Monday, September 18, 2006

The Perfect Dance

Sometimes, when my perfectionism rears its ugly head, I remember the lesson I learned when I was asked to be a Sri Lankan dancer.

One of my many tasks as an MFA student was to understudy the plays performed in three separate theatres. Almost always, my classmates and I had a full day of classes (and were in a play already), so learning the lines of a different play, and finding the time to see that play so we could learn the staging, were rather challenging endeavors. The situation was further complicated by the fact that, because there were only 14 students in the program, we were often assigned multiple roles to understudy. One summer, the 14 of us were understudying over 60 roles, which made for some frenetic, confusing, and often hilarious understudy rehearsals. During a run-through of Julius Caesar, for instance, my classmate was understudying a man who is being chased across the stage, the man who chases, catches, and kills him, and the person who berates the killer. Watching my friend attempt to portray all of these characters simultaneously was one of the most entertaining moments of theatre I have ever experienced.

Being the perfectionist that I am, I drove myself crazy over my understudy assignments. I resolved that if I ever had to go on, I wouldn't miss a line. I wouldn't miss a word! This resolution came in handy when I got the call late one afternoon that an actress had lost her voice, and I better get myself down to the theatre and into costume. With little time to rehearse, and having met the other two cast members only briefly, I stood behind the curtains that night feeling very grateful for my obsessive, perfectionistic tendencies. And went on to have a wonderful time.

During my second year of school, I attended a rehearsal of a play I wasn't understudying, and got there just in time to see a beautiful scene in which a Sri Lankan woman performs an intricate dance, narrating it in her native language. Rumor had it that no one would be asked to understudy the role because of its difficulty. That night, I got a call. Rumor had it wrong.

After crying for a while, I resolved to be the most perfect Sri Lankan dancer a 5'9" white girl with minimal dance experience could be. My first step was to ask the actress for help with learning the dance. Miss Sri Lanka seemed very nice, but she was kinda busy, she said. And she was sure she'd never get sick, so I didn't have anything to worry about. Good luck, she said.

Next, I asked for a videotape of the dance, so that I could pause and rewind it while trying to learn it. Sorry, they said. Copyright laws. I then tried standing in the back of the theatre, looking over my shoulder at the actress so that I could mirror her movements, tripping over myself and kicking my own shins numerous times in the process. At night, after rehearsals for the other play I was in, I listened to a tape of a Sri Lankan man speaking the pages of dialogue, sounding out each word phonetically.

I began to have nightmares involving dancing naked in Sri Lanka (at least I think it was Sri Lanka), while a man yelled phonetics at me from the audience. I cried. I prayed. Failure was not an option. I was going to be perfect.

And then, one day, when I was near despair, a classmate sat me down and said:

"Listen. I know you don't want to let anyone down, but face it. You are never going to be a Sri Lankan dancer."

And, as much as my perfectionism hated to admit it, I realized he was right. No matter how many hours I spent listening to that strange man's voice on tape, or tripping over myself in the back of the theatre, it just wasn't going to happen. And I didn't even want it to happen. I was going to let people down, and that was okay. What they'd asked me to do was completely insane. And I was driving myself insane because of it.

Since my Sri Lankan epiphany, I've tried to redefine perfection for myself. I've realized that I'll always feel driven to do things perfectly, but I've decided to focus on the gospel definition of perfection. In the footnote for Matthew 5:48, perfect is defined as "complete, finished, fully developed." I love that definition. Because, as delightful as they are, eternity would be really boring if we were all Sri Lankan dancers.


AzĂșcar said...

I fully expect to see a Sri Lankan dance the next time I see you.

Jannah said...

Amazingly I learned this lesson just a few weeks ago from my 3 year old, she was balancing some thimbles on the end of two pencils and walking carefully around the house, eyes on her new invention when she tripped and the thimbles fell off. A look of utter dispair came over her as she plopped down on the kitchen floor and cried - "I'm just no good at thimble walking!"
it took a couple of minutes of snuggling and encouraging for her to get up the gumption to try again, and even then, the pure joy was gone, she wasn't a perfect thimble walker.
I had to work to not laugh the entire time, but I think I do the same thing too often.

Emmie said...

Prepare yourself. It may not be perfect, but it will be AMAZING.

Sweet little Ell! How adorably perfectionistic. She is the very best thimble walker I know.