Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Hotel Jazz Hands – Good Luck, Missouri.

When my boss and I arrived at our hotel in LA this week, something was abundantly clear. There was no mistaking it, as the clues were everywhere, including: Rows and rows of round tables with flower centerpieces, pitchers of lemonade, double numbers of hotel staff hustling and bustling, live music, and the telltale brunch bar...

"Oh Crap. There's a conference at our hotel."

Soon we would discover that this was not just any conference. This conference could not touch anything we had seen before. My boss was confused, but I knew what was up the instant I spotted a sea of slicked back hair buns, overly made-up black eyelashes and red lips... the bright, neon sweatpants, the puffy painted duffels, the jittery women with ostentatious name tags (I'M KELSY'S MOM!!!) and the overindulgent public stretching of legs and torsos.

Sh#t. This was bad.

We had unknowingly walked straight into a gigantic, week-long International Dance Festival, known as 

I instantly knew that we were in for an overdose of sugar-pop enthusiasm with over-amped elementary and teenaged girls who already reeked of sunscreen, sunburn, powdery cosmetics and hairspray. I had the knee jerk reaction to quickly escort my boss out of the mess, for I knew she would not know the depths to which this dancer festival could put a damper on our professional brand image. At that moment, we were anticipating the arrival of our new client to lunch with us at our hotel
  • Our hotel with the Dance Excellence 2009 International Dance Festival
  • Our hotel with a myriad of make-uped teeny boppers stinkin' up the joint with chlorine and Lip Smacker 
  • Our hotel with the bizarre and uncomfortably mature live musical act of a wannabe Ani DiFranco/Alanis Morissette singer and guitar player
Man O' Man. Would've been nice to get the memo 
on this one, Westin.
Had we known that our hotel would be infested with the equivalent of the Junior League American Idol, we could have at least scheduled our client lunch at a venue that would be more peaceful and proper than our hotel. Perhaps at an In-N-Out Burger. Luckily, our client turned out to be as ethnographically fascinated by the dancer scene as we were, and this opened the door for my conscious to relax and for my subconscious to unlock the Dancer Demons of my past...

Many of my friends and acquaintances do not know much about my childhood experiences as a Tiny Dancer. From a ridiculously tiny age, like when I was about age three or four, up into my teens, I was heavily involved in hardcore, sequins and spins. I was a member of the elite sport known as Competition Dance. I spent multiple weeknights rushing from school to the dance center, speeding along in the passenger seat of my mom's blue and wood-paneled Oldsmobile Station Wagon, munching on salty McDonalds french fries, if I was lucky.

I had a special advantage growing up as a dancer. This was a handicap in other areas of Elementary School, as it earned me the nickname André the Giant, but in Competition Dance, it gave me a sweet upper-hand; I was tall. The advantage in my height was that I got to dance with girls at least two or three years older than me. This boost in age and status gave me an edge with scoring more elaborate costumes and cooler dance routines set to better music. The way the music worked was, the older kids got the most popular songs, and then the less popular music was doled down the line until the little kids got the lame old songs by Raffi and Chubby Checker.

The disadvantages of dancing with the older girls were deep and vast. Some of the psychological issues I have tackled along the way have surely had their origins in those stressful nights and weekends at the dance studio. What could be stressful about dancing with the older girls? Oh, well, pretty much everything. I will spare you the details and simply throw out a handy acronym. My basic problem with dancing alongside the older girls was N.B.N.B.N.F ~ No Boobs, No Boys, No Friends. When I was still a kid and was dipping my toe shoes in the teenagers rosin box, I was lacking in all three (boobs, boys, friends) of these utterly important categories.

Before you go "Aww-ing" on me about the NBNBNF Factor, just wait, cause it gets worse. As I mentioned earlier, the type of dance I participated in was known as Competition Dance. Competition Dance is basically taking regular dance to the next level, much like Traveling Hockey, or Fastpitch Softball. I was involved in your basic dance trifecta – Ballet, Tap, and Jazz. Later I would branch out into other exciting areas like Point (dancing with toe shoes). Even later on, once tucked away in the safety of a liberal arts college, I was able to break through the trifecta and explore new areas, like Hip Hop and African Dance. But this was after much rebuilding of self confidence and girl power through sports like running and skiing, so don't let me get away from the topic at hand:

Self-doubting, Stress-inducing, Tights-wetting, Taffeta Overload.

Did she say tights wetting? 

Yes. I am admitting right here for the first time, publicly, that there were some instances when I was so stressed out by the Competition Dance scene that I would literally wet my tights. (If you are totally lost as to my meaning, I am saying that I peed my pants. Wet my costume. Peed in my ballet tights. Yes. It happened. I was there. It was awful.)

SO. Where does the stress piece come in? Why am I painting the picture of a novice paratrooper dropped into battle? Well I have so much evidence to back this one up, that I think I will just create a Top Three list.

Reasons I Was So Stressed Out In Competition Dance As A Kid That I Occasionally Wet My Tights:
  1. The Hairstyles. When you are in Competition Dance, the stakes are raised for your hair/make-up/costume appearance. Competition Dance was no small potatoes annual dance recital. No, this was the big leagues where a sloppy ponytail just would not cut it. A typical hairstyle for a ballet performance would include something ridiculous that could only have been mapped out by a NASA engineer. Some of the older girls could do their own hair and make-up, but my mom had to do it all for me. Once we had a hairstyle that required fifteen small braids, almost like the cornrows you see after a kid goes on vacation to Mexico. The braids were pulled back into a tight bun cemented with the most powerful of 80's and early 1990's hairspray (Aqua Net Extra Super Hold Hairspray, with what looked like a hair net pattern all over the purple bottle).
  2. The Swearwords. Someday, when my mom gets around to reading this blog, she will kill me for this part. This is important, though, and it must be documented in my life story as a dancer. So, during those moments when my mom was knuckle deep into my hair making multiple braids and using Ozone-depleting hair spray, my dance teacher, Leslie, would run into the dressing room and scream, "TWO MINUTES TILL BACKSTAGE!" This was right about when the sh#t would hit the fan, and my mom would start throwing out the cuss words. There was a time when I was little enough to not even fully understand what she meant, but I always knew it was bad. Her most popular curse was the standard "Dammit!" Which later was supplemented with "Dammit, SUSAN!" My poor mom. Here she was, this successful career woman with a Master's Degree, and these other veteran dance moms were doing circles around her with their effortless speed at applying liquid eyeliner to their little girl's eyelids.
  3. The Dance Moms. Now, don't get me wrong about my mom. My mom and I always managed to pull off the best bun, the best eye make-up, the cleanest tights (even if we had to wash them in the girls bathroom post wetting). But, and I am proud to say this, my mom never was, and never will be a Dance Mom. What is a Dance Mom? Well, a Dance Mom is a force not to be reckoned with. She makes mother Polar Bears look like field mice. She makes CEOs of major Corporations look like camp counselors. Dance Moms are like Decorated Military Commanders who have been through WWII and Vietnam. Instead of medals of honor, Dance Moms wear metal buttons with pictures of their smiling daughters. Instead of wars won they have First Place trophies from major dance competitions. I don't know how else to explain it. Basically, don't cross a Dance Mom. Don't eff with a Dance Mom. If provoked, they will rip your face off. Or, worse, smear your stage make-up.
OK, Let's take a break. I am finding myself getting stressed out and obsessively biting my lips. (Oh, that was always one thing – I was kind of compulsive about making sure lipstick was not on my teeth when I was performing in front of the dance judges. This led me to develop a habit that continues to this day when I wear lipstick which is to suck on my finger to make sure there is no lipstick on the inside of my lips, and, also, I will absent-mindedly rub my front teeth with my index finger. Real classy.)

I think that now would be an important moment to reel back a bit and clarify that, despite the private horrors I share with you about my dancer days, I do truly, truly love the art of dance. It's something I think about at least once a day (mostly ballet, for some reason), and I so envy my few friends who became professional dancers. See, being a real ballerina is pretty damn close to becoming a rocket scientist – it only happens for the best and the brightest. 

Sometimes I feel sad knowing that, as I gracefully near the exit sign of my twenties, I can probably never again be a real ballerina. 'Real ballerina' to me means the whole package – the tutus, the toe shoes, the blisters, the knee blow outs. (Yeah, I did not mention that I began having knee problems as early as Seventh Grade, and that I ended up in the Orthopedic Surgeons office on more than one occasion, having him check for technical things like torn meniscus).

I realize that I am not in any way unique for having had the opportunity to experience Competition Dance. For the kids growing up in my suburb, everybody got to experience the feeling of being a mini-pro in their little specialty, whether it was dance, gymnastics, football, Eagle Scouts, or summer sailing camp. At the time, it never occurred to me that Competition Dance actually cost money and that it was a privilege to have parents who saw the value in getting their kid to do something with freetime (even if all I really wanted to do when I came home from school was watch The Oprah Winfrey Show. That is what I called it then – not just Oprah).

During the client lunch at the hotel the other day, I snuck out for a moment to use the Ladies Restroom in the hotel lobby. When I opened the door, I was met by a waft of intermingled perfumes and the sounds of grown-up women giggling. Standing in a half circle, four women were wearing what looked like backstage passes around their necks. 

Pretty much everyone at the hotel has had these plastic Dance Excellence 2009 lanyards, branding them as part of the hoopla of International Dance Celebration and all-out Girlhood. Wait - strike that - I should say dancerhood, cause this guy dressed in all black and black soft-soled jazz shoes told me and my co-workers the way to the elevators while he was practicing his splits down on the paisley hotel lobby carpeting.

Anyway, these women in the Ladies Restroom, they were soooo Dance Moms. Tanned, stylish, gossipy, and quick-to-solicit-information, these moms reminded me very much of the moms who used to sit and watch us dance at the dance studio. They would sit there, peering through the open door of the waiting room, immersed in chit chat while sewing our ornate costumes with sequins, rhinestones, ruffles, and buttons. I think about those moms, and I realize that, in the end, they were just doing their part. Maybe they didn't have full-time jobs like my mom did. Maybe they put their daughters in dance to help them make friends. Maybe Dance Moms were other Dancer Mom's source of friends. 

What I do know is that, even though I like to make fun of it, being a dancer has been one of the most important parts of my upbringing as a girl and as a woman. My mom attributes my good posture to my dancing days, which, let's be honest, is pretty important if you were once known as André the Giant. I am also practically a professional when it comes to applying make-up, and I can braid my own hair without looking at a mirror. More importantly, dancing is a primal way to celebrate life and to make the best of being stuck in a flesh suit. In fact, the point of dancing is to free yourself from the flesh suit and to become a work of art. Dancing brings joy and vibrance into your soul. 

And so, as a former competitive dancer, and in the spirit of Dance Excellence 2009, the International Dance Mecca of the Season, I take this moment to give the international symbol known to all who have ever shuffled, high-kicked, or pirouetted. To you, The Dancers, I Salute You, with some snazzy Jazz Hands. And, OMG, OMG, almost forgot. By all means, Good Luck, Missouri. Dance like it's your last day alive, or, something like that.


1 comment:

  1. How perfect that I read this just after having come home from...ballet class! Even though we'll never be perfect prima ballerinas (and yes, letting go of the possibility of that as we approach 30 is a bit sad), it still doesn't hurt to pretend for 90 minutes. :)