When I left the gym this morning, The Sleeping Beauty Ballet was playing on the car radio. Now those of you who know that I was a dancer in a former profession, won’t be surprised that I could still remember whole bits of steps. The only time I was ever in Sleeping Beauty was when I was fourteen, many years ago.
It was a summer production by an established, semi-professional, regional ballet company, being set by two dancers from the Royal Ballet in London. They held outside auditions and I was accepted.
It was that summer I learned my first big lesson.
I was young, I was away from home and I wasn’t really tall. But I made the cut for the sixteen member corps de ballet. A big coup. It meant that I actually got to dance instead of just being one of the townspeople who stood around watching the others dance. I was also called to understudy several soloists. I was in heaven until the next day.
That’s when I learned that one of the local girls who hadn’t made a place in the corps complained to her mother. And the mother, being a patron of the ballet company, went in and demanded that her daughter be put in the corps. One minute I was standing waiting for my entrance at the end of the line, the next I was dismissed and the girl (whose name I will always remember but not share) stepped into my place.
I wasn’t so young and naïve not to see the looks that went around the room. More than one dancer said something to me about it not being fair. No, but it still had happened. And I didn’t have a mother nearby to champion my cause.
Variation rehearsals were held in the mornings. And each morning I was there, ready to dance my heart out, the umpteenth understudy for Blue Bird, Puss N Boots, Lilac Fairy, and every afternoon I would go into the group rehearsal and watch everyone else dance until it was time for the crowd scene where I had landed a spotlight role as one of the knitting ladies who the three spinning ladies came out of the crowd to down center, with knitting needles as I recall, and were banished from the kingdom (offstage left). That was my summer.
I was living in a dorm with a group of ballet boys from a New York Dance company who had been imported to do the major roles. They were nice but older and had their own lifestyles so after rehearsal I ate something from a corner market and sat in my room. Kind of depressing even for a fourteen year old.
This went on for weeks and then it was time for our first costume fittings. I walked past yards of shiny colored satins, bejeweled tutus of tulle and velvet, fur lined cloaks, to where the spinning ladies were being fitted. A nice lady helped me into the heavy black wool dress. It was several inches too long, and even in the air conditioning terribly hot and itchy. But I put it on and looked down at the heavy long sleeves, the hand stitched seams. The cuffs and collar were edged in black braiding. I’m sure there was years of sweat residing in its folds, but it was the most gorgeous thing I’d ever seen and for a moment I didn’t miss the white gossamer tulles of the corps de ballet.
Rehearsals went on and I was given many compliments on my dancing the umpteenth understudy part of the variations. Maybe they were just feeling guilty for knocking me out of the corps. They told me I had talent. The rehearsal pianist who said he had played for Pavlova told me the world was waiting for me. And ruined it all by telling me that I first needed to tape back my ears, because they stuck out, there was nothing to do about the points but hope for the best.
That’s when I grew to love and appreciate those ballet boys and their odd lifestyles. They said I had “diva” ears and people would kill to have them. I can’t remember if I believed them or not, but I didn’t tape them back.
So rehearsals continued and I continued to walk out of the crowd on cue to meet the other two spinning ladies, only to be banished from the kingdom and chased off stage left.
Then came the first dress rehearsal. I put on the heavy costume. Did I mention it was an outdoor amphitheatre? Huge and hot. The orchestra was in the pit, the music swelled. Dancers took their places. I watched from the wings until it was time for the crowd scene. I entered cloaked by the others. And something happened. I was suddenly in the kingdom of Sleeping Beauty. It was the most magical thing I had ever seen, or heard, the sets, the costumes, the music. I floated on a cloud of sheer awe. And only dimly became aware of a voice yelling over the microphone that directors used when they were watching from the front of house. “Third spinning lady, Where’s the damn third spinning lady?
The words barely penetrated my rapt state, until I was shoved out of the crowd and stumbled onto center stage to meet the two waiting spinning ladies who looked a little miffed. We were banished stage left. And the show went on.
I never reached that state of pure awe after that. I didn’t dare. I waited in the wings, listened to the music for cue. Was alert and ready when it was time for my less than fifteen minutes of fame. I never missed a cue after that, even though I never danced a step on stage.
That wasn’t the last time I lost a part or a role because someone had more clout. But it was the last time I let it happen without putting up a fight. I learned some valuable life lessons.
One, if you don’t have a rich mamma, you gotta learn to take care of yourself.
Two, a truly great performer always has to reserve a bit of him/herself to keep the character doing what he should on cue.
Three, the shape of your ears can be dealt with and aren’t really that important.
And the most important thing of all. People can step on you, push you down, laugh at you, or dismiss you as unimportant. There are no small parts.
And no one, no one, can ever take away the magic inside you.
I”m sure we all have lessons to share. What’s yours?