(This post is brought to you by ’90s lady rock and the walk I took once it finally stopped raining.)
At my insistence, mom enrolled me in a combo tap, ballet, and tumbling class when I was four or five. I moved to a different studio the next year and dropped the tumbling part. The class was split between tap and ballet. My tap shoes drove everyone in the house crazy, so for my third year, I narrowed it down to just ballet. It was a terrible decision for my crazy feet and legs, but it’s what I did every Saturday morning. I still have most of my recital costumes in storage at mom’s. We even did The Nutcracker one year, and I was a toy soldier. I stuck with it for seven or eight years, adding jazz when I was in sixth or seventh grade, progressing all the way to pre-pointe and cecchetti (Italian ballet… because I’d learned all the words in French, why not change it up as soon as the shoes get harder? Funny, though, that later I switched to Italian language after studying Spanish language.) It was clear that while I had the height for a ballerina, I did not have any other physical qualities that lend themselves to classical dance. I have rhythm at least!
I did a lot of dancing at home around the living room too. Tina Turner, Whitney Houston, and Billy Idol provided the soundtrack on the record player, later Paula Abdul, New Kids on the Block and the Dirty Dancing soundtrack filled the tape deck. Not that I minded the classical music we listened to during ballet.
So it started with dancing.
Or maybe singing too. Because I’d belt a tune anywhere and everywhere, especially the car. One of my nicknames when I was with my dad was Whitney because I so passionately believed that the children are our future, we SHOULD teach them well and let them lead the way. Show them ALL the beauty they have inside! I didn’t formalize the singing until mid-elementary school, joining church choir in fourth grade. At that same time, I tried various instruments in school orchestra and band – violin, trombone for half a minute, flue, clarinet for three quarters of a minute – but nothing ever stuck. Each instrument helped me learn a little more about reading music, so that was something.
Acting was probably the latest performance art to join the party of my aspirations. In fifth grade I auditioned for the part of the Pardoner in our dumbed down version of The Canterbury Tales. I memorized the monologue, hand motions and all. I didn’t get the part. I played a sheep instead. But I still remember my line… it was “Baaaaah.” I got my comedic debut the following year when I played a valley girl version of Ariel from The Tempest in our simple sixth grade version. My opening line, after stomping onstage, was, “Like what do you want? I was filing my nails!” I was amazing.
In the summers, I went to a drama camp for two years starting when I was nine. We’d have the week to produce a play… I don’t remember which year, but I know I had a fairly long monologue one year that served as a prologue. I remember my mom saying how astounded she was that I could remember it all. The same camp offered a music camp program, which was essentially the same thing except instead of a play at the end of the week, we did a musical. HELL YES. Oh wait, it was a Christian camp… I mean HECK YEAH! I was eleven when I went for the first time, and I’m still friends with some of the people I met there. My first two years, I was only in the chorus, but I landed a trio my third year (at least I think that was the order). When I was fourteen, the director noted a distinct change in the quality of my voice, and I got a solo that year and the next three until I aged out of the camp.
As the dream of dancing ebbed, the dreams of singing and acting swelled. I took the speech/drama and choir electives when given the choice in seventh grade. I liked my choir teacher better than the speech/drama teacher (he was a staunch Republican, or so said his bumper stickers that other kids read to me because I couldn’t see them myself). I continued in church choir, which put on a musical every year, so I could flex the acting and singing muscles together.
I got a great part in the four one-act play series when I was in seventh grade. I got to work with the eighth graders who were swoon worthy. I dropped drama as an elective in eighth grade to make room in my schedule for Spanish and creative writing, but I kept choir, so I auditioned for The Sound of Music when we produced it in the spring when I was fourteen.
Like my music camp director, the choir director at school also noticed some standout quality of my singing voice. I was in the running to play the Mother Superior, but I was cast as Sister Bertha instead. I still got a solo in “How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria?” so I was pretty happy. This was my first foray into playing a nun… it wasn’t my last.
What had so changed about my voice as puberty hit? I’m not a dude, so it’s not like my voice dropped, changing my range. Part of it could be maturity, but I bet a bigger part of it is that I begged mom to get me private voice lessons. And my mom is the most supportive human being on the planet, so I am blessed to be her daughter. She found a woman who performed in a Celtic singing group and offered private lessons out of her home… a half hour away in traffic. But mom drove me every week (maybe every other week) and sat in that woman’s living room while I had my lesson downstairs. This is also where I was first introduced to herbal tea. I couldn’t have a lesson without either water or tea. By the time I had to stop taking lessons (maybe schedule conflicts?) I had a three octave range and visualization techniques for specific types of sound.
But I wanted to act too. In high school, we only had one elective spot in freshmen and sophomore year, and drama won. We were doing Little Shop of Horrors in the spring of my freshman year, and the choir director loved me and cast me in the chorus, but I had to quit because I was trying to be good academically. (Did I mention that I almost dropped out of eighth grade because I hated school so much and just wanted to come to New York City and be on Broadway? Well, mom didn’t like that, so we made a contract for my freshman year of high school… after exploring all the options for where I could go to high school. It was a big to do, but I agreed to get all As and Bs, so I hit the books).
It would seem that acting had won at that point… I was only singing in church choir, and I asked mom to let me take a class with adults called “Getting on Stage.” we rehearsed a bunch of different audition pieces, none of which were appropriate to my age, but I learned about head shots and resumes and audition techniques, and I memorized a lot of monologues… the most memorable one was called “Why I Drink” Again, not at all age appropriate, but the director of the class really liked the way I did it. :::shoulder shrug:::
Pause for a moment. Have you noticed a pattern? That my mom supported me no matter what crazy demand I made? Yeah. She IS that amazing. She always encouraged me. If she doubted me, I didn’t know it until after the fact when she was so surprised and delighted that I sang so well or spoke so evocatively or danced in perfect time with the other girls in class. Whatever it was I wanted to do, she’d make it happen. One summer I wanted to go to a creative writing workshop across town… she made sure it was paid for and we found a carpool to get me there. I wrote a stupid short story about a horse I met at camp. Yeah, she also let me go to horse camp where I learned how to tack, groom, and ride Western saddle. You’re jealous, I know. If you know my mom, give her a shout out (maybe on facebook, text, or email) to remind her that SHE IS EFFING AMAZING!!!!!!!!!!!
Okay, so freshman year, I seemed to be all about the acting… I was thinking Hollywood, baby! Not that I had any experience on camera. All of my performing hitherto had been live on stage. My reward for meeting my end of the contract, all As and Bs, was a trip to Hollywood to do all the touristy shit. And I ate it up. Of course, LA was familiar territory because most of my dad’s side of the family lived out there, but I’d never seen the studios and walk of fame.
I continued to audition for school plays and be in church choir musicals, but there wasn’t a lot of time for the outside stuff because I was struggling with some of the worst depression of my life and trying to be a good student. Sophomore year, we did Noises Off at school, and I very nearly got the Mrs. Clackett role… it was between me and one other girl. She was a junior, so she got it… because seniority sucks. I think that’s when I started to hate my high school drama teacher. But you wouldn’t know it from the fact that I signed up for drama again in eleventh grade and twelfth grade. Those years we got a second elective choice and I jumped at joining choir. The acting thing was fading, but the singing thing was building momentum.
Junior year was difficult because I realized just how much my appearance impacted directors. I’d been working with the drama teacher/play director for two and a half years already, performing a variety of scripts in class and in the school-wide extracurricular productions, so I was disheartened when he was shortsighted in his casting of The Crucible. We didn’t have any black students who auditioned, so he thought I should play Tituba. I flipped my shit as only a sixteen year old can. There was a lot of crying, a lot of yelling, and a lot of door slamming in our house that night. I hadn’t accounted for my albinism when I thought of all the reasons people would pass me over for various roles – yes, I’m fat, yes, I’m too tall, those were complaints I knew well. It hadn’t occurred to me that a high school production needed to be so … realistic?… I don’t even know, that a person with albinism couldn’t play any of the parts. Mom got involved, to my embarrassment and relief, and explained to the teacher that I just wanted to be treated like everyone else, like NORMAL. He thought he was being kind by seeing me as special, but when you’re a teenager, the time to be special and the time to be normal is a tight rope walk… I don’t fault him in hindsight, but it ruined my passion for acting at the time. It was around that time that our school was invited to a county-wide acting competition, and he wanted me to represent us in the drama category with a scene a senior and I had worked on in class. It was from Agnes of God and I played the Mother Superior to the senior’s novice Agnes. Second nun, and a promotion! It was an intense scene because it covered a lot of spiritual and political hot topics, but I think we did it well. We went to the competition but couldn’t perform because the teacher hadn’t paid close enough attention to the rules. It turned in to a crazy day of improv, which I am good at if you don’t put me alongside the wise guys I had high school drama with… they were old Whose Line prose, and I just looked like the dumb audience member. “Yes, and….”
So by senior year, I was all about the singing again. That year, I was in two school choirs, one that met after school and performed harder music. I was in voice lessons again, this time with a woman who met me at school. Church choir took a backseat to the time I spent in a windowless practice room with a piano and either my voice teacher or the three other altos in the after school group. We had A LOT of laughs in that room. I didn’t want to go to college, but if I had to, I wanted to study either musical theater or just music so I could write my own songs, an endeavor I had already started to dabble in with simple melodies for some of my poems.
Pause. Have you noticed another pattern? Letting one performance art fall away because some aspect of it got too difficult… I stopped dancing formally when the real tricky stuff was introduced. Pointe shoes are no joke, but I also let my body dictate what I could and could not do. Then when someone made acting depressing instead of hard work that was fun and rewarding, I kind of walked away.
Singing was the most cathartic of all the performance arts for me. Dancing was great because it got me moving, but when I danced, it was always with a group, so I felt the need to concentrate on keeping in time. Acting was emotional, but it wasn’t always MY emotions I was giving life to; they were the emotions of the character. Singing, even in other languages about unfamiliar topics, allowed me to let something out. Singing to songs that spoke of my own feelings was one of my most used coping mechanisms. I can’t tell you how many times I took my boombox into the bathroom with me… Jewel, Natalie Merchant, Sarah McLachlan, Les Mis soundtrack loaded at the ready for me to belt out while I took a candlelit bath. God, mom and my older brother must’ve hated me. (To be fair, older brother held his garage band practice in the basement, so we were probably even on the noise wars).
I started as a music major in college. First semester I had music theory, voice lessons, and chorus teed up. It was a disaster. I hated the music theory professor and the voice lesson class, which happened to be taught by the professor assigned as my advisor. The chorus director was fine, but I was struggling with the transition to college life, and I could see the love of singing being ripped away from me the way the love of acting had been, and I wouldn’t let that happen. I almost dropped out of college entirely during the second semester of freshman year, unrelated to singing. Instead I dropped a bunch of classes, keeping the minimum credits to stay full time status. I switched to the English major because I could read something and bang out a paper without much trouble, and I wasn’t worried that people could ever take the love of reading away from me. Plus, it was the first step at a return to what was my first childhood ambition: teaching.
Things shifted. I changed. What had been career options, however far-fetched, became hobbies or memories. I saw the path of least resistance. I’m good at reading. I’m good at talking about what I read. I’m good at listening to people talk about what we’ve read. I’m good at writing. English major it is. I didn’t commit to a minor, studying a variety of choices in religion and communications. I’ve mentioned before how I should have done a lot differently with my education, but that’s what it was.
Part of it is my fault. I let other people’s reactions get to me. I didn’t want it enough to put in the grueling work. I don’t have the strength to deal with the constant rejection that pursuing performance as a career would have given me. I guess it’s an example of how I let life happen to me instead of happening to life. I wasn’t as stubborn as I know I can be, forcing everyone else in the world to fall in line. (Can you hear that Alessia Cara song in your head “you don’t have to change a thing; the world could change its heart”? I mean, I like the sentiment, but is that even real?) So I revised. And there’s a certain amount of acting in everyday life anyway, especially for a person who suffers from depression. I act like I have the energy to do anything besides stay in bed some days. And teaching, my original ambition, is a bit of a show too. I act like I’m excited to repeat myself while teenagers ignore me or I act surprised when someone offers a shallow analysis of some poem. I still sing for myself. That hasn’t ever stopped. Thinking of it as a career choice is long dead though.
But on my walk today I was thinking about how I went through those natural revisions of my dreams because I felt that the reality of life wouldn’t allow for them. I changed because I thought life/the world would not. Life happened to me instead of me happening to life. And I thought about what I’m trying to do now, telling the world what I want, and pursuing it as best I can. I got worried. What if this is one of those situations where I’ll have to revise again? Where’s my line between revising and compromising? How close is compromising to giving up?
I’ve happened to life before. In 2002. I said, “I’m going to study abroad in an English speaking nation and it’s not going to cost any more than regular tuition at my school stateside.” There was an agreement program with a school in London that offered just that. I said, “I’m going to meet that man… I’m going to give him my poetry… He’s going to know who I am….” and all those things happened. I said, “I’m going to Russia.” And A LOT of people where like, “WHY?” but why not? Mom made that one happen. I said, “There’s going to be a May term to Germany. I’m going.” And there was, and I did. I said, “I’m going to get a summer job in NYC that provides housing.” I did. I didn’t revise any of that. I don’t even feel like I worked very hard to get some of those things. What a time!
When I was freaking out as college was ending, I said, “I’m going to get a job in DC.” I did that too. I said, “I’m going to apply to only one grad school program.” And, luckily, I got in.
There have been times when I didn’t revise. As I send inquiry email after inquiry email about whether or not a school would be interested in hiring me and, furthermore, able to sponsor my visa, I worry that I might have to revise this dream.
And I really don’t want to.