Filtering by Tag: deepthoughts

Dance Diary: High Anxiety

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I worry therefore I am.

I am an anxious person.  I always have been. I make light of it, but the fact is, I do not know what life is like without chronic, on occasion, nearly debilitating anxiety. I cannot remember a time in my life where this wasn’t so. Whether this is nature or nurture I could not tell you. Certainly, circumstance has influenced it, but I suspect that mostly it’s part of the peculiar genetic map that is me. As I have gotten older my anxiety has intensified. It is a low thrum constantly humming in the background of my day. If it was a sound it would be the theme from Jaws.

I know that there are medications for this, but I am not inclined to go that route. I have taken Xanax in rare and (to me) extremely fraught situations - Flying (are you surprised I’m phobic?), and things medical related like tests, physicals, sitting in the waiting room... But a familial history of addiction is also part of that genetic map so I must be extremely cautious.

Which brings me to dance. One of the most unexpected side effects of dancing has been its effect on my anxiety level. I have consistently found that going to a lesson or class significantly reduces it. For some people this might be counterintuitive.  This was a surprise. The reason I took up dance is that it has always been my weakest point as a performer and a cause for angst. How could it possibly cure it?

The short answer is - I don’t have any idea. It might be that the effort to follow the steps, keep up and retain the information disrupts my brain enough to derail the worry loop that it gets stuck in. It could be that the rhythm and vibration of the music act as a natural Reuptake inhibitor, altering my serotonin and lifting my mood. (I have read quite a few scientific studies that bear this theory out.) Singing has a similar effect on me. It might simply be that the music drowns out the Jaws theme replacing it with a happier ear worm.

This week has been a particularly  difficult one in many ways, and last night I found myself wanting nothing more than to crawl under the covers and hide. So what if I had a 7:00 class, and I had promised the instructor I’d be there? It’s not like she’d notice. Did I really want get dressed, put on makeup and earrings and venture out into the freezing cold? “Are you nuts? Do you know what could happen out there?” The little red Demons Of Doubt were whispering in my ear. Nevertheless I put on the outfit, got in the car, drove to the studio and put on my shoes all the while thinking the demons were making some pretty good points. I danced anyway, and after I danced I felt better.

If this were the first or even fifth time this happened I could say this was a fluke, but I have felt this over and over again. Dancing and singing are not just what I do for a living or even merely how I view myself as an artist, they are my drugs of choice. They provide a bulwark against the chaos of the fear that threatens to topple me. The demons will most likely always be there, but now I know how to put them to sleep.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Notes from the Wardrobe: My Mother, My Closet

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One of the interesting things about working on a show that seems at first glance to be a collection of scenes and monologues is that when you look closely enough you find that there is, in the best of them, always a structure. This is absolutely the case with Love, Loss & What I Wore. As I have dissected the script I have discovered that the stories are divided into sections based on subjects. The first section is all about mothers and daughters. This makes sense to me.

Mothers and daughters and clothes are often the first battles in our war for independence. Deciding what we want to wear and how we want to look are the first steps we take away from our parents and into ourselves. It can be an acceptance of the roles and expectations laid out for us or it can be a rejection of them. These battles run deeper than fabric. They have everything to do with how we see ourselves, how we want to be seen, and our deep desire to claim a place for ourselves in the world.

When I think of my own mother and clothes the words that come to mind are impeccable and conservative. My mother loved beautiful clothes, something she definitely passed along to me. She loved nothing more than a beautifully cut suit, with a skirt not too short and a heel not too high. She never left the house without her lipstick on and perfectly placed accessories.

In her gentle way she encouraged her daughters to emulate her. Cheap fabrics, clothes from tacky teen stores, and anything too short, tight or garish was absolutely discouraged. Appropriate was the word when it came to clothes. You didn’t wear pants to church or a job interview and you never ever bragged about wearing a new outfit. Naked attention seeking was tacky and embarrassing. And always, always make sure your hair has some height to it. Having me for a daughter meant that there were more than a few skirmishes over clothes. From the three piece pantsuit she made me wear when I was five to the stiletto heeled sandals I insisted I wear to my sixth grade graduation (I won that one, thank you very much).

It’s taken me a long time to understand that my mother’s feelings about clothes, her desire for conformity and appropriateness were about a lot more than mere appearance. My mother grew up dirt poor in Mississippi. The kid of poor where you go to bed hungry and wake up even hungrier. Where you live in a place with walls so thin that the wind blows right through them, and you hate it, but you realize that you’re lucky to have even that. On top of that she was born with Marfan’s Syndrome, a congenital birth defect. One of the main hallmarks of Marfan’s is elongated fingers and toes and a tall extremely lanky frame. (For reference both Abraham Lincoln and Jonathan Larson had Marfan’s.

Dire poverty and a disease so rare that most doctors can go an entire career without seeing a case of it made my mother a marked woman. She was treated as an oddity by doctors who would bring their colleagues around to examine her without a thought of asking her permission. Her peers mocked her and called her Olive Oyl. It was not a happy childhood.

For my mother to marry, have a house in the suburbs and a closet with lovely clothes was a triumph. Clothing was her armor. To conform, to be “properly” dressed was security. It meant that no one could make fun of her. It meant that she would be see as something other than an illness. If she did’t stand out in any way she would be safe. She didn’t want her daughters to suffer the way she had and so she tried to pass on these things to them.

What makes me sad is that it took me so long to understand this. In many ways my mother would be absolutely shocked by a lot of what I wear. I worry much less about attracting attention to myself and more about what pleases me on any given day. And as for my flat hair...well, the less said about that the better. But because of things she sacrificed for me I get to indulge in the privilege of being a non-conformist. And it is a privilege.

She also left me with valuable lessons. Appropriateness to the occasion is just good manners. LIfe is too short too wear bad fabric. Always look your best when leaving the house, it will make you feel better. And never underestimate the value of a well cut suit.  In these things I think she’d be proud.

  

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.

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. 

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. 

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

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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!