Donna Summer at Karate Camp

My memory of Donna Summer is from the 80’s– a class at Special Training, an annual women’s martial arts camp. The teacher, a charismatic and beautiful black woman named Tonie Harris, talked about living in the projects, and finding inspiration in a Bruce Lee film. She wanted to do that too, and fought her way up the belts to the respected title of Sensei.

It was a buzz for me to take lessons from a female sensei. That honorific title had only applied to men in the dojos I belonged to.

Tonie was an inspiration, and very much admired. She mentioned that she was engaged to a man and I heard a sound like ice tinkling– lesbian hearts were breaking all around me.

In my previous experience of karate school, warm-up for classes was an endurance contest. Push-ups on wooden floors to the sound of grunting and Sensei barking in Japanese (with a Rhode Island accent). The female senseis at Special Training were more innovative and inclined to add music to workouts–a new thing for me. Tonie was a big fan of Donna Summer. She played Donna’s hit song, ‘Love to Love You Baby’ to the class of about 100 gathered in an athletic field outside a college gym.

My fellow elderly will understand why I had always found that song embarrassing. But that day I discovered the power of context. I already knew that Donna Summer was a very smart and sensitive woman, from hearing her interviewed on the radio. ‘Love to Love You Baby’ may have meant one thing in the disco. In a room full of powerful women doing kata, Donna Summer’s song was an anthem.

I am sorry for the passing of Donna Summer, but she was a diva. She really lived. She left something beautiful to the world. We should all hope to do as well.

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