No Business Like Shoe Business
(Kenny’s first performance with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater)
Two years earlier, I had sat in the packed theatre at the Fashion Institute of Technology, watching the Ailey dancers as they performed a free concert before leaving on a tour. Now, I was about to look in the opposite direction, this time out from that same stage into a full house, two days before the company left for another overseas tour. This date was three years less a month after I had graduated with a B.A. in English Literature from the University of Toronto. My insides were jumping with so much joy, I felt that instead of making an entrance moving straight ahead onto the stage, I might just take off vertically and fly.
On that night and for the next two months, I would be performing in the show opener, Toccata, as a member of the male quintet from Blues Suite and in three sections of Revelations.
Just before our 8:00 p.m. curtain time, my body was vibrating so noticeably that I wasn’t sure how I was going to dance with the physical prowess required. I knew my fellow dancers would all turn their energy levels up a few notches once they got in front of the audience. I had to rise to their level.
As much as you have rehearsed and performed a piece, there is always an element of the unknown. Dancers live on a tightrope on which they’ve been trained to balance. But there is always danger.
Standing in the wings, I waited along with eleven other dancers for the breeze that would blow in after the curtain rose. It came, and the music began. I let two up-tempo phrases of eight pass, the time I had before entering. I knew that, in spite of fears, the music would guide me. As a dancer, you have no choice. The rhythm grabs you, your muscle memory kicks in and, caught up in the shared energy of fellow dancers, you go.
As pumped up as I had ever been, I flew onstage for the opening group section. Duets and trios followed, all done in typical Talley Beatty style at close to the speed of light. My body stopped shaking. I was into it.
We were wearing jazz shoes performing in Toccata. A barefoot modern dancer, I had never worn shoes onstage before. Halfway through the piece, the choreography required me to step back on my left leg with my torso leaning forward and pull back with my right heel along the floor. Overwhelmed by the energy of the live performance, I did something I had never done in rehearsal. In spite of all the preparation, I fell off my tightrope. As I pulled my heel back, dragging it along the floor, I put so much pressure down into the floor that I pulled my shoe halfway off my foot. The unknown had crept in for a visit.
I instinctively curled my toes under so I could grip the shoe better and keep it on, but that action locked my ankle and made it impossible to dance the steps properly. I executed my next move, a turn on my right foot and almost fell over. Then I had to swing my right leg up high, but couldn’t because I knew the shoe would fly off.
Deciding to take my chances, I kicked the shoe off and watched it somersault into the wings. Dancing with a shoe on one foot that gripped the floor and only a sock on the other that made me slip and slide, I was one person doing two dances.
when the piece ended and the company took its bows, I was too embarrassed to look out at the cheering audience. I performed Revelations with accuracy, but disappointment in myself kept me from feeling its joy.
I left the stage devastated. I knew that both Ramon Segarra and Alvin Ailey must have watched with disbelief, putting a big X beside my name. Would they fire me immediately, or wait until the tour was over?
The next morning after class, Misters Ailey and Segarra gave performance notes to their company of sixteen dancers, fifteen of whom had danced with ferocious commitment, and one of whom, a loser, had lost his shoe in his first-ever company appearance.
Looking down at the floor, waiting for the axe to fall, I heard Mr. Segarra praise the company. Then he said, “I want to congratulate Kenny for his performance. He only had ten days to learn the dances and he performed beautifully.” I looked up. Alvin nodded in agreement. The dancers applauded.
You never know.