Fame: no pain, no gain

30 September 2009

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Three expressionless faces were looking at me from the table at the front of the room.

In the giant mirror behind them, I thought I could see myself shaking as my clammy hands proffered the CD I’d been clutching.

Self-consciously I flattened the hastily written number sticking to the stomach of my leotard.

For years I had a casual relationship with dance. But this audition was the beginning of a passionate affair.

I was 18 years old and in Year 12.  While my friends were writing university applications, I was choreographing audition routines for performing arts colleges.

Everyday after school I would lock myself in my parents’ garage and dance. Considering my lacklustre academic performance, it’s amazing how much dedication I could muster in that garage.

Now, four years later, my relationship with dance has ended.  I still hold dance dear to my heart, but we drifted in different directions.

Occasionally we bump into each other and I remember how much I miss my old flame. But all relationships are tumultuous.

One such meeting with dance was last night, when I went to see Fame. My relationship with dance was intimate and long — 18 years, in fact — so it was a hard habit to kick.  In the film, I saw dance being loved by others. Despite thinking I was ready to move on, Fame made me realise that I’m not.

Based on a 1980 film by the same name, Fame documents the inspiring story of talented young performers who attend the New York High School for the Performing Arts, PA. The real high school closed in 1984 and was replaced by LaGuardia High School of Performing Arts. Singers Kelis and Liza Minelli; actors Jennifer Aniston and Robert De Niro; and dancers Arthur Mitchell and Annabelle Gamson attended ‘La G’. Their own shigh school experiences were probably similar to that of the characters in Fame.

In the opening scene, dancers, singers, actors and musicians descend on PA for an arduous audition. Dancers sport familiar numbered labels on their chests as they stretch in anticipation. The musicians make a racket as they tune and the actors recite tongue twisters. It’s like an episode of Australia’s Got Talent.

From their first day as freshman, Fame follows the lives of the successful applicants for four years of lessons, budding romance, restrictive parents and growing friendships until their graduation performance. It’s inspiring how they leap over hurdles to succeed.

I recognise the hope they have in their new liaison with their craft. They’re in the honeymoon phase, where I was before my relationship came to a bitter and bloody end.

Although Fame isn’t all extraordinary tales of talent and success, it fails to illuminate the sacrifices performers make for their craft. From my experience, dancers (in particular) have a love/hate relationship with their chosen careers. Behind closed stage doors of professional performing arts institutions lurks fear, aggression, poor self esteem, eating disorders, fierce competition and even fiercer criticism.

Despite the hazards to come, the naive dancer begins his/her journey with a letter full of hope.

When I received my acceptance letter I thought this was ‘it’; I was finally going to do what I always wanted to do ‘when I grew up’. I was off to professional dance school. Nine hours a day, six days a week.

Dance was flirting with me and I was ready to take our friendship to the next step.

The first few weeks of school were tiring but invigorating. In the dressing room, the gardens or in the studio between classes, students would break spontaneously into choreography. The air was buzzing with creativity.

I made new friends who understood how I felt about my budding new romance. They too were testing the waters of love.

Like all relationships that end, things began unravelling slowly. Dance was a high-maintenance, demanding partner. It began to be physically and emotionally exhausting trying to keep up. What’s more, I had started to ditch my old friends to spend time with my new love not because I wanted to, but because I was forced to.

My performing arts school was one of the most highly regarded in Melbourne, and so it had a reputation to uphold. It produced excellent, renowned performers — but at a price. Discipline was highly valued. Appear late to class and you would be told to do 30 push-ups immediately. Slack off during a routine and you would be handed a cloth to clean the mirrors.  It was nothing short of being in the military.

Like the army, we had a strict uniform. Wearing nothing but a grey leotard and pink tights meant that it was difficult to hide anything. If you ate too much for lunch or a bit too much chocolate the preceding weekend, the teacher would kindly tell you — in front of the class — that you should arrange an appointment with the nutritionist. My lover dance liked ‘em thin.

To keep trim, it was compulsory to attend gym sessions three times a week despite our six-day dance schedule. We had to use a specific gym so that our school could keep track of our visits. I enjoyed the gym as it was away from barking teachers, yet all I could think about were my growing insecurities within my withering relationship.

I was the thinnest I had ever been, but still not thin enough. Everyone’s leotards were dark with sweat and our legs shaking from exhaustion but we were all told that we didn’t try hard enough. I damaged hamstrings by pulling my feet over my head, but I wasn’t flexible enough. I jumped high, but not high enough. No matter what I did, dance was never pleased — a sign of a broken relationship that I simply couldn’t ignore.

The clincher was a wound too deep to heal. Love hurt, and so did a hip injury.

In Fame there was no mention of how precariously balanced a dancers career is. When your livelihood relies on the state of your body, but everyday you are forced to push it to its limit, the level of risk is high.  Love is a battlefield.

Dance and I parted ways but I will always remember my first true love.

When I see my old flame with someone new I taste the bitter flavour of regret. Maybe we could have worked a way through our differences. But maybe dance just wasn’t “the one”.

Kelly Theobald is a final-year Bachelor of Journalism student at La Trobe University.  This piece was also published on her blog, at Music Meets Girl