Meredith Baxter’s Brave New Ballroom World

Meredith Baxter sips a steaming Earl Grey at Governor/movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Schatzi on Main in Santa Monica.  The three-time Emmy nominated actress sighs.  The leading lady of Family Ties and Family confesses, “It is hugely brave for me to dance. But I’m trying to say yes to things in my life like ballroom dancing. I’m taking chances.”  The actress declares, “I always wanted to dance but couldn’t dance. I was far too self-conscious. And I’m an introvert.”

As a child, Baxter witnessed cha-cha and other social dances in her Pasadena childhood home.  “For a short period, my first stepfather and mother (actress and co-creator of One Day At A Time, Whitney Blake) took lessons in our living room,” she says.  The television star rebuffs a suggestion of her parents’ influence. 

But mention Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. And a fervent  “Oh yes!” follows. “Now, that was an influence! Fred and Ginger! Fred and Cyd!” Enthusiastically she continues, “And I loved the tap.  I wanted to be someone who could make those noises.”

In her twenties, Baxter tried tap classes with her mother. Matter-of-factly she says, “We never did anything together. But we did them.” The actress adds, “It cemented my understanding that I had no rhythm at all. I was the slowest tapper in the class!”

Television studios instead of dance studios took more and more of Baxter’s time in the ‘70s and ‘80s. She snagged the lead on TV series such as Bridget Loves Bernie (1972-1973) and Family (1976-1980). Family won her two Emmy nominations. (Outstanding Continuing Performance by a Supporting Actress in a Drama Series in 1977 and 1978.)

“I never wanted to be an actress,” asserts Baxter.  “But I was making a life change (and needed an income.) So, I went into the family business.” 

Despite her lackluster passion for the profession, she admits that acting in a 1978 made-for-TV “Little Women was pretty fabulous.” Why? The cast and crew glittered with Hollywood icons. Dorothy McGuire was Marmee. And Greer Garson played Aunt March to Baxter’s Meg.  (Of the memorable “Mrs. Miniver” she says, “Greer Garson was great! She didn’t take herself seriously.”)

“What I liked best was working with Edith Head. She was just so cool,” says the actress. (The Academy award-winning design diva altered Baxter’s costume at the first peep of concern about the look of the “truncated waist” of the Civil War period.) “They – costume designers, directors - usually want to stay exactly correct. But it was more important for her actors to be comfortable.”

In 1982, Baxter eased effortlessly into the role of Elyse Keaton in Family Ties.  (She portrayed the liberal mother to Michael J. Fox’s conservative son character until the series end in 1989.) By the last taping, Baxter had plenty of practice playing Mom. Off the set, the actress was tied to a family of her own. (Five children – including a set of twins.)

With a chuckle, she recalls taking her twins to Cotillion. “I remember wanting to do what they were doing. I was married at the time. He didn’t dance,” says Baxter.

The dance dream continued to elude the actress into the ‘90s. But the memorable roles continued to roll in.  The “incandescent intensity” Baxter brought to the part of murderess Betty Broderick brought her praises from People and her peers. In 1992, she was nominated for another Emmy for Woman Scorned: The Betty Broderick Story.

She is proudest, however, of television projects probing into social issues and subjects such as cancer (My Breast - 1994) and bulimia (Kate’s Secret - 1986.)  Baxter co-produced and starred in My Breast.  (Ironically, in 1999, the star was diagnosed with breast cancer. Did surviving cancer create any epiphanies? “No. I was too distracted at the time,” she quips.)

Her starring role in Katie’s Secret’s was particularly satisfying. The television program explored the topic of eating disorders. It made Baxter approachable to many who confided that her portrayal of Kate “brought them relief.”  The star’s eyes glisten for a second.  She states, “I was pleased to do something that was of service to people.”

What are the star’s tricks to keeping a slim figure? “The fear diet!” declares Baxter.  She nods when it is suggested that most American women’s awareness of calories keeps them from consuming all they desire.

Asked if her vegetarian lifestyle buoys her energy, Baxter emphatically answers, “Not an iota! I still eat crap – without meat.”

She grimaces when questioned about Juliano’s RAW, an all-natural nouvelle cuisine eatery in Santa Monica. (The restaurant is co-owned by Kristi Franks from Trump’s The Apprentice.) The mecca of raw food of the rich and fashionable apparently is not Baxter’s cup of tea. The star complains, “There is no tea! There’s nothing hot on the menu.”

Flashing her pearly whites for paparazzi at Zagat picks is clearly not on Baxter’s to-do list today. Squeezing in private and group dance lessons and practice between taping Hallmark specials and guest spots on sitcoms like Half and Half take precedence. She is also diligently rehearsing an exhibition American Tango routine with dance partner, Michael Caan.

Celebrated dancing gal pal, Sarah La Saulle’s encouragement (See Dancing USA May/June 2003 “At the Heart of Healing and DanceSport: Sarah La Saulle Ph.D.”), led to Baxter’s daring step across the LA Dance Experience Studio threshold. She pushed aside her past considerations and said yes!

Surrendering to a man’s lead a year and a half ago, however, was a challenge. With a wry smile Baxter recalls, “Russell (Adcock - the owner of LA Dance Experience) would say, ‘I tell you when to go.’” She admits, “That was hard for me for a while. I had to bite my tongue.”

However, after a handful of private and group classes, the actress learned to appreciate the art of lead-follow. And she appreciates a flawless leader like Adcock on the dance floor. “I love the clarity and minimal effort Russell takes to show me where to move,” says Baxter. “He’s graceful. Russell is very sure and confident.”

And as a teacher? “Russell doesn’t paint with a broad stroke and leave it there.  He’ll give you the broad stroke. Then, he’ll break it down to give you the smaller particulars to make the form just right,” she says.       

So what forms most tickle Baxter’s ballroom fancy? “The smooth dances. I love a foxtrot. I love a waltz,” she says. “Oh! The grace of it. And I love the continuity style.“

Ebulliently she elaborates, “The other night I was dancing with Michael (Caan)…Or was it Jeffrey Barak?  (Gold level LA Dance Experience students.) Anyway, we were doing a waltz. Nora Jones’ Come Away with Me was playing. I thought, “I’m in heaven.”

Looks like bravely saying “yes” to ballroom paid off for Meredith Baxter.


Kim Knode © May 2, 2004