Johnnypost 3: zero gravity

My daughter Ella takes a dance class with “Teacher Liz” at small dance studio in Elkins Park called Zero Gravity. Teacher Liz is a marvel: maybe five feet tall, pixie cute with blonde hair and a raspy voice, no doubt born of years of shouting over music to a room full of pink-clad bun-heads. She has a relentlessly positive vibe, and Ella loves her and the class. As a teacher myself, I have watched how she handles her young students, a process which looks likely to be like herding cats, and then, miraculously, becomes 8 to 12 girls between 6 and 8 years old, focusing intensely and executing a 10 minute long dance with several different sequences. I am learning about being a director watching Teacher Liz:

  • She is never judgmental, which is different than critical. When she is critical, she maintains that infectiously positive vibe, so it doesn’t feel like that nasty kind of criticism that breeds shame. Instead, she makes the girls feel like they are on an adventure with her, and she has some ideas about which way to go. She uses her authority to make others feel safe.
  • She is meticulous and organized, and even though some classes may run over, she always gives each group the hour they pay for, and she knows what she wants to accomplish with them.
  • She knows what she’s talking about, and when she doesn’t she says, “I don’t know”.
  • She trusts the process of repetition. She knows that it will feel awkward and look messy in the beginning, but her experience has taught her that repetition combined with her encouragement and guidance will allow the girls to feel safe in what they’re doing, and release into it creatively more and more.
  • She somehow makes each girl feel like she understands that girl as an individual, even while she is teaching a giant group dance. This is a kind of magic. I believe it comes from her spirit, rather than any specific technique.
  • Catastrophes don’t throw her. Case in point: the costumes we parents had to buy for the upcoming recital didn’t come to Liz as advertised. Turns out those pretty little flowers on the tutus had be hot-glued on. So, after a self-effacing “Oh my God, can you believe this!” moment as she unpacked the costumes in front of us, she asked if we wouldn’t mind gluing the roses on the tutus the following week, if she provided the glue guns. So there we were, hot gluing little roses on tutus while Liz danced with our daughters to music which might ordinarily make me blanch, but which sounded to me then like pure sweetness.

The parallels aren’t exact. But in this “pre-week” of rehearsing act one, I have been feeling my own inner director come out more and more, and he resembles Teacher Liz in some ways. We had some last minute schedule snafus, but after a moment of tension, an easy confidence swept over me. These actors are pros, they are in love with this play, and if they have an audition they have to go to so be it. We do what we can, in this not-quite-a-real-contract format we are working in.

And then there is the work in rehearsal. We began with the bear, the scene in the motel, which is challenging in a variety of ways. After voicing our concern that we might just have to put it off, we forged ahead, and then we were delighted and amazed after an hour and twenty minutes to discover that we had a good, workable sketch for the scene. Four hours later, we could say the same for each one-on-one scene with Dan and Sarah in act one. We felt a sense of accomplishment.

The three read throughs have helped I think. We are all deeply familiar with the play now, and can speak with authority about where the play/character/theme is going down the line. And we know each other, so we can just dive in without worrying too much about what the other will think of us.

And it helps that the actors have been doing a ton of work on their own. We are working off book, which makes so much so much more possible.

Zero Gravity: the state of begin released from the ground and floating, untethered. It’s where we find ourselves when we have only just learned the lines, just learned the steps, as we prepare to grow our gorgeous wings and fly.

Johnny-post 3: Zero Gravity, originally published  Friday, May 22, 2009