Lessons I Learned As a Man

You may have started reading this because you thought “What an odd title”, maybe you’re reading it for some other reason, I can only guess. What could I possibly be talking about? Well what did I learn: first that good friends will always believe in you even when you may not believe in yourself; friends are life’s glue. The second thing I learned was that confidence is not a function of how other people see you; confidence is one hundred percent your perception of yourself. Third, I learned that if you choose to you can take dilemmas and turn them into triumphs.

See, what caused this editorial today was the annual first snowfall of the season. There has been and always will be a special spot in my heart reserved just for snow; that delicious white fluffy stuff that falls from the sky like icing sugar, turning the world into a glorious cake. And with the first snowfall comes a twinge in my gut, a niggling desire to listen to Tchaikovsky. I was involved with my ballet studio’s production of the Nutcracker as long as I can remember. Even when I was too young to take part in the show I would sit in the studio during my sister’s rehearsals and dance when I didn’t think people were watching me. I envisioned myself as Clara dancing with her toy, the Snow Queen, and the Sugar Plum Fairy pirouetting under a spotlight.

Despite dancing ballet for 15 years, I never looked the “part” of the stereotypical ballerina, I was always too tall and just a little too chunky. 6-year-old me didn’t realize I would almost certainly never get to play the roles I desired so much. Ballet was like a constant correction, I learned to look in the mirror to see only things that needed to be fixed: back straighter, turn out your legs, stomach in. That’s when you begin making comparisons with the other girls in the mirror. Looking different than most girls in ballet is immediately obvious, from the start you’re told you’re strong, not delicate.

When I was still just a kid, I saw dancing as a means to an end: Nutcracker. When I was 9 my turn finally came around and I got to be a mouse. On the night of the first performance, my friends and I met up at the studio upon receiving a cryptic message from one of our classmates. Her father works for a fancy limousine company and ten minutes later a big shiny stretch drove up! It seemed so portentous, that limousine ride to the auditorium; we were truly going places!

When a place is as expensive to run as a dance studio there’s always funding politics, our school was no exception. When it came to Nutcracker, bitter enemies and rivals were formed over who got what role based on supposed favouritism. Many girls shed tears the day the cast list came up, but every year more auditioned. Of the girls in the limousine that morning in December eleven years ago, only about three of us made it to Nutcracker in grade 12. Fed up with the treatment, the expectations, or just too busy, many of my close friends stopped ballet. And despite being passed over for roles I knew I deserved, I didn’t stick around because I was a survivor. I was a coward; incomprehensibly Nutcracker meant so much to me I didn’t know how to give it up.

The performances took place in the amazing auditorium at my high school. When I was still young I would look forward to going to the school for dress rehearsals; walking into the lobby smelled like Christmas to me. I knew I’d be going there one day for high school and I anticipated, naively, that every day of school would smell like that. But as always happens in life, school didn’t smell like Christmas, it smelled like school, and the amount of time spent in the auditorium for orchestra rehearsals, musical rehearsals, assemblies, concerts, and hanging out with friends left it feeling homey. What had once felt like a world stage now felt like my living room and I couldn’t take seriously our Nutcracker, with all its pomp and circumstance.

My last year of Nut felt disillusioned from the start. Nutcracker had begun as a magical land of glitter and optimism, every year  the paint chipped a bit more, and the varnish lost its shine. It didn’t help that by grade twelve I felt jaded with most aspects of my life and was ready to get the hell out of Toronto and away from the people I’d spent the last 12 years with. When the final cast list came out and I read my roles I just about threw the sheet at the feet of the venerable proprietress of the school and walked out. I kept my calm though and reread the list: 2nd Lead Snow, Master of Ceremonies, Nutcracker. I think that was the moment I rushed to the safety of the bathroom.

A MAN. I got two male lead roles; that was how she saw me? My confidence was shattered. The year before I had endured the role of Snow Cavalier, another male lead role, in the hopes that the following year I would finally be crowned Dew Drop or Snow Queen. To have my only female role be a 2nd lead snow not even a 1st lead! It was a low blow although I can laugh now. I hated that woman with every fibre of my being. How dare she give me such a terrible set of roles in my last year after the blood, sweat, tears, and money that I put into her institution. I almost quit on the spot.

Instead I went home, I called my sister at uni who told me to drop out, as she had, and leave the studio scratching around to find a substitute. My mum said I had to decide for myself and do what would make me most happy, typical motherly response. It was only when I considered the two friends I had left in my grade at that school, the ones with whom I had gone through so much and the ones with whom I would be graduating that spring, that I came to a conclusion. One of them was playing the other Nutcracker and the other would be my Sugar Plum. I decided to be more of a man and step up to the roles assigned to me.

So yes, here’s where I get around to talking about being a man. The next time I was at the studio, I walked up to the owner and I said “Take your 2nd lead snow and shove it” and she said “Your point is weak,” that’s when I wanted to say she didn’t seem to notice the worse point of the girls to whom she had given major roles. But I didn’t, I simply stopped playing by her game. She had lost all power to hurt me and I was going to do things my way. That was the day I stopped doing pointe forever. It made me sad because I believed the pointe shoes made the ballerina, but I would show her wrong and I would show myself wrong too. It’s not the tutu, it’s the technique.

That fall my two friends and I worked our asses off. I learned moves that I had only seen in books and YouTube clips and when our choreography felt flat or uninspired or if we felt there was not enough emphasis on the ~men~, we changed it to suit ourselves. I decided that I would not let myself have regrets about that Nutcracker. And result was that I had one of the best rehearsal seasons of my life. I got my face on a poster plastered across the city and little girls in the changeroom would ask me, in awe, if I was the Nutcracker. Somehow, I had become an inspiration!

I had always believed that the “Dance of the Prince and the Sugar-Plum Fairy” was the most powerful piece in the ballet, possibly the most beautiful love song in the world. The emotion in this song is so powerful and heart-felt that listening to it almost feels like you’re intruding on a private love-letter. I had never believed that I would get to dance to that song, I was wrong. I got to dance to my favourite piece of music from the entire ballet, and I got to dance it with one of my best friends.

My friend who was also playing Nut and I kept each other sane. We would remember every silly correction given to us and compiled them into a video, “Pupah; How to be a Prancing Prince”, because apparently “puhpah” is the sound that you should feel within you as you take a step, when you are a prince.  Together we took that role and shaped it into our own unique persona which in turn made the role more important than we’d given it credit for. It’s not called “Clara’s Night Out” or “The Sugar Plum Fairy”, it’s called The Nutcracker and when I stepped out onto the stage I knew I was the centre of attention. When the curtain closed on the last performance, as I backed slowly off stage into a cloud of smoke, a curtain closed on a chapter of my life.

The confidence I gained in myself that fall, as the result of being forced into a position that made me very uncomfortable, changed my perspective on life difficulties. I changed around something I saw as an insult and I made it one of the proudest things I’ve ever done in my life. Stay warm friends and keep changing the world!

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