fast for my slow moving PD feet, she converted the song on the CD to 75% of its original speed.
At the end of this 12-minute song and dance routine, I remembered the thrill of my accordion playing and jazz dancing, a performance that truly reflected me.
My golden years of performing turned into rusty years when my PD symptoms kicked into high gear within the next year. My PD meds were unpredictable. One moment I seemed normal, and the next, I sputtered like a car that ran out of gas. I shook more, started falling, and had trouble lifting the accordion and pulling the bellows.
I dreamed of my PD cure through accordion playing and dancing, but my hopes were dashed.