The Radio City Donkey

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. 

Radio City 2.jpg
Radio City 1.jpg
Radio City A cast.jpg

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. 

The Dying Swan

“Dad, I don’t think I can do it. I don’t think I can go on.”

I pressed my cell phone closer to my ear and glanced up at my feet. I was lying on the floor of the women’s dressing room in the Kentucky Center Theater, with my jacket beneath my head and feet perched up on a chair above me as I soaked in the smell of hairspray and sweat. I had stripped my toes of their tape and bandages so my calluses and blisters could breathe and noticed, as I listened to my dad speak to me through my cellphone, that the blister on my right heel had started to bleed again. 

“Honey, take a deep breath. You can do this. You’ve got only one more show, then you can take a nice long sleep.” 

My dad had talked me through my moments of pre-show stress and fatigue before, but this was different. Something felt very wrong.

“But…” I said as I turned my gaze up to the ceiling, “Dad, I really don’t think I can.”

Hearing myself say these words out loud brought me more fear than the thought of putting my tutu back on and dancing another show that night. I had worked my entire life for this moment – to dance as a demi-soloist in Swan Lake – and to hear myself say that I couldn’t go on for another show seemed unbelievable. To dance as a swan was a dream I never thought would come to fruition, and being casted to dance this role with the Louisville Ballet was beyond anything I could have imagined. 

Which was why it petrified me that I didn’t want to go back onstage. 

It wasn’t my pulsing ankles, sore back, bleeding toes, or infected toenail; those were aches and pains that I had learned to ignore after years of dancing. This feeling was new. It was a feeling so strong that my relentless willpower – which I frequently depended on for strength – felt diminished and weakened. As I listened to my dad’s voice I felt it grow stronger and stronger, defeating every attempt my willpower made to push it aside.

The feeling was utter exhaustion. 

Swan+Lake+2.jpg

Swan Lake is considered to be one of the most strenuous ballets for female ballerinas. It consists of four acts, each being approximately 30-45 minutes in length, during which time the women are required to dance constantly as multiple characters. In Act One, I was a townswoman, in Act Two I was a swan, in Act Three I was a princess and in Act Four, a swan again. The ballet is a four-hour sprint of switching costumes and pointe shoes, running onstage, collapsing offstage from fatigue, then running back on again. It’s every ballerina’s dream.

I hung up the phone and stared at the ceiling. I listened to my heart beating, sending a pulse up through the tips of my inflamed toes. I knew I had to perform regardless of how I felt. I had no understudy, so even if I wanted to spend the show asleep in the dressing room, there would be no one available to dance my role.

We were two hours away from curtain, which provided me with just enough time to warm up, re-tape my feet, and touch up my hair and makeup. As I rolled over to my side with all of the strength I could muster, I heard the voices of my friends coming down the hallway from dinner. I pushed myself quickly to a standing position and fell into my chair. I couldn’t let anyone know how unwell I felt. They’ll think I’m unfit, incapable, I thought, too weak to dance. They’ll regret casting me. 

I took a hefty breath, pulled my shoulders back and lifted my chin high. And in the last few solitary moments of silence I had in the dressing room, I stared at myself in the mirror and said, “let’s do this.”

Something happened during that performance of Swan Lake. It was as though my body went into autopilot; every movement, every expression, every breath felt mechanical as though I was being controlled by something greater than myself. My body reacted to the show in the same way it always had: in Act Two, after dancing “The Four Little Swans Variation” with the three other demi soloists, the four of us collapsed to the floor to give our legs a rest until our next entrance two minutes later. In Act Three, the arches of my feet cramped so intensely that I had to hold back tears during my princess solo. In Act Four, I struggled to catch my breath from dancing and inhaling carbon dioxide being poured onto the stage by two immense fog machines in the wings.

Though I tried to share in the relief and happiness my friends felt after the closing performance, I couldn’t fight the underlying thought that something was wrong with me. 

Hours later I found myself in the nearest Urgent Care, standing beside a doctor, staring at a series of X-rays of my lungs. 

“So,” the doctor said, “we’ll need to run several more tests to be sure. Right now, we just know there’s something there – we just don’t know what it is yet.” 

I looked at the doctor, then back at the X-Ray. Everything fell silent. 

I pulled my cell phone from my pocket, let my fingers dial the first number that popped into my head, and pressed my phone to my ear. 

“Mom, it’s me. I need to fly home. Tonight.”

The Audition

I walked down the narrow hallway and turned into the brightly lit room with my resume held tightly against my chest and my dance bag hanging off of my left shoulder. There were three walls lined with ballet barres and one wall covered in floor-to-ceiling mirrors. I walked to the closest corner, placed down my bag, pulled out my Ipod and headphones, and plugged away the empty sound of the room with my music. I looked up and saw five other dancers also sitting silently beside their bags, looking down at their Ipods. I checked the contents of my bag for the third time that morning – pointe shoes, pointe shoe padding, ballet shoes – then put on my heavy socks and legwarmers to warm up.

It was the Maryland Ballet audition – the first audition of the season. I had spent months preparing for this four-month season, with the hopes of  being offered a spot to dance with a company when I graduated from college. I had started auditioning when I was thirteen, and after eight years of receiving more rejection letters than acceptances and spending numerous car rides home in tears, I had finally grasped how to survive the auditions somewhat unscathed.

I flew into Maryland early that morning and took a cab straight to the studio, about an hour before registration time. Arriving early gave me time to go through my many pre-audition rituals: listening to my set music playlist, doing a series of crunches, spending thirty minutes practicing at the barre, and stretching. The worst thing to do before an audition is to acknowledge the other dancers – especially those who intentionally stand in the center of the room, pulling their legs to their ears, hoping to intimidate their competition –  which is why my eyes remained down, playing music at a high volume through my headphones, until it was time for registration. 

At eleven o’clock a woman came into the dance room, now packed with dancers, and announced that registration had begun. I picked up my resume but didn’t rush to the door; it’s best not to be the first to register. Having any numbers between “1” and “8” on your chest during an audition is a mistake – especially if the auditioner teaches the dance combinations quickly. It’s best to be numbers 10, 11, or 12. Dancers are always lined up in number-order during auditions, and those numbers always guarantee a spot in the second dance group and, very often, a spot in the front line. This always gave me more time to perfect the dance steps, yet still perform them early enough so that the judges hadn’t seen too many dancers before me.  

I counted the number of dancers walking to the door, and slipped behind the ninth girl. I followed them quietly down the hallway, turned in my resume, and pinned a piece of paper with the number “10” on my black leotard.

The audition started an hour later, and by that time all of us looked exactly the same; pink tights, black leotards with numbers pinned on them, hair pulled back in slick buns, and pointe shoes on our feet. I scanned the room for the highest number and saw one woman wearing the number “102.” We were led to the main dance room  – all one hundred and two of us – and were told to stand at the ballet barre in number order. Once we all had a spot at the barre, we were packed so tightly that I barely had enough room to open my arms to the side. 

Three women sat at the front of the room, one older woman and two fairly younger ones, behind a large table with our resumes piled in the center. I stood with my feet turned out and hands clasped behind my back, waiting for the director – a tall, thin man with glasses – to speak.

“Welcome to the Maryland Ballet audition,” he said, “I’m Robert Creed, the Artistic Director. We’ll be looking at you one at a time, so please be still and silent while you wait.”

Though no dancer spoke at these words – no one would ever dare to speak during an audition – I could sense from the energy in the room that everyone else hated these pre-audition protocols just as much as I did. The older woman stood from the table with a clipboard in her hand and walked with Mr. Creed to the dancer wearing number “1” on her chest. I looked away immediately. My heart started to race, and I could feel sweat accumulating on my forehead. I hated watching them do this to dancers – sometimes it was worse watching it than actually experiencing it. I took several deep breaths, keeping my eyes to the floor, until it was my turn.

“Stand in first position,” said Mr. Creed.

I turned out my feet as much as I could, opening my chest and pressing my shoulders down so my neck looked longer. I stared forward as the woman walked around me, writing notes on her clipboard about my body type, musculature, and proportions. 

“Tendu á la seconde,” he said. 

I followed his instructions, opening my right leg, then my arms to the side and shaping my fingers carefully, with my thumb and middle fingers curved slightly more than the others. The woman wrote for a moment, then nodded. The director walked toward me, lifted my leg and stretched it, pushing it closer and closer to my ear until it couldn’t go any farther, then released it.

“Next,” Mr. Creed said as he moved on to number 11.

After what felt like another forty-five minutes of standing, the individual evaluations had finished. Mr. Creed took the clipboard from the woman, walked to the front of the room, and cleared his throat. 

“Thank you all for coming today,” he said quickly, “as you know, there are many of you here – so I would like numbers 5, 27, 32, 34, 58 and 80 to stay. Everyone else may go.”

By this point in my dance career, I had experienced too many rejections to let myself feel upset for too long. Instead, I nodded my head and joined ninety-six other women toward the hallway and into the waiting room. All together – in perfect unison – we pulled out our phones from our dance bags and called our cabs to the airport. 

When I got to the Martin State Airport I did the same thing I had done many times before, when I had six hours to spare at a terminal during audition season. I found the nicest restaurant in the airport, ordered lunch and a glass of Sprite, bought a book, and didn’t stop reading until it was time to board my plane and go home.