Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Graceful Dismissal

When I was a sophomore in college, I started working with dancers. Having put my foot in my mouth talking to a director, I was "banished" to working with the dance program.
At Washington Univeristy in St. Louis, working for the Dance department was considered a punishment for the tech people. There were three faculty members and two to three guest choreographers. That meant five to six people were trying to work together (the key word is trying) to plan a show. More often then not, they would disagree, fight, stop talking to each other, then have a tearful reconciliation. Not as good as a soap opera, but pretty close.
The head of the tech department, Rick, used to say, "Leab, this is like a CEO being banished to the mail room. You'll go nuts." Then he'd laugh and start hitting on the Asian students....Bastard.
Anyway, knowing that I would be THE tech guy for the dance department, I started hanging out with the dancers to get a feel for the personalities. There were three kinds at the school: Jazz, Modern, and Ballet. Each kind has its pros and cons.
The Jazz dancers were always the kindest to the tech people, but they were always keyed WAY up. During one rehearsal, a girl lost count. The choreographer flipped out, which led to the girl flipping out. And who got blamed? The tech guy working on the lights for "distracting" the dancers.
The Modern dancers are very professional, but they are also the wildest bunch. I worked with the company
Momix when they visited St. Louis. A beautiful modern dance company that does incredibly different pieces.
As a member of the running crew, I was flashed ALOT. During one performance, one of the dancers asked me to "hold her breasts" for a picture. When you don't know someone, it's an odd question to be asked.
"Hi, nice to meet you. I'm Nicole. Will you hold my breasts for a picture?"
Then again another company uses a Slip 'n' Slide and each member slides across the stage
naked. You gotta love dance.
However, the third kind of dancer is the hardest to work with if you aren't prepared. These would be the Ballet dancers.
If you are not prepared for ballerinas, you can be eaten alive. To be a prima ballerina, you have to have the ego to go with the talent. If you are good enough to be a professional ballet dancer, then you have a very good reason to be egotistical. Dancing on point is incredibly hard. Try it. The boxes can destroy your toes. Ask anyone who's ever done Ballet. They can tell you the pain.
In the Wash. U. program, the Ballet dancers are both incredibly graceful and frustrating. It was amazing to me at the time. I was unprepared for the hell that I would experience.
I was always the guy tapped for student productions. Well, one girl decided she was going to do a balanchine piece for her fiance to a Sarah Mclachlan song. Every moment of her piece was agony for me. For the other students, average tech was 30 minutes. I see the piece, I then program the light board, and we talk about how to change it to fit what they're thinking. Not the ballerina.
90 minutes. 90 MINUTES! Every step was programmed. The other dancers had four cues. Lights up, 2 changes, and out. She had (for a 4 minute piece) eleven. That's hard. Almost 3 per minute. Being a perfectionist, which most Ballet dancers are, she noticed everything. If I was a second early or late, she would stop, walk over, and talk to me like a two year old.
"Do you NOT know how to run lights? Should I call someone to help you, because I can't afford for you to screw up my piece."
Again, most Ballet dancers are this way and, again, with good reason. They have hardcore skills.
Her piece went well, by the way. When an instructor informer her that her form was slightly off, she blamed it on the lights. You gotta love it.
Working with dancers (and dating one for a short time) taught me many things:

1. I gathered all of my incredible patience from working with dancers.
At the end of my three years of working with them, nothing fazed me. I did discover that the male choreographers were less forgiving than the females. I designed the lights for one guy, and when he saw them, he made me tweak every light until it was his vision instead of mine. I get that the piece is his, but it ended up being a starker look than I thought it should be.
When you work with dancers, you learn how to control your feelings the way they can control their bodies.

2. Dancers are graceful in almost all things.
Really professional dancers are graceful in the way they walk, and the way they either pick you up or dump you. Like I said, I dated a dancer for a short period. She was essentially slumming it to make her ex jealous, and I hadn't been with anyone since my Ex dumped me. It was nice to feel wanted (moving on). This girl first noticed me when I carried her off the stage and into the green room. After a particularly difficult piece, she collapsed on stage because of her ankle. I came down from the booth, picked her up and carried her all the way back the green room (I can't tell you how far it was as I never really checked it in four years). She was grateful and kind of shocked a guy would and could do that (I'm an old-fashioned idiot. Really). Though are relationship was brief, she was very graceful in picking me up (quoting Shakespeare on why we should date) and ending the relationship (using Sartre, of all people). When she was in full dance mode, I almost felt unworthy. Beauty and the Beast, as it were.

3. Dancers are always dancers.
Even if they stop doing it, a girl or guy who has been a professional dancer is ALWAYS a dancer. They won't admit it and sometimes they won't even feel it, but if you've worked with dancers for an extended period of time, you can spot it so easily. While in the Master's program at
St. Thomas, I had a class with this girl who I noticed moved so smoothly. At one point, she raised her hand up, and I noticed that the movement and the way she held her hand were not only graceful, but held in such a way that I knew she had been a ballerina. I asked her one night, "Were you a Ballet dancer per chance?"
"For eight years," She told me.

It's not just women either. Men who are or were dancers have a certain grace to their movement.
You can just see it. Dancers hold themselves in such a way that you can't miss it.
My wife and I went to a Minnesota Wild game last Monday. As I walked around the partition, I saw these ladies walking in a group. My "Dancer Alarm" went off immediately. (Instead of "Gayday", I get "Dancerdar". Sometimes helpful, alot of times...not.) These ladies were in sweat shirts and jeans, but I knew there was more to it. So, I stopped and asked, "Excuse me. This is going to sound weird, but are ladies dancers?"
Turned out they were members of the Rockettes and were there to do the "Let's Play Hockey" moment that night.
Like I said, once a dancer, always a dancer. The ego may leave, but the movement and gracefulness never does.

The reason I am so glad I worked with the dancers, however, is that after working with what could be the pinnacle of women, you are never afraid to talk to anyone ever again.
Imagine: you're a lowly tech guy and in front of you is an incredibly toned woman who is able to be beautiful no matter how she moves. It can be intimidating. You look at them and work to get your courage up. Finally, you approach these ladies.
"Excuse me, you are the most exquisite creature I have ever seen. The beauty of your movements reaches into my soul."
The response?
"Oh fuck off."
"Get out of my face."
It can break you.
At the end of three years, and after dating a dancer, you learn how to see through the facade, and you learn how to deal with anyone. Patience, humility, etc. You can learn it all by working with a dancer.
Hell, by Senior year I was so comfortable with the dance crowd that my running crew and I put on a show for them.
We did the entire show in five our work clothes. Let me tell you something: the fact that I can dance on point in steel-toed boots made me feel very good. Don't believe me? I've got the pictures to prove it. I did Ballet, Modern, and even Jazz in steel-toed boots, black jeans, and a black T-shirt. It was funny, but as one gal told me, "You've been around us too long. You're starting to be able to move like us."
"Does that mean you would maybe have dinner with me?"
"You don't move that well, Leab...but you're really sweet."
At least it was graceful.


sopheava said...

It just so happens I was a dancer for 16 years.

Mm hmm.

Sadly, I don't think I could keep up with all the "prima" and "ego" it took to be really amazing.

You forgot to add the bit about tap dancers. Now *there* was an awesome bunch... like a bunch of drummers on crack... who, um, beat things with their feet, you know, instead of, uh, their hands. Whatever. We're cool.

Leab said...

The program didn't have tap dancers.
However, I did, in fact, work with some tap dancers my junior year. Those girls were CRAAAAAZY. Great legs though.
Seriously though, those girls were very talented but they also had ego.
And a tapper still moves like a dancer.