Dancing Shoes

When I think of my childhood, I often want to scream.

The urge flickered in me Friday night as I stepped up to the line of broken tape on the bar room floor, four paces from the dart board. I tried to distract myself with humor and bravado, with pints of Manny’s and with the classic funk that THEmediocres played on stage.

It didn’t work.

I curled my palm around three yellow darts, strutting past my friends with a swagger that said how confident I was. “Watch this, bitches,” I said, raising an eyebrow before focusing my eyes to aim. Inside, a small voice pleaded, Please don’t watch this.

I felt the weight of the first dart leave my hand instants before a rush of thankfulness when it stuck. It wasn’t just the three of them looking at me, but most of the regulars at Poggie Tavern who watched, their eyes heavy on my shoulder blades.

I threw the second dart and Kristen let out a whoop, jumping into the air. I didn’t care what my score was, or even know how the game worked, honestly. All I cared about was getting the darts into the board. I dreaded the thought of missing.

I rolled the last dart in my fingertips and smiled. Not because I was happy, but because I wanted them to think I was at ease. I glanced around at the barflies, all of whom were much older—gray-haired and pattern-balding men with paunchy beer guts next to wizened old ladies with creases seared deep from decades of smoking. They were the reason that all the bar stools sagged.

Then there was us: four late 30-somethings with whiskered denim and form-fitting shirts that showed off our trim bodies. We ate salads; they ate Funyuns. They watched us closely, interlopers who had conscripted their banged-up dart game.

I held my breath and let the last dart fly from my hand, looking away with relief as soon as I heard it hit home. When I looked up, I couldn’t believe my luck. There it was, still wavering from the force of my throw, right in the bullseye. There was a gleam in Matt’s eye as he double high-fived me, saying “Daaaaamn girl!”

I shrugged and acted as if it was nothing, mugging for an invisible camera. I prayed that no one noticed my hand shaking as I drank from the pint glass, already apprehensive about my next turn.

In that instant, I cursed my formative years, which I had spent avoiding my father and the blistering Arizona sun. Together, they sent me running inside an air-conditioned ranch house to get lost in books rather than exploring what I could do outside. Over time, I learned to over-inhabit my mind and under-inhabit my body.

Looking back, it makes me damned angry.

This disconnect—finding more comfort in thinking, reading or writing instead of playing or doing—comes up often as an adult, especially in Seattle where people climb mountains, run trails, ski, bike and snowboard, and lob all manner of balls at each other. Underneath my sometimes forced participation in these activities lurks my fear of heights, falling and revealing my utter lack of coordination. I even cringe at small feats… like throwing darts in front of an audience.

Public speaking, which is in itself a physical sport, has always felt equally uncomfortable to me. That same deep-seated apprehension is one of the reasons that I applied for the Jack Straw writers program; it’s something that I’m struggling with as I learn to reshape what I write for performance rather than reading.

Let’s face it: writers are cowards to a degree. Most of us prefer to work behind the scenes. Sharing my thoughts in a book or my blog may seem brave (and on a certain level is), but I’m far removed from my readers’ reactions despite their ability to post comments. I’m broadcasting rather than conversing with or physically entertaining someone.

Learning to perform stories that engage a live audience… that takes coordination. It takes training and skill. It takes guts. To perform, you have to condition like an athlete. Sometimes, like at my practice reading, you have to fail a little to improve.

We gathered at Jack Straw Productions in the U-District on Saturday for our workshop with Elizabeth Austen of KUOW. As she walked us through methods for practicing and performing our readings, she addressed our fears in ways that I wasn’t sure someone else could.

She didn’t sugarcoat our anxieties. Instead, she named them and gave them validity. She acknowledged feeling naked and, at times, paralyzed with fear herself. She said that this was a common amongst writers—also known as shy people who push pages of well-crafted thoughts under other people’s doors (…or computer screens.)

She shared her own experiences and how she continues to work through fear. From the outside, she seemed perfectly at ease; no one would have guessed what she wrestled with inside. As I studied Elizabeth, her mid-calf Frye boots planted firmly on the ground, I no longer felt alone in what I’ve always considered as the stunted childhood of a quiet kid who didn’t know how to play.

After hearing me read, I wasn’t surprised when Elizabeth suggested that I practice performing my work while doing something physical: take my essays line by line and climb stairs, dance or just move. She was somehow able to pinpoint the root of my fear, though I hadn’t shared a word of it. Actually, it scared me that she could perceive it, as I usually have people fooled.

I think she knew that, too. Elizabeth looked directly but softly into my eyes and said, “Wear comfortable flat-bottomed shoes—do all that you can to ground yourself, to be in your body. The nervousness you feel is your body giving you the energy you need to perform the task at hand.”

Trying to integrate my mind and body is what my life’s struggle has always been about, but I never expected that writing might be a way of doing so.

“It may bring you ease,” she said, “to remember that, while the performance requires you, it’s not about you. You are the vehicle and not the subject, even when you’re performing something personal.”

Hearing her say that reminded me of a man we couldn’t help staring at the night before at Poggie Tavern. Writhing like a charmed snake, he was drawn past us toward the live music, slithering this way and that, his long brittle hair reminiscent of Neil Young, his papery skin like Keith Richards. He was a hard-ridden late 50-something, the kind that still had a little muscle tone under his unbuttoned shirt. Maybe he fixed motorcycles or drove cranes.

He wore homemade denim leg warmers over black pants and layered several long necklaces over his bare tanned chest. When his movements pulled his shirt open, the chains and medallions jangled together, brushing over his chest hair and nipples, which stood erect. We couldn’t see his eyes at first under his mirrored sunglasses. As he whipped his head down, he removed them with a sweep of his arm, like it was all part of the act. It probably was.

Kristen and I stood transfixed, smiling not so much as to make fun of him, but because he was so wild and unfettered. He was a good dancer, or—more aptly—his body and the music danced with each other. Though there were other people swaying nearby, all eyes moved to him.

What I realized was, his body was telling a story that we couldn’t have perceived without him. The music was around all of us, but it wasn’t until we saw what he could do with it that we truly understood the energy behind it. His dance compelled us. It made people get out of their chairs and join him.

I respected that he was so overcome by the story of the music that he freed his body with it. He was a conduit for an experience that entertained us; it required him, but it wasn’t about him. It wasn’t about perfectly executing the dance, either; if he was self-conscious about making mistakes, we couldn’t tell.

Instead, his dance was about sharing something that we could all identify with and wanted to connect to ourselves. True to Elizabeth’s rule, I remembered that he wore a pair of flat cowboy boots that kept him grounded between every twist and reel.

On the way out of our session, I thanked Elizabeth and thought, I may not be at his level when I present my first reading at Jack Straw next month, but I sure as hell plan on wearing my Timberlands.

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