Saturday, July 13, 2019

The Dizzy, Dancing Way You Feel

Let me tell you about my 13-year old self.

This young nerd was in eighth grade at Charles Carroll Junior High (this having been before middle school became the norm) where I was an avid reader and good student who sewed my own mini-dresses. I collected 45s, babysat for spending money and had never gotten the slightest bit of attention from a boy.

I was involved in zero after school activities, which was fine by me since I could quickly knock off my homework and either hop on my bike and ride the neighborhood or find somewhere quiet to read.

All in all, I was a very happy camper with few complaints about my life beyond my 12-year old sister borrowing my clothes and returning them unwashed with her B.O. on them, which, incidentally, was far worse than my own.

I had just started wearing braces but apparently wasn't very good about oral hygiene with them, since on my way into school one morning, Anthony Basil - an uber-nerd I could never aspire to top - pointed out that I had toast in my braces after I smiled a good-morning to him.

Naturally, I was mildly embarrassed at the comment, although the fact that it came from Anthony and not a cute, funny boy helped, but mostly I was grateful for the reminder to be more vigilant about braces-brushing. That and not to eat any more toast as I'm walking to school.

Thirteen was when I finally acknowledged how much satisfaction I got from writing. Although I'd started my first novel at the beach when I was 11, it was eighth grade when my aptitude for writing became apparent to my teachers.

In English class, we were told to write a short story about anything at all, only to be surprised when six of the 37 (helluva class size) stories were chosen to be printed, bound and distributed. I was pretty proud of myself when "Has Anybody Seen My Jiffy John?" made the cut. Later in the school year, another assignment was to choose a popular song, treat the lyrics as poetry and analyze it. I chose Joni Mitchell's "Both Sides Now" and with every fiber of my 13-year old being analyzed the hell out of Mitchell's tale of life experiences I'd yet to have.

All of this is just a long way of saying that my experiences as a 13-year old bear almost no resemblance to what today's 13-year olds must go through.

I got a crash course in modern eighth graders at the Basement, where TheatreLAB's production of "Dance Nation" was opening tonight. And although the play is ostensibly about a group of competitive dancers - all girls except one boy - from Ohio trying to make the finals, the dancing is secondary to the trials and tribulations of the young girls trying to navigate adolescence.

I'm here to tell you that theirs is not the adolescence mine was. Or, as it turns out, much like the coming of age of any of us now comfortably in middle age.

During a scene where one of the girls does a monologue, she howls her affirmation of her body - men and boys telling her how perfect her ass or boobs are is already normal for her - shouting about her body confidence with fierce pride. When she finished, a woman my age nearby commented, "I never felt that way when I was thirteen."

I don't remember being unhappy with my 13-year old body at all, but nor do I recall thinking of it in sexual terms at that point. And losing my virginity was definitely not a hot topic with girlfriends.

Ditto these young girls asking each other how to masturbate, which wasn't discussed in my adolescence because back in the olden days, each of us just figured it out ourselves. Honestly, it wasn't that difficult. By high school, you might discuss it with your best friend but only after you knew what you were doing.

And mind you, we didn't have the Internet for reference.

Maggie Roop's direction is flawless and knowing, and I'd guess that being a dancer herself helped immeasurably. The young cast (and stellar Chris Klinger as dance teacher Pat, played with the utmost seriousness because winning matters) nailed the insecurities, doubts and narcissism of these girls navigating a 21st century world where everyone feels fame is attainable and competing for superiority has been bred into them since toddlerhood.

Let's put it this way: when I was 13, there was no way I or any girl I knew would have undressed in front of other girls. Hell, I had five sisters and we never got naked in front of each other once we no longer had to take shared baths.

But also, I didn't participate in team activities, so my knowledge of that kind of group dynamic as a young teen is non-existent.

As someone whose early teen years seem comparatively easy to what these young characters go through, the play registered as a sad commentary on what parents have wrought in terms of child-rearing. These are girls who have felt pressures and sexual attention from many sides since before they even get their first period, which couldn't help but make me feel sad for their lost youth.

The audience skewed heavily young so it was fascinating hearing their cheering and laughing reactions to scenes that pulled at my heartstrings and those of some other nearby Baby Boomers, one of whom noted at the end, "Not for me."

Don't get me wrong, it does my estrogen-filled heart good to sit back and, for a change, watch a mostly female cast interpret a woman-written play directed by a woman.  I can't help it if my 13-year old life didn't carry the emotional weight that the 13-year olds of today must bear as a matter of course.

The beauty of TheatreLAB's "Dance Nation" is the glimpse into the now it provides, allowing people like me to consider what a monumental shift has taken place for our girls.

Now that's worthwhile theater.

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