Jeff Slayton and Viola Farber in Farber's Route 6 (1972). Photo by Mary Lucier.
For Jeff Slayton, dancing was an escape.
As he moved about the stage, he could forget how his father had touched him the night before. He could forget the feeling of his mother's cold hand slapping him across the face. He could forget about his homosexuality not being accepted and the girlfriend he used as a cover-up. He could forget about everything.
Slayton, a 69-year-old Long Beach resident and retired Cal State Long Beach dance professor, documents his life and struggles in his powerful autobiography, Dancing Toward Sanity, released earlier this year.
"I could be anybody I wanted to when I was dancing—and I was good at it," said Slayton. "It was the one place where I got positive constructive feedback, and people enjoyed what I did. In my household, there was none of that. There was none of that in school, either, because if they found out I was a dancer, I got bullied. When I was in dance class, I was in control and I could forget what was going on at home. Dancing kept me alive my whole life."
While Dancing Toward Sanity may appear a relatively easy read at just 292 pages, do not mistake its brevity for a lack of intensity. Some details are so shocking and hard to believe that you have to take a breather before continuing. It is during these pauses that you realize Slayton's strength for sharing what he went through.
In the book, available on Amazon, Slayton details accounts of his father molesting him, his mother abusing him, his shame for being gay, his desire for affection and his struggle with alcoholism.
Slayton, who grew up in 1950s Virginia, said the times were very different back then, particularly if one was part of the LGBT community. For one, kids didn't have a voice to talk if they were getting abused and, even more, being gay was beyond taboo—it was just downright unacceptable.
"I did try to seek help, and all my teachers would say, 'We don't talk about that,'" he said. "When I was a child, it was illegal to be gay. You could go to jail for being gay. Virginia was not an easy place to live."
Eventually, Slayton found slight sanctuary in New York and with the help of dance instructors, particularly Viola Farber. Still, this help wasn't enough to help him battle all of his demons. He turned to alcohol, and when money was tight, he had sex with random men to get more vodkas on the rocks.
The booze, he said, helped especially when it came to forgetting the memories of his father. In one graphic scene in the book, Slayton detailed how sex with his father became a regular thing. The feel of his railwork worker father's dirty, greasy hands became all too familiar.
"He appeared to acquire great pleasure out of making me beg for him to stop, and then berating me by calling me a big sissy," Slayton wrote. "Sleep became an even bigger problem. I made up any excuse not to go to bed, and then I would lie awake for hours, refusing to sleep. I felt that if I slept, Pop would come in and start fondling me."
These moments with his father were the hardest moments to write about, Slayton said.
"It brought it all back. It's taken me my entire life to stop hating the man," he said. "I don't think he was a good person and I don't know if he hurt any other children, but I hope he didn't. That haunts me still. If you saw a picture of my house, you would have never guessed what went on in there. You never know what kids are going through."
He said while he found writing this book to be cathartic, he also hopes it can help others who may be going through similar situations.
Slayton, now 11 years sober, said people who are going through troubling situations, like molestation, incest, abuse, identity crises or alcoholism need to seek help.
"There's a lot of help out there, and people should not be afraid to seek it out and talk to someone," he said. "Holding it inside only destroys you, and it's difficult to talk about but in the long run, it will save your life."
Photo above: Jeff Slayton in his solo To Be Continued? (1986). Photo by Patricia Reynolds