For most people, old age is an opportunity to slow down, reflect on life, and pine for the good old days. Elizabeth “Lisl” Polk was an exception.
The dance therapist was still teaching special needs kids until the age of 90, and danced a step or two on her 100th birthday. The key to her longevity is said to have been her sense of fun.
“Honey,” she’d tell her great niece Libby in a thick Austrian accent, “I think I only live this long because I can laugh … If I didn’t laugh, life would kill me.”
She recognized the seriousness of the historical events she’d witnessed, but chose to see them through an ironic lens, joking about her experiences.
For the past three years, Lisl’s great niece Libby Skala has been telling Lisl’s story in a one-woman show called A Time to Dance. There’s no director and Skala doesn’t always stick to the script, but her selection of anecdotes, songs, and dance have been as well-received as her last Piccolo show, LiLia.
“I love Lisl’s joy and playfulness,” Skala says. “I’ve heard it said that dancers have a special energy that regular people don’t.”
That esprit de corps comes across in Lisl’s outlook.
“She has this love of life and a mischievous quality that’s so ageless.”
Lisl’s adventures spanned the 20th century. When she was born, there was an Austro-Hungarian Empire, Russia had a czar, and women mainly used hooks and eyes to fasten their clothes. Her father sold these fasteners, but when Lisl came along he realized he needed greater income. He met with reps for a new invention, a snap-fastener, and used his contacts to help them expand. Soon there were factories across the world, and when Lisl’s family finally fled their war-torn country, a snap-fastening plant gave them jobs and affidavits.
“Through Lisl, I embody different characters,” Skala says. “The reps, Papa, the big boss. Lisl attributes her family’s success and survival to her birth. When they escape to America, there’s this huge celebratory dance.”
Although Lisl never stopped dancing, she was best known as a teacher of emotionally, physically, and mentally challenged children. She produced LPs, exercises, and handbooks that were distributed throughout the dance therapy community.
“When my sister and I were little, we’d dance around the house to these songs,” Skala says. “They were very lighthearted folk tunes and popular tunes of the time. That’s the music I ended up using in the show.”
Lisl’s own upbringing was extremely tough. She had loving parents, but they expressed devotion in a disciplined way. Her father’s greatest display of affection was to kiss his two fingers and touch them to her forehead. She once tried to hug her mother, who pushed her away and said, “What are you doing?”
“Lisl was very, very critical of me,” Skala admits, “which may be one reason why I’m not in the piece — it’s all first person. When she saw my father hug me or give me a kiss, it made her think I was spoiled. She longed for what I took for granted.”
So Skala has chosen to pay tribute to her great aunt’s good side.