With her hand held high in the air as if pointing to the heavens, the stage manager signals the one-minute call for me to walk on and open the Dance Concert. It is just enough time for me to wonder yet again why I thought this would ever be a good idea and just enough time for me to offer my own invocations to any powers above to grant me safe passage. I have to move around a bit to get a clear view of her again over the many heads of dancers who actually know what they are doing once they claim that stage. They give me lots of fist bumps and whisper multiple “break a leg” messages. There is only breath-space between us. The hand lowers, and I walk on to perform on a stage that is as uncommon to me as an Olympic arena.
My brief cameo at the recent Dance Concert made me think about learning in so many different ways. I have long recognized the power of performance in teaching: on the stage, on the field, on the court. But this time I understood that learning through performance offers some things that are hard, if impossible, to find elsewhere. That stage is a landscape of learning that by its very nature has to be edit-free. When performing, there really isn’t space for revision or yet another draft. There are no re-dos. You’re on, and that means you can be greeted by surprise at every corner. That means you count on some sort of internal rhythm and things beyond words. You’re on, and that’s it.
And yet, you’re never alone, even if, at that moment, you’re solo on the stage or on the court. You’re always part of a larger group called a team, a company or an ensemble. Your individual game counts toward the larger match, your recital touches the entire concert, and your dance moves within the integrity of the full choreography. In performance, you never really stand alone. And your individual authenticity rests on the wholeness of the team, on the authenticity of others.
The risk-taking involved in performance is exceptional. When you put it all together, it is about developing skills, grit and creativity in a context that invites mistakes and all while people, many people, are watching. No small thing, that. My grandson plays on a youth basketball team, and when I watched him play recently, I wondered about the intensity of his coach and what I saw as Calvin’s tentativeness. His father, also a teacher and a coach, told me not to worry. “As long as he doesn’t start to play to not make mistakes, we’ll be good.” There’s little room in the arenas of performance for avoiding mistakes in your next play or move. In performance, it’s always about the next play, the next move, the next line.
I remember now that when I watched Calvin play ball, I was sitting in the stands along with his mother, his father, his uncle, his grandmother, his grandfather and his step-grandfather. No wonder he didn’t want to make a mistake, and he’s only 10 years old. I’m hard-pressed to find a situation beyond performance learning that offers such a chance for courage. Getting up in front of the room to play the piano; standing your ground as a goalie with a team barreling down on you; walking slowly on that stage to begin a dance you, yourself choreographed; stretching long to serve on a squash court with the match resting on you; making that Hamlet soliloquy your own: all of this takes as much courage as it does passion. Or, as Ed Catmull from Pixar says, “Get over your embarrassment, and you’ve become more creative.”
After my five-minute opening act at the Dance Concert and with palpable relief, I sneaked into the front row at Symphony Space and watched with admiration, joy and pride as the dancers, ages 11 to 18, graced the stage. If there were any “mistakes,” I never saw them. If there were embarrassment, I witnessed none. All I saw was a certain radiance and dignity that comes from sustained practice, confidence and, yes, moxie. Like the flutist at the end of her piece, like the point guard making sure the ball always stays in play, the dancers moved as one and their radiance and dignity were inspirational. I was ready for my second night onstage.