Some of the most memorable experiences I’ve had on stage were when I was dancing in the ensemble of the Radio City Christmas Spectacular show. I was eighteen years old, had just graduated high school, and was both thrilled and nervous to start my professional career sharing the stage with the Rockettes.
Like every professional job I would be dancing in, the rehearsal process for this show was strenuous; nine-hour days of learning and memorizing choreography, while running to costume fittings and eating handfuls of granola during our five-minute breaks. What made this show remarkably different from my training as a student was the importance of “marks” – specific spots onstage that dancers stand on for every dance, step, and movement. At the front of the Radio City stage are a series of numbers, and covering the stage are patterns and designs that the dancers use to ensure they are always in straight lines and formations. Our rehearsal stage had these exact numbers and designs, and I learned early on in the rehearsal process that missing my mark was inexcusable – that being even half of a step off would dramatically affect the symmetry of the Rockette line. Consequently, after every rehearsal, we were expected to remember all of our numbers and marks perfectly before the next day – so I would spend my rehearsal breaks writing down all of my spots and every night memorizing them.
After two weeks of learning the show and one week of technical and dress rehearsals, we packed up our things, loaded up on the tour bus, and began touring the Radio City Christmas Spectacular Show. The tour would last from October to January, beginning in Rhode Island and ending in Texas, and involved a cast of Rockettes, ensemble dancers, singers, kids, two santas, a full tech crew, four sheep, a camel, and a donkey.
Unlike the dancers in the Rockette line, who got one day off per week, the ensemble dancers were given time off for only one show – so of the 100 shows in the run, I would performing in 99 of them. It was around the 46th show that one of the most memorable – and embarrassing – moments of my performing career took place.
Near the end of the Radio City Christmas show, right before the final song “Shine Out!”, the entire cast goes on stage for “The Living Nativity”; the cast was costumed as shepherds, Mary, and Joseph, while a slow procession of the camel, donkey, and three kings walked from stage right to stage left. I was a shepherd, dressed in a floor-length brown robe with my “Shine Out” costume – a short silver skirt with a shiny purple jacket and 3-inch heels – beneath it. I was tired from performing two shows earlier that day and knowing that after the show we’d have to pack up the tour bus and drive to a different city the next morning. I let my mind wander as the camel walked across, listening to the expected “oohs!” and “ahhhs!” coming from the front row.
The donkey came next, walking normally about ten feet behind the camel, until it came to a sudden stop just left of center stage. The animal trainer pulled the rope around the donkey’s neck, but the animal wouldn’t budge. I turned my eyes to my friend Sam, a fellow shepherd who was standing a level lower, then back to the donkey who, by this time, had started pooping in the middle of the stage.
There was nothing we could do but watch the donkey do his business. I swear, that donkey must have been holding it in for days– and it wasn’t until the animal started moving again that I realized the mound of poop was right on my mark for the final number.
The scene change from The Live Nativity to the final song was too quick for a clean up to take place, so I had to make a decision – to stand on the poop and be on my mark, or avoid the poop and stand off of it. By the time our dresser had pulled off my shepherd costume and I was walking up the three flights of stairs to the top of the stage, I knew what I had to do. I had to step in the poop.
I entered, singing the final song and walking down the stage steps in unison with the rest of the ensemble. When I reached the bottom of the stairs I walked briskly downstage with the rest of the ensemble, my head held high. I tried not to let it phase me – the huge mound that was now releasing a horrible odor to everyone within its range. I smiled, bigger than usual, turned to stage left, stepped in the poop, and slipped into the hands of the girl walking carefully behind me.
The slip didn’t fling me backwards into the mound – thank God – but it made me lose my footing so both of my heels were covered in it. I turned, faced the audience, and could hardly finish the song without joining in on the laughs coming from the audience.
That night, for the first time in my life as a dancer, I was able to laugh at myself onstage. I was able to let go and not take myself or my profession so seriously, after ten years of strenuous training, as a student. After dancing with Radio City, and beginning my profession as a ballet dancer, these moments of letting go hardly took place; my goal to achieve perfection would, in many ways, cloud my enjoyment of the art form.
But in those hard moments of my ballet career, I always remembered that moment of laughing, of letting go, and of being okay with imperfection.
And for that, I thank the donkey for taking that dump where he did.