When the applause dies down and the stage lights are turned off, the dancer takes a bus home to sit in a tub of hot water to soak aching muscles. In Third Swan from the Left, author Debbie Wilson makes it clear that life in the world of professional dance is not all champagne and tutus.
The stories in her memoir offer a synopsis of a rich journey-from beginning dance at age four, to aspiring student, through the performance years, and her travels around the globe. The narrative provides true insight into what it means to be a working dancer. Wilson's keen awareness of world politics, social inequalities, bureaucratic bungling, and more provide a comical and critical look at the universe. Against the backdrop of dance, Third Swan from the Left offers a perspective on the world as Wilson sees it.
With anecdotes appealing to aspiring dancers, former dancers, families of dancers, and friends, Third Swan from the Left shows that dance is a primal connection to our emotional lives beyond the material world we live in-a combination of the physical movement and the creative input forces us to constantly connect with our true essence.
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Third Swan from the Left
The Stories, Musings, and Random Thoughts of a Wandering Artist
By Debbie Wilson
iUniverseCopyright © 2015 Debbie Wilson
All rights reserved.
Act One (1978-79)
Anything For Your Art * The Wicked Witch of the East (Before Dorothy's House Fell on Her) * Definitely Not in Kansas Anymore * Fans * Cast Injuries * The Mob * Hayley * Fire! * Unions * Mary
Anything For Your Art
It's always sad when a good dancer disappears from the arts scene but it is so much sadder when their reason for leaving is financial. It's a story that gets played over and over; the cash-strapped dancer takes a 'normal' job that doesn't give them the flexible hours they need to train and audition. After a while, their fine-tuned instrument of a body can't keep up with the physical demands of dance and their career is over. This happens a lot during that precarious stage between when your parents were supporting your dreams and when you land your first solid dance job. It's that period in your life when you have to build your résumé and establish your reputation as a reliable dancer. You do what you need to in order to survive: waitress, sales clerk, cleaning person, whatever is available. Survival is all about planning, saving, being fluid with your jobs and having a little luck. Staying in dance is also a question of who you are: someone who will endure uncomfortable situations to ensure their ability to dance or one who would rather forego dance if their basic needs are not met.
A friend of mine got me a job as a waitress on New York's East Side near the United Nations. Getting the job was pure luck and holding the job down was a miracle. I was probably the worst waitress in New York City at the time. I couldn't remember the orders, I couldn't write them down quickly and I couldn't hold more than two plates at a time. Luckily for me, the establishment was more of a pub than a restaurant and the emphasis was on drinking rather than eating. It wasn't a bad place to work. I developed some nice friendships with the bartender and the police who frequented the place and more importantly, it allowed me to pay my rent, eat and keep up with my dance training. It was perfect. The only problem was the chef, a middle-aged man from the Dominican Republic named Pablo.
In the beginning, Pablo was pretty easy to get along with, but about a month into the job everything changed. Pablo wouldn't keep his hands off me. I spent months getting pinned to the refrigerators, the sinks and up against the counters in a never-ending wrestling match. The bartender knew that I needed the job, so he helped me where he could. He would watch me go to the kitchen and if I didn't return within a minute, he would come and get me by yelling, "Hurry up that order!" Dodging Pablo's hands ended at 9:00 p.m. when the kitchen closed down. After that, I enjoyed working the rest of my shift, serving drinks until 1:00 in the morning.
I will never forget the night when I came out of the restaurant after my shift had ended and found Pablo waiting in the street for me. I fought him off and ran for home. That night, I decided to use my friendship with the cops who frequented the bar. From that point on, the cops escorted me home every night. It's nice to have friends.
Around the same time that Pablo took to waiting for me on the street, my friend who had gotten me the job had an enormous fight with the chef she worked with. She worked at the sister restaurant of the one I was at. She was such a fantastic waitress that, rather than letting the chef of the other restaurant go, the owners decided to switch the chefs. So Pablo went away and Mr. Chang arrived and I was relieved at this change in personnel, at least temporarily. But Mr. Chang was a different kind of a handful. I had no problem with his constant screaming of guttural Chinese interjected with "Stupid girl," but when he started throwing knives I knew that I had reached the end of my waitressing career. There's nothing quite like seeing a cleaver flying past your face to help you read the writing on the wall. As luck would have it, a few days after the knives started flying, I landed a job in dance and could finally afford to leave.
The Wicked Witch of the East (Before Dorothy's House Fell on Her)
I worked in New York for Jo, a person who had the reputation of being the nastiest woman in the business. In an industry rampant with enormous egos and temper tantrums, that was saying a lot. Now, why would anyone agree to work for such a nasty human being? Because the woman was brilliant. Unfortunately, the price one paid for working with brilliance was days filled with gruelling rehearsals, sarcasm and fear. Jo liked to make people cry and she was particularly fond of public humiliation. I can't remember a single week going by without Jo driving someone to a nervous breakdown and for some strange reason she really loved going after the men in the company. There's something oddly disturbing about watching a man sink to his knees in tears. I too was one of Jo's targets, but only once. She had beaten me down and as she was coming in for the kill something clicked in my brain. I straightened my back and glared at her, letting her know right then and there that this was the last time we were going to do this little tango. I wasn't going to cry and I wasn't going to break down. Not a word was spoken but at that moment she knew our relationship had shifted.
On the one hand, I did understand her tactics. The New York dance scene was a tough business. It was almost impossible to get a job and it was hard to keep the job because if a dancer screwed up, there were several hundred eager dancers waiting to take their place. In her own warped way, she was trying to toughen us up. Unfortunately Jo's drill sergeant tactics took over every aspect of her personality until there wasn't a warm and fuzzy bone in her body.
The benefit to working for Jo was that it was easy to get another job once a dancer left her company. Other directors found the survivors of "Boot Camp Jo" to be strong, reliable performers who could easily handle a multitude of tough situations. My best friend Pamela, who worked in Jo's administrative office and was one of the company's tour managers, had introduced me to the company. Soon after I was hired, Jo demanded that I either cut all my hair off or be fired. Having just come from the dictatorial world of ballet, where the director is king, I didn't question her demand. I promptly walked across the street to a hair salon and had them hack off all of my long locks and then cried about it for hours. Only later did I discover that Jo was way out of line. According to union rules (we were a union company), she was not allowed to ask me to cut my hair. I consoled myself with the fact that soon after this sacrifice she promoted me to rehearsal mistress or 'Dance Captain', as the position was called in this group.
The company was composed of dancers who sang and singers who danced. Two-thirds of the group was comprised specifically of dancers, each with a technical specialty: tap, lyrical, speed, etc. A few of the dancers were fabulous singers and some (including myself) could barely carry a tune. The singers were competent movers as long as they weren't called upon to do any of the heavy technical tricks. It was a really good mix of people and everyone was put into the numbers that best suited their abilities. Usually.
We were at Wolftrap in Virginia when one of the dancers got injured. The company was working on stage when Jo announced that I would replace the injured dancer in one of the singing tap numbers. I edged my way towards the orchestra pit and tentatively put up my hand.
"Jo, I can't tap."
"Don't worry Debbie, you'll learn."
I started to turn back but paused and put my hand back up. "Uh Jo, I can't sing either."
"Don't worry Debbie, you'll learn."
In four hours? I would like to state for the record that although I did eventually manage to learn some tap movements, I could never sing and there is nothing worse for a non-singer than to have several moments of solo singing. I dreaded it, I hated it and I did it for three months. It's what a dancer does to keep a job.
When working for someone with Jo's temperament, it's inevitable that somebody is going to get fired. The company was beginning a three-month tour of Japan in Tokyo and Jo was travelling with us to install the show. Once the show opened, she was going to head back to New York, leaving Pamela and me to run things.
On the night of the first show, Jo announced that she was conducting the pre-show warm-up. This was unusual. In the five months that I had been working for Jo, she had never given a pre-show warm-up. Plus she taught jazz and the pre-show warm-up was normally a ballet class. Her ballet warm-up that night was a good one and everything was going smoothly, until the last exercise. It was a turning jump after which the dancers landed on one leg, from which they pushed up onto the ball of their foot and balanced. It's a pretty standard maneuver for dancers but it's close to impossible for singers to manage. They've never had the years of hard physical training. Dissatisfied with what she was seeing, Jo screamed in frustration and stopped the class. She slowly walked onto the stage. With her arms crossed over her chest, she moved her head along the cast, glaring. "And you call yourselves dancers!" she spat, then sighed dramatically and dropped her head into her hand. "I could just cry." With that, she turned around, stepped off the stage and walked into the encompassing blackness of the theatre as we stood frozen in shock. The tension was then broken as Matt started to clap. Slowly. Clap ... clap ... clap. His message was clear. Jo turned around with her fists at her sides and screamed, "You're fired!"
While Matt sat in his dressing room and removed his makeup, I was called into to Jo's makeshift office.
"I want you to rehearse the opening trio boys right now," she told me.
"I can't," I said. "It's against union rules to rehearse anyone after the half hour call."
"I don't care," Jo retorted. "Do it."
Again I refused. Jo's face turned red.
"When I tell you to do something – you jump! Got it?"
"Yes," I said, "but I still can't break the rules."
"You're fired!" she yelled.
Now two of us were removing our makeup. Well, not really. We were just going through the motions. Where was Jo going to find replacements for us in fifteen minutes in Tokyo? We sat in our dressing room and waited. Four minutes later, Jo sent Pamela to inform us that we had our jobs back. We did the show and no one ever said another word about the entire incident.
Jo returned to New York the next day but still managed to keep a close eye on all of us. Proof of this was the incident with the shrine. In the dressing room hallway was a Shinto shrine. Before the opening night performance, our Japanese hosts conducted a solemn ceremony complete with a priest bowing and a lot of single clapping. All of us were required to attend. It was interesting though I think the significance of the ceremony went over most of our heads. After Jo left, we made our own little shrine on the other end of the hallway, composed of Jo's forgotten belongings: sneakers, tied up with a bright orange bow with her notes and lip balm tucked into the laces. Before each performance, everyone stood solemnly before the shrine, clapped once, clapped twice and bowed. It kept us amused. A week later, we received a telegram from Jo, ordering us to take the shrine down. I've always wondered who the snitch was. I know it wasn't Pamela because she was the one who put the shrine together for us in the first place.
Definitely Not in Kansas Anymore
I was lucky in that several of the companies I worked for toured internationally. What a wonderful opportunity it was to see the world and get paid at the same time. My first international tour was a three-month booking in Japan, working Tuesday through Sunday, eight shows a week, with the exception of the last two weeks when the company increased the number of shows to ten. While most of the engagement was spent in Tokyo, we did get to spend two weeks touring various cities around the country: Osaka, Kyoto, Kobe, etc.
At the time, Japan was a pretty rigid society, rigid in that everyone seemed to follow the same set of rules. For a Western mind where the rights of the individual are the center to our ideology, it was a cultural jolt to be in a society where the collective ideal is greater than its individual participants. The first sight that met us as we wandered around Tokyo that first day was hundreds of school children dressed in identical outfits, right down to their matching gloves and hats. We had barely gotten settled in when one of our translators killed himself by jumping off a building. The explanation given was that he had been ill for quite some time and felt ashamed that he could no longer contribute to the company. Our Japanese hosts seemed to take the news calmly. All I could think was, "Wow, we're playing with a different set of rules here."
Manners are what make a society move along smoothly: those expected gestures, actions and words that allow the person that you are interacting with to know that you respect them or acknowledge their existence. Japan had taken manners to a new height with the constant bowing (with the depth of the bows being important), the gift giving, the formalities when addressing someone and, what we found to be the most annoying unspoken rule - never saying no. Apparently it was impolite. When we asked a question, we always got the same answer, 'hi', which means yes. We were never sure whether yes meant yes or whether yes meant no. I'm still trying to figure out why they have the word no in their vocabulary, especially when they couldn't use it.
Taxis at the time didn't like to stop for foreigners. I understood their reticence. What was the point of picking up people who couldn't speak their language? If we were lucky enough to get a taxi to stop for us, we communicated to the drivers via the hotel and theatre business cards we carried. Those business cards were priceless. If we got lost, all we had to do was stop someone on the street, whip out our little card and they would point us in the right direction. Unfortunately, it still didn't solve the problem of getting a taxi to stop in the first place. That's where the company manager and my best friend Pamela came in handy. Pamela's mother was Japanese, and more importantly, from a distance Pamela looked Japanese. One night, a taxi driver got a lesson about judging a book by its cover. We were traveling from the nightclub district with some friends from the U.S. embassy. Pamela was on decoy duty. A taxi stopped for her immediately and we all jumped in. The driver turned to Pamela and asked for directions. Pamela stared at him and shrugged her shoulders. The burly Irishman sitting in the front seat answered the driver, whose mouth then dropped open in amazement. Our Irish friend had grown up in Japan and spoke like a native. Pamela didn't know a single word.
Excerpted from Third Swan from the Left by Debbie Wilson. Copyright © 2015 Debbie Wilson. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse.
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Table of Contents
ContentsThe Prologue (1959-72), 1,
My Resume, 1,
The Beginning, 2,
The Next Steps, 7,
The Curse of Shortness, 10,
Contact Lenses, 11,
Why My Director's Hair Was Grey, 12,
It Ain't Carnegie Hall, 18,
Teaching Mom the Facts of Life, 21,
The Teachers, 28,
Act One (1978-79), 31,
Anything For Your Art, 31,
The Wicked Witch of the East (Before Dorothy's House Fell on Her), 33,
Definitely Not in Kansas Anymore, 37,
Cast Injuries, 41,
The Mob, 44,
Act Two 1980-85, 53,
My Favorite Riddle, 53,
The Daily Grind, 54,
Head Counts, 61,
The Terminator, 67,
The Canadian Treasure, 88,
The Bad Day, 93,
Why On Earth Would You Tell Me This Crap?, 95,
Red Tape, 96,
Jacques in Switzerland, 97,
Act Three (1980-1985), 103,
J'ai Faim, 109,
I'm Not Listening, 112,
Senegal and the Ivory Coast, 117,
The Bully, 128,
Drinking On the Job, 130,
Mexico City 1985, 132,
The Pollyanna Complex, 138,
The Gina Factor, 142,
Act Four (1986-1992), 145,
What's the Slavic Translation for 'Shoot Me'?, 152,
The French Teacher, Natasha and the Pervert, 157,
The Power of the Mind, 160,
Ballet versus Modern, 164,
Egomaniacs and other Weirdoes, 165,
General Practitioners, 170,
The Finale (1993 -), 173,
The Choreographic Workshop, 175,
Macedonia Again, 176,
The Multicultural Production Begins, 182,
Macedonians in Canada, 184,
I Thought the Tsar Was Dead, 186,
Canadians in Macedonia, 188,
Tolstoy is All About Drama, 191,
Debbie Versus the Mosquito, 196,
The Next Prologue, 198,