Her name is Madonna Ciccone, and her face matches her name.
Round eyes, arched eyebrows, finely drawn mouth – Da Vinci would have loved it. It is a theatrical face, a dancer’s face. And she has a dancer’s body – thin as a blade, lithe and agile. Doll-like, she looks as if she’d snap in a strong wind.
She wouldn’t. …
Countless times over the years, critics, pundits and reporters have written some variation on that to describe Madonna, the iconic pop starlet. But the story containing this passage is different, because it dates back to a time when nobody knew who Madonna was.
It’s the beginning of a Charlotte Observer story from July 1978, about the American Dance Festival’s first year at Duke University in Durham. And it might be the first notice from the press that Madonna received.
Observer staff writer Richard Maschal quoted Madonna, then 19 years old, describing the rigors of ADF as “pretty draining and demanding.” And he called her “what the American Dance Festival is about.”
Seven years later, after 1984’s “Like a Virgin” and 1985’s “Desperately Seeking Susan” established Madonna as a huge star and the it-girl of that moment, Maschal wrote a followup column about his earlier impressions of her. He noted her beauty, aura and precocious self-assurance – and also that she resembled a literal Renaissance madonna.
“I really did think she looked like a madonna and so was amazed when I asked her name and she gave it,” Maschal said recently via email. “I also found her one of the most self-absorbed persons I had ever met.”
That self-absorption also manifested as confidence, which would stand Madonna in good stead as she pursued her career. One of her 1978 ADF classmates was Eric Tyrone Smith, who later shared a West Village apartment with Madonna in New York City. In a 2007 email, he recounted a salient memory of Madonna’s evolution from dancer to singer:
She came back to the apartment one day bragging that she had just been out in Washington Sq. park singing with some black guys and that they had told her she could sing. I told her she couldn’t believe everything she was told and of course the rest is history!
Little else remains of Madonna’s long-ago time as a dance student in Durham. Her primary teachers there, Pearl Lang and Pauline Koner, are both deceased. And while ADF still has her application and school records on file, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) means they will remain private unless Madonna herself chooses to release them.
That’s doubtful, so mostly we have Maschal’s witness-bearing account. He admits he did not come away impressed, with little inkling of just how big a star she would become. Maschal’s 1985 story about Madonna concluded by asking about the 26-year-old singer, “Can you picture Madonna at 40?”
Now 56, in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and still topping charts and touring arenas, Madonna seems to have done all right for herself.