Stage Fright

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by Michelle Jackson Jewell

God, I’m a dancer. A dancer dances!”

So begins Cassie’s song “Let Me Dance for You” in A Chorus Line. I had every lyric, melody and dance step in that show memorized when I was a teenager. My dream was always to be a professional dancer and that lyric – “I’m a dancer. A dancer dances,” sums up exactly what it felt like to have the kind of passion I had for the art. Dance was simply what I did.

I lived and breathed dance – all kinds of dance. My dad was a relatively famous jazz Chicago jazz musician and when I was very little, he took his band on USO tours to perform for the troops. They would rehearse at our apartment and I can remember trying to copy to movements of the dancer that was with the band. I would spend hours mesmerized by the music and dancing and I couldn’t have been more than about 3 or 4. When we moved to Michigan, I began taking ballet lessons and continued studying ballet and jazz through high school. I was the first student to ever choreograph one of our high school’s musicals. I joined a local dance company at 16 and was once offered the opportunity to audition for Alvin Ailey (I didn’t go, but that’s a whole other story…..).

I can’t say I was endowed with natural physical ability – no effortless turnout or sky high leaps for me. But, my passion was strong and I worked at it. When I wasn’t taking lessons, I was dancing in the kitchen, living room or down the hall. I learned choreography from TV and videos, I created my own. My dad built me a little studio in our basement, complete with a barre (likely so I wouldn’t disturb the rest of the house trying to dance around people and furniture). I felt dance in my soul and it was a part of me. The point is, dance wasn’t a “thing” for me, it was a feeling. An emotion that flowed from somewhere inside myself that even I couldn’t touch.

Long story short, as you might have guessed, I never became a professional dancer. Instead, I ended up taking the path that so many dreamers take in the end – the one of least resistance: work, family, creating a home and a life. I set my dreams on a shelf, buried them in a closet and only every so often peeked at them to confirm they were still there, although I doubted I’d ever pull them into the light to see if there was anything left under the dust. The “maybe” was enough.

When I turned 50 in November of 2017, I decided that “maybe” should give “what if” a shot. Making dance my profession is obviously not in the cards, but, perhaps it could still be my passion, my refuge. Despite having had surgery on both feet almost 20 years ago which left me with titanium pins in my toes, lost muscle tone, and nearly two decades of not setting foot inside a dance studio, I took a leap (pun intended) of faith and joined a local African dance company. Now, mind you, I’d never studied African dance and I knew it was way outside my comfort zone not to mention my training, but, I thought it would be less stressful to my feet and body than the ballet and jazz I’d studied for years. So, in February of 2018, I swallowed the lump in my throat and went.

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I’ll be honest, despite the 20 years my dance skills had been gathering rust, I went in a little too sure of myself. After all, I’d trained and danced for a good portion of my life. Surely, that counted for something – had to be like riding a bike right? It’ll just come back to me. Yeah, no. There is little else as humbling as trying to do something you were once pretty good at and finding that none of it comes easily any longer.

But, this group of people is like no other dance company I’ve ever been a part of. Our director is a real former Alvin Ailey dancer (nope, not intimidating at all!), and one of the sweetest souls you’ll ever meet. Everyone involved with this group is and not everyone has dance training. I felt instantly welcome despite my unease about suddenly being unable to move like a dancer.

It’s been 10 months since I started this journey and I’m not gonna lie, it’s been a difficult one. Physically, yes, although I feel like I’ve made some progress there. What I didn’t expect to be challenged by is the emotional investment. Or in my case, the lack thereof.

A couple months ago, in the depth of my despair about failing to find an emotional connection to my physical movement, my husband said to me, “Dance isn’t what you do, it’s who you are.” And that simple statement shattered my heart. Because dancing for me was now different and I was scared it wouldn’t ever be the same as it was before.

What I discovered is that my emotional fountain had been walled off. Somewhere along the way, in the decades since my entry into adulthood, since becoming a wife and a mother, since creating this life that I cherish, since stepping onto a stage and giving my heart and soul to the audience through my movements – somewhere a barrier has grown up that now prevents me from giving what I most need to give. To anything. To anyone. And, it took trying to dance again to lay bare this terrifying revelation.

Dance was where I used to go to allow myself the expression I couldn’t share in the real world. To lose myself in the movement and emotion and then give it all to the audience to internalize, meditate, and ponder. That space of ether either no longer exists or I have lost my way in finding it. It has not just affected my ability to connect with an audience, it is preventing me from connecting with my life.

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A quick conclusion might be depression and, full disclosure, been there, done that several times in my life. So, perhaps not an unreasonable assumption. But, this feels different. It may be related – feeling despondent and worthless can carve out hollows in your spirit that may never be filled in. I’ve been through enough therapy, though, to recognize that I have the ability to beat back those demons when they start to approach and I think I’ve been pretty successful in the last few years. But, when did I lose the “feeling” of life, of love? When did the profound emotion I still feel inside become strangled and bound, unable to touch the light of day and the hearts of others? How did that happen? How do I fix it? And, if I fix it, will I be overwhelmed by all that surges forward? Will those I love? Will it be a flood of relief or an insurmountable rip tide of destruction? All good questions and, thus far, few good answers.

There have been several occasions when our director has taken me aside and told me that my technique is great, but the emotion isn’t translating. She once told me during one of those conversations that sometimes we start to believe all the lies we’ve told ourselves and that keeps us from being our true selves. I cried at the accuracy of that observation and how it relates to my life. She’s asked me how she can help, she’s encouraged me, she’s cared. And, I’ve had no way to assure her that I can fix it – I’ve had no way to assure myself.

Since February, in addition to working our real jobs, going to school and tending to our families and lives, our company has been working our collective tails off preparing to bring our director’s vision to life at our annual concert at the University of Notre Dame. It’s a big deal. We sold out two months ago. I have felt alone most of that time, isolated by my emotional suppression. Surrounded by love and light, music and dance, I felt as though I was crawling through a hole trying to reach everyone who’s already found their way out onto the stage of the living. I want it. I can feel it. I can see it. I just can’t reach it.

About 6 weeks ago, our director, who, in addition to being a talented dancer, actress and musician, is also now a stage 4 lung cancer survivor, texted me a picture she had seen in her doctor’s office. It was the quote from writer Anais Nin: “And the day came when the risk to remain tight in the bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” Interestingly, I have that same quote framed in my house. I pass it every single day without notice, but, it had caught my eye just days earlier and I had stopped to read it again. It is sometimes uncanny how messages reach you.

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Our show is January 19th. With just a handful of rehearsals left, here’s what I know:

I’m not flexible and limber like I used to be, my memory isn’t as sharp and I have to repeat choreography many more times than I would like before it sticks, my ballet training isn’t necessarily helpful in African dance, my body hurts in more places and for longer after a rehearsal, and envy sometimes makes an appearance when I watch these young, beautiful, talented dancers do their thing (I’m not proud of that, but, it’s a part of the equation), I have a deficit in the emotional connection department, I sometimes lack a noticeable connection to my movements, the audience and to my life in general and if I’m not careful, it will take everything I love.

Here’s also what I know: I’m a lot more flexible and limber than I was ten months ago, it’s good for my memory to repeat choreography, my ballet training is helpful for the lyrical portions of the program and it’s good for me to learn something new through African dance, my body hurts in more places and for longer after a rehearsal and that’s ok, and even though I sometimes wish I had those young dancers’ grace, retention and promise, I know that my path was a different one and that’s ok, too, I have a surplus of actual emotion that exists even though it cannot always seem to find its way out. I am finding how to connect again; I want to share my joy, pain, excitement, and fear with my audience and with those who I love and I refuse to allow this disconnect to take everything from me.

One more thing that I know….I am fighting my way back to emotional revelation. I am determined to find that connection and face whatever comes with it because to not find it means to not dance – or live – fully and that is no longer acceptable.

After a recent rehearsal, our director pulled me aside again. She took my hands in hers, looked me in the eye and told me she could see what she always knew was there. That she was now seeing the emotion come through and that it made my dancing that much more beautiful. I am so very grateful for her candor, her support, her encouragement and her example. I’m still a long way from where I need and want to be, but, a bud opens slowly. I won’t stop. How can I? To stop would be to remain tightly enclosed and that is no longer an option.

When I was a teenager, the TV show Fame was my favorite program (naturally). One of my favorite episodes is the one where dance teacher Lydia Grant, played by the incredible Debbie Allen, is producing a performance to which her former ballet mistress, Madame Stefanovich, has mistakenly been invited and Lydia has no idea until she shows up. The former ballet teacher is a blustery, no-nonsense woman whose mere physical appearance, even as an old woman, is intimidating. Of course, when she arrives, early no less, everyone is caught off guard, especially Lydia. She hurriedly adds some balletic choreography to what was originally a jazz dance piece in the hope of impressing her former teacher.

As Madame Stefanovich greets Lydia, and Lydia’s own students are preparing to start the show, she says, “You didn’t get to be very big, did you?”

No, Madame, I didn’t.”

Did you get to be very good?”

We’ll see,” says Lydia.

Come January 19th, we’ll see, indeed.

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