Donna Summer and Her Music: The Stuff #JazzHands Are Made Of

On Thursday, I was searching for WiFi in the lobby of a Panama City Beach hotel. With none in the room, I retreated to the lobby, where I set up my daily workstation while scores of sunburned vacationers shuffled for another day in the sun.

It was here that I saw the news: Donna Summer had died.  


When I was a little girl, I wanted to be one of two things: 1) a writer and/or 2) a disco singer. To practice for the first, I spent as much time as possible at the Clearwater Public Library, reading everything I could get my hands on. It was there I checked out a VHS tape that turned me on to another world entirely: disco. By then it was the late-80s, so the heyday of disco had passed a decade previous. But you couldn't tell me or my brother that when we watched, over and over and over again, the seminal disco classic "Thank God It's Friday."

What -- doesn't every young girl and her brother spend hours on end watching a film about one night in a discotheque in which a young singer (see: Donna Summer) begs the DJ to let her sing just one song so the world can see her talent? No?

(For those who missed it, here's the plot. It's one night at a fictional LA disco called The Zoo. In addition to Nicki Sims, aka Donna Summer, the storyline also features contestants driven to win a dance contest in which the grand prize is a pair of KISS tickets, a couple trying to rekindle their love and discovering their *wilder* side at the disco, a sketchy club owner played by Jeff Goldblum, and the one and only Commodores, who perform "Too Hot To Trot.") 

The film gave birth to the Academy Award winning "Last Dance." And it left a great impression on me and Ryan. To us, there was no difference between the character Donna Summer played and  the actual Donna Summer. Here was a girl with a dream -- to sing her song, and to wow the crowds, and to do it with a big old flower in her hair. She elbowed her way into the recording booth so the world could here her booming, nuanced voice.

For kids growing up in the suburbs, it was a message that stuck. Ryan and I dug into my parents' record cabinet. I walked to the Goodwill near our house to outfit us in the finest in polyester. We staged elaborate productions. I like to think that was part of how Ryan got to Broadway, where his feathered blonde hair would have made Donna proud.


Her music was on a lot at the Shaw house, and in our cars. When Ryan and I talked about her passing, we compared notes about Mom listening to "She Works Hard For The Money" in our Custom Cruiser station wagon, driving us to school and to dance.

Back then, when I secretly tuned into public access to watch a program with a local psychic ("Metaphysically Speaking") I loved hearing the opening chords of "I Feel Love." Donna Summer seemed otherworldly. 

Later, at middle school dances, the girls giggled while "Last Dance" played, hoping that they would finally be asked to dance, while the middle school boys were too busy shooting hoops outside. Again, an experience just beyond reach. 

Donna's music has always been around, influencing our family. When Shane and I married eight years ago this week, Dad requested a special song be played as a nod to each of my siblings. Megan, who had recently graduated college, got Beach Boys "God Only Knows." Ryan, who'd finally made it to the Great White Way, got "My Life." 

"When I was young

I used to dream of going far.

Having my once in a lifetime chance

To prove I was a star/

This is my night

This is my song.

Standing right here, out on the stage

Is where I belong."

It was the title song from the production "Ordinary Girl," based on Donna Summer's memoir. 


Dancing is what we've always done.  We still dance every time we get together. (This is us about five years ago in my parents' basement.)

We got part of our dance from Donna. Her songs still resonate -- countless people are writing in critical terms about how much it changed the landscape.

It's music that lasted beyond polyester dresses and disco nights I never really know. It remains music that represents freedom and potential.

And while I didn't grow up to be a disco singer (quite yet) I got a lot of daring from her music. And a few moves. Here's to you Donna.