My first director used to introduce me to people by saying “And this is the one who turned my hair gray.” It was only later when I became one of the “older” dancers that I began to recognize the hell that I along with a few others put this man through. I also began to understand why another director I knew and worked for had an iron clad rule of never hiring anyone under the age of twenty-five (A rule that she broke two years later and greatly regretted). I don’t know why dancers under the age of twenty-five are so god-awful. It could be the arrested social development that a lot of dancers suffer from having given up normal childhood activities for the rigors of dance training. My personal theory is that we’re all just plain immature and stupid until our mid-twenties (or longer in some cases). Whatever the reason, one thing is for certain – younger dancers are emotional. The temper tantrums, the crying and the sheer drama are enough to drive anyone insane.
My first director had the unfortunate task of working with several “babies”. I use the term “babies” for the three of us who were still in high school at the time. Sheila was a drama queen, I was belligerent and Konrad was just plain stupid. Sheila had her routine down perfectly. When upset, she would throw herself on the floor and sob loudly until someone would come to her rescue. Then she would delicately pull herself together and allow that person to gently pull her back into the rehearsal. For the rest of the rehearsal she would sniffle and pout while everyone including the director would try to comfort her with words of encouragement. I tried that routine a few times but it didn’t work. You can’t have two “Camilles” in the same company.
I dealt with my frustration by working harder. Not working harder by myself – no, I needed an audience. And I needed a victim. Someone to take my anger out on and that person was usually the same girl, Samantha. Samantha was a soloist who I didn’t particularly like. Our studio was so big that you could have two complete casts working at the same time and I would plant myself behind Samantha as she was rehearsing. It didn’t matter to me if I was her official understudy or not. I needed a victim and Samantha was to be it. Whatever Samantha did – I did the same – yet better. If she did three turns – I did four. If she balanced four counts – I’d go for eight. I’d keep it up until I exhausted myself. Samantha usually got ticked off and went to the director to complain which meant I got called into his office. “Debbie, why are you picking on Samantha?” “I’m not, Sir. I’m just trying to work hard.” “Well, couldn’t you try working harder on something other than Samantha’s variation?” “Why?” I would bat my eyes innocently at him, “Don’t you want me to get better?” The man would sink in resignation to his desk, “What am I going to do with you?” He usually gave up and I went back to work. Occasionally he’d yell a bit – not that it changed my behavior but I think it made him feel better.
The director hired another baby named Peter who in my books is still to this day, the temper tantrum champion. We’d be in the morning class when Peter would suddenly turn and slam his head down into the barre yelling “I’m stupid, I’m stupid!” If we were in rehearsals, he’d take a running start before slamming his head into one of the walls. I really couldn’t see how beating his own brains out was going to make him more intelligent or a better dancer. It was during one of these tirades that my director walked past me and commented, “He almost makes you look like an angel.”
I had been given my first lead role. A pas de deux choreographed especially for me and for Konrad. It had dramatic music, fancy lifts and I was being fitted for my very first “real” tutu. Let me quickly define for you what a “real” tutu is. One of those short jobs that stick straight out from your hips. True the long tulle numbers are also called tutus but in my adolescent book – they were just poor imitations of the real thing. As the weeks of rehearsal passed by, I could barely contain myself – the happy anticipation of this costuming masterpiece. A couple of days before the premiere, my tutu arrived. I dashed into the costume room and fidgeted while the costume mistress went and got it. “You’re going to love this!” she called to me from behind a rack of costumes, “I’ve never made one like this before. I copied it from the Joffrey, you know.” My eyes danced with excitement and I was literally bouncing on my feet. “Here it is!” she announced proudly holding the costume up. My mouth dropped open. The tutu was a monstrosity. No beautiful brocade, no refined color of velvet, no low cut back – not even a rhinestone. It was a baby blue, fluffy number – with cute little baby blue ruffles and cute little black bows all over the bodice and skirt. It looked like a birthday cake. “Wait until you see the headdress,” the costume mistress said as she handed me the tutu. As she bustled in the back of the room, I tried to find a bright side to this disaster. “Well, maybe it won’t look so bad with the tiara.” I liked tiaras. Not that I had worn one yet, but principal dancers wore tiaras and tiaras were elegant. The costume mistress brought me the headdress and after taking one look at it, I burst into tears. It was a concoction of baby blue ruffles and cute little black bows. “What’s wrong, Debbie?” she asked me, “You’ll look absolutely adorable in this.” Now that was the wrong thing to say. I ran back to the dressing room in tears. Doomed to be “adorable” my entire life. I tried reasoning with the director to at least let me wear a tiara, but he wasn’t budging. Something about it not being right for the piece – like I was going to take that as an excuse. It was time to take matters into my own hands.
The night of the premiere, I dressed in my cute little tutu with my cute little headdress. I patiently waited backstage for my cue. The director walked by and nodded in approval. I nodded and smiled back. As my intro music began, I deftly plucked the offending headdress from my head and replaced it with a beautiful rhinestone tiara that I had swiped from the principal dancer’s dressing table. I danced wonderfully that night and they never caught the switch. A few days later, the director called me to his office. “What’s this?” he asked pointing to the photographer’s contact sheet. “A tiara, Sir?” I said cringing. “I can see it is a tiara. The question is what is it doing on your head?” I smiled at him hopefully, “I thought it would look better?” To make a long story short, after a ten-minute lecture my baby blue headdress and I soon became inseparable.