Maria Failla: This Jellicle Cat Can Dance, Part 2
How I battled my “Strong Mover” nerves and feelings of “not good enough” in the toughest day of my Cats Rehearsal Process.
I hope you read my blog this spring about my experience joining the cast of the Broadway Revival of Cats as a “strong mover”. Today, I want to tell you about my strategies for getting through the most stressful day of that entire rehearsal process: Learning the MAJOR tap number, “The Old Gumbie Cat”.
In my last blog, I shared how I had downgraded my dance ability, told myself I wasn’t good enough, and didn’t believe in myself to dance well in any mover call I also shared how one singular moment gave me the aha moment to empower myself to move joyfully while learning Cats choreography. All of that is true. I am proud of my dance accomplishments and the fact that I’ve learned and danced this choreography! But I’m going to be real with you-- I am NOT a tapper. The last tap class I took before the rehearsal where we learned the Gumbie Tap was like…. 7 years prior. To top it all off, Jess LeProtto, one of Broadway’s best dancers, taught us the choreography. He is incredibly talented, incredibly kind, incredibly positive… and incredibly quick at teaching choreography. I mean, the room was filled with some of New York’s best dancers. It’s the national tour of Cats. Why wouldn’t they learn choreography quickly, right?
As Jess begins to teach the choreography, it becomes VERY clear that even on my most confident day, I just didn’t have the tap skills to pick the choreography up as quickly as the other dancers around me would (like those same dancers might not learn music as quickly as my singer brain can!). I felt the familiar rush of blood to my face. My heartbeat became louder and louder in my ears. Tears began to brim in my eyes. I realized I had a choice to make:
A) Let my embarrassment, fear of getting fired, and nerves overwhelm me and stress cry throughout the entire rehearsal (which I have 100% done in other shows and callbacks).
B) Shake it off and move joyfully.
Since Option A is a road I’ve walked down before, I decided to gift myself with Option B. To start with joy and see where it takes me. I am so thankful I chose this path. It wasn’t easy. It was a constant struggle of calming myself when I felt the pangs of embarrassment or anxiety hit, but it was also freeing. I found that once I gave myself permission to not learn the steps perfectly, to maybe not even learn the steps that day, it gave me the space to take deep breaths and learn pieces of the choreography, bit by bit. By the end of that rehearsal, I was nowhere NEAR ready to perform the choreography, but I also realized that I didn’t need to be. Here are the strategies I used that helped me get through that day:
Set intentions before a rehearsal. My intention for my entire rehearsal process was to “move joyfully.” So before every rehearsal, I would say that to myself. Every moment I got overwhelmed, I would remind myself to return to joy.
Smile and when you can...giggle at yourself. This is so simple, and so transformative. When you smile, you almost trick your brain to believe you are enjoying yourself. So with every trip, every missed shuffle or flap (fuh-lap?), when I felt my eyebrow furrow, I smiled instead. When I didn’t get a step quite right, I’d give myself a tiny little giggle to bring a sense of joy back to me, even if my brain was overloaded. It helped relieve some of my tension and helped me continue to move forward.
Make a friend. My dad once gave me wonderful advice I use in lots of different areas of my life: “Find the smartest or most successful person in the room and become friends with them.“ I noticed Emily Jeanne Phillips (who actually plays Jennyanydots the tapping cat) was a wiz at picking up choreography, in addition to our two Dance Captains, Erin Chupinsky and Nick Burrage. So when I was really struggling, instead of wigging out internally because I was too proud to ask for help, I went over to one of them and said “You… you’re good at this. HELP ME!” And they were usually totally willing to help me iron out a little detail I couldn’t get on my own.
Do your homework. If possible, learn as much choreography as possible. I couldn’t learn much of the tap ahead of time, but I had watched a video of the choreography beforehand, so I at least knew what some of the moves would look like.
Get videos! Jess was kind enough to offer to do the steps for us to make videos without us even asking. But, you can always go to your dance captain after a rough rehearsal and ask them to do the moves so you can tape it. Then, you put the video on pause and play the video in slow motion by manually moving your finger across the screen. I watched those tap videos in slow motion probably 50 times to understand what small little tap I was doing wrong or which leg got what sound. Those videos were invaluable.
When you get overwhelmed, remind yourself: This isn’t brain surgery. No one is going to die today if I don't get this combo correctly. The world will continue to spin. If you can “zoom out” and give yourself a dose of perspective in the midst of your rehearsal, you will be so thankful.
Trust the rehearsal process. Something that clicked for me in that particular rehearsal was that if I needed, I could do the work on my own time. We didn’t have to perform that tap number that evening. It didn’t need to be a polished work of art. I just told myself to add one step every time I tried to. To just get better step by step. And by the end of the rehearsal process, I was doing the movements without even thinking! If you are in a dance callback, I realize you don’t have this luxury. BUT you can commit to enjoying yourself, and telling a story through your dance by making acting choices, no matter how little of the choreography you retain. I once had a friend who booked a show when she couldn’t learn any of the choreography from a movement callback by assuming the character in which she was auditioning for and cheering along every person in the dance callback. By making the strong choice to be in character in the callback and enjoying herself, even if she wasn’t dancing, she was able to show the team what an asset she’d be to the show, regardless of dance level. Certainly beats stress crying in the back!
Practice your butt off. I couldn’t learn the choreography that first rehearsal, and I released myself of the stress of learning it perfectly. But you better BELIEVE that I logged hours of my own time, slowly working through the choreography until it was correct. I committed to releasing myself of anxiety while learning the choreography, but I didn’t release myself of the responsibility to do my job and get it learned. That might mean hiring someone to help you, but it’s totally worth it.
Remember that probably everyone else in the room is in the same boat as you. Another aha moment in the room was looking around at some of the other dancers (some of the fiercest dancers I’ve ever met!) who were also not picking the choreography up perfectly on their first try. I was not the only person in the room that was challenged by the difficulty of the tap number. I was able to see that because I allowed myself to ask for help instead of shrinking away in a corner, and saw other dancers doing that too. It was freeing to know they had their journey with the choreography just like I did, and to remind myself that we all have different strengths and all contribute in different ways.
I’m proud to say that “The Old Gumbie Cat” is now one of my absolute favorite moments of the show to perform when I’m on. When I went on for Jellylorum, the joy of movement and dancing with my castmates and the feeling of pride for mastering something so intimidating actually trumped the feeling of getting to sing her solo song in the second act. Dancing can be fun and exhilarating and an incredibly special experience to share with a cast… if you let it!