The Joys of an Amateur’s Life On The Stage
The stage. A place somewhere between the Twilight Zone and Never Never land. Every time I step out on a stage as an amateur singer or dancer, anything can happen. One minute I could be singing in a group to women prisoners, another to a group of nuns. Or perhaps dancing in a performing arts theatre.
A dancing school in my home
I caught the performance bug at the age of five. My first stage was my living room, which had been converted into a ballet studio for my mother's dance school. I flitted and floated in a pale green tutu to a tinkling piano piece by Chopin and managed not to bump into the dozen awkward neighbourhood kids around me. Dancing awakened a need to perform in me that stays with me to this day. It also evoked a terror of falling on my face and being laughed at, but the pull to perform was stronger.
In the years to follow, my mother's school grew to thirty or forty kids. Once a year, hundreds of proud parents and relatives of the girls crammed into various venues to see us prance about in a recital. And prance we did: Italian tarantellas, Brahms Hungarian dances, Arabian silk swirling with belly buttons showing, "Tea For Two" tapping, and ballet classics like "Clair De Lune."
I always stood out as a performer because I was a hopelessly left-handed and left-brained person. I turned left while the other kids turned right. I became so geared to pirouetting to the right that l had a hard time turning to the left later on.
Mom sewed all the costumes and kept mounds of slippery silks, satins and other material, sequins, boots, tambourines, fake flowers by the bushel, ribbons, and net for tutus. Eight years later, some rooms in our house started to resemble an episode of "Hoarders - Buried Alive."
There were compensations however. It was easier for to me to imagine being a beautiful fairy princess with a bolt of satin sheen around me. I always had the best costume in the neighborhood every Halloween.
I just loved singing, but the one thing I hated was standing on risers when performing with the choir. I usually got stuck in the end in the third row and was terrified I would take a tumble. Then it happened. Right after a rousing performance of an excerpt of The Gondoliers, the rapturous applause of the school and our families masked a loud bang. I had fallen off from the third step onto a place where the sun don’t shine. Fortunately, the angle of the risers on stage hid me as my fellow singers helped me back up.
On to PEI with my choir
In Grade 12, my high school choir of about forty singers reached the pinnacle of achievement. First, we beat the "We Are Obviously Better, Smarter And Cuter Than You" school that had won the local music festival and most singing competitions for the last few years.
Our choir was invited to sing for a music teacher's convention in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, at the Confederation Centre of the Arts, the original home of the "Anne of Green Gables" musical.
To our surprise, we were staying in an old, no-longer used convent, and our hosts were nuns who lived in a new complex next door. These lovely ladies were very kind to us rebellious sinners and even invited us to watch a rerun of the "Beverley Hillbillies" with them. In return, we did a special musical show for them that began with the hilarious: "Oh, Jonah, oh, Jonah, had a whale of a time in a whale..." I would never have believed that a group of nuns could burst into explosions of side-splitting laughter if I had not seen it for myself.
The stage at the Confederation Centre of the Arts was a massive black void that made our choir look like little dots, but we made a hit with the crowd. We concluded one performance with a rousing rendition of Alexander's Ragtime Band. The crowd of several thousand music teachers was on their feet, clapping enthusiastically. The choir had received firm instructions to wait on stage until the curtain came down so we waited.... and waited.
There we were, both thrilled and embarrassed by the rousing ovation and longing for the relieving wall of black fabric to come down. Finally, we noticed our music director, Mr. Smith (not his real name), frantically signalling for us to exit, stage left.
Recording for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation
Six months later, the choir was asked to represent Canada in an international choir competition for CBC Radio. We were recording at a CBC studio which was the most bizarre stage ever - a grey concrete barn with black curtains on each side. The only audience was high up in a control booth, too far away for my near-sighted eyes to see.
Mr. Smith grabbed a small wooden podium to stand on and stepped onto it, baton in hand. The first song was difficult because it was sung very softly in perfect pianissimo. Soft, tittering chatter broke out in the group of excited teens. They couldn't shut up.
"I'm sorry, Mr. Smith," a voice boomed from the sound box. "We have to stop. There is too much background noise.”
"Everyone settle down," Mr. Smith said firmly. The noise of our chatter died down, but not enough. Again, the bodyless voice stopped us again for noise violations. Mr. Smith chastised us again and this time we listened. We quieted down. As we sang, the dreaded booming voice spoke again.
This time, we stared in amazement as the face of our normally easy-going teacher turned red with rage. Before Mr. Smith could blast us, however, a sheepish-sounding voice spoke from the control booth. "Mr. Smith, the noise seems to be coming from you." All of us burst into laughter when we found out that the offensive noise came from his podium. It creaked as he swayed to the music.
While I was having choir adventures, I was also performing as a dancer. My mother closed the dancing school in our house when I was in my early teens. She ran a folk dancing group through a local club.
We performed in the club and also strutted and polka-ed in shows with other ethnic groups on some pretty bizarre stages. Some bounced up and down like a bed or sagged in the middle. At one mall, someone had the bright idea to build a stage from carpeted blocks about a foot high and a few feet wide. It did not occur to them that a dancing group skipping on top would part the blocks into dangerous gaps.
Other stages were extremely slippery. One of the dance moves we made was particularly dangerous on this kind of surface. It was: sidestep, side step, grab partner on the waist and help them jump. In my case, it was: side step, side step, lift partner, slip and fall with my partner falling on top of me. Fun. Another dance that we did started in rows of pairs. We were supposed to walk out during the first eight counts of a lively dance before whirling our partners into spinning tops. The music starts, we walk, one, two, three four.... the first couple slipped and down we went like dominoes.
Performances that went well give me a tremendous sense of joy and accomplishment. I sang for about a year with a local Up With People group and performed during a national New Year`s Eve TV special. It was so cool when my classmates asked me if that was me on TV that night and I could say,"yes." Our Up with People group also performed in a variety of venues, such as a women’s prison.
My life on stage today
I currently get regular opportunities to sing on my own or with groups. I also perform dance now and then. As always, life on stage is unpredictable and full of surprises.
I intend to keep on singing until I sound like a frog (the pond kind, not like Kermit) and dancing until my walker starts getting in my way.
Photos are the property of the author.
© 2013 Carola Finch