This morning, Kelly Ripa described a burlesque, “sexy,” nude version of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker. I’ve seen countless versions of this Christmas classic; traditional, contemporary, jazz, tap, swing, macabre, and even on ice. I am completely bored with it, so nudity might make it more interesting. This all reminds me of a story that, unlike some of my stories, doesn’t involve my own nudity but probably should.
Once upon a time, there was a little girl who had a curl right in the middle of her forehead. She was captivated by everything theatrical. She grew up in a middle class family, in a middle class community that didn’t quite understand how to develop a career in the arts. The family visited museums of all kinds, had dozens of books and records, followed movies old and new, attended the theater, and excelled at decorating and dressing up for all occasions. It turns out, those are the very skills needed for a career in the arts; a passion for the new, the exciting, the different; the telling of the story of our common life.
The family had a movie camera, purchased to record the parents’ wedding in 1951, as well as every event that occurred thereafter, until it finally died in 1967. The little girl relished any opportunity to dress up and prance in front of the camera, especially in crinoline petticoats with a plastic tiara and “magic wand”, like the ballerinas she saw on television and in the movies. Or she clumsily would toss around a baton or attempt a soft shoe, like Judy Garland. In reality, she wasn’t trained to do any of those things, but, in her mind, she could be just about anything she wanted.
When she was four, she cajoled her mother into sending her photo into Detroit’s version of “Romper Room” and spent two weeks on the show, rehearsing songs, playing games, showing off her naked baby doll (nudity!), and munching on Awrey cookies, while drinking Twin Pines milk from thick white mugs. She watched what the hostess did, how the cameramen moved, how the lights were set.
At church, she learned that Sunday School is the place where frustrated adults are desperate to get children to sing or recite onstage boldly and with aplomb, wearing all manner of ridiculous headgear made of paper plates and construction paper. With loads of experience hamming it up for the camera, she could be counted on to belt out her lines with feeling, and singing “Away in a Manager” under a spotlight on a darkened church stage with the attention of family and friends added fuel to her theatrical fire.
Throughout elementary school and high school, while other children studied ballet and tap and baton and singing, the girl read and watched everything she could. She could be counted on to paint sets, make puppets and costumes, be the unseen narrator, produce plays in garages and basements, and write countless short stories and plays. She attended every professional and amateur production she could. By day, she studied drama, speech, creative writing, and journalism in high school and, by night, lived a fantasy life of acting, song, and dance in her basement.
Eventually, she was found by her life’s ambition. An English Major in college, she added acting and theater electives. She ushered at a community theater and, at age 20, took her first dance and piano classes.
At age 27, she took her first ballet class at a community college in her adopted hometown, where an enormously talented ballet dancer had started a dance company. The teacher invited the fledgling dancer to join the company. One of the group’s first presentations was Tchaikovsky’s “Waltz of the Flowers” from The Nutcracker Suite. With her talents for organization, the young woman assisted with costumes and
staging, and, having no fear or shame, performed “Waltz of the Flowers” dozens of times for all audiences, at libraries, nursing homes, and elementary schools, wearing a tiara made of silver pipe cleaners. Later, choreography for more experienced dancers was added, and after four short years, the artistic director decided to leave to form a separate ballet company. She spoke to the young woman.
“I think you should be the next artistic director,” she said. The young woman laughed.
“I don’t know anything about dance.”
“You know enough to know what is right and what is wrong. You know how to produce a show and tell a story,” the artistic director replied. “You’ll hire choreographers to carry out your vision of The Nutcracker.”
With the encouragement of faculty, parents, and dancers and a promise from the college to pay her $1.00 for every ticket sold, she reluctantly agreed to take on the job. At the last performance before she took over, the young woman stood in the wings, crying and trembling in fear, feeling totally unqualified and terrified of failure. It was one of the times that she clearly heard God say, “This is the job that I am giving you. Just do it.” Well, it was a little more involved than that, but, as she always said, when God tells you to do something, you don’t ask questions.
Under her first year of direction, she persuaded her husband to engineer the giant “Mother Ginger” dress, from under which about a dozen children spring to dance. He constructed it from PVC pipe, and she used parachute material for the skirt.
“Who’s going to wear this thing?” her husband asked cautiously, trying out the painter’s stilts that were required to lift the dress high enough off the floor for the children to stand up.
“Well…” She lifted her eyebrows at him. He looked smashing in the wig, bonnet, and falsies.
In the second year of her reign, they added the “Waltz of the Snowflakes” scene, which completed all the choreography except the Sugar Plum grand pas de deux. Unfortunately, there was no capable young male dancer in the company capable of partnering a dancer.
In the spirit of a community dance company, everyone pitched
in, sharing their individual talents. The dancers ranged in age from talented youngsters to willing adults, some of whom had never taken a formal dance class in their lives. All of them had a place in the corps, even an 80-year old grandmother who played—what else?—the grandmother. Some of them had only studied tap or jazz, acting or gymnastics, and one enormously talented young man, who did a wicked imitation of the singer Prince and could jump like he had springs for legs, became an audience favorite as the Nutcracker, himself.
Behind the scenes, local parents and high school students learned to run light boards and follow-spots, call shows, make costumes, sell concessions, and fundraise. After the third year, about 100 people participated in each year’s show. The director enlisted her mother as costumer and house manager and her sister as stage manager.
One year, one of the college-aged dancers brought her good-looking boyfriend, a music student, to watch a rehearsal. The director seized her opportunity.
“Do you dance, too?” she asked.
“Um, no,” he shyly answered.
“Oh,” she paused to consider his level of gullibility. “You know we could really use a Prince in this show. You wouldn’t have to dance or anything. Just kind of stand there and support the Sugar Plum Fairy while she turns. Yeah, it’s not really dancing.” Surprisingly, he agreed. A dancer was born.
What happened to all those people who participated? Many of the students have gone on to obtain degrees in theatre and dance. The jumping Nutcracker has become a fixture as a popular choreographer and performer in the Baltimore area, and the Prince is an Assistant Professor of Theatre and Dance at Seton Hill University. Others are dance teachers, children’s authors, communications directors, children’s theater directors, and advertising executives. The youngest are now in their 40s, and some even have grandchildren. They stay in touch through that miracle of memories, Facebook.
That’s my story. Really, that’s my story. That’s how I parlayed a love of story-telling and performing into my life’s work. I no longer dance because I’ve lost all cartilage in my knees, and my hips don’t bend like they used to. There aren’t many roles for older women, and I gave up playing the ingénue at the age of 47, when I was paired with a 25-year old actor. It may sound exciting, but I found it creepy. I’m holding up well for my age, but I’m no cougar. Although, I’m thinking that a trip to NYC for a burlesque Nutcracker may be in order. Anyone care to join me?
DATE UPDATE: My Our Time account finally expired, and my last date was yesterday. A man who said he was “currently separated” had been pestering me for four weeks to have lunch with him. Supposedly, we had common interests in sailing and travel, but I had my doubts and kept putting him off. Finally, in a moment of boredom, I agreed when he asked, “What have you got to lose?”
Apparently, 90 minutes (including travel time) and 16 ounces.
He asked if I would join him at Panera or Olive Garden for lunch. I chose Panera, because I have given up pasta. From our email exchange, we clearly agreed on the location of the Panera (ubiquitous everywhere but near my home) and the time, 11:30. I thought it was a good location to complete my Christmas shopping, so I arrived at the mall early enough to shop and to be at the Panera by 11:28.
Since it was pouring rain, I stepped inside the restaurant and looked around. It wasn’t very crowded, and I saw no one matching the profile photo of my date. I stood just inside the front door and waited. And waited. And then waited some more. I kept checking my email. Nothing.
Finally, at 11:45, I stepped up to the counter and ordered a cup of Autumn Squash soup and half of a smoked turkey sandwich on country white (hold the mayo, tomatoes, and lettuce, please). When my order was called, I sat in a corner of the restaurant where I could see everyone who came in. Oh—and it was next to the rear door, so I could make a hasty escape, if needed. Some middle-aged couples came in and lots of young shop and office workers. No single 65-year old men. Not by a long shot.
At 11:54, I finished my soup, wrapped up my sandwich, gave one last look around the restaurant and at my email, and headed back out into the pouring rain. Periodically during the day, I checked my email, but by 11 pm, when I fell asleep, I had not heard from my erstwhile date.
At 1:30 am, my lunch decided to part company with my body, hence the lost 16 ounces. I was too nauseous to look at my email until this morning, when, lo and behold, there it was. He wrote:
“I should get the Bozo Award and won’t be surprised if I am deleted. I don’t know what I was thinking, but I went to [insert other location]. Wish you would have called me.”
WISH I WOULD HAVE CALLED YOU? You don’t contact me for 12 hours? No “sorry” for screwing up our date? I sent the D*bag (as I now think of him) straight to the “Trash” folder for eternity, because I think he’s not quite as “currently separated” as he claims, unless it’s his common sense from his brain.
I won’t let this bother me because other people have greater problems than meeting nitwits online to provide funny fodder for blogs. There may still be hope that I will find Mr. Right soon because I still belong to match.com for the next two months, although my profile now starts with “Not for the faint of heart.” And it’s almost Christmas. You know? Peace on earth, goodwill to men, whatever their dating status? So, who am I to complain? Life is good (mostly). Soli Deo Gloria!