It was mid-January in New York City, and I had been standing in line for three-and-a-half hours to audition for Madonna. When I arrived early that morning, I wasn’t shocked to see the procession of hopefuls snaking down and around two city blocks. Madonna was in her urban cowboy phase, so there were literally thousands of dancers shivering away on Lafayette Street wearing bedazzled cowboy hats, suede pants and tiny tasseled tops.
“The rest of you, thank you very much.”
One time I performed with a group for “Showtime! at the Apollo.” My fellow black and Latino company members walked onstage first, and I, a dark-haired, non-threatening Italian girl, followed close behind. As soon as I appeared, the crowd began to boo. It was all I could do to make it through the number without crying. But afterward, I convinced myself it was deserved. Because what right did I have to step foot onstage at the Apollo?!
Hundreds and hundreds of auditions and hundreds of callbacks later, my experiences didn’t change. Choreographers pulled me aside to tell me, “You got this, girl. I can’t wait to work with you.” Then I’d get the “thank you very much” from the producer.
Why? I looked too young, they said. My nose was too big, they said. I needed to lose five pounds, they said. Or just silence...no reason given at all. I would find out later that the Dominican girl with the shaky technique got the job. Or the fiery redhead with the killer boobs (and not-so-killer rhythm). I started to connect the dots.
Maybe producers were only concerned about appealing to a distinct male aesthetic: all-American sexy or exotic, i.e., “ethnic.” Still, I had a hard time believing a girl-next-door brunette couldn’t find a job in this town. Was I blowing it all up because I wasn’t getting the jobs? Maybe I just wasn’t a very good dancer?
Trust me, I would have rather heard, “You weren’t good enough. You didn’t have the skills.” Those were things I could work on and control. I tried tarting it up instead, wearing hair extensions, losing weight, going to the tanning salon, lightening up my hair and adding blonde highlights, putting on what Carrie Bradshaw so aptly titled “ghetto gold,” my hoop earrings dangling from my ears like great yellow pretzels. Those angles mostly didn’t work. They certainly didn’t help me with the Knicks City Dancers.
I had a good friend from my college dance team days who became the captain, and then the coach, of the KCD. I slept over her house. I held her hair when she puked after one-too-many drinks. She sat in the judges’ row and gave me encouraging smiles. But she always looked a little uncomfortable. One year, she called me up on the phone and gave me a warning.
“I don’t think you should come to auditions this year,” she said.
I lucked out and was hired to be in an all-female hip-hop dance troupe. We performed on actual stages, with sets, and to audiences who were there just to see dance. I was in heaven. We had good buzz. Got solid reviews in the Times. Landed representation and tour dates. Finally, after nearly 20 years of training, and five years of soul-sucking auditioning, I was doing this for real.
One Sunday afternoon, my company was working on a piece where we incorporated karate fighting into the choreography. My partner threw me down, and when I got up, I knew something was wrong. I didn’t know it then, but I had herniated a disc.
After a month of rehab and no improvement, I approached the director to discuss my future. We met in Union Square Park, across from NYU housing and the old Virgin Megastore. A loud digital clock counted down the milliseconds left in the day. I sat stiff and uncomfortable on a bench.
After my injury, I tried desperately to rehabilitate and get back in the game, but my body wouldn’t let me. I think some part of my mind was ready to move on, too. I had trained as a dancer for two decades. It was all I knew to do and all I knew to be. But it broke my heart.
Now, as a writer and a new mom, I’m standing on wobbly legs, regaining a sense of self other than Wendy, The Dancer. My injury still prevents me from doing any more than a brisk walk, and hoisting up my toddler is becoming increasingly painful. But I love my life. And I loved being a dancer.
I just wish I could have shown the world how much.