Saturday, May 29, 2010

My one-day-a-year family

One summer night, about five years after we got married, I got the acting bug again.

I say acting bug like I'm Lionel Barrymore or something (for those who may not know, Lionel Barrymore was mean old Mr. Potter in "It's A Wonderful Life"). I'm not. But in my younger days, I dabbled in community theater with the Saugus Towncriers (now called the Theatre Company of Saugus).

So, I said to my wife that I'd like to take another crack at Town Crying, and she said, "sure, if I can go back to dancing again."

Ah, yes, dancing. Nothing's for free, is it? I remember dancing. Part of going out with Linda back in The Day was attending the yearly dance recital. And when you're 19, the last thing you want to be going to is someone's dance recital. I can see it now, so many years later, as I sel tickets to teenage boys who slink in and out of the auditorium, hoping no one recognizes them, to make their obligatory appearance at their girl friends' recitals.

That was me ... back in the '70s.

I guess I really wanted to get back into community theater again, though, because Linda went back to taking dance lessons, and I took part first in a summer revue and then in a fall productin of "Pippin," in which, among other things, I had to learn how to dance.

Understand, the only "dancing" I'd ever done in my life is that gyrating, do-your-own-thing 60s stuff. Anything else was just a waste of time. Once in a great while, I'd do whatever you call that dance step to "Alley Cat" ... the Hully Gully, I think it is. What a stupid name for a dance step. Oh, and there's the hokey pokey ... the bunny hop. Who thinks of these things?

But here I was ... doing real dance steps under the direction of Karen Harrabine and Nancy Lemoine. I won't go so far as to say I thought I was Fred Astaire (please, I may, on a good day, think I'm Grantland Rice or John Irving, but not Fred Astaire), but I thought I did OK for a guy whose only real coordinated movement in life -- at that point, anyway -- consisted of shuffling to and from the refrigerator.

Next thing you know, I'm dancing in the men's number in my wife's recital. This was a dance that the owner of the studio -- Sandra Rice -- used to set aside for all the members of the stage crew and husbands/boyfriends of other dancers. Nothing too complicated ... perhaps three or four basic steps, some good looking costumes, and away we go, as Jackie Gleason used to say.

But oh, what a blast. We'd convene sometime after St. Patrick's Day, every Sunday night, and rehearse with Jeannie Rizzo (who had the patience of about three saints) and, by the recital (which always fell on the same day as the Preakness Stakes), we'd be in the ballpark enough with the steps to do a decent job with the dance (and get the biggest hand of the day, I might add).

I got through the first year without any trouble at all. Year two ... different story. That was the year Jeannie decided to give us props ... push brooms, to be exact.

I rehearsed all through March ... all through April ... all through May ... performed all through the dress rehearsal .. the dance even, without incident. Then, I had to go on stage for the curtain call and bow. Which I did. Right into the broom handle. Which got me right in my right eye.

That was in 1984 ... the absolute most destructive year of my life. First, I ended up fracturing the orbit bone in my cheek (it's the same one Larry Bird broke during a Celtics playoff game once). I can still remember after stabbing myself with the broom handle, lying on a couch backstage and having a woman I didn't know come up and ask me how many fingers she was holding up.

"Four," I said.

"Oh," she said, with genuine concern. "I was only holding up two."

Oh, swell. But I already knew I had double vision. I saw two of everybody. And I was pretty sure not everyone in that recital was a twin.

Thankfully, there was no permanent damage, and it was only a prelude to what happened to me later that summer when I got hit by a car door that was was opening just as I was riding past it on my bicycle. I went flying ass over teakettle, stabbing myself in the groin area with the handlebars, as I fell to the ground.

It was bad enough that happened. But what on earth do you tell people?

After the broomstick incident, Jeannie never let us dance with props again!

I stuck with it, though. The only time I'd ever see the people associated with the studio was from the time we starting rehearsing for the show through the cast party after the recital (oh, those cast parties! I can remember doing an all-nighter, and getting just enough sleep to get up and watch Game 6 of the 1986 NBA finals, when the Celtics beat Houston for the championship ... in a stupor, I might add).

That first Sunday in March was like old home week. We were all genuinely happy to see each other, and we'd have a great time at those rehearsals. It was one of those things where we never took ourselves seriously, but -- for the sake of the people who ran the show and put so much blood, sweat and tears into it -- took the dance seriously.

It was just a lot of fun.

Soon enough, however, I got talked (and I'll let you guess by whom) into take a couples tap class. That lasted for about six years, which means six years of weekly pounding on knees that were already starting to show signs of the family curse ... which is arthritis. Today, whatever cartilage support I have in those knees is due to two uni compartmental replacements (with totals to come someday in the future). I can wait. But what I can't do anymore is dance ... at least not tap dance.

Unlike the men's number, though, the tap number was serious business. The women in the class -- most of them, anyway -- could actually dance. Some of them were pretty good. We men were ham-and-eggers. And while it made for elegant staging, come the recital, to have couples up on stage going through stately tap routines, I always sweated my way through it.

The way I looked at it, nobody cared if the men goofed up their little number. The objective wasn't to be perfect (though we certainly did our best to do the dances justice). We were, in some respects, comic relief. The tap number was different. This was not comic relief. I always understood the ethic, there, and because of that I'd be petrified of screwing up during those dances.

And because I was petrified not to screw up, I always did. The men's numbers ... I never worried about screwing up ... and never did! Go figure.

One of the annual backstage rituals with the men was that we'd practice that dance endlessly. Anytime anyone ever got an opportunity to commandeer some space, we'd all be there, counting out the steps (calling them out even). Everyone except me. I always took the view that I only had so many of these dances in me before I'd start tripping all over myself, and certainly wasn't going to waste any of them dancing around behind stage, sapping all of my energy in the process.

This was just a fun period in my life. But the odd thing about it was that I'd see these people once a year ... they were my one-day-a-year family. It's funny how that works. I consider myself very good friends with a lot of these people, but this is/was the only time I ever really saw them.

I write this because the recital was last night. My wife still dances, though these days she's also the office manager. My son is on the stage crew, and he dances too. He grew up to dance with me in the men's number for a few years, which was even more fun. I wouldn't call it the usual father-son bonding experience (these days, we go to Fenway once a year; I buy the tickets, he buys the pizza and beer) but it was still a lot of fun).

I had to stop, though. For one thing, a lot of the fun went out of it when one of the guys who danced every year for about as long as I did died suddenly. It just really changed things for me. For one thing, even though I was much older, we had a similar sense of humor, and always ended up goofing off the most in those rehearsals. They just didn't the same the same after that.

The second thing is my knees just got too bad. I managed to dance through chronic back pain for several years leading up to the time when my knees totally gave out on me. But having chronic back pain and knee issues, together, was just a little too much.

So these days, I sell tickets at the door. I get to dress up in a spiffy shirt and tie, wear a badge on me that says "staff," or a lapel carnation, or something else that signifies that I'm important, and that's just fine. It keeps me associate with my one-day-a-year family.

And it's amazing how many of those same people are in place. Some of the old students have come back to teach, and some of the staff members who were there in 1983, when I started, are still going strong! And every year, a lot of the people who have come and gone come back just to see the show, so it's always a nice reunion.

The only thing is that the cast parties are much more sedate than they used to be. And that's probably a good thing. They were a lot of fun when I was 30. They tend to wear you out more when you're 57. Just one more indication that getting old is overrated ... though, as one woman to whom I pointed this out last night said, "yeah, but it beats the alternative."

And I will leave you with that.

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