When I was in high school, I wasn’t the most athletic guy on campus but I did think I could dance (move) pretty well. This idea prompted me to sign up for our school’s Pop Vocal Ensemble group (think show Glee, just minus the flash and budget) as a way to release my inner thespian. We learned songs, choreography, and competed against other schools in the city and state. The dancing was very basic in comparison to the high-flying acrobatics that are incorporated into dance performances today. I quickly picked up the dance steps, but the idea of singing in public was something new for me. I never considered myself much of a singer. That was a role held by my older sister Sonya; she was the real vocalist in my family. I swear she could shatter glass with her voice if she wanted too. Luckily she only uses that power for good, I was happy I could carry a tune.
After graduating high school, I spent a few years learning how to navigate life as a young adult. Any ideas of theater and dance became a memory. I didn’t have a bank account or a job, and now I had to think about continuing my education, a career path, and more importantly supporting myself financially. I couldn’t afford a big college or university, and wasn’t savvy enough to figure out how to apply for scholarships. Instead, I ended up attending San Diego City College (City College). I did receive a Pell Grant to help pay for my books and had a little money left over for rent (couch) at a female student’s apartment. Not only that, the area dance academy, Stage 7, was located only 15 minutes from campus.
Just for shits and giggles, I auditioned for a dance scholarship at Stage 7. And to my surprise, I was accepted. It wasn’t that I doubted my abilities, I was just more muscular and “mature” than the “small framed” majority of male scholarship recipients. I had absolutely no classical training (Ballet) at all. At the time, I couldn’t tell you the difference between third and fifth positions, a degage, or a tendu. It was all French to me….literally. These young male dancers were beautiful and almost waif-like. I was the exact opposite, stocky and physically awkward. I was even given the nickname “Thunder Thighs” by a fellow student because my quadriceps were and are so pronounced. I’ve always been a late bloomer in life. I didn’t even have sex or get my driver’s license until my early 20s, so my education in dance was following the same pattern.
Stage 7 was located in downtown San Diego on the second floor of what then seemed like a really old building. Anytime you climbed the stairs to the lobby, the creaking of the treads made you grip the hand rails like your life depended on it. The academy had a small reception area where you would check in and pay for classes. There were two dance studio spaces where the classes and rehearsals took place for any productions. Katherine and Wayne were the directors and instructors. You could tell that Katherine used to be a Prima Ballerina in her prime. She had pale skin, dark hair that she kept in a bun and was very slender, not skinny or emaciated; more well-toned for her size. She still carried herself with poise and a softness suited for her craft. Wayne was the diva and intimidated the hell out of me. He was older than Katherine with gray hair and a beard. He reminded me of a somewhat less girthy version of a flamboyant and gay Santa Claus. When he moved, he appeared to glide. He walked in “turn out” as many seasoned ballet dancers do. Taking classes with Wayne could be brutal. If you pissed him off, the verbal repercussions often meant tears for the recipient. Once I got to know him, he was really a Teddy Bear, with a mean bite if you crossed him.
After attending my classes at City College from morning to early afternoon, I would have to race downtown for the other part of my “education”, for my dance training. There was a learning curve for me. Not just in terms of the movements, but also the vocabulary. Katherine would teach with a short staff where she would tap out the counts in the music or for me, use it to physically manipulate my body into position. I really tried. My joints had already settled into 20 plus years of flat-footed, pigeon-toed pronation. After several attempts, she would just say, “Oh Judge”, and shake her head with a look of comic disbelief, and pity. As a scholarship recipient, it was part of my job to keep the studios and lobby clean. I never realized how dirty some dancers could be! I endured only 18 months as a scholarship student. I had to make money and improve my living situation. My roommate had quite the sexual appetite which often put me out of the apartment until late hours during school nights. I later discovered that she was actually charging for her services to provide her financial aid. I’m not casting judgment, it was just time for me to move on.
The holidays provided me with the perfect opportunity for employment. I got a job as a seasonal sales clerk at The Gap store in Mission Valley and soon thereafter landed my own apartment. At The Gap, I was able to buy some of the newest clothing trends at a discount. I still was taking my classes at City and was now a paying member at Stage 7 when I was able to take classes there. I supplemented my dance training at City since I needed to satisfy a certain number of credits to graduate for my Liberal Arts degree. Rather than Ballet, I enrolled in more contemporary movement classes that were rooted in African dance. I didn’t have to worry about looking perfect in the execution of a movement or having a certain body type. These movements felt more natural to me and I was given the permissions to improvise and embellish with my own choreography.
The Dance department was making preparations for its annual dance concert to end the school year. This was my final and only creative endeavor since I would be graduating. I didn’t think too much about the idea of participating until one of my instructors encouraged me to sign up. It had been awhile since I had done any type of structured performing and figured, why not? There were dance groups representing each of the classes and the various skill levels taught at City along with a few featured solo performances woven into the program. We had six weeks to rehearse and stage the show. Dancing as a soloist was easy. Finding the right music and adapting the choreography was more challenging. I selected Sade’s Punch Drunk. It was sultry, jazzy, and had the right tempo to strut my stuff.
Finally it was showtime and as the adrenaline raced through my body, I was trying to stay focused and not allow the fear and nervousness to creep in and it almost worked. As I stepped out on stage the audience was so quiet that I could hear my own heartbeat. Then the music started and I could let my nerves power me through my routine. All was going well until my foot got caught in my flared-legged (it was the late 80s) body-clinging outfit. This caused me to adjust my footing and threw me off the music. There wasn’t anything more I could do other than keep moving and find a spot in the music to salvage my performance. When I hit my final pose and the music stopped, I was relieved. I accepted the applause and left the stage. Whew, my foot faux pas wasn’t noticeable to anyone other than myself!
While taking class at Stage 7 one afternoon, I found a notice on the audition board from SeaWorld San Diego. They were looking for a variety of people of different ages and ethnicities to cast for a show. It would be a dream job and I jumped at the opportunity to earn a living performing. When I arrived for my audition at the SeaWorld Pavillion, there were hundreds of other performers around. I turned in my resume and headshot and was assigned a number. This was a cattle call. I had never been to an audition of this scale before. We were separated into categories (singers, dancers, etc). The dancers would learn a routine and have to perform in front of a panel of judges. This audition was long. We started at 1pm and by the time we wrapped for the day, it was 6pm. I was invited to come back for round two. By the end of the next day I was hired as a dancer at SeaWorld San Diego.
Park orientation followed and I remember asking another cast member (John) in a whisper, if anyone else here was “enchanted” (Gay)? I was adjusting to being “officially” out and didn’t want to make waves (aqua pun intended) by my admission in this room full of talented strangers. John was an obvious and “Flame-bouyant” beacon that I was drawn to and I felt safe confiding in him. His rensponse, “If by “enchanted” you mean GAY!! (it almost seemed to echo throughout the halls of the pavillion), then the answer is yes”, and off he flitted to chat with someone else. John was right, there were indeed several of us “enchanted” members within the cast. We still get a laugh about this today.
My dreams were beginning to come true.
SeaWorld was casting for a show called City Streets. City Streets was a Disney-ish variety show that featured singers, dancers, and a variety of specialty acts. The setting took place in front of a faux urban street façade, made to look like something you might see in Brooklyn, New York. There was a neighborhood candy store, barbershop, and even a mechanic’s garage. In the center of the arena was a plaza (stage) flanked on two sides by benches and a “subway” which led underground to the backstage. The audience was seated around us on three sides. City sounds were piped in to create a more bustling atmosphere. When we heard the clock bells chime, the show was about to begin.
Each performer in the show was a character you might see in a neighborhood. I was the guy playing basketball. That’s right, me, the Black guy, cast as a basketball player, go figure. You would find me bouncing the ball around and shooting hoops through the net hung on the corner of the plaza during the pre-show (the 20-minute period prior to the start of the show as attendees arrived) . I was hired to dance. Luckily I didn’t have to really play basketball. We were also responsible for creating names for our characters based on our part in the show. I really should have given my character name more thought. The name I came up with was, “BJ Dribble.” Doesn’t the name just roll off your tongue? The name stuck, and I even began receiving fan mail addressed to BJ Dribble. I loved being a part of City Streets. Four years later it was time to say goodbye. I made some amazing friendships with these talented people.
It wasn’t until years later when Eric (the hubster) and I were in San Diego for a mini-reunion with some SeaWorld San Diego folks when they too became enlightened. Eric asked if anyone remembered my character name in the show. He asserted BJ Dribble. “Oh, that’s right,” they said. Eric quipped, you guys don’t find anything odd about the name? “No”, they replied. “Come on you guys, think about it”, a gay guy and the name “B–J–Dribble“, Eric said. And then it happened. You could hear the collective oohs and ahs when everyone finally understood what Eric was alluding to. Me and my fellow cast members didn’t think anything perverse about my character’s name. We were so caught up with the fun and excitement of creating an entertaining experience for the audiences, that we didn’t realize the slightly debaucherous humor of the moment. I’m really glad I didn’t change my character’s name, because it definitely makes for a funnier story today!
2 thoughts on “The Dancer In Me”
What a great story, Judge. 🙂