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More on 'Frills' vs. 'Serious Subjects'

The responses to last week’s column have resonated with me in an especially intense way this week.

May 16, 2010

The responses to last week’s column have resonated with me in an especially intense way this week.

Before returning to graduate school, I was an aspiring actor. One of the things that held me back was physical clumsiness. It wasn’t much of an issue in straight plays—I tended to get cast in “neurotic” or “charmingly awkward” parts (think Sandy Dennis or, sometimes, Julie Harris)—but I had a pleasant singing voice and was sometimes considered for musicals—and then rejected, or relegated to the back of the chorus (once behind a scrim) because of my horrendous dancing. It was demoralizing, but not anything I imagined I could change.

Recently, after a hiatus of 25 years, I started studying voice and acting again. One of my voice classes is geared toward performance, and as I grow more sure of my singing voice, my physical awkwardness has come to the forefront. So, a few months ago, I started taking a “Broadway dance” class — my first dance class since I (and my teachers) heaved a sigh of relief after I managed to squeak by my college’s dance requirement for drama majors, in 1974.

In the beginning, I was self-conscious and intimidated. I realized pretty quickly, though, that the other students were too intent on getting the steps right to worry about what anyone else was doing, and I started to relax and enjoy moving to the music—something I had never been able to do when other people were around.

I’d been telling a friend who used to do exhibition ballroom dancing about the class, and last week, during “free guest day,” he sat in. (We’ve known each other since we were ten, so I wasn’t concerned about being exposed—he was one of the few people in my high school class who didn’t tease me after I was expelled from archery class for absentmindedly shooting the teacher in the leg. Besides, he makes sporadic attempts to teach me the rudiments of ballroom dancing, and I always end up stepping on his feet. So it’s not like he was unprepared.) Afterwards, he said, “I enjoyed watching you move—you’re quite graceful.” I laughed, but he told me he was serious: “You have a fine sense of rhythm, and you move well.” I reminded him about our ballroom ventures, and he said, “Everyone does that when they’re learning. If you’d just stop worrying about it, you’d be fine.”

I ruminated about this for a while, then brought it up with another friend, who directs musical comedies. “You’re not klutzy,” he told me. “You keep saying you are, and maybe you’re a bit nervous physically, but you move perfectly well. I’ve never seen you dance, but there’s no reason why you shouldn’t. I want to know where you got this idea. Who told you you couldn’t dance?”

I thought back. “I’ve never been able to dance. I took ballet from the time I was two until I was nine, and it was torture. The teacher was always yelling at me, for messing up the positions, tripping and falling, crashing into other dancers’ space. I was horrible.”

“You had the same teacher for seven years?” I nodded. “That was a mistake. She had a fixed idea of you. All two-year-olds are clumsy,” he said. “Someone needed to support you in developing grace naturally.”

“But she didn’t yell at everyone else,” I told him. “And my mother said it was true; I had two left feet.”

“You were set up. They told you this, and you believed it, so then of course you couldn’t dance. I was told I couldn’t sing, that I had a tin ear — but I didn’t believe it, and I was right. You were wrong.”

I’m fifty-eight. I have a good life. I’m not going to seek out major changes at this point. But it’s hard not to wonder whether my career might have gone differently if I’d had (or been able to take in) this information sooner. And it’s hard not to wonder about the kids out there now who are getting the message that they are untalented or hopeless at a learnable skill. I hope they’re like my friend, not like me. I hope they don’t listen


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