Person of the Week
Debra Mal: Dancing a Life of Exuberance
The ever-upbeat Debra Mal, a 2019 Shore Publishing Beacon Award winner, has brought dance—and joy—to generations of Old Saybrook residents. In her Beacon interview, she shared her mantra: “God is the DJ, life is the dance floor, love is the rhythm, and you are the music—and that’s why you should always have a disco ball. And leave a trail of glitter wherever you go!” (Photo by Aviva Luria/Harbor News | Buy This Photo)
It’s no wonder that Debra Mal calls her children’s dance classes “Dance for Joy with Deb.” For Debra, known around town as Miss Glitter or simply Deb, dance is euphoric, an expression of happiness and vibrancy.
And Debra is not one to keep her joy all to herself.
The classes, what she calls creative dancing, are offered through Parks & Recreation.
“It’s dance, but it’s fun dance,” she says of the classes, which are offered at the Parks & Rec building for two- to four-year-olds and at Kathleen E. Goodwin School for kids in kindergarten through 4th grade.
“I try to have a little bit of a lesson in there. But I believe—especially for the little, little ones, the two-, three-, four-year-olds that come—they want to have fun.
“So we just giggle,” she says. “I have a lot of good Disney kid songs that have a good beat to them. They love that.”
Debra encourages the children to think about and respond to the world around them.
“I say, ‘What’s going on outside right now?’...Oh, it’s windy. So what would you do?” Debra sways her body as though she’s being blown by the wind.
“I get them thinking. I want it to be just fun, not structured, like in a dance school,” she says. “I’m not taking away from dance schools, ‘cause you need that, as well. But I think when you’re little, it’s important that they have fun so that they don’t get turned off by it.”
The kids will perform a little show for the parents. If they’re nervous, Debra sprinkles a bit of glitter on them.
“I tell them it’s magic...I tell them, ‘Take a deep breath. Breathe out.’ And then I go, ‘Here’s the magic’...a little sprinkle. And it seems to do the trick.”
Debra and her two brothers grew up in Wethersfield and spent summers on the shoreline. Her family rented a place near the water each summer until her grandmother bought a beach house in Old Saybrook. Once married and after her daughter was born, Debra and her husband bought a house just two houses away from the beach house so full of Debra’s childhood memories. They’ve now lived in Saybrook nearly 29 years.
“My mom and my aunt live [in the beach house] now, so I can keep an eye on them,” she says.
She was five years old when her mother “got me into my first dance school,” she says. “I was thrilled. I love dance and it’s become a huge part of my life.”
When she introduced her daughter, Marissa, to dance, she loved it, too.
“When she went to kindergarten, I [taught dance] at Goodwin School,” she explains. “I’ve always been involved in trying to do a dance team at the middle school and then I did coach the dance team at the high school. So I kind of followed my daughter all the way through [school] with dance. Then, when she graduated [in 2009] and went off to college, she was on her college dance team. I continued doing dance with kids in town here.”
Dancing in Saybrook
For many years, Debra has choreographed the Youth & Family Services (YFS) summer stock productions.
“It’s a two-week program, so in 10 days these kids learn a whole show and all these dance routines and singing and everything,” she says.
(Parks & Rec now runs the summer stock program.)
And for two decades, she, Wendy Mill, and a lot of volunteers have organized the annual YFS variety show, which takes place on the first weekend in May and is performed at the high school.
Participation in the show is open to “anybody in town that has a hidden talent,” she says. “It’s multi-generational. So it’s little kids to 80-, 90-year-olds. It can be three hours long sometimes.”
One of the acts that performs every year is her own dance group, The Glitter Girls, which she started 22 years ago with friends—other women in their 40s.
“I said, ‘There’s got to be other women that love to dance as much as I do,’” she recalls. “I started this group, found some women, friends of mine, and they all wanted to do this. It was the craziest thing.”
Soon after the group formed, in 1998, members auditioned for a shoreline variety show, no longer in existence, called Razzle Dazzle. They were all quite nervous about the audition.
“It was the best thing I ever did,” Debra says. “I conquered my fear and I just said, ‘We’re going to do it.’ We auditioned, we got in, and that was our first time [performing]. It was a blast. And from there it just blossomed.”
Two year ago, on New Year’s Eve, and Debra and her friends were dancing.
“The band leader came up to me...and [asked], ‘Would you be interested in dancing with the band?’” she says.
Debra was hesitant at first, but then thought, “This is only life. We have to have fun. What have we got to lose?”
The Glitter Girls now occasionally perform with the band, called Nu Groove. Debra has now choreographed seven “band dances,” as she calls them, to the band’s disco and funky tunes.
“When they’re playing close by, we’ll go and we get [dressed in] sequined dresses,” she says. “We just do our little dances with the band and then we dance with other people. It’s a blast.
“It’s just funny how things sometimes fall into your lap and line up in your life,” she adds. “It’s such a great journey to have this happen. Because we’re all in our 50s and 60s. And we’re out there.”
In 2020, The Kate celebrates its 10th anniversary and its 10th Oscar Party on Sunday, Feb. 9. Debra has been involved from the start.
Her primary Oscar Night role is that of decorating, she says.
“We just glitz it up really, really good,” she says.
Saybrook Point Inn’s Fresh Salt provides the passed hors d’oeuvres, Fromage “does beautiful cheese platters,” there’s a cash bar and a champagne toast, and a silent auction and a raffle. The event is a major fundraiser for The Kate.
State Representative Devin Carney (R-23) not only hosts the event, but brings his grandfather’s Oscar. Art Carney won in 1975 for Best Actor in Harry and Tonto. Ann Nyberg of Channel 8 News has co-hosted in past years.
“You’re watching the Oscars on the huge screen so you almost feel like you’re there,” Debra says. “It’s our little bit of Hollywood in Old Saybrook: The glitz and the glamor, there’s excitement in the air.”
In the event’s first few years, Debra was in charge of the model who portrayed a life-size Oscar statue. He would shave his head, wear only a Speedo, and an artist called Mrs. Z would paint him gold from head to toe.
“He actually looked like the statue,” she says.
He was so perfectly still, many guests didn’t realize he was a human being. People would pose near him for photos. And then he’d move.
“And they would freak out,” she says, laughing.
Debra would give him breaks, get him some water, and “then I’d position him at different spots in the theater,” she says. “All of a sudden you’d spot him. It was so much fun.”
Eventually the planning committee decided to have life-size cardboard cut-outs of stars instead.
“One year somebody ran off with George Clooney,” she says.
Brett Elliott, The Kate’s executive director, “looked out the window and he sees this guy running across Main Street with George Clooney.”
Elliott took off in pursuit, but wasn’t able to save George.
“He was destroyed because he was trying to stuff him into his car or trunk,” Debra says.
A Joyful Outlook
Anyone who has spent even an hour with Debra knows that she lives life with great exuberance.
“Do stuff that you love,” is her advice. “If you have that passion, why not do it?
“This is life and we’re supposed to try and enjoy it,” she says. “We all have bad things happen and sad things. We all have it—nobody escapes that.
“But we do need some kind of an outlet. You know when you start losing people and everything changes...Such things happen,” she says. “So let’s keep it going when we can, try to make it a little bit better, a little bit happier. It’s important.”