Learning the Hard Way

5 12 2006

UPDATE Jan 7, after the celebration program and reception.

Well it was beautiful and funny and sad. We cried and laughed and cried some more, lit candles and heard stories, and applauded some incredible blasts from the most excellent life of this most excellent man. Then we went upstairs and hugged, and ate and drank and told stories of our own. He would have been SO proud of his kids, all the kids who loved him and are different because he loved them. As are we all . . .

The program ended with the song “Seasons of Love” from the Broadway musical Rent. Partway through, the audio and then the video segued seamlessly into our company kids singing that song onstage two years ago, Damien with them in the background on one end, stepping forward only when someone faltered and needed his presence beside them, smiling and singing along.

MEMORIAL UPDATE posting Dec 13: “Celebrating the Life of Damien” performance set for Sunday, January 7 at 5 p.m. with reception to follow, Young Actors Theatre, Tallahassee FL, offered with the love of his Dance Studio extended family. Details to follow, I’ll add new info to the comments section for this post.

Our children are neither schooled nor churched, but they both were drawn to and “belong” within an extended family of artists and performers centered around their dance studio.

This week the learning is especially hard and especially personal.

December 4, 2006

Dear Dance Studio Family,

It is my very sad and difficult task to tell you of the sudden passing of our much beloved Assistant Studio Director, Damien Middleton. This news will no doubt be a great shock to all of you. Although he managed his chronic blood disease very well for most of his thirty years, an infection wracked Damien’s body and he became ill early last week. His organs began to fail, and the Doctors held very little hope for his recovery. As was his wish, no extraordinary measures were taken, and he passed away quietly this morning.

As many of you know, Damien was a full-time employee of Walt Disney World Entertainment in Orlando. He was a performer in the Magic Kingdom Christmas show performed in front of Cinderella’s Castle. He also served as their Dance Captain, a position that he held for a number of years at Disney. His schedule was flexible enough to allow him to maintain his close ties to our studio, where he served as my “right arm and leg” as well as instructor and choreographer.

He dearly loved his family at the studio. Although he traveled the world, he felt that our little school was his favorite place to be on earth.

Damien was dearly loved by our families. This news will no doubt be incredibly difficult for all of us, especially the students. The staff will spend this week taking cues from the needs of our students. If they want to talk, we will talk. If they want to dance, we will dance. I know that there will be many tears and hugs, and my staff and I are prepared for whatever needs to be done to get through this.

As Damien and I always agreed, our school is so much more about life than dance. Although his untimely passing is heartbreaking, all of us at The Dance Studio are committed to carry on as he certainly would have wanted us to do. . .Damien

My mail this morning brought a perfect poem from the heart of a 13-year-old dancer and singer, traditionally schooled as most children are yet learning so much beyond that, in a true learning circle of life with my unschooled kids each day–


No matter how many tears escape my eye

I feel faintly happy, and ask myself “why?”

It’s because I see your shadow soaring free through the sky

With a halo as gold as the great eagles eye

And wings that flutter with a gentle sigh

Outside beneath the stars I lie

Goodbye, they whisper, goodbye.

And though, it is true, you are here no more

And something like this, no one could brace for

And though our hearts are still very sore

I know we’re all glad, you’ll feel pain no more

And we hope you lived just like you hoped for

You’re still with us, now and forevermore

Goodbye, we cry, good bye

You know, you not only taught us to dance

But to smile and perform every single chance

And to not spare our sorrows more than a seconds glance

And how to gracefully (but with attitude) advance in our dance

And you stood firm against all of our won’ts and our can’ts

Can’t forget all those times you gave us yet another chance

Goodbye, but most of all thanks.

Goodbye, to a great teacher, and a wonderful friend.





23 responses

5 12 2006

I’m so sorry for your loss. I know how much your dance studio family means to all of you. {{{}}}


6 12 2006
michael g

I knew Damien briefly and it was an honor to have know such a great guy. I am sorry for the loss.

6 12 2006

Thank you both. It made me feel better to post.

Michael, you say it exactly right, that it was an honor to know such a great guy — I couldn’t want a better model for my children. Thank you for taking the time to stop in let us hear from you. It was a nice surprise when I got home from the studio just now.

There we have a little tribute table in the front with red roses, lit candles, photos of him and his amazing grin, and — gets me every time — the black tap shoes he kept at the studio for teaching. Another Michael, who owns the only dedicated dancewear shop here, came yesterday to pay his respects while I was there, and of course said that he had fitted those shoes on him; then we all cried again. It’s almost like the riderless horse with the boots backward in the stirrups, you know?

Scholarships are being set up (both dance and academic) and I think Disney may be doing a special performance of some kind. 🙂

7 12 2006

He was only 30 but he crammed so much life and love into every day. And it came to my mind, does it matter to his wonderful life what his grades were in school or whether/where he went to college?

I remember Damien telling us once how he’d been awarded some scholarship to a performing arts program, in large part to escape the regular public school assigned by zone. He played the piano I think, some instrument, and was doing well, so happy there, until some administrative circumstance changed and there was no slot for him to continue in music performance. He’d be forced out of the arts academy and back into Standardized School, until one of his teachers suggested that if only he could dance, there would be a place for him to continue. He decided he COULD dance! And never stopped . . .in the last few years he even taught part-time in public schools with high minority populations, using dance to reach kids and get them engaged in learning for its own sake.

He was (perhaps overly) deferential to my education experience and degrees, and we had fascinating talks about what HE was learning by teaching in the public schools. He was willing to try anything, go anywhere, a natural performer like all the best teachers.

He thanked me more than once because he had learned as a teacher from working with my cerebral son, no natural dancer but a natural learner and no fan of practice or rote. Young Son responded not to music, rhythms or even movement itself but to complex, structured story, like chess and video games. He had to dance in his mind first, as a character part of a compelling story, or he literally saw no point or pattern to the moves. Damien gleaned ideas and techniques from working with him contained in no teacher manual!

7 12 2006
Kiyandi Newberry

I meet Damien in the 7th grade. He was so talented and a very good friend. Loving person and funny. I was so happy to hear tha he was doing what he love when he graduated from College. I pray for all who are affected by his passing. I was a true friend and I love him for that. He will truely be missed.

If there are any performances that Damien was that I can purchase in the futur that would be great. Also if Disney is doing a tribute to him I would like to purchase a copy of that also. Hopefully the purchases can go to the scholarships. I also hope that these performances can be provided to his family in Augusta.


Class of 94 – Kiki

7 12 2006

I met Damien in the 9th grade…my freshman year of highschool. He was always so full of life and laughter. LOL We shared sooo many laughs. He had such a way with words….and facial expressions.

What I remember most is his ability to light up a stage. He had such great talent. I am so proud of him and glad that he actually enjoyed going to work because he was doing something that he loved so much. I remember some of my practices with him and although he was a perfectionist he always made practice fun.

I will miss him greatly as will you. My prayers go out to all of you and especially the students. If Disney decides to do a tribute to honor Damien I would like to purchase it in hopes that the proceeds will go to the scholarships.


Class of 94 – Theresa

7 12 2006

I first met Damien at Davidson Fine Arts School. He was performing in a Play and was very good at it. We always knew he would be successful in life. It was good to read about his success and contributions and how well he was liked by his students. His death will be a great lost to those who knew him. But it was good to know he enjoyed life to the Fullest and did not let his illness prevent him from making the best of it. This is a lesson all of us should learn. He will be greatly missed but his work will live on for a long time.

He was a good friend of my daughter, KiKi and her friend Theresa. We all will miss him. Our prayers go out to his family in Augusta, Georgia.

Rest in peace,

Mrs. A. Newberry

7 12 2006

His great friend and mentor our studio director, has been asked by his father to speak Saturday at the services in his home town. (And there will be a memorial here in Tallahassee too, probably in January sometime.) She hopes to incorporate all sorts of personal stories and memories of Damien that his family might never know about otherwise–I hope no one will object if she includes these lovely words too, and please encourage others who may have something to add to post it here. It’s a good use for the space. 🙂

7 12 2006

Oh and thanks for filling in some blanks about his own arts education as a child. Davidson Fine Arts Academy in Augusta GA deserves our thanks and maybe a second look as a model of what public education can be, for helping Damien BE Damien.

7 12 2006

Here’s a research article about his public magnet school, which is for grades 5-12. I know Damien believed and lived these principles, especially the last one starting with “most of all”:

So what’s unique about Davidson? Three factors stand out:

1. A school built on student interests.
. . .Davidson admissions staff looks for students who genuinely want to be involved in the arts. They want to weed out the kids who are being pushed to perform by overachieving parents. . . If Davidson can build a cohort of students who want to come to school because they get to do what they love, then the school’s administrators believe that academic success will follow.

2. Davidson is not interested in “art stars.” This school wants students who enjoy engaging in the arts—and who enjoy being around similar students. The emphasis is on helping everyone get better, not singling out an elite as “the best.” . . . Davidson values its culture of cooperation as highly as excellence in performance. Yes, products matter, and striving for excellence is important. However, the pursuit of excellence cannot become a system that focuses on winners and losers.

3. Nurturing a caring environment.

“Most of all, they learned that school was fun. They engaged in learning, because they loved it. This is perhaps the most powerful outcome of the Davidson experience. It provides a guiding principle in how teachers should approach content.”

7 12 2006

Damien was one of the 1st people I met during my 9th grade year at Davidon Fine Arts. He and I were in Intermediate & Symphonic Band together. I will never forget how well he could play the Bassoon, made me want to learn to play my clarinet that good. He was a diligent & disciplined person at practicing that instrument and it showed, especially when we played a concert piece in which he had a solo. Futhermore, He had a great sense of humor, always clowning, making jokes. I am glad that I got to know him. He was an influential individual. I regret that I will not make the homegoing services being held in Augusta for him. My condolensces to all of his family and friends.

9 12 2006

Sleep in heavenly peace . . .

12 12 2006
Class of 93

Our condolesences to the Middleton Family and all of Damien’s extended family in the arts.

John S. Davidson
Class of 1993

13 12 2006

From Michele Ackermann today:
“Many of you have graciously
offered financial gifts for scholarships. We will announce that opportunity at the celebration.”

(See my update on post proper re the Tallahassee memorial performance: “Celebrating the Life of Damien”)

13 12 2006

Performer/Walt Disney World, Inc. OCOEE, FL –
Sign the guestbook HERE

Mr. Damien V. Middleton of Blackjack Oak Street entered into rest on Monday, December 4, 2006 at Health Central Hospital. Funeral services will be held on Saturday, December 9, 2006 at 11:00 a.m. at Tabernacle Baptist Church with Rev. Sheffie Rouse officiating. Interment will be at Walker Memorial Park.

Mr. Middleton, a native of Augusta, was an honor graduate of Davidson Magnet Fine Arts High School. In 1998, he received a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Music from Florida State University where he was involved with the Florida State Marching Band and the Tallahassee Community Theatre.

As an employee with Walt Disney World, Inc., he performed at Tokyo, Disney, on the Disney Cruise Ship and at Orlando, Disney. He was also an Associate Director of Performing Arts Shows a Seminole Community College as well as a recurring Artistic Director/Choreographer at Florida State University.

Survivors are his parents, H. Frank and Vonciel Middleton, Hephzibah; three brothers, Torii Middleton, Carnelle McCladdie, Augusta, Frank Middlton, Atlanta; one sister, Candice Middleton, Atlanta; one niece, Kayla Middleton and other relatives. Williams Funeral Home, 2945 Old Tobacco Road, Hephzibah, Ga.

Published in The Augusta Chronicle from 12/7/2006 – 12/8/2006.

20 12 2006

I also met Damien in 7th grade at Davidson Fine Arts School. He was always such fun person to know and be around. EventhoughI had not seen him or many others from our class for many years, I continue to have many fond memories about our experience together at DFA. We were all a family in sense that we spent so many years together in such small classrooms. He was so very talented that I always knew he would follow his dreams. My condolescence goes out to every one he touched and he will truly be missed. He will always be apart of many of my great memories.

7 01 2007
Learning the Hard Way - Wrap « Cocking A Snook!

[…] 2007 We all just got home the celebration in honor of our dance teacher’s life and work. I updated the original post with a brief report, for all those in his extended family who couldn’t come in person […]

17 07 2007

Damien’s May 14 birthday always fell the weekend of the annual dance concert, and did again this year.

7 11 2008
Jamal Rice


I’m not sure if you’ll get this but I feel like I need to say something. I met Damien at FSU. We lived in the same dorm. All our friends called him JD. We became quick friends, and I dare to claim him as my best friend in college. This man meant the world to me. He fed me when I was hungry, listened to me cry about school and work, and taught me more about dance than I ever wanted to know. He had a passion for life and love that I’ve never known since him. We ended up being roomates for a couple years in Tallahassee. He went on to teach public school and I went on to continue my career in gymnastics. I remember talking to him and hearing about all the challenges he faced at the school he was assigned to. There was always something wrong, but he never let go of the hope that he could make a difference. I can honestly say I would not be the person I am today without Damien. I am so sorry to hear of his passing. The world has lost one of the most genuinely GOOD people in it. I wish there were something I could say to him right now, some sort of goodbye or thank you or something, but I can’t. I can say, though, that I have wonderful memories of him as I’m sure you all do. I’m so sorry for your loss, he talked about The Dance Studio and Tallahassee Little Theater all the time. I was a beautiful man and a beautiful person. I hope these words bring some solace. If you ever want to reach me I can be found at hjr1976@yahoo.com. It would be nice to hear from you.

-Jamal Rice

7 11 2008
Jamal Rice

oh yeah, he played the bassoon, the piano, and the flute and piccolo. He excelled at all of them, but he absolutely LOVED the bassoon.


18 07 2009
Cathy Rogers Johnson

It is July 2009 and I’ve only found out this week about Damien’s passing. My grieving is late but I am fortunate to be able to read these posts as my tears fall for this fallen star. Damien was a remarkable person. I, too, attended Davidson with him in our early years. I don’t think I remember a day going by that Damien didn’t have a huge, beautiful smile on his face. He was a wonderful man and he left his mark on many people’s hearts. I think is a worthy goal for everyone he left behind. Leave our mark, make a difference.

21 09 2009
Christine Pascual

I am so thrilled to see that such thought and consideration was put forth in recognizing the most fantastic, memorable, and hilarious individual I ever new. JD, as we knew him at FSU, was always there to make us laugh, no matter what. I remember watching him perform on stage, tapping away, with such energy and enthusiasm. He brought life into every arena. We spent lots of time in the practice rooms preparing for chamber, wind ensemble, quintet, and so on – I loved the way he played bassoon, I was sooooo impressed by his skills. JD will never be forgotten and I am so saddened to hear, just now 3 years later, that he passed away. The last time I saw him was on stage at Disney for the Very Merry Christmas Celebration and he welcomed my family backstage to take pictures with Minnie & Mickey and friends. I was so excited to introduce him to my 2 precious children for the first time and fortunately for me, I have the pictures and memories to look back to. My thoughts of JD are always filled with smiles and fun times, and for that, I will be always grateful for my life at FSU, for which would not have been the same without him. I love you JD!!!!!!

Take care always,

4 12 2009
Thinking of Damien Middleton Tonight, With Love « Cocking A Snook!

[…] just as we were leaving for the Dance Studio, that this was the day three years ago, that the kids Learned the Hard Way what it was like to lose our dear, dear Damien . . . Our children are neither schooled nor […]

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