Liza’s Red Shoes …Sort of.
When I was in my late teens, I had the very good fortune of being invited by my boyfriend to work at the local summerstock theater; The Woodstock Playhouse. I found myself in an exciting, challenging place with famous and talented actors and dancers. My co-workers and I became fast friends. We worked ridiculous hours, ate ridiculous food, and drank buckets of coffee. After work we sat outside in the humidity and fireflies. We drank beer, smoked cigarettes, and were happily wrung out.
The first part of the summerstock season was always Dance, the second part were the plays. Because Woodstock was so close to New York City, the biggest and best dance companies played there; Merce Cunningham, The New York City Ballet, Twyla Tharp, Alvin Ailey, just to name a few.
My boyfriend, Scott, taught me how to use the enormous and ancient lighting board. It was not electronic. It was manually operated, a monster. The lighting cues came fast and furious during the dance performances where the lights and music were an integral part of the show. Long levers corresponded to different combinations of color and had to be quickly put into and taken out of play, creating subtle or dramatic shifts in mood. We used knees, hands, elbows and shoulders all at once. Scott and I were a tight team, and I was hooked on the adrenalin. The booth was in a loft out of site of the audience, but we could clearly see the stage and hovered just to the right of the dancers.
We were part of the show. It was mesmerizing.
The dancers dressing rooms were right underneath the lighting board, and we could hear the dancers argue, cry, laugh, smoke, they smoked a lot. They also threw up, and they talked about eating and throwing up.
I was enchanted. Absolutely enchanted. I wanted to be them. I wanted to drape myself over another dancers arm and float across the stage with my head on his shoulder. I wore my Danskin leotards every day. (So did everyone else in those days). Occasionally I would walk with my feet turned out, as if I were a dancer I started skipping meals and living on large cups of milky coffee.
Occasionally the owner of the theater, Harris Gordon, would arrive, and I would hide up behind the lighting booth. He was not happy a female my age was doing the heavy and dangerous work of hauling lighting units up 60 foot tall ladders. He wanted me in the costume department, where he thought a girl should be. There was no way I was going to do that. I hated sewing. I wanted to stay with my lights, my boyfriend, my friends, my dancers.
I began to toy with making myself throw up, it seemed to work for the dancers. Then I got serious about it. I discovered I could eat quite a bit, and then throw up which, for a short time anyway, helped keep weight gain at bay.
The season at the Playhouse ended. My boyfriend and a few of our other friends decided to take dance at the local ballet studio. My friend Gina, a graceful and lithe girl had taken dance before. She could muck a horse stall and still look fantastic. Scott and my buddy Jason did just fine. But I was horrible. Horrible. I may have had the heart and the deep love for dance but I wasn’t a dancer. The teacher, Lynne Barre, told me I was fat and hopeless, which is why I mention her name here, shame on her for speaking to a young person like that. But Ballet ain’t for the faint of heart, and you can’t stick your pointe shoe in and call yourself a dancer.
To hell with her, I thought. But I heard it, I heard it deeply in my teenage heart. Deep into my imaginary fat cells. Later, I would see a picture of myself from those days, and I was surprised to see I was not fat. I looked sad, but not FAT. I quit the class and I started my own dance workout early in the morning, and one after school. Every day, two hours, I danced my heart out. Throwing up became an everyday thing. I was obsessed with my body and told people I was a dancer.
I received a scholarship in art for Pratt in Brooklyn. When I met my new roommates, I told them I was a dancer. I didn’t know these girls. They believd me, at least for a time. I signed up for a college level Modern Dance course. I had all the appropriate duds, I took field trips into Capezio in the city regularly. I wore leg warmers.
I do not remember the dance classes at Pratt, I think I only went to one or two. But to this day I do remember the look on the face of the teacher. I clearly was not a dancer, I was flexible, but beyond the hours spent flash-dancing in my bedroom, I had no training and no idea what she was talking about as she called out routines. This wasn’t a group exercise class, this was a class for people who had professional training in dance, and I didn’t speak the language.
We got a new roommate, and she was ….a ballerina. A real one. I hated her for it, and she knew I was full of crap. At this point I think my roomies were becoming aware that all was not well with me. Eating disorders, although that label did not yet exist, had me in it’s hellish grip. The term “Bulimia” came to light after Karen Carpenter died, but that hadn’t happened yet. My combination of bulimia and anorexia wouldn’t be done with me until I collapsed in a park in New York City a few years later.
I was not yet done posing as a Dancer. I signed up for classes with the Martha Graham Dance company. If you don’t recognize the name, I’ll clue you in. They were the sh*t. I still don’t have any idea where I got the cajones to do that. To actually show up for class, all duded up in my ballerina bun and my little dancer sweater. I think if my family was aware of what I was up to they may have whisked me out of the city and do whatever people do with young people that lose their minds. Maybe I would be homed with other delusional teenagers and we’d lie on a porch in the Catskill sunshine and fresh air and drink ice tea. Maybe shock therapy would be the ticket to set my youg brain right.
I think the looks of the Martha Graham dancers snapped me back to some kind of reality and sent me packing. It was the same look I might receive if I strolled into a hen house and settled down on a nest. The chickens just wouldn’t have bought it, and neither did the Graham dancers.
Looking back on it, I am respectful of how easy it is to be consumed, from a lie, an addiction, whatever it is. On the other hand, I do still have a pair, but now I do my best to use my powers for good.
Photo of the Troubled Teenager: Mike Kramer