If everything went as planned, a group of thirteen East Texas high school students and their choir director loaded their suitcases and sleepy selves onto a bus at 1:00 this morning and headed to Dallas to catch a flight to Los Angeles.
They’ve been invited to perform songs from the musical Grease at Disneyland, and I was hired to choreograph their show.
I’ve been choreographing musical productions for our local high school choirs for fourteen years, but this school is several towns down the road from here, and it was my first time to work with the director and her students. It was also the students’ first experience dancing and singing at the same time. AND we had only seven rehearsal days for me to teach and them to master the steps.
That’s not as much time as I would have preferred, but I really didn’t feel too stressed about it. I’ve seen shows come together under all sorts of less-than-perfect conditions. And I love the whole choreography process. It’s a lot like other artistic endeavors. Once I’ve accepted a job, the first step is the research phase. In answer to my e-mailed questions, I learned that the group had eight girls and five guys (two were competing in a track meet the day I took these pictures). They’ll be performing on an outdoor stage with no opportunity to practice on it first. There are no costume changes, no head-set mics, no props (other than risers and the combs the boys will carry in their pockets), and different soloists play the roles of Danny and Sandy for various songs.
Armed with the facts, my next phase is creating the choreography. For this show, I watched videos of John and Olivia and company, listened to a CD of the arrangements over and over, and then let the steps suggest themselves, tweaking until I could see the whole show in my mind and liked what I saw.
The next phase is teaching. I always show up at a first rehearsal with a thorough plan that I hold very loosely, even when I know the students in advance. This time, their director had informed me that they were physically fit and should be able to handle high energy dance steps. She didn’t promise they’d know their right from their left foot or be able to move either foot on the beat.
This sort of scenario actually energizes me. It’s a rewarding challenge to take a group of performers with no experience and a mixed degree of coordination, and watch them progress from shy timidity to all-out fun. I especially love observing the transformation when an introvert steps out of her comfort zone, blossoms with accomplishment, and gains the confidence that goes with it.
Of course, some of them hammed it up from the start. The good news is that they were all cooperative, respectful, and worked hard — a tribute to their director, whom they clearly love. And when I left the final rehearsal yesterday evening, all of them were smiling and excited. They’d crossed the line from executing a technical set of movements to actually dancing. They’d set aside self-consciousness in favor of entertaining their audience. They understood that it’s all about what you give, not what you get. Because we don’t just sing and dance at these rehearsals. We talk, too.
And that’s why I do this. It’s not primarily about a paycheck or a credential (though I admit those things do come in handy). It’s about investing in performers’ lives, giving them something they in turn can give. The gift of dance. The gift of working together for the common good. The gift of mutual respect, hard work, commitment, and cooperation. The gift of fun.