By Deborah Glick
Many high schools can brag about alumni who are successful doctors, lawyers, scientists, or even the politicians.
However, few schools are able to boast that one of their own has danced on Broadway as well as in the Academy Awards.
South has that privilege.
Lisa Gajda, an ’87 alumna, has taken her passion for dance to the Broadway stage and beyond. But like other professional, she started her journey as a student. Growing up, Gajda took dance classes at a local studio called Zawacki Dance Center. “That’s where I really caught the bug,” she said. From her first prekindergarten class, Spanish tap with Miss Gloria, her mother claims she “always came home happier than when [she] left.“ To this day, dancing has the same effect on Gajda. “I’m eight months pregnant,” she said recently, “having a pretty uncomfortable, nauseous pregnancy, and when I get myself to a ballet barre I feel pretty close to happy. I’m very lucky to have something like that.”
Although her heart was captivated by dancing, Gajda also enjoyed other classes as a student. In fact, her favorite class at South was ninth grade history. The teacher? No other than Mr. Wheeler. “I was a rebellious and terrible student, but I loved history…His passion was real, and I attended his classes more than any other,” she noted. “Shame on me, I was known to cut. Do not follow my terrible example!”
After high school, Gajda said she “had become obsessed with dancing.” While attending Nassau Community College, she was on a scholarship at Steps on Broadway, a studio in New York City. “I couldn’t stay away from Steps,” she said. Gajda took three classes each day of the week for years. “So dancing sort of gripped me, and I entered the hard core studying phase.”
Following the “studying years,” Gajda started her career in Los Angeles. She performed at the Academy Awards twice and at the MTV Music Awards. Gajda said she “did very well in general” in her chosen careeer. During her “first big dry spell (no work)” Gajda left Los Angeles because she “didn’t enjoy living there.”
At age 25, Gajda returned east to New York City. She auditioned for musicals and landed a job on “The Who’s Tommy National Tour.” Following the tour, Gajda received a Broadway offer for Tommy.
All in all, Gajda has danced in 17 Broadway shows, her favorite being Movin Out. “I loved the music (Billy Joel) and the choreography (Twyla Tharp).” Along with the Academy Awards and MTV Music Awards, Gajda also performed at the Thanksgiving Day Parade and the Tony Awards. She has also recently danced one-on-one with Sting, parading around while he sang. She has received eight Gypsy Awards; however, she turned down two of those, she said, “so close friends of [hers] who were next in line could receive it.”
Gajda says she always planned on becoming a teacher, “but so much has changed in this pregnancy,” and she is unsure where her next kick-ball-chain will take her. “I am still crazy about dance, but teaching dance still has a large dose of the ‘trying to get people to love you’ thing in it, and after 25 years of fighting for people to love me over and over again [hire her], a part of me wants a life with less winning people over.” Because teaching in New York is highly competitive, “we’ll see what’s next.”
Whatever happens, Gajda says, “I know I belong somewhere, and if my transition is painful and/or confusing, that’s okay. My life has been beautiful, and I will learn the lessons necessary to be happy.”