“Five, six, seven, eight!” comes the frustrated call of the choreographer from his perch on the lip of the stage. He has spent hours trying to drill into our heads the footwork which he calls “simple” and I call “the devil’s work.” As my feet hit the floor with a variety of unmetered rhythms (none of which were intended), he jumps up again with an aggravated sigh to correct me. Step, jeté, chassé, jump, pose – he floats with the grace of a professional ballerina and I thunder with the grace of a wandering elephant. When he finally calls a water break, I collapse, sweaty, sticky, and impossibly exhausted.
My dancing career began at the age of five when I begged my mother to let me take ballet, tap, and jazz at the local dance studio. It ended that same year. I despised dancing. I would rather have eaten an entire can of preserved green beans than fumble through a plié or fake a shuffle-ball-change. I was already awkwardly gangly with long, skinny limbs; it would have been impossible for a klutz like me to learn grace and discipline. I finished out the year before tossing my ballet shoes. Dancing was not mentioned again.
Unfortunately, when I began to indulge my passion for singing and acting, it became inevitable that I would have to dance. My skill level was disastrously low; I had only grown taller and more awkward through the years and while I had rhythm, my lack of grace contributed significantly to the number of times I tripped over myself. The first time I was ever a part of a dance number, and not a very difficult one at that, I severely sprained my foot and maneuvered crutches for four weeks. I bungled auditions, ruined beautiful dance steps, and embarrassed my choreographers. There was no nice way to say it; I was a terrible, clumsy, laughable, and virtually hopeless dancer. So when I heard that my award nomination for the 2009 musical required me to learn a complicated dance number, I was petrified.
“Five, six, seven, eight, again,” he calls out. Then quieter, “Gwen, let me talk to you for a second.”
Immediately, dread fills my stomach. I just know he is going to tell me not to dance in the number, that I am too clumsy to share the stage with such talented and worthy students. But instead, he looks at me and tells me to take the front row. Not the center (I take a moment to thank God for that), but not hiding behind rows of more skillful performers, either. “I want you to stop watching,” he says. “You’re insecure and you think you don’t know the steps, but you do. And I’m going to prove it to you. Take the front.”
At the next count, I can’t stare at anyone’s feet or wait for the best dancer’s first snap to start my pony-step. I frantically rehearse each move in my head as I wait for the downbeat, praying that I won’t trip over myself or chassé right into my neighbor. The music starts too soon; I miss the first step. Taking a deep breath and a quick glance to the left, I recover my place and start the snaps. The rest of the dance is a blur; I don’t remember much but the panic pulsing through me with each eight count. But I don’t knock into my fellow dancers or find myself on the ground at an untimely moment, beaten by unsuspecting kick-lines. I finish in a pose that looks relatively normal in comparison to the remainder of the stage, regardless of how I got there. Quickly, I remember to smile, and a huge grin crosses my face as I recognize that my steps were more or less correct. Regardless of how choppy or unprofessional I may have looked, I have done exactly what had been asked of me. The choreographer is right, of course. He gives me half a smile as he claps his hands twice and yells, “That was good, guys! One more time for greatness.”
I am confident this time that the steps are cemented, at least as much as they will ever be. And this time, I think of the most important advice I’d ever been given – smile and fake it. If I can’t be graceful and skillful, I might as well look like I’m enjoying myself. I belt out the lyrics and twirl with energy and enthusiasm. A few steps are lost in the jumble; I am temporarily rattled. Yet I do not allow myself to falter in defeat, and I begin to understand the pride and bliss that can be found in just letting go.
Perhaps in the performance I will fumble some steps or trip as I spin; after all, an incurable klutz cannot metamorphose overnight. Through this experience, I have not realized some unmet potential for dancing. I have not been inspired to go into musical theatre after all, and I certainly won’t find myself tripping over my awkwardly long legs any less. Perhaps the true lesson I have learned is that it’s perfectly okay to be terrible at something even when you persevere. I have always hidden myself in the back row when I am unsure, following the lead of those more skilled and talented than I. But if I can just push aside my insecurities and appreciate the things I should appreciate, I will have fewer regrets. Maybe it’s true; I am not a dancer – but you can be sure I will enjoy the dance.