This post got a little dark; we'll be back to cheerful tomorrow.
A quietness, a sharp attentiveness snaps over a room when a choreographer is blocking a number, putting dancers in their positions on stage. As in life, it all seems grandly random and happenstance--the instructor dawdling among the dancers like an over-pollened bumble bee, the syncopated ”you’re here, you’re here, you: here” that you can’t anticipate--a microscopic lesson in being in the right place at the right time. And, as in life, the results endure. Zig and your final pose is next to the lead; zag and you’re fighting off the back curtain to stay in the stage lights.
For as many warm feelings that have surfaced during my participation in 42nd Street, there’s some pain here too. There are larger lessons I learned on stages like this one.
I have spent a lot of time fighting off the back curtain. When I was eleven or twelve--after I shot up five inches in the summer before sixth grade--the back row stopped feeling like an errant bounce of the uneven ball of life and started feeling like an evitability. I was the person who danced behind the person everyone was watching. Chance became fate, randomness truth; I felt destined to be filler, to be not-seen. My first lesson in one of the great themes in Western thought came not broadly to my mind from Achilles and Oedipus but acutely to the pit of my stomach every time I was taken gently by the shoulders and guided to the last line of placemarkers at my dance studio. The memory pricks at my little eleven-year-old ego even now. This, apparently, was who I was. I was a back-row dancer.
And so--though I am an adult now, though dancing has been demoted from life’s passion to life’s diversion, though I dance only for fun, though so much has changed since I was that too-tall 14-year-old thrashing about for any identity other than the one that kept being handed to me--my fate has caught up with me again. Seemingly by chance (but of course, I know, not by chance at all) I was pointed repeatedly to my spots throughout this show: back line. Behind her. Back line. Then behind her. The old rhythm had not skipped a beat, and it pounded in my heart now with the ache--or the memory of the ache--of half my lifetime ago. Back line. Behind her. Back line. Behind her. This is still who I am.
I was embarrassed at first to be taken so swiftly back to the old, small place where I could feel so wrecked, my person so undermined, by a spot in a line. But this is one of the things I carry with me from the time I spent dancing, the thing that has translated most seamlessly to the rest of life.
There has been and probably always will be a piece of me that prickles at the sense of failure that accompanies dancing in the back. (Tell me--you must feel it too.) Dancing in the back is always lacking. You’re doing what they’re doing up front, except you’re in shadow, you’re in glimpses, you’re disparate portions longing to be whole. It’s the physical embodiment of all existential anxiety: you can only ever be part-seen, part-appreciated, part-known, part-recognized, part-loved. And yes, you always, always, always would rather be seen fully. Known fully. Loved fully. You want to shake the world and have the world shake with you. Spatial realities require back lines, I reason with myself; there are necessarily more dancers than soloists. Also, get it together: you’re an adult. But still comes that eleven-year-old’s pain in the pit of my stomach: you need to be hidden.
All this ache leads somewhere, and it’s not into a tiny box I put away when I return to my “real” life. I’ve been dancing in the back far too long for that. Because, as I discovered long ago, as I’ve been recently reminded, there is a larger beauty in dancing backup. In the front row, you learn how to dance: how to perform, how to point a toe, how to captivate an audience. You learn those things in the back row too, but there’s more. In the back row, you learn how to live.
Consider Crash Davis in the film Bull Durham, the sports-flick equivalent to back-up dancing. Crash is an aging minor-league ballplayer who is not quite talented enough; Nuke is a general doofus but also, maddeningly, a baseball god. At the end of the film, Nuke inevitably Forrest-Gumps his way onto a major league team, and Crash is traded one last time in the minors, where he hits his record-breaking home run to no fanfare. (“Fuck this fucking game. I fucking quit,” Crash says early in the movie. Not twenty seconds pass: “Who we play tomorrow?”) Crash’s story about disappointment, about perseverance without reward, about unfulfilled aspirations, about loving something that doesn’t completely love you back, about the world’s vast indifference to most people’s world-shaking--this story is the human one. In reflection, the narrator Annie Savoy quotes Thomas Gray at the end of the film:
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,Oof. It’s grown-up time now.
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.
And so it is grown-up time in the back row. You dance though people probably aren’t watching you, you smile though no one sees your face. The world is largely apathetic; it loves no one fully, and the back row teaches you that. The grace lies in plugging away just the same, in smelling sweetly for empty desert air. The back row teaches you to let go of petty jealousies, to see instead the greater whole you can take part in, to be thankful for being there even when things don’t go your way. (Most things won’t go your way.) The back row opens your eyes to the vast talent and loveliness around you. (People are rich, rich, rich with talent and loveliness.) The back row shows you how to live in deep contradiction with yourself. (Is there another way?)
In short, in the back row, you learn that life won’t feel fair. Fortunately, though, it’s usually very, very beautiful.