Have steps, will travel: on stage, gypsies.
Near the piano, a dark-haired young woman holding a pointer stick sits on a raised dais. Apparently the tryouts have started early.
We attempt to make our way to the dressing room, stepping between and over the sitting or lounging bodies, frequently stopping to nudge bare legs out of our way. All these people to try out! Why, we'll be here all night!
The pointer strikes the floor. Music stops.
"Sorry," the woman on the dais says to the tap dancers. "Thank you." Then she looks out and raises her voice to call, "Green and Marty?"
I look at the faces of the tappers and swallow hard. No visible change occurs in the hall. No sign that something momentous has just happened to two people. Doesn't anyone see the stricken look on the face of the dancer as she treks off toward the dressing room? Her partner gathers music from the piano, his shoulders slumped, his body, once so agile and alive with music, suddenly ages in the brief silence. Gosh, will this happen to us?
They've been replaced by two young men. One is explaining music to the pianist. Now they swing into a soft shoe. It comes over me that this happens every Monday, that it goes on into the night. Here in this cruel loft with its yellowish light cast from brassy side fixtures, a room smelling of cigarette smoke, perspiration, and heady perfume, people come with their polished dreams -- polished like ours by years of sacrifice and work -- only to have hope destroyed in three words: "Thank you. Next."
I want to leave. I know we won't make it. I must get out before I, too, am destroyed. I clutch Eve's arm, but she has paused to whisper to an attractive girl.
"This is Mary," Eve whispers. "She says we're not likely to be called for hours. But we might as well change."
Of course it's too late to leave now. I should have known how many would be here -- how small our chances were -- before we left home. I try to swallow, but my mouth is dry as I take another sweeping glance around the hall at our competition.
A group of youngsters, surely not out of junior high, dressed in obviously homemade costumes, huddle together near the entrance, giggling and whispering. In contrast, along the back wall girls with overly painted faces lounge and smoke, appearing bored with it all. Some wear mangy furs on this hot evening.
Up front, a newsboy in patched pants too tight for his round bottom drops his canvas bag of papers and, without music, breaks into a buck-and-wing. Surprisingly good. Tap! Tap! Tap! goes the director's pointer. "Sorry. Next."
Bouncing up from the to time to show off a cute step, dancing-school hopefuls squirm on the floor alongside stagestruck guardians. Graceful young men rise to flex knees and stretch up on toes. A man in flowing robes sits cross-legged near the front of the room; adjusting his turban, he feeds a peanut to the monkey on his shoulder.
For the most part girls, girls, girls fill the room. Many sprawl on the floor. Most of them are close to our age. I find some reassurance, noting they wear black trunks and white blouses similar to ours. Then a quick appraisal of faces confirms a mounting fear. I have never seen so many pretty girls in one place.
With diminishing spirits, I follow Eve to the dressing room. Inside two girls are at work on a routine. Dressed in dancing-school rompers with Brenda Studios embroidered on the front, they appear ill-matched: one not more than five feet five inches, the other close to our height. The little one bobs up out of a back walkover to collapse in the arms of the tall girl. As she straightens up and finds us staring, she flashes a wide and friendly smile. "Hi. I'm Mignon, and this is my partner, Becky."
Eve chats with them, but I'm too impressed with Mignon's walkover to be articulate. The one trick I fear is that back walkover. After endless hours of practice, I still fail to land on my feet and, invariably, get stuck in a backbend. Now I struggle with indecision. Should I attempt it or should I confess my ineptitude to the director?
While I ponder this, Mignon raises her leg in a slow kick, bringing it straight up until her knee rests against her shoulder. She looks up at her pointed toe, wiggling it.
"Wow, will you look at her control kick!" Eve exclaims. and I hear in her voice the envy I'm feeling. Every dancer is working for control kicks this year, but I've never seen a better one.
My palms are claiming. With the competition of dancers like Mignon, whatever made me think that I . . .?
I make a self-conscious effort to warm up with plies and releves. Then the four of us return to the big hall.
An attractive blonde is dancing on pointe to music from Sleeping Beauty. We hear the director addressed as "Miss Goodwin." She is attractive in a stern way and seems to be in her midtwenties. As the auditions go on and on, Miss Goodwin strikes the floor more and more. Some dancers pick up slippers and music and walk back through the thinning crowd looking as if her stick had pierced their hearts.
Now and then Miss Goodwin calls a contender over for questioning. "Report Wednesday 9:00 A.M. to Busby Berkeley," she sometimes says, or, "Tuesday 10:00 A.M. to Flo Kelly." Their faces light up. Joy is evident in their brief, confident walk to the piano to collect their sheet music. Competition electrifies the air.
Then, at last, I hear our names.
"Eve Rumsik. Shyrle Pedlar."
The familiar sound of those syllables jolts us like an earthquake. Stunned, I struggle clumsily to my feet.
Afterward I cannot remember how I got to the front of the room where Eve explained our music to the pianist.
We change into tap shoes and go into our buck-and-wing routine with "Doin' the Raccoon":
Shim-sham step . . . da-da-de-da-da, da-da-de-da-da . . . break two three four . . .
"Raccoon coats don't care who's wearin 'em. College boys will all be sharin' 'em soon To do the Rac --"
Sixteen bars into the routine and the stick comes down through raccoon -- and me. It's over. All I can feel at that instant is relief at escaping this ordeal. But when I look at Miss Goodwin I feel my jaw sagging like a homeless bloodhound.
Quickly she smiles. "Run through the time steps," she says. "Single, double, triple, and wing."
Breath returns. No trouble here. Our year of tap lessons and daily practice lends confidence. Then, when Miss Goodwin tells us to put on ballet slippers, Eve asks, "May we put on toe slippers? We're going to be a sister team and we'd like to show you our pas de deux from Swan Lake."
Miss Goodwin glances at her watch, then suggests she'd prefer to see some basic ballet steps. "Tour jetes for elevation, chaines, and some jump kicks. I'll take a note you dance on pointe."
We nod. No qualms about ballet. But acrobatics is next and I still haven't decided whether to attempt the walkover that Eve has perfected.
So, when Miss G. wants a back walkover, I say prayers.
I watch Eve over and up, then I gulp and, at that scary audition, I amaze myself with a first walkover, coming up smoothly and finishing with the step forward.
Eve stares at me, her mouth open.
"Have you danced professionally?" Miss G. asks.
"Oh, yes," Eve cries eagerly. "We've danced for our high school and the Elks' Club and -- and the Sour Doughs -- that's the old-timers from Alaska where my father goes, and --"
"I see," Miss G. interrupts, and a flicker of a smile tells me that that isn't what she meant by professional.
"Are you eighteen?"
We nod eagerly.
"Report here to Miss Fanchon tomorrow morning at ten."
She calls out, "Sunny Bevans next."
"We made it! We're Fanchon and Marco girls!" I gasp as we walk to the dressing room. Walk or float?
"Our parents won't believe it!" Eve squeals. "Neither do I! "
Becky and Mignon follow us to the dressing room.
Eve points out that I'm putting on one of her red pumps with my black sandal. We all laugh hysterically.
Then, calling "Good luck!" to our new friends, we drift through the unreality of blue smoke, soar over bodies on the floor, and on down the long stairs to the street. At the corner of Seventh and Olive we again embrace ecstatically.
"We're in show business -- Fanchon and Marco girls!"
I was going to dance on the stage!
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|Title Annotation:||excerpt from 'On Stage, Gypsies: A Memoir of a Dancer in the 30's'|
|Date:||Sep 1, 1997|
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