Maria Failla: This Jellicle Cat Can Dance, Part 1
How this “Strong Mover” mentally and physically prepared to tour with the most famous DANCE show of All Time
Strong Mover. The name we call ourselves. The name I’ve been instructed to tell people when they ask about my dance experience. The name I’ve given myself to explain the ceiling of my dance ability, but sometimes feels like the ceiling of my self worth and confidence.
I was born slightly bow legged, so my mom put me in ballet to help straighten my feet and walk better. From then on, any chance I could get to be onstage I took: school musicals, dance competitions, my dining room floor as my parents and siblings patiently waited for me to finish my half choreographed/half improvised routines to every early 2000s pop song out there. I loved to dance. I loved to move my body and express myself through movement. I never gave my turn out much thought. I just loved to dance.
When I got to NYC after college to pursue performing professionally, things changed. My look wasn’t “ideal” in the minds of agents and casting directors. Combine that with my lack of technique and turn out, and it felt like my idea of dance was completely downgraded by those around me. I no longer could call myself a “dancer” but learned that I was a “mover” which meant I wasn’t good enough to go to a dance call. (This is… pretty fair. I simply didn’t have the technique for what Broadway dancers needed, but it still hurt). I would only be considered for “mover tracks”. There was shame involved in this downgrade for me. Completely inflicted on myself, but all of a sudden I didn’t feel good enough. And because of that… this “mover” label affected my dance ability, because it affected my self esteem. Because I was a mover, I wasn’t a dancer. So I needed to struggle with dance, instead of revel in it the way I used to. The mental hurdle of getting out of my own way in a dance or “movement” call, has consistently been my biggest struggle in any movement callback or dance number.
But the universe is an interesting little minx. She tends to throw challenges at you that become your biggest teachers, and biggest opportunities for growth. So at 29 years old, after I had settled on the fact that I would never dance in a musical, that I would always do musicals like The Sound of Music or Man of La Mancha, which had roles that required difficult singing, but almost no dancing… I book… the most famous dance show of all time… Cats.
While the Cats revival was on Broadway, I had a whirlwind 3 months in which I joined the company as a “Booth Singer”, meaning an offstage singer that sings all the high notes for the Cats who are dancing their butts off and need some extra vocal support. But in my time at the Neil Simon, I never got to step on stage and perform any of the famous choreography. I comfortably sang the high notes from the orchestra which was safe and so incredibly special. When the tour came around, I took the opportunity to finally put on the spandex, as a booth singer, but also as an understudy for Grizabella and Jellylorum, a cat who has several sweet soprano moments (my comfort zone) BUT dances more than I’ve ever danced in a show. I had such interestingly mixed feelings and emotions about taking the job, because although I knew in my heart of hearts that I had the chops to dance the amount that Jellylorum dances, part of me was so conditioned to diminish my movement ability, I almost talked myself out of the job, because I didn’t want to disappoint anyone who hired me, or embarrass myself.
So… because of my insecurities with dance (and the Type A control freak that I am) before rehearsals began, I hired Motivated Movers to teach me several sections of the choreography ahead of time, so that when I got to rehearsal, I would feel comfortable with the “dancier” moments of the show.
By the way… this was one of the smartest things I did while preparing for Cats rehearsals. If you have the opportunity to learn choreography before rehearsals, or before an audition… take it! Pay for it! It is so worth it to walk in knowing that you are prepared. Same goes for learning music ahead of time, if possible for you.
So I show up to my first coaching with Colleen. We have videos of the choreography a friend from the Broadway company made for me. We begin. I immediately apologize at the beginning of our session. I feel the panic and insecurity about learning this choreography, but also share with Colleen that I want to trust that this job is here to teach me something, and I want to move joyfully. So we do. We learn the choreography, Colleen gives me tons of small tweaks that make the moves feel so much more comfortable in my body. I feel the insecurity bubble up, and then I shake it off. It’s a constant, internal swelling and quelling of insecurities, a spiritual practice and exhausting. Moments of joy and expansion mixed with moments of doubt and insecurity.
We get to a small section of choreography that seemed simple, but I struggled with the coordination. Colleen patiently helped me and I could feel myself find it in my body and hit all the right counts and arm positions, but I still felt like an elephant clunking around a circus ring, instead of a “dancer.” Colleen had the brilliant idea to tape myself doing this section of choreography so I could learn from watching… and that’s when it hit me. As Colleen played the video back to me, I watched myself do the moves perfectly, gracefully and successfully. My physical and emotional experience of the choreography, with layers of self doubt and negative programming I couldn’t shake, had completely obscured the actual reality of the fact that I was DANCING. I was doing it! I could have been any of the dancers on stage (lets just restate that this was a simple section of the choreography… no double pirouettes, but still!). At that moment, I realized that I was entirely in control of how this rehearsal process and tour was going to unfold. I could A) let my previous experiences, self doubt and negative programming lead the way through this rehearsal process: swim in a pool of self doubt, have “not being good enough” thoughts and embody an anxious mess or B) Accept that I deserve this job and I am capable of doing it. Be so tremendously thankful for this fabulously curvy body I have, my ability to move without pain, and celebrate the joy that radiates through my body when I allow it. But the choice was up to me.
B! B is the freaking answer! B is the ONLY option, friends! I’m sharing my experience with you today to say that if you are also a mover, whether you're a strong mover, a weak mover, a singer who moves, a park and barker-you are in control of how you approach a rehearsal process, how you view yourself and how you experience the opportunities in front of you. Life is absolutely too short to worry about whether you are good enough, whether you are thin enough or whether you have enough training. I have wasted too much time on these thoughts, I’ve lost seasons of my life and jobs to letting those thoughts overpower my inner voice of knowing that I belong here. In that moment of watching myself nail the choreography, I committed to supporting myself, like I would support a friend. To cheering myself on throughout this process, to allow myself to experience more joy than worry.
I had a couple of more sessions with Colleen, to solidify and control what I could, and then released expectations on my first day of rehearsal. I was successful to my commitment of moving joyfully… most of the time. I still had moments of panic and fear (which I will share in an upcoming blog), but I was able to remind myself of this special moment I shared with Colleen, and remember to put joy first. I learned that laughing through fumbled choreography was so much better than crying through it!
If you are a member of the Motivated Mover Community… you know these truths. You know that you are so much more capable than you allow yourself to be. I challenge you in your next movement callback, next rehearsal, next freestyle on the dance floor of your best friends 30th birthday party… just allow yourself to enjoy this experience of moving a healthy body to wonderful music. It’s a privilege and a gift that I’ll be cherishing this year, and I hope you do too!