Thursday, December 8, 2011

My Dance Story

I've recently shot a few pictures of my little dancers, while up on stage during a dress rehearsal for our upcoming Christmas program. It's this weekend, you see, and while I've been saying 45-50, I actually have 66 dancers total now! Quite an achievement, I think, as our facility is not quite up to par with the average dance studio. Though I am very grateful for what we do have - plenty of space, mirrors on the walls, and awesome performance opportunities. 
 Looking back at these pictures, I realized how dance has begun to mean something very different to me. It's been a vital part of my life since I turned 4 years old and it's changed through each decade of my life. It's always been my passion in life, my hobby and now my career, I suppose. And it's always meant the world to me, though it's intention has changed ... the expectation, the feeling it summons.
 I was dropped off at my first dance class at the age of 4, placed there right next to my soon-to-be best friend, shivering on the inside and the outside and unsure of how happy I was about the whole thing. You see, dance was something very different in South Africa. It was a way of life, a serious discipline, a dedication. It was hard. 

There were no combo classes, no streamers, no stickers. Instead, there was a syllabus, a grade and an end of year exam to pass. There was a little old lady playing the piano in the corner of our studio and boy, was it cold. South Africa has a hot summer and a moderate winter BUT they also have few buildings with central heat, and our studio was not one of those! 
 I stood by my best friend's side for many, many years, at first once a week and then eventually several times a week. We danced together every chance we could and even though it was so hard, we loved it enough to continue dancing when we were home together and to choose classical music to listen to as we lay in her bedroom staring up at the ceiling. Our little lives were completely focused around ballet and every time we completed a grade with honors or performed on a stage for each festival, well, that's all that really mattered.
 When we were about 11 years old we were asked to attend another ballet school, apparently by the teacher herself (though that seems hard to believe now, it was what we were told). Miss Nell knew our mothers who were dancers themselves, and she wanted us to come to her studio and to continue studying under her. Well, if we thought dance was hard before we found it to be downright impossible soon after. 

We started dancing even more. I remember changing in the car while it sped away after school and even being driven to dance by my friend's driver (yes, they had a driver but this was SA and having a chauffeur of sorts was not that mind boggling, I suppose). We knew how to pin our hair into the perfect bun, how to stitch the tips of our point shoes so that we didn't slip or wear through the satin. We knew what we were good at and what we were awful at. She could jump much higher than I ever could and I could, well, I'm not really sure what I was best at. All we knew was that, though Ms. Nell seemed to think we were terrible dancers (too chubby, not flexible enough, terrible feet), she still gave us the cherished dances that she passed on to only her best students. So we had to be good at something?  
 Though I loved dancing with everything in me, I was also completely terrified of it!
 When my family moved to America, dance had a major face lift. Though not necessary the pretty kind that improves you (though is a face life ever an improvement?). It was just so different. 
 In America (or Tulsa, at least), they danced for fun. FUN! A completely new and unusual concept to me. Okay, so I always thought jazz was fun, even in SA. But over here, ballet was sort of fun (I guess) and jazz was not really jazz, it was HIP HOP. Woah! Now that was a foreign and rather silly concept for my body. I had never moved in a relaxed or ... groovy way before. Not sure if I've ever really figured out hip hop but gosh, I think it's totally rad (and from that statement you might hypothesize that I'm entirely too old for hip hop anyway). 

 I was no longer examined in dance. It was only about one thing now - recitals! We performed our socks off. They hired cruise ship professional dancers to come to our jazz class and teach us the choreography from A Chorus Lines "One" and "I hope I get it". Completely awesome experience too. And we did huge ballets that went on for 15 minutes (Swan Lake) and I was even asked to perform a swan solo that year. We did The Nutcracker, of course, and I loved every minute of it. But we weren't that serious about it anymore. I no longer cared if I could do the splits or had a flat stomach (and thank goodness for that because an emigration to the US means an onslaught of cheap and abundantly delicious food!).  
 I was hired by a tiny studio when I was 16 years old, to teach ballet and jazz. Thus began my teaching career. 

Though my mom was instrumental in all of this - she was the one who had the dance background and made sure each of her girls had the opportunity to follow in her footsteps. and she was the one who told me, as a bawled about how I never wanted to go back, that I was not allowed to quit dancing until I was 13, at which point I was old enough to make that decision - it was my dad who encouraged me to set in motion an experience that changed my life forever. 
 When I was 16, in my junior year, I attended a performance put on by a company based out of Tulsa called "The Masterpiece - A Toymaker's Dream". It touched me, changed me, impacted me right there and then, sitting in my seat far up in the nose bleed seats with my friends from school. That was what I wanted to do, right there on that stage. I thought it was beautiful. 
 But I had no intention of making that real, no dream at all. Until one day, my dad spoke with me and told me that his hope was that I would take a year after I graduated from high school to travel with a missions organization. Now, one of the reasons that we moved to America was for our future education, for the colleges offered here, so for him to suggest that I do this was bewildering. And he encouraged me to audition for this company, for The Masterpiece show (they held auditions in Tulsa about a year after I saw the show). 

I applied to a couple of schools and at my senior graduation I told everyone that I was going to John Brown University in Arkansas. But the summer following my graduation, I received a call at work, summoned from my post at the cash register (I worked with a friend at a fancy paper store, a lovely job, ordering wedding invites for brides to be and helping party planners stock up on napkins and paper plates, all the while sipping Vanilla Dr Pepper purchased at the soda fountain at Steve's Sundry, next door). 

They asked me to tour with them, to understudy all the female roles. But all I heard was, "we want you to tour with us"!
 One year turned into two, college remained on hold, and one role turned into about 10. I learned every single female part and was able to jump into the show at a moment's notice. My first performance came on the day when one of my closest friend's sprained her ankle. I arrived that morning, was stuck in a room with the artistic director for the entire day, and that evening I performed her part in the show (not without a few funny faults though). I got to do that part for a good month, poor girl. 

There was even an evening when I was called to hair and makeup just before we were in the green room for a prayer. She was sick and I was up. So while the show's overture boomed in my ears, I sloshed makeup onto my face and made it on the stage for the second scene. I had never played her particular part before, though I had played another that was similar. But without the rehearsal (there were lifts involved with one of the guys), it was a little terrifying. 
 We toured 11 months out of the year, a bus and a truck, about 33 of us. I had the pleasure of living with some of the greatest people I've ever met, sharing every day with them - good and bad. We slept in shifts on the bunk beds in the back of the bus (3 hour shifts!) and we stayed with host families all over the country. I had the great opportunity to meet all sorts of people, from different walks of life, in very different homes and cities, grand mansions and tiny apartments. 

I visited every city in America I ever hoped to see and I adored it. We performed on beautiful theater stages and on our own stage which our crew was able to build in any venue. The whole experience was beyond awesome and I grew and matured dramatically as a person and in my faith. 
 After touring for those 2 years and one summer and even traveling to Peru, Brazil, and China to perform in dance festivals there, we were done. The show retired. My last role was the one I wished to play the most ... the nursery rhyme doll. And I was no longer the understudy ... it was mine. Her part was on pointe. Those endless hours of bleeding toes paying off. 

It's funny to think back on these years. We were so young then, and let's not forget that it was the 90's. Lots to giggle about when it comes to those dear 90's.

So here I am (11 years later), with a collection of dancers that are all my own. (there have been many, many studios in-between then and now). Making decisions about how I choose to teach, to train them. It's interesting ... the outcome I see. What I've discovered about myself and how I've put my training and experience to use here and now. 
For me, now, it's about the joy dance brings. The way it makes you feel. The love that grows inside. The commitment that develops from that love. The experience of performance, that chance to develop a talent and gift. The opportunity to show our little world what we love, what makes us happy, what we work so hard at. 

It's about shining eyes, happy smiles, wildly beating hearts, memories made, dancing your heart out. It's not about perfection any more. That was another place, another time. 


  1. I so enjoyed reading this Kirsty. What an amazing experience - thank you for sharing with us, and with your precious students!

  2. Kirsty,

    Thank you for sharing! It was so nice to peak in to your dance life...:-) I'll read this to Keely and Emmy Coe...beautiful post!



Thanks for reading!
xx Kirsty

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