Dear Auntie Annette,
My heart sank when I heard the news... that you left this earthly plane way too soon. I love you Annette, for everything you were and taught me: dance, theater, life. You were one of the greatest mentors I have ever, ever had. You were the most passionate, genuine, caring and involved teacher I have ever learned from. You brought out of me what I didn't know I had, the good, the bad, the ugly, and the beautiful. As a performer and dance professional, I strive for the brilliance you never failed to display. It was such a blessing to have had you in my life, even for this short amount of time. So it's just goodbye for now, and I know you'll be dancing in Heaven. I love you.
Annette Cardona, most known for her role as Cha Cha Di Gregorio in the movie Grease, died yesterday.
I was compelled to sit down and write this after I heard the tragic news because I could do nothing else, but more importantly, I wanted the world to know the side of Annette I knew. I met Annette through a mutual friend of ours when I was a dance major in college. I had this paper to write about, and had to find a "famous dancer" to interview...and I had NO idea how I was going to do that! Well, the opportunity to meet Annette presented itself serendipitously, and I thought "wow, how lucky am I to meet Cha Cha from Grease" (one of my all-time favorite movies)! I was so anxious to meet her and wondered how she would react to a mere "civilian" like me. To my surprise, she was incredibly humble, kind, easy to talk to and sooo fascinating- we had lunch for almost 3 hours!! We found that we were both Pisces and shared many other similarities aside from being dancers. Needless to say, I got an A on my paper, but the friendship we developed from then on was something I would have never imagined.
I eventually got to train with Annette to prepare for a performance career and Miss America local pageants in New Jersey. I would have these amazing 3 hour long workshops with Annette in my basement covering theater, improv, dance, and voice. When I say she was a phenomenal teacher, I am not exaggerating. Annette got down to the nitty gritty and made you, MADE you dig deep within to visit places you wouldn't want to go... but that's where the magic happened. I'm not gonna lie, she scared me...but in way that was SO necessary for me at that time in my life. She knew what was going on within me, and was able to draw it out of me through performance. It was the most therapeutic professional instruction I had ever received.
I was fortunate to have watched Annette in action with other students too, as I was invited to participate in her college theater course. She was unstoppable, and simply didn't allow her students to undermine their inherent abilities. A phrase that I use to this day with my own students, I learned from her: "never say I can't, because if you do, then you won't." Annette was such a giving, beautiful, humble and selfless woman who touched the lives of many.
Annette Cardona became Auntie Annette to me as our families grew closer and we shared many joyous occasions together. I was honored to have been her student, but even more so to have had her love support in all of my performance endeavors- she was there to cheer me on. It meant so, so much to me that she came to watch me in the Miss New Jersey pageant (for Miss America) in 2003, and greeted me with the best compliment I had ever been paid after a performance. This photo of Annette with my family and I was taken in 2008 shortly after I was crowned Ms. United States 2008. We drove from Vegas to California and met with Annette in Santa Monica for an afternoon of reminiscing together.
It was still cool that Annette was Cha Cha from Grease, but it was even cooler that she was Auntie Annette. After she moved back to California, we saw each other much less, but still kept in touch via email and phone. She sent me a card recently that I never got a chance to respond to and thank her for.. and it pains me deeply. I only wish I was able to speak to her one last time, and tell her how much she means to me and how she has influenced my life in such a beautiful way. We don't get these second chances. So, Auntie Annette, I hope you're up there watching and reading...I love you and I miss you. I want you to know that every time I dance, I feel that fire that you passed on to me, and I will forever carry it in my heart.God bless you, and may you rest in peace.