Filtering by Tag: Wisdom

Who Am I, Anyway?

IMG_2002.JPG

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!

 

 

Imperfectly Perfect

IMG_1871.JPG

 

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. 

 

 

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.

On Worthiness

IMG_1374.JPG

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

IMG_1318.JPG

 

 

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!

 

 

The Hardest Words

IMG_1172.JPG

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.