Dance Diary: And Now for Something Completely...

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...different...odd...soul shakingly frightening...all of the above?

Somehow, I thought three years of ballroom dance had prepared me to go out and conquer myriad other forms of dance with great ease. Not so much really, as I discovered when ventured into Hip-Hop, Bollywood and Heels classes. It’s kind of like being an opera singer your entire life and then deciding you want to front a Death Metal band.

Who knew that my refusal to learn the Running Man in the nineties would be a glaring hole in my dance education in the year 2018? I spent the 90’s (and the decades before and after that) doing musical theatre, and singing pop songs. All the dance training I have had in my life has centered on pointed toes, pretty hands and elegant movement. Hip-Hop physicality is another universe from what I know.

As for Bollywood, it’s not as easy as the movies make it look. What you don’t realize watching them is how fast it is. Some of the movements are very close to Hip-Hop while others are more in line with forms I’m more familiar with. I think this may be my favorite of the new things I’ve tried lately. Not because I’m good at it, oh no, it will take eons and hours of practice before I’m remotely competent. It’s the narrative element that appeals to the storyteller in me.

Heels class has been an interesting experience in its own way. I’m used to dancing in heels so you wouldn’t think this would be a huge change. Yet most heels classes concentrate on more pop forms of dance so I’m playing catch up quite a bit. The last few weeks we’ve been working on a more lyrical (slower, more elegant, cleaner more fluid lines) and I’ve been loving it.

While my ballroom experience hasn’t helped as much stylistically or choreographically in these classes it has helped me in a lot of other ways. The biggest one being that it’s given me the guts to go into a class as a rank beginner and not run out screaming. I definitely have more patience with myself and have adjusted my expectations. Right now, If I am coming away from the class having digested 30-40 percent of the steps I’m happy with that.

I’ve also learned not to be afraid to ask the instructor to put a combination on video for me. Most of the classes I’ve been in work on the same combination for four weeks, adding a little bit each week. If I get a video of the combination that gives me a clear practice blueprint. I may not come back into class having learned it perfectly but there will be a level of comfort with the choreography that helps to pick up just a little more each time.

Most of all what the last few years have brought is dogged persistence. That’s not to say I don’t get frustrated and even a little depressed sometimes. The key is to remind myself that these feelings are not reality. Most of the time it’s my ego telling me I shouldn’t do things that make me look goofy in public. But as a friend said to me today “If we just did things that we are good at then we would never grow.”

So I’m growing.

Notes From the Wardrobe: It’s Not About Clothes

 Photo by Denise Medve - Penguinmoon Studio

Photo by Denise Medve - Penguinmoon Studio

What was supposed to be a short experiment in living fearlessly seems to have now become a way of life. My list of saying yes to things that terrify me continues to grow. Among the most recent additions are Hip-hop and Bollywood classes, further adventures in DIY and now - directing. Joining the board of Pioneer Productions last winter I expected to do many things - producing, publicity, teaching, and absolutely performing. What never occurred to me was that I’d be given the opportunity to direct a show. It’s not that I’ve never directed before, or that I didn’t like it. I have and I do, very much. It just wasn’t something that appeared on my radar as a possibility. Until an offer too good to pass up came along.

So, now I find myself in charge of a production of Nora and Delia Ephron’s “Love, Loss & What I Wore”, The initial reaction from some people has been “Of course, you’d direct a play about clothes.” I unashamedly admit that I love clothes. I love the freedom and creative expression of them, the fact that they can be used to stand out or blend in, their transformative power, and that they can be used to make a statement without uttering a word. But to say this show is about clothes is to miss the point entirely.

This show is about women telling their stories in their words. And even (or most especially) in the year 2018 that is a revolutionary act. These women speak their truth without a filter, they are not trying to  please anyone or curry favor all they want is be heard. Sharing their lives for the record makes those lives important. The stories they tell are part of the fabric of who they are - the good, the bad and even  the not so flattering. 

The clothing is merely the device for sharing those tales. Our clothing often contains our memories. The feel of certain fabrics against the skin, the swish of a skirt, or a specific pattern can transport us to the past like nothing else can. It gives us a safe way of remembering what was painful, reminds us who we once were and helps us relate to other humans. Who hasn’t had at least one catastrophic wardrobe malfunction in their lives? 

And while these are women’s stories this is not solely a play for women. More than anything this is a show about what it’s like to be human- to laugh, to feel pain and to yearn for connection. Guys have a relationship with clothing as well. Just ask Spouse about the plaid pants and jacket I made him get rid of when we got married. He thought they made him look quirky and artistic. I thought he looked like a used car salesman. Did I mention he had a pair of navy and cream saddle shoes that he wore with them?

I am enjoying immensely the challenge of bringing this show to life. The cast is an amazing group of women putting their heart and souls into creating these characters, and the production team is committed to making everything perfect. Most of all, I’m looking forward to sharing this new (and only occasionally terrifying) journey with you.

 

 

 

Secrets

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Events of the past week have me thinking a lot about secrets. The pain they cause, the anxiety they feed, and what happens when they are left to fester. I have more than my fair share of secrets. I’ve kept them a long time because I thought that by staying silent they would not harm me. I was wrong.

Here is my biggest secret, the one that only my closest and most trusted friends know about. I was abused. First as child by my stepfather, and then during my first marriage by my husband. In fact, most people don’t even know that I was married very briefly at nineteen. My religious upbringing taught me that there was something shameful in this, and that in bringing it up I’m only showing that I am a broken unworthy person.

Please hear me when I tell you that I am not writing these things in anger, nor do I desire punishment or revenge. I only want to share my story in the hopes that in doing so maybe someone else who’s experienced these things may feel less alone. I have realized that as events have unfolded over the past few weeks, that the things that happened to me are still alive in me. They may not have the power to hurt me anymore, but they do have the power to wound.

My mother married my stepfather when I was nine years old. She was a divorced woman with two children in the late 1970s who belonged to a faith where (as one person in a position of authority in her congregation put it), “A woman without a husband is like a half a pair of scissors.” In marrying my stepfather she could regain some of the respectibility she lost by becoming a “divorcee”. In the eyes of our congregation my step father was a real catch. He was a college professor who would drop everything anytime anyone in church leadership crooked their finger.

By marrying my mother he became a hero. After all what man would be willing to marry a divorced women with two daughters and health problems that included (they soon learned) an inability to have more children?  He was a saint, and we were a project. 

Shorty after their marriage the abuse began. He would fly into rage with the slightest provocation.. A light left on, a spot on a dish, or for some minor trespass known only to him. He would scream and curse and call us bitches and shitheads and whores. He would slam doors and yank us out of bed so we could turn off the light or rewash the dish while the screaming, slamming and name calling continued. 

Generally, he wasn’t physically abusive, only verbally. Fear of his rage was enough to make us all tread softly in order to avoid it. This tactic rarely worked as the things that set him off were not predictable. What amped him up one night might be laughed off the next, while on the following night something entirely new would set things in motion.

There was one night though his temper took physical form. I don’t remember what I had done exactly to spark his anger. We were in the kitchen so most likely I hadn’t cleaned something properly or had put something away wrong, as nine year olds are wont to do. A tirade was in the cards, only this time he did not stop at yelling. He put his hands around my neck and began to throttle me.  

I don’t know why he did it. I don’t know what I said to “make” him do it. Maybe nothing, or maybe I made a smart remark. I was a little kid who tried to pretend sometimes that she was gutsy enough to stand up to her tormentor. Maybe this was one of those occasions, maybe not. I don’t remember.

What I do remember is the floor. It was this awful faux brick sheet linoleum in a red that can best be described as blood clot colored. I remember being on that floor with his hands around my neck. I remember the feel of my body as it thrashed against it. I don’t remember what made him stop but he did. I do not remember the aftermath. Did I tell my mother? I can’t tell you with any certainty. Did she come onto the room and stop it? I have no clue. I only remember what it was like to be on that floor with his hands around my throat. 

Maybe my mother did stop it, maybe this is what finally sent her to our bishop who told her that if she were a better wife he wouldn’t behave this way. This was the begining of ten years of my mother going to her church leaders who would not help her. Most refused to even believe her. How could this man who was in church every Sunday with his arm around her do something like that? It’s impossible. He was always there when the missionaries needed a ride, or someone needed help moving, or the Sunday School teacher needed a substitute . He was so soft spoken and they’d never heard him raise his voice so there was no way this could be true.

Some of those leaders betrayed my mother’s confidences, and people began to gossip. They said we had to be lying. I was a child when this started but I remember the feeling of people knowing and not believing. The condescension and attitude that we were not sufficiently grateful to the man kind enough to take us in. They were certain my mother was doing this for the attention. Even now, I am sure that there are people who will read this, who will claim they were there and none of this ever happened.

But they weren’t there. They weren’t there behind the locked door when it was just my mother, my sister, me and my stepfather’s rage. They didn’t hear him calling us names and threatening our lives. Let me say this again, loud and clear...THEY. WERE. NOT. THERE. I was.

Eventually they divorced, shortly after I left home for Manhattan. There is more to that story, as there always is, but even on a blog I only have so much space. I left home thinking I was leaving this behind, but the twin damages of abuse and being branded a liar for trying to speak of the abuse had done it’s job. On the outside, I was a blithe independent smart ass who could take care of herself, but beneath that I was a terrified kid with no way of processing what had happened to her. I was a prime candidate for an abusive relationship. It is no wonder that I found one and three weeks before my twentieth birthday married a man fifteen years my senior.

He was, I reasoned and he assured me, the best I was ever going to get. I was irretrievably broken. I knew it, he knew it, and he was going to remind me of it every chance he got. I told him about my past and he told me it was no wonder those things happened to me because I was so very difficult to live with. He confirmed what I knew deep down to be true, it was my fault. I was unloveable and difficult and I had caused (and deserved) everything that happened to me. I was nothing, and if I didn’t watch my step with him he’d send me back to nothing. He told me this often.

Other familiar patterns began to emerge including an attempt to go to my bishop for help. There I was asked “Well, what was your part in this”, which is an urbane educated man’s way of saying “what did you do to deserve it?” It slowly began to dawn on me that if I wanted a chance at a real life I had to take matters into my own hands and leave. Which I did, and which is why at the ripe old age of 21 I became a divorcee like my mother before me, and her mother before that.

My story does have a better ending than most. I’ve been married for over two decades to a man who loves me unconditionally and would be mortified at the thought of doing something that would harm me physically or psychically. But the scars are still there. They are the tripwires under my skin waiting to react to a threat. They’re there in my hyper vigilance and the constant thrum of anxiety that never fully goes away. It can be tricked into submission, but it always comes roaring back.

As I’ve watched women come forward this week to tell their stories it has brought all my experiences back to the surface. I know what it’s like to be called a liar and to watch the people you are supposed to trust  take your abuser’s side. I know what it’s Iike to feel broken and afraid and to spend your life trying to appear not so. I know what it’s like to feel like somehow I must have brought this upon my self. I know what it’s like to keep secrets because secrets are safer.

But I also know now that there are some secrets not worth keeping. I used to tell myself I didn’t share my story because I didn’t want people to see me as a “victim”, an abused child or wife. I know I am no one’s victim.  And honestly, I am never going to be in control of how people truly see me. I can only control what I put out into the world. If by telling my secret I can reach someone’s heart it has been worth it.

This is my truth. It has made me who I am. It is forever a part of me. I will not be ashamed. 

Who Am I, Anyway?

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Photo by Denise Medve Penguinmoon Studios  


I had a moment of absolute clarity during a rehearsal for Women’s Work last week. I was singing away and I heard the words in my head as clearly as if someone were standing next to me whispering in my ear, “THIS is who you are”. I am good at many things but nowhere am I as much myself, my absolute truest and best self, as when I’m standing in front of a microphone singing and telling my stories.  

I have neglected that particular self during the past few years. I had to. There were things I needed to learn to become better at doing what I do. I spent three years working on my writing, learning to dance, and returning to stage acting. I use these skills in ways I never imagined when I get up to perform, but still I had to leave this other self aside for a while to concentrate on mastering them. It temporarily disconnected me not only from myself but from those amazing people who are part of my tribe. At the same time it brought new tribe members into my world.

I am reconnecting with that girl in front of the microphone, and those mentors who first put me on this path. I have new things to bring to the table, and old things that have only improved with age. It means change, of course, something I actively fear every waking moment. But it also means returning to the thing that I love more than anything else. 

I am not going to abandon all those wonderful new things I’ve learned. If I don’t continue to work at them those skills will certainly atrophy. I will, however, work harder at putting this wonderful gift that is my very heart at the center of them all. The best compliment I got after the show was from a friend who hugged me tightly and said, “You’re a storyteller!” I am and I intend to use every tool available within me to tell my stories. New possibilities are appearing and I can’t wait to see where they take me!

 

 

Back to School

 Graphic by Denise Medve Penguinmoon Studio

Graphic by Denise Medve Penguinmoon Studio

I am a fall girl. I’m not so much on the whole profusion of pumpkin products, but beyond that there’s something about fall that perks me right up (well, perk is a relative term for one who is so far down on the perkiness scale but...). It could be a throwback to the days of fresh notebooks and new pens and pencils that always came with a new school year. I still have an obsession with notebooks. I have a whole basket full of pretty blank books waiting to be defiled with my illegible scrawl. But I digress (as usual)...

This fall I actually get to participate in the whole back to school hoopla as I’m teaching a brand new workshop for Pioneer’s Stagecraft education program. Solo is a class built especially to inspire, encourage and educate performers about creating their own shows. One of my favorite Lin-Manuel Miranda quotes is, Don’t wait on anyone to make your favorite thing- make your own favorite thing. If there is one thing that can make me wax evangelical it is the art of solo performance. The freedom is immense and the creative rewards are incredible. In mastering the art of solo performance you learn how to bring your own unique strengths as a performer to the stage while discovering all new skills. Every performer should have this tool in their kit!

This class is meant as a one day intensive, “get your feet wet” kind of thing. I’m covering a lot of ground including song performance, choosing material, working with a musical director, arrangements, structuring your show, visual image, and booking and promoting your show. We’ll wind up the day with an informal performance for an invited audience of friends and family (your friends and family that you get to invite, that is).  

I am lucky to have as my willing accomplice for the day Bruce De La Cruz as musical director. Bruce works all over the place as a musical director, accompanist and an arranger. He’s also a Staff musical director at Paper Mill Playhouse. 

If youre a performer I hope you’ll consider joining us. You can sign up HERE . If you sign up by the end of the day on September 16th you can get $25 off the price of the workshop by using the code early. If you are the friend of a performer please feel free to pass this info along to them. We are limiting the class size so that there is lots of personal instruction time and attention. If you’ve got questions feel free to drop me a line.

 

What’s In A Song

 


 

  Photo by Cindy Banescu  

Photo by Cindy Banescu 

I am a song geek. I love songs, I love discovering them, singing them, tearing them apart and devouring the subtext and meaning. I get all goofy when I talk about songs I love. My hands flail and my voice reaches a speed and pitch that can best be described as Minnie Mouse on helium.

What excites me about a song? Some of it is certainly chemistry, that beyond explanation something that reaches out and pulls me in, that little voice that tells me “this is your song”.  But the other part of the equation is logical. If I were to dismantle and analyse all the songs I adore I would find elements they all have in common.

 Good Bones - Michele Brourman talks a lot about Seduction by Production, which is a song that so captures your attention with its instrumentation and enthusiasm that it takes a listen or two to figure out there’s really no there there. A great song will stand on its own without the embelishments. It holds up whether it’s sung accapella or with a full orchestra. An ornate frame won’t make a mediocre painting better it merely distracts you for a while. 

Heart - It’s not enough to make me think if it doesn’t also make me feel

Balance - I’m looking for the perfect marriage of lyric and melody.

Transporting - I want a song to be transporting. I want to be taken to a place outside myself, somewhere that gives me a new perspective and elevates me. If I can see the world from a different vantage point that’s when I know I’m on to something.

Illuminating - It is a gift  to unearth a tune that shows me something new about myself. 

Transforming - A song can open a window of understanding into something that is entirely outside my experience. A song that can change your view of the world (or any tiny corner of it) is a song that has power.

Tells a great story (arc) - Some songs tell linear stories, some don’t. It doesn’t matter how the story is told only that there is one, that you come to the end of it in a different place from where you started. It has to be a great ride. 

Attention to craft - I have seen Miss Carol Hall take a singer to task over a tiny lyric mistake like changing an and, an or, or a but. Not because she was being difficult but because every word matters. She labors over finding just the right words to express her point. This is craft and must be respected.  

Makes me want to sing - I have experienced no greater joy in life than wrapping my vocal cords, brain and heart around a wonderful song. There ain’t nothing like it in the world!

Whew! Trying to distill all this into a few bullet points was a challenge. If I let myself I could keep going on this for days, but I would love to know what you think. What makes you fall in love with a song?

 

 

Imperfectly Perfect

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Every first draft is perfect because all the first draft has to do is exist. It’s perfect in its existence. The only way it could be imperfect would be to NOT exist. ─ Jane Smiley

A friend of mine likes to say, “First drafts are always yucky”. Of course, he uses a word other than yucky, but I’m trying to keep  my language a little more PG rated these days (or maybe just this hour...minute...whatever). His point though is that when starting a project it’s not so important what you write, only that you write it. I feel the same way about dancing.

I don’t often post videos of my dancing. I loathe watching myself. When I do the inner demons pull up their Barcaloungers and popcorn and whisper in my ear - “You’re too old”, “you look like a giant stork”, “You’re not a pro, you’ll never be, why bother, you just look foolish” , “look at you, your toes don’t point, your turnout’s bad, you’re just flailing about”.

I was not born dancing, I did not start when I was three, I started only about three years ago. I took a dance class here and there growing up, but I was never good at it so I put my energy into the places I was - singing and acting. When I look at where I was when I started and where I am now, there is vast improvement. I am still in my first draft dancewise. I’m not where I was, but I’m not where I’m going to be either.

So, if I distract the inner demons with something shiny to shut them up and watch this video again this is what I see... 

*A woman who is using decades of training in acting and music to add to what she’s learned about dance to give a performance that appears confident and assured. There is no stumbling around wondering what comes next, she is moving from moment to moment with certainty (except when she’s supposed to appear uncertain....again....acting chops)

*A woman who has worked hard to learn a new skill. Someone who has invested in herself and understands that to get to the good stuff sometimes you have to risk looking foolish. 

*A woman with determination, unwilling to let the opinions of other people stop her. 

*A woman who battles her demons and fears every time she walks into the dance studio, but stubbornly refuses to allow them to rule her. 

* A woman who keeps trying daily to perfect herself on her own terms. 

And so I post my dance video. This is my first draft. Better than some, not as good as others, but entirely mine. 

 

 

Essentially Me

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I went to Facebook last week and posed what I thought was a simple question - who are your top three essential female songwriters? Turns out it wasn’t quite so simple. At last count I had over one hundred comments and even now several days later people continue are still opining. There were names going back to the very beginning of musical time, names from musical theatre, jazz, pop, country, rock and even punk. It also sparked a vigorous debate or two. Most of the names were familiar to me, but one or two sent me scuttling off to learn more. It was exhilarating!

One name seemed to be the common denominator on the list- Joni Mitchell. She was mentioned far more than any other writer. There’s no mystery there. Her voice as a writer is distinct- no one sounds like her- in her use of language, her vocabulary she is sui generis. Her emotional reach is astounding, every word transmits itself straight from her soul to the listener’s heart. 

 A few years ago my friend Laurel, suggested Ms Mitchell’s Night Ride Home to me. It is the type of song I’m not known for doing, an unabashashedly joyful moment in romantic time. I loved it. Michele Brourman and I put it with Anne Caldwell and Jerome Kern’s Once in a Blue Moon. Going in to the studio to record it with Michele and Stephan Oberhoff was one of the most wonderful experiences I’ve ever had. It is a piece I will happily sing every chance I get.

In Our Own Words...

  Michele Brourman  & Me Photo by Cindy Banescu

Michele Brourman & Me Photo by Cindy Banescu

So, you may have heard...I’ve got show coming up (September 16th you can check out the details HERE). Not only does it reunite me with Michele Brourman, but it gives me the chance to celebrate the work of female songwriters. Why female songwriters?  

I’m a storyteller at heart. I was raised in a world of women sitting around a table sharing stories. Family lore, ghost stories, things that happened every day, men who disappointed, children who misbehaved in public and embarrassing ways- each story sparking another one, voices overlapping and rising making it impossible for little kids not to listen. And listen I did. I still remember them. Even the most horrifying anecdotes would be salted with so much laughter and humor that it was years before I realized what some of those tales were really about. 

The more time that passes the more I return to my roots as I’ve realized that as far as we’ve come as women we still are not always the ones in charge of telling our stories. Terms like chick lit and chick flick get thrown around and are used to dismiss stories that are seen as being too small, too domestic to be universal. Stories not told from a male perspective. 

But those stories I heard growing up were not just fluffy, funny anecdotes. They were about survival and problem solving and standing up for yourself in a world that makes it almost impossible. It told me that I could do hard things. That what does not kill me gives me stories (I find myself saying this more and more often these days. As regular readers of this blog will note.)  And most of all that in sharing them we create bonds, and community. They are meant to be shared. In the words of Maya Angelou, There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.

This is why I chose female songwriters in this moment. I think they often go places where male writers fear to tread. They fearlessly take on subjects others would see as too small or mundane and use them to illuminate a larger truth. They (to quote my friend, director & performer, Shellen Lubin) created their own sounds and poetically documented their lives and hearts. 

Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not talking about excluding males from my audience. And there are several songs that I’m working on that have male co-writers.  I want men there just as much as I want women there. There has been so much ink spilled over how men and women are incapable of understanding each other. We speak different languages, inhabit different planets..blah, blah, blah. I don’t believe it. Maybe if we could listen to each other’s stories in our words, we’d learn not about being male or female but being human. 

Hitting the High Points...

This summer has been one of constant motion - I joined the board of Pioneer Productions, produced (and had a cameo appearance in) a musical and hit two very big milestones. One was inevitable and the other came through more than two years of blood,sweat and blisters.

The first biggie was my birthday. Whether it was divisible by five, ten or three hundred twelve I will leave you to guess. I’m not ashamed of my age but I also don’t feel the need to advertise it. I have officially entered my IDGAF Years. You have been warned.

The other was that I moved from Bronze level to Silver in my dancing. In my studio you start out at Bronze one and work your way through four levels until you reach the Silver level. Basically the Bronze syllabus is what most colleges use in their ballroom dance majors so finishing it is the equivalent of a Bachelor’s degree. It took two and a half years and a whole lot of toil but I did it and I’m proud of it. 

I had no idea when I started it but studying dance has been the best decision I could have made. It has made an impact on almost every other aspect of my life. In an odd way almost everything that has happened in my career in the last couple of years can be traced back to this decision. 

Dancing did not make me a different performer/person but through it I have become more myself than I have ever been. I am finally at home in my own skin and that has given me confidence both physically and psychically. The skills I already had when I started, the ability to create a character, to perform, to engage an audience, to tell a story have only grown stronger. Added to that are new ways of expressing myself and different ways to explore and understand music. Also, because ballroom is an art that is dependent upon working with another person it has enhanced my ability to communicate with a partner.

I have always been great with words. Words have been my salvation throughout my entire life. Dance has enhanced my nonverbal communication. I can take the stage without saying a word and that is a powerful tool to own.

It took me a while to come around to seeing it this way, but Dance has given me the gift of being a beginner again. You can never fully master an art unless you allow yourself the time and space to be bad at it. It’s not just how you conquer your craft but what teaches you empathy and patience. Knowing this makes me a stronger performer and a better teacher of performers. (This will really come in handy when I teach my Solo performance workshop in October. A plethora of shameless plugs coming soon.)

Finally, there’s the wardrobe. It hasn’t really changed that, it’s just given me even more opportunities to break out the sequins, fringe and corsets. This is the most excellent thing of all! 

 

Who Knew...

 Photo by Denise Medve -  Penguinmoon Studio

Photo by Denise Medve - Penguinmoon Studio

Once a teacher said to me after a performance, “Well, who you knew you had that in you?”  And then went on to wax rhapsodic about all they had done for me, and how lucky I was that they gave me this wonderful gift. I smiled sweetly, said thank you, and walked away. But it nagged at me for a long time afterward. Because I didn’t answer the question. 

I did. I knew. Let me preface what I’m about to say by saying that I have been extremely fortunate in having teachers and mentors who have nurtured me and believed in me, and to whom I owe more than I can possibly say. Their advice and instruction was invaluable, but it was I who did the work. I who chose them because I knew who and what I wanted to be, and then sought out the people who could help me become the performer (and human being) I knew in my soul I was. 

It was I who took every lesson home with me and thought over it, and cried over it, and then put in the hours of practice it took to master the material. I was the one who sacrificed the time, and money (oh, so much money) to learn as much as I could to be as good as I could. It was I who ignored friends, and family and housework (not the greatest sacrifice) to devote time to my craft. I was the one who tormented myself by constantly wondering if what I was doing, what I was, was enough.

I didn’t do it because I needed a hobby. I didn’t do it because I wanted attention. I did it because I had a vision. I was called to it. And. I. Knew.

She’s a Lady...

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Growing up I was always told to “act like a lady”. I knew that meant to be sweet, accommodating and not to draw too much attention to myself (I know, ironic, right?). Maybe being ladylike has had its day, maybe it’s an outdated concept, maybe we should just forget it all together. Maybe not. While there are definite parts of the ladylike life that are obsolete there are some others that I have found pretty useful. Perhaps it’s not necessary to jettison the concept all together, but to redefine it. So here is my personal guide to be a lady in the year 2018...

  • A lady knows that good manners and an excellent education, not money or status, will take you absolutely everywhere. - Two things here- Someone once said to me that they did not teach their children manners because it squelched their individuality. I think she got it backwards. Manners are less about which fork to use, and more about making other people comfortable and having concern for the other person’s well being. In my mind, manners allow the other person to be who they are which in turn gives us permission to be ourself. And two- when I say an excellent education I do not mean a gilt edged degree from an elite school (or any school for that matter) I’m talking about making it a point to keep up with the world around you and remain curious about things. which brings me to my next point...
  • A lady is well informed - Know what’s happening in your world and in the larger world. Read! Read! Read! Information is all around us, seek it out.
  • A lady finds her voice and uses it to speak truth to power - A lady has no tolerance for injustice or abuse. She speaks out in whatever way is best for her. For some that may mean a strongly worded letter to her government representatives or an eloquent op-ed column. For others that may mean full throated protest marches. No matter the method, if she sees something she says something
  • A lady supports her fellow women - The beauty of feminism is choice, we get to chose how we want to shape our lives. Every woman should not only have this right but should be respected for whatever choice she makes. If we suppport each other there is nothing that we cannot accomplish.
  • A lady knows how to present herself to the world- I’m not talking about fashion here. I’m talking about how you communicate in every way- verbally, visually and through your social media. 
  • A lady is ferociously herself - There are as many ways to be a lady as there are women on the planet. Why would you want to be a weak imitation of someone else when you can create the wonderful creature that is you?
  • A lady is compassionate- I don’t believe that women are innately more compassionate than men. I have wrestled with this issue enough that I know it doesn’t always come easy. It is a choice to be compassionate. There is enough meanness in the world and kindness is getting harder to find. I make it part of my life not be because I am a woman but because I am human.
  • A lady is persistent - There are days when you feel like giving up. Don’t. Just don’t. The world needs you and what you have to give. 
  • A lady never makes herself smaller to make someone else feel better. - Anyone who expects you to be “less than” so they can feel good is not a person you need in your life. 

I am sure there are more things I can add to the list, but I’m interested in hearing from you. Is being a lady a concept that’s worth redefining? If we’re redefining it what things do you think are important to add to the code? There’s a great big comment section just waiting for your thoughts... 

Dance Diary Sturm Und Samba

The first time I took a West Coast Swing class I went home and cried. The next day I went into the studio and my instructor said, “we’re going to do a West Coast Swing solo...” I worked really hard and did it, now it’s my favorite dance. This will not happen with Samba. If a praying mantis and a bunny had a baby that danced that’s my samba. It’s never made me cry, but more than a few Brazillilans have when they see me do it. Yesterday an instructor said to me, “I see something in your samba I have never seen before,” he did not explain what this meant. I love the music, I love watching other people dance it, I love the costumes, it is just not my dance. By now I have done enough samba to know my loathing will never turn to love. And yet...

I still do it. Yes, it’s part of my program I’m forced to do it no matter my feelings on the matter. But also, not liking something is no reason not to do it. Well, it is but in this case there are reasons to do it anyway. Samba has a very distinct rhythm and timing, and anything that gives a musician a different way of using those things is a very good thing. Samba is also one of the more energetic dances so I’m burning lots of calories thus justifying the occasional baked goods binge. 

Mostly though, I’m stubborn. I don’t like to be bad at anything, even something I hate. This might be my best/worst thing. Best because I think that getting through life requires tenacity and a refusal to accept circumstances which are not to my liking. Worst because it causes me to hold on to some things longer than I should. 

I’ll be holding on to samba a little longer. I suspect it still has some things to teach me. 

 

 

On Worthiness

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There are days when I struggle with the idea of being worthy. I was not raised by artists, my family didn’t know anyone who made their living from art and so I was a bit of an outlier. “It’s a nice dream, but not many people make it, what makes you think you’re talented enough to do it?”  I’m not blaming them, the world is a scary place and the last thing you want is to see your child struggle. You want them to be safe in an unsafe world. They were voicing the same ideas that many people have about pursuing a career in the arts. “Who are you to  think YOU are enough to do this”?

Even now I get comments from “well meaning” friends and complete strangers - “Well, it must be nice to.....” or “aren’t you lucky...” Luck has nothing to do with it. I’ve worked and I’ve sacrificed to be able to do the things that I do. It’s taken me the better part of three decades not just to be good at what I do, but to look another human in the eye and admit it . It is false humility to brush off compliments and pretend that the things I am able to do came about through any means other than sheer toil.

Truthfully, I wish I had learned this year’s ago, but maybe I wasn’t ready yet. My career path hasn’t looked like anyone else’s and most likely never will. There have been times when I’ve made it harder on myself than it needed to be, and times when I allowed someone else’s opinions to divert me. For a long time I refused to use the word artist in reference to myself because I thought it wasn’t up to me to declare myself one. It turns out I had it backwards. 

I am an artist, and I am worthy of a career in art. This is my declaration. I have put in the time and the effort to become one, and no one can take that away from me unless I let them. And that ain’t gonna happen.

My Life as a Broadway Musical

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A few weeks ago on twitter the writer Nicole Cliffe asked her followers to imagine explaining their lives to their therapist in one song from a Broadway musical. I chose  I Put a Little More Mascara On from La Cage Aux Folles. In case you aren’t familiar with this particular tune (and why aren’t you?) it’s about seeing life through the lens of your self created fabulousness. I recognize that to some people this is the ultimate in shallowness. How unfemininist of me to believe that a little lipstick and mascara can change my life. And yet...

I have to start this story with my mother. Mom was born with a very rare disease of the connective tissue called Marfan’s Syndrome (both Jonathan Larson and Abraham Lincoln had the same condition), it caused her a number of issues throughout her life, early onset glaucoma and osteoporosis, malformation of certain bones, and heart problems. She died, as many Marfan’s patients do, of an aneurysm at age fifty-nine. From the moment she was born she was the object of curious doctors who often treated her more as an object that a human being. She loathed, more than anything else being seen by the world as a “sick person.” 

In my entire life with my mother she NEVER left the house without being perfectly made up and immaculately dressed. This was not vanity, this was survival. She could not control what other people thought of her, she couldn’t control what was happening in her own body, but she could control this. She could choose the face she presented to the world. It was her rebellion against a world that could not look past the disease to see a brilliant, witty woman, who had endless compassion and empathy for everyone she met. 

I think maybe this is one of the most important things my mother taught me. I would rather my life be seen as musical comedy than Shakespearean tragedy. In musical comedy you know the plucky heroine may be faced with serious and seemingly insurmountable obstacles but she will triumph in the end and  along the way there will be sequins, great songs and at least one fabulous dance number. Unlike in Shakespeare where the costumes are lovely but by the end of act III not a soul is left standing. 

The actress Ann Miller said “I’ve tried to live my life like an 8 x 10 glossy”. There will be those who read this and think I’m talking about fakery, about not being “authentic”, and I would have to disagree. There is nothing wrong with wanting to chose what you put out into the world. Putting your best face forward is not a denial that life is hard, but a celebration of what makes life wonderful. There is joy in becoming who you are and sharing that with the world. In the words of La Cage’s Zaza 'Cause when I feel glamorous, elegant, beautiful, The world that I'm looking at's beautiful too!

 

 

Do NOT Try this at Home...

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I am a crazy person. This is something I tend to forget as in my particular group of friends I’m seen as “The Sane One”, competent, calm in a crises and polite to a fault. Finding myself in my car at 9:00 PM on a Friday night dressed to the nines surrounded by the disassembled parts of my center console and dash was a big loud reminder that I am truly and deeply nuts.

Here’s what happened...I get into my car, shift it into gear and it hits neutral and sticks. No amount of force will move it. A piece of the gear shift blind, the plastic that covers the shifter, had broken off and caused it to jam. This is where a reasonable human adult would get our their phone and call roadside assistance (which, I might add, was part of our purchase package). But not me! I saw the little piece break off and go into the well of the gear shift, surely I could get it out myself. That’s what the internet is for, right?

Ten minutes and four YouTube videos later I discover that to reach this part of my particular car I have to remove the entire center console. Sighing I picked up my phone and called...Spouse. I asked him to grab some tools and come outside to the driveway. There are many things I am afraid, nay phobic of (flying, doctors, really large spiders) but there are some things I’m absolutely fearless about. DIY repair is one them. It’s already broken, what harm could it do, right?

I blame genetics. I have clear memories of my Aunt determinedly tackling projects that would frighten even the most hardcore DIYers. I vaguely recall two of my cousins taking a sledgehammer to a living room wall to create an all new great room (needless to say neither woman had previous construction experience). One of our family mottos seems to be “Don’t Worry we can fix this.”

I think Spouse has finally learned that to argue with this impulse is utterly futile, or maybe it’s Stockholm Syndrome. Whatever, he came out of the house, tools in hand and spent the next two hours in the car with me dismantling things without a single word of protest. I figure it’s good for our marriage. After all if we can survive an eight hour marathon fix it yourself toilet repair session without killing each other we’re in pretty good shape.  (To say nothing of retiling part of the bathroom, replacing a sump pump, and painting projects too numerious to mention)

My mother often accused me of being stubborn, and she was right. I have been asserting my independence since she first left me in the church nursery when I was a year old. I like knowing I can do things myself. It’s good for my self confidence. And bonus- it shocks the Hell out of people who make assumptions about my abilities based on my appearance.

Two hours later we managed to get all the way down to the housing on the gearshift where we realized that this was beyond even the wisdom of the mighty internet to fix. A professional would have to be called.  A tow truck came and took Eartha Mae (yes, my car has a name) off to the dealer where I’m sure there was much eye rolling among the techs about people trying to use YouTube to fix their cars.

On the upside, if you need someone to disassemble a Volvo I’m your girl.

The Hardest Words

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For someone who considers herself a word nerd the two words in the English language I have the most trouble with are surprisingly...well...small. They aren’t hard to spell or pronounce, and don’t impress strangers at dinner parties. Just two simple ordinary words that manage to flummox me. They are “sorry” and “no”. To me they are opposing ends of the same spectrum. One I overuse and one I underuse.  

Let’s start with the word I find creeping into my vocabulary many more times a day than it should - sorry. I had the double whammy of growing up in the south and an extremely conservative male dominated religion which sent the message loud and clear that men don’t like women who eat on dates, beat them at board games or have opinions (especially if those opinions differ from his). I was told that I could not be the head of my household but if I was very lucky and smart (meaning able to use to my “feminine wiles to manipulate”) I could be the neck that turns the head. Thus I found myself prefacing any expression of my thoughts with the words “I’m sorry”.

What I am sorry for I’ve never been quite sure. Breathing? Being female?  Not being feminine enough to be keep my mouth shut? Maybe what I am really saying is, “please don’t hate me for having a well articulated and thought out  point”. Oddly, what I have discovered is that the more certain I am about something the more apologetic I can be about expressing it. It’s exhausting.

And then there’s “no”. It’s barely even a full syllable and yet so difficult for me to say. I cannot tell you the trouble this has caused. Well, I could but who has time to read a post that long? I suspect it’s hereditary. I have very few memories of my mother ever outright saying no. Mostly it was “maybe” or “We’ll see” accompanied by a enigmatic Mona Lisaesque smile and a fervent hope the matter wouldn’t come up again.  

Sometimes I find myself prefacing the word no with the dreaded “sorry”. As in “I’m sorry but no, I won’t be able to do a forty five minute set for free at your birthday party even though your nephew’s best friend’s cousin’s mother in law is a big agent.” The ugly truth is usually I’m not all that contrite. 

My birthday is coming up in just a couple of months and I think it’s time to enter my IDGAF years. Which means stop apologizing and start using the word no without guilt. This is the gift I’m giving myself. Well, that and a pair of shoes, which I will buy without an apology. 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

Find Your Miracle

 Photo of harpist Maria Banks, Andre DeShields & me by   Lia Chang Photography

Photo of harpist Maria Banks, Andre DeShields & me by Lia Chang Photography

One of my jobs as an Associate Producer on this year’s Bistro Awards was to go through hours and hours of video footage of our Lifetime Achievement honoree, Andre DeShields. This was no hardship. Mr. DeShields is a remarkable talent with a stunning body of work in theatre, film and television. He is also a man of great style, humor and graciousness. When he complemented my outfit I had to exercise massive self control not to throw myself at his feet and beg him to adopt me. But I digress, as usual, back to the video footage. Among the clips of his performances with Patti LaBelle, Nell Carter and as the Wizard in The Wiz was a wonderful interview he did with Sherry Eaker. 

At the very end of the interview he says, Miracles are commonplace. Blessings are an everyday occurrence. Where we get confused is where we chase after other people’s blessings,or when we covet a miracle that doesn’t have our name on it. That’s when we get into trouble...Pursue those blessings, dreams and miracles that have your name on it, and everything will be fine. How much time I have I taken away from developing my blessings to moan about the things I haven’t been blessed with? Where do I find MY miracles and blessings? I don’t know really, buy I think I have an idea.

The first step is learning to be grateful. To look every day at what I’ve been given, and what it’s brought me, and where it’s taken me in my life, and to be thankful. These are the blessings and experiences that have made me who I am.

I believe that one of my greatest gifts is the ability to work really really hard. Talent is nice, and I do have some of that too, but talent is only the starting point. You have to work every day to develop that talent. The work I put in has certainly given me mastery over my gifts, but it’s also given me ownership of them.  

Culitivating generosity is the final piece. To learn to give a compliment sincerely and without envy. To take as much joy in the success of others as I do in my own. To remember that success is not a finite resource and that just because someone else has it does not mean that there is less for me. In fact, I think there’s more. I’ve always hated the gig scarcity mentality. The idea that if I tell someone how I got a certain gig then there will be fewer gigs for me. I’ve found the opposite to be true. When I pool my resources with other performers I have found not just success but community. 

I don’t know if this is the one and only path to finding my miracles. I’m sure everyone reading this may have a different idea of how to get there. (Which, by the way, is what the comments section is for. Please share how you find yours.) But at the very least I suspect that if I can manage to do all these things there will be no time to covet what is not mine.  

The interview is below, and the section I’m referring to starts about six minutes in. 

 

Dance Diary: Playing to Win

 Dress Courtesy of  Encore Ballroom Couture   Hair & Make-up by Melanie Rivera

Dress Courtesy of Encore Ballroom Couture  Hair & Make-up by Melanie Rivera

I am not a competitive person. That’s a lie, I am an extremely competitive person, what I do not like is organized competition. If you want to get all psychoanalytical about it, you could say it comes from forever being the last one picked when it came to kickball, softball, or any sport requiring speed, dexterity and the ability to remain undistracted by the nearest shiny object. Or maybe it was the whistle wearing, clipboard wielding elementary school PE teacher who lined us up like military recruits and screamed that we would never be popular unless we were good at sports. Exactly what this pasty, brainy, introvert who carried a breifcase through fifth grade needed to hear to assure her that elementary school was not really for her. Whatever it was, it was enough for me to swear off organized sports for life.

Thus when my dance instructors started strongly encouraging me to go to the World-Dance-A-Rama in New York City it was sort of a good news/bad news situation. The good news: I’d get to put on sequins and fringe and lots and lots of makeup and perform. Also, New York, so it wasn’t like I had to expend a great deal of effort to get there. The bad news: Judges. Giving scores. Prizes that I will not win. I’m not saying this to gain your pity or to self deprecate, but because I’ve only been at this for two years, and I’ve always been in it to improve my performance skills not to win medals for my samba bounce.  Something I knew I would have to continually remind myself if I went through with this.

 Dress Courtesy of  Classic Ballroom Elegance  Hair & Make-up by Melanie Rivera

Dress Courtesy of Classic Ballroom Elegance Hair & Make-up by Melanie Rivera

It did help that the judges, while definitely wielding clipboards, wore neither whistles, crew cuts or athletic socks. In fact, one was wearing  the most covetable pair of boots, and I was dying to ask her where she got them, but I digress.  I managed to do a West Coast Swing solo, and I danced tango, waltz, Viennese Waltz, Foxtrot, Samba,  Mambo, Argentine Tango, Cha Cha, Rumba, Swing, Bolero, and Hustle all without major flashbacks. There were even times I managed to forget that I was being judged. That I can willingly dance in front of any audience let alone one made up people who are passing judgement on me is still a surprise to me. And the immense amount of  Preparation for this event definitely made me a better dancer, and the better I become the more at home I feel in my body. This is something I’ve been able to translate into every aspect of my performing.

 My friend and mentor, the late Erv Raible, always asked me after every show, “Did you win?” He wasn’t talking about prizes, what he wanted to know was did I give the audience everything I had? Did I play it safe or did I take risks that made me a better performer? DId I show the audience who I was and make a connnection? 

 So did I win? If you’re talking in terms of actual trophies, bestowed by judges, no. I’d like to tell you I’m perfectly sanguine in this outcome, but there’s still enough of the nerdy fifth grader in me that I really would have liked a shiny medal to stash in my briefcase. But in the terms laid out by my friend Erv of giving it all to get better at what I love  and communicating it to an audience. Absolutely!