Writing Stage

February 26, 2019 § 12 Comments


By Jessica Ribera

I’m a performer to my very core, a person who aced every Show-and-Tell, a woman who never met a mic she didn’t adore. I started life as a ballet dancer reveling in stage time and show people. But context is everything. No one likes to be conspicuous, not even performers. They love standing out–but only in their proper places, the stage or the audition. My current, stay-at-home writer/mom gig hasn’t provided too many theater settings. Now I’m conspicuous: a flamingo in street clothes.

Sometimes I wax on about things no one else thought were weird. “You guys! That Uber ride! We were packed like sardines, but no one was talking! His breath was SO strong, and we kept hydroplaning, then “Don’t stop, get it, get it…” played, and I’m thinking WE’RE LISTENING QUIETLY TOGETHER TO A VULGAR SEX DESCRIPTION, and I. Almost. DIED!!!!”

But I hear, “That’s just Uber.”

I feel crazy. But I promise myself to work the scene into a piece of writing.

In conversations, I often worry I’m moving too much, monologuing about something no one else cares about. I wonder if they’re thinking, She’s interesting… or GEEZ, I thought she’d never shut up. But if someone clicks a link, they’re interested. So onto the paper it goes.

I regularly sit on my hands and wrap my legs to keep from dancing N’Sync’s “Bye Bye Bye,” lip-syncing “California Dreamin’” or performing the entire choreography of The Nutcracker in waiting rooms and grocery stores.

I hear a lot of, “You have to come to keep the conversation going.” Or, “show us a dance!” The invitations remind me of the career and colleagues I’ve lost. Rather than enjoying the opportunity to perform, I do it with a touch of sadness. I puzzle over it all by typing.

Once, in my child-filled minivan, Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You” demanded that I pull over. The thought of backup dancers all working together behind full-force Mariah so thoroughly clouded my eyes with longing, I couldn’t see through my windshield.

Lonely and conspicuous, I pour my performer self onto the page. Writing hasn’t yet solved the need to dance, but I’m finding an audience who love to read about it.

***

Recently in New York, I bought tickets to see a former colleague dance in Aladdin. Jace and I hadn’t seen each other in 20 years, but dance company friends are family, worth vacation cash.

I spent an insane amount on double scotches in adult sippy cups then settled in with friends. When Jace danced on stage, I misted like a mom at graduation.

You’re front and center, baby! On Broadway!

He’s tapping! On Broadway!

He was speaking lines! Popping through trap doors! Taking a curtain call! On Broadway! My pink palms stung with enthusiasm.

We girls smugly pushed past all the kids and parents waiting at the stage door, our names on the list. I admired the bulletin board, covered in call sheets perforated with a million pushpin holes, each one the memory of a callback, letter of dismissal, or renewed contract. There was a familiar lack of opulence, lots of poured concrete, and metal stairways. Pressed to the side, I shyly smiled at the exhausted performers exiting to cheap dinner, stiff drinks, and long subway rides. I wanted to shout, “I’m in your club!” and follow them out.

Jace came around the corner and I wrapped my arms around his sweaty muscles. “I am so proud of you.” He laughed in my ear and hugged me. “Want the tour?”

The New Amsterdam is the second-oldest theater in Manhattan. Huge photos of Ziegfeld Follies girls line the walls backstage. Jace was a great tour guide, like someone trained at Disneyland. But I honestly didn’t care for factoids. I wanted to gaze toward the house seats and beam into the balconies. My back straightened and clavicle spread. I pressed into my hyper-extended knees, and my feet turned out involuntarily. My little nostrils sucked backstage smell into my brain. It was as though someone held out white-dusted hands saying, “Remember cocaine?” And I could only answer quickly, inhaling deeply, “OH. MY. GOSH. YES.”

Costumes had Sharpie names in them same as ever. Lit mirrors showed no technological improvement. I could see the trap doors and tricks. Every mark on the stage directed me: “strike a pose!” While Jace answered questions in the wings, I stole back to center stage and sank into a perfect 180-degree split in my mom jeans and cheetah sweater.

Memories swished through me, but one thought rose to the surface:

This just can’t be over.

***

Barely into my career, a stagehand’s mistake sent me crashing to the floor and ruined my back. Devastated and no longer fit for classical ballet, I was dismissed from my places to be safely conspicuous. I retreated to practical pursuits: college, marriage, clean house, pregnancies.

I’m wildly thankful for my family.

I miss that old self terribly.

Dancing on the page helps me find and reincorporate her. Like Roald Dahl’s BFG, I package sensations to blow into people’s ears. Maybe the effort will reveal a path back to theater, my true home. For now I write to build my own stages and studios. I shout from the page, “Come in! See my thoughts. Add your feelings. Let’s be conspicuous!”

_________________________________________
Jessica Ribera moved to Seattle at 17 to dance with the Pacific Northwest Ballet. Now, she lives there with her husband and four wild children. Her work has appeared in The Mighty, Scary Mommy, the Brevity blog, Fathom Magazine, and Red Tricycle. The Almost Dancer, her memoir of dance and disaster will be published by White Blackbird Books in 2019. Find her as @jeskybera on Twitter and @thealmostdancer on Instagram.

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§ 12 Responses to Writing Stage

  • Annie McF says:

    As a mother to four young adult children, sheepishly allowing decades of repressed ambitions to percolate to the surface, this essay resonates. The feeling of “crazy” receiving only blank stares as response to a well-spun observation on the fly. How blessed are we as readers to know your performer self is populating pages for us to wallow in.

  • This is so great. I was also a ballet dancer as a girl but as it turns out writing is a much better fit for my inconspicuous personality. (Though I still do quite a bit of Nutcracker in grocery store aisles.) Once ballet’s in you, it’s in to stay. I look forward to reading more of this author!

  • kim4true says:

    I love this, Jessica. It speaks to so very many women who have given up their passions of performing or travel or just competing in the cut-throat world to stay home and raise children. That yearning, that “this can’t be over” feeling is so strong in your story.

    • jeskybera says:

      Thank you! The more I hone this whole “almost” concept, the more people identify with it. Motherhood comes with a lot of sacrifice and decision-making for sure.

  • mksksdd says:

    Jessica!!! I love you AND this article. You can still do the splits!! The last time I did those was when my last child was born. Your writing and emotions and outlook are incredible, don’t stop, please, for all of us who still sing as the Grammy’s, receive Tony’s and earn Emmy’s if only in our heads.

    • jeskybera says:

      Thank you! And birth splits… yep, i know the feeling! All these sweet comments are encouraging as I work toward book launch. I think y’all will like it!

  • equipsblog says:

    Your writing became much more lyrical and natural when you started writing about dancing. Maybe you should try writing a novel or a memoir or a how-to book on a subject you clearly love and know a great deal about. Are you able to teach dancing in your local community?

    • jeskybera says:

      My memoir of ballet and beyond should be out this year! Thank you for the thoughts. I’ve tried teaching; it satisfies a very different need than performing, at least for me. I’m definitely thinking about how best to employ my dance knowledge. Reviews? Critique? Something? It’s fun to think about!

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