Last week, the Atlanta Gay Men’s Chorus said goodbye to its longest-serving singing member, Dennis Nance. One might say his life was cut surprisingly short at age 59, but in reality, it was rich and full for him – and as we were reminded during his memorial service last Tuesday, he lived life on his own terms.
When I became the artistic director of the AGMC in 2007, Dennis ensured that he was on my radar from day one. Part of his weekly routine was to come to the podium – often just moments before rehearsal – to share a piece of music with me, or to simply tell me something trivial he thought was of particular interest. Those who knew Dennis had similar experiences and will tell you that because of the frequency of such conversations, Dennis was quite capable of testing your patience. Yet, there was something about him that you valued. There was a part of him you completely understood, perhaps even envied. Maybe it was his ability to live life with no filter.
Having joined the chorus in 1982, Dennis was the closest thing left to a founding member. Our practice of recognizing years of service to the AGMC reached the first ever thiry-year milestone with Dennis Nance. No one else sang more performances with the AGMC. Because of this history, I appointed him a special position on our music advisory committee. He knew every piece the chorus had ever performed, what year it was sung, and which Waffle House he’d been to on the day of its last performance. This knowledge led to many derailments in our repertoire meetings, where I would have to (sometimes firmly) nudge him back on topic.
There were a number of times when we had to call out Dennis on his offbeat behavior. And while he was appropriately apologetic, he took it in stride. As founding artistic director Jeffrey McIntyre put it, Dennis lived a “blissfully unfiltered life.” And for Dennis, with age came more bliss, less filter. That being said, when first meeting this quirky character, one was often perplexed. Who was this man who would walk up to you sight unseen and blurt, “Well aren’t you just cute enough to eat?”
In the same spirit, Dennis was known for cutting right to the point of a matter in a single statement. “I hate screaming children in a restaurant. If you can’t control them, either leave them at home or have them euthanized,” he sarcastically posted on Facebook once. “Michele Bachmann says she was ‘called by God’ to run for President,” he said in another. “Clearly God was butt-dialing.”
But just as smart as his ability to smackdown was his ability to make us laugh. He once summed that up by saying: “Everyone’s sense of humor has the possibility of hurting someone else’s feelings. My advice: get over it.” But amidst biting wit as sharp as a hawk’s talon were many heartfelt sentiments that celebrated his chorus brothers, especially at the end of concert cycles. He once wrote, “The AGMC is an organization that has enriched my life, and moved me in ways too many to count.”
While Dennis was not big on world-travel, he had done his share. While he might have stretched his budget to live in a less modest apartment, he didn’t. And rather than drive a nicer car, he chose to save his money for the important things: getting to and from his job at Turner Broadcasting, important AGMC rehearsal and performances, and for dining out at least twice a day. To him, this was living life to the fullest.
One Thanksgiving Day he wrote, “I am thankful for every day that I have here on this earth. Every day is a gift. Be thankful and enjoy your gift!” Then a month later: “Merry Christmas to both my blood family and my adoptive family. You mean the world to me! I love you all so very much!”
And a week later, “Happy f***ing new year!”
Hubris, humor, and heart are what we will remember most about Dennis Nance. It was indeed an honor to know and work with this amazing musician, social commentator, and human being. His absence will be felt forever by those who knew him, and especially by his chorus brothers. To paraphrase a comment made by one of his chorus brothers this week: Liking Dennis Nance was sometimes difficult. Loving him was inevitable.
Gurrl, we will miss you.