Dressing Room Talk (pt. 1)

| 11.2.16 |

The intermission between the Beethoven and the Brahms is the first opportunity I have during our program to sit down and breathe in the dressing room. It’s a minute – fifteen to twenty, actually – to process what just happened “out there” (on stage) during the first two dances. Usually I spend at least part of this time looking for my misplaced white Brahms socks.

Today I’m playing catch-up with the blog, which is running behind schedule. Our three-week tour is already over, and [SPOILER ALERT] I did make it through the adventure in one piece, sort of. The company is now enjoying (or suffering, depending on whom you ask) a short layoff before shifting gears again to prepare for one final NY performance in November.

Out comes the old journal, which I faithfully carried to every theater and opened several times daily to make notes on anything I classified as funny or profound at the time. I revisit scattered observations, strewn from page to page in barely legible list form, and enjoy them for their now obvious ordinariness (e.g. “sleep is a discipline,” repeated and underlined in multiple entries) and for their fairly predictable absurdity.


Journal notes


Show 1 of 8: MESA, AZ

“the day after a day off never gets easier”

“sleep is a discipline”

“never not have nerves… need nerves to perform well… think of this curve”

“every theater feels foreign but still smells like home”

Reed Tankersley sits in a chair stage left as I make my last exit in our opening performance. Reed, who faces a seemingly insurmountable ten + minutes/fourteen variations of solo dancing each time the curtain goes up on the Brahms Paganini, sips his water, watches our colleagues finish the dance, and wonders aloud why we bother to practice in the studio when we must start each new day on stage with a fresh set of obstacles – new lights, slippery costume tights, backstage space, onstage anticipation.

I wonder the same thing. The stage is so different from the studio and each stage is different from the others. Every night we go “out there” on this tour we’re in what feels like uncharted territory.

I’ve noticed Reed is particularly good at keeping his cool. He doesn’t admit to many pre-show nerves. I do. For this show, I could claim their necessity. The better I learn these dances, the harder they actually get and the more effort it takes for me to motivate myself to tackle their physical demands. Bright lights and a big house full of people are usually good for a heavy dose of adrenaline, which I savor as soon as I feel its electricity in my abdomen. I might be an addict. Or an armchair psychologist calculating how to best optimize performance by hitting that sweet spot on the Yerkes-Dodson curve. College psych, if nothing else, taught me how to efficiently oversimplify my crazy and file it under larger psychological phenomena. It’s a very productive exercise.


Bright lights, Daniel Baker, and makeshift barres in Modesto
Bright lights, Daniel Baker, and makeshift barres


Show 2 of 8: TUSCON, AZ:

“forget hotel room number. too embarrassed to consult concierge. try plastic key in multiple doors. third time is indeed charm”

“unglamorous backstage transitions”

“guys = chill post debate warmup. How many tendus does it take, really?”

I chat with Ramona, who has made her Country Dances debut in Mesa. We’re laughing about how often we are actually giggling out loud together on stage (see “Playing Favorites”) and soon moving on to our program’s most stressful show moments. Believe it or not, they mostly happen offstage in the dressing room. There’s nothing graceful about finishing Country Dances bows and barreling into the dressing room in sweaty pants and stockings, trying to put what you just danced out of your mind while you comb your crusty hairsprayed braids into a chignon in time to squeeze into a tight-fitting dress – still sweaty – run up to stage, towel off, swig water, and practice a few steps before the curtain rises on you transformed into an impenetrably cool seductress.

After a few intermissions spent running around in a nearly naked panic looking for extra hairpins, I realize for my colleagues’ sake and my own I need to get this transition down to a science.


About to dominate this quick intermission change
About to dominate my quick intermission change


Implementing efficiency is what the company vernacular, now an almost verbatim study of Twyla’s methods, might label “putting a good mechanism into place.” This system will govern exactly what I complete and in what order during the first intermission. (1. Pin new hair twist, 2. Apply darker lipstick, 3. Change from orange shoes to gold shoes, 4. Change from orange outfit to black dress, 5. Eat 1/3 banana, 6. Apply hair spray, 7. Swig water, 8. Call on Sydney for necessary emergency stitches (SHOES/COSTUMES hopefully not INJURY but that has also happened), 9. Head to stage at 5 min call, 10. Do some abs, 11. Practice a few steps, 12. Say hi to Matt, 13. Do some glute exercises, 14. Sip water, 15. Proceed to stage right wing, 16. Initiate “merde” exchange with Nick/Ronnie.) Here our Wardrobe Director Sydney  – “Syd” or “Sydlicious” – is extraordinary: She knows each dancer’s backstage routines better than we do. She’s already carrying the hairspray I forgot to bring with me to the stage and is waiting in the wings to fix my messy bun between entrances.

The second presidential debate airs the afternoon of our second tour performance. While one party of dancers diligently pays its tendu dues, another turns its focus first to the debate in the theater green room. Priorities here have ostensibly less to do with the preferred candidate than they do with dressing room assignments. Read into that what you will.


Warming up with Ashlee Dupre
Warming up with Ashlee Dupre


Despite a thorough, self-taught ballet class, I still have a rotten show and wonder, as I often do, if my warm-up was a waste of time. “Must find better mechanism” noted in journal.


Show 3 of 8: MODESTO, AZ

“sleep is a discipline”

“Al gives good grammar notes”

“never take it easy in tech rehearsal, if nothing else gets you the guilt will”


“hospitality hoarders”

Our group is pretty self-sufficient when it comes to diligently putting our show up in a new place without supervision. Still, as our company manager (AL BRADY, written in caps here to give his name Twyla-like emphasis) answers emails (several of them mine), teaches master classes, and serves as unofficial company life coach, he also looks after the dances when he can, giving us notes on what he sees from the front of the theater’s house.

Twyla trusts her dancers. Al also does not interfere too much with our rehearsals right before a show. He comes back after Country Dances and offers a single correction as he watches two dancers pause to discuss the mechanics of a tricky partnering sequence that descends to the floor.

“You guys? I know it’s confusing, but it’s ‘lie,’ not ‘lay.’”


Amy Ruggiero adding the team name to a theater's "Wall of Fame"
Amy Ruggiero adding the team name to a theater’s “Wall of Fame”


We are an unlikely little family, this group of dancers, but we take care of each other like no company I’ve ever known. Occasional tension, frequent tough love, and limitless respect for one another all serve to keep this team together. #teamtharp is at its best only when we’re each in top form.

Everyone also has his/her own demons. That’s their business.

Here’s mine.

Remember when I said I was working on eliminating my bizarre, ritualistic pre-show behavior?

Against Twyla’s good advice, I decide based on existing poor performance record to add two Aleve to my daily anti-inflammatory schedule and to dance full out in all further rehearsals. By our third city the company has agreed on what we need to change to keep draining theater days streamlined: In each of our new “homes,” where we must always walk through the dances early during the day to practice with spacing and lights, we will take as little time as possible in between pieces so as to finish our tech with hours to recover before the performance. This means I’ve made my afternoon “show” harder than the [real] evening one, and I’m particularly crabby until the first one is out of the way and lunch arrives.

I’ve mentioned hospitality before — it’s our midday meal catered to the theater for convenience between our early rehearsals and late performance. It’s our company’s version of craft services, and up until recently the source of a few fairly acrimonious tour town hall meetings. Everyone has his or her preferences, myself included. One likes pasta with red sauce, another cold cuts sans bread. One hates veggies, another requires veggies but never before a show. We’ve employed moderated discussions, team captains, and plenty of votes to compromise on a suitable spread.


Hospitality arrives and Matthew Dibble serves a healthy salad


Ever stingy with per diem dollars, I make my usual sandwich then hustle a salad into my Tupperware for after the show. And fill my bag with a few pieces of fruit. And stash some candy in my pocket. And grab a few granola bars and bottles of water. And a can or two of Coca-Cola. A little more candy finds its way into my pocket before I force myself to leave the room.

In Modesto, I have what feels like a strong show, finally, and am unabashedly relieved that the day’s self-torture was a success. The company hangs in the hotel lobby and catches up with Ramona’s parents, who have driven down from Berkeley to see us. I skip the soggy looking salad I stole from our earlier buffet in favor of some chicken wings. Whoops. I later spend about 20 minutes trying my hotel key in different doors. Whoops again. This happened in Tuscon, too. Where are we, again?


En route to somewhere in SoCal



One Response to “Dressing Room Talk (pt. 1)”

  1. Wendy Diamond

    I have enjoyed reading all of your posts, and was flattered you mentioned us! It is always a relief to read intelligent personal stories. Xo, Wendy


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