i got called in to be seen yesterday for the hbo series boardwalk empire. maybe you've heard about it: it's all about big time gangsters and city corruption on the jersey shore - based on actual people and events, no less - and set in the 1920s. martin scorsese is producing it. hbo has already committed to 12 episodes. mr. scorsese has already shot the first one.
what they wanted me to do was dance. i almost laughed out loud when i read the breakdown. me, dance? i'm the one that everyone would make fun of when i walked across the room, much less danced at parties or family gatherings or whatever. i'm the one that never knew how to properly execute the latest dance that was sweeping the black nation - i just moved with feeling, and that was never enough. i'm the one with the older brother who, when he was a dancer and hard at work in that world briefly, reassured me time and again that i couldn't dance. all of that criticism and ridicule made me feel awkward and stunted whatever natural grace i had. eventually, i didn't move at all. why bother, when i would only end up humiliating myself. the party would be on fire in the other room while i was the one in the kitchen, sitting at the table in relative darkness, chugging ice water and having long winding conversations into the night with fascinating people about books and ideas and life.
i danced when i had to and only when i had to, which is usually when someone paid me to do it, i.e. some grand musical theater production or a play that required movement. i wanted to take class formally - i even interned at broadway dance center - but i just couldn't afford the classes. actually, i didn't know of very many dancers who could afford the classes. what was especially annoying is when i would work hard and get lean and strong and people would look at me and assume that i was a dancer.
and then something clicked: swing music exploded all over creation and all of a sudden, dancing was fun, fun, fun. here's the kicker: i was good at it! as it turns out, i could dance all along. who knew?
i was going to call my agent and tell them to get me out of this one, but then i realized that they probably wouldn't choreograph anything because it was a scene in a jook/juke joint (i thought those were only in my part of the south!). yankees call them roadhouses, i guess. though those are something totally different in other parts of the south, too. i actually liked the tea dances of the 1920s, and had been going to see michael arenella and his dreamland orchestra long enough to practice them. as i dug out my character shoes and dusted them off, i thought that if there was no structured "...five, six, seven, eight!" situation, i would get through it with my dignity intact. heck. it might even be a good time.
the day before this particular dance call, they wanted me to lip-synch a mamie smith song called crazy blues - in full vintage regalia, no less. i know i nailed that one - i like all the smiths, not just bessie - but they wanted a medium sized black woman and i don't think that's me, because i'm a size 6. a few weeks before that, i read for an under 5 role of the babysitter, which was interesting. so here i was, in my long black gym shorts and a t-shirt, black socks and character shoes, back for a third try and ready to rip it up.
once we were all signed in, given numbers, photographed and led out of holding, the casting folk took us to a room and tried to make themselves as invisible as possible. we sort of paired ourselves up in this effortless way, the way you look over at someone and both of you point at each other at the same time. the choreographer, an older pixie-ish lady whose one syllabled name escapes me, was a real pip. she explained the dances, showed us how they should be executed with a few small deft moves, told us what she was looking for specifically and pretty much pushed play on the cd player across the room and left us to our own devices, watching all of us carefully. my partner was a tall lean beautiful lightskinned brother named kyle who looked like he just breezed in from classes at ailey. i smiled at him, relieved and grateful - how exciting, i thought. i get to move around the room with a real dancer! when i told him that, he smiled broadly and waved me off.
we did the black bottom, the shim sham shimmy, and a few others that i liked. we just danced and pretended like we were at a party and whatnot. at one point, kyle went into a six count swing out and i blurted, that's the lindy hop, that's the 30s! and he said, i'm sorry, i couldn't help it! and we just laughed and kept going.
my favorite one was the grizzly bear. here's a fairly good example of the way it looks:
it's so fun!
interestingly, there was strictly no charleston. she was really pointed about that. the year in this scene was 1920. the charleston - straight out of a small island off the coast of south carolina, no less! - hadn't been invented yet.
when we were done, the little lady made a small apologetic statement. something like, i'm sorry, you're all wonderful but we have to let a few of you go - and boy, haven't i heard that a million times! - and then she starts cutting people. by the time she gets to me, i'm mentally out the door and on with the rest of my day, but instead of dismissing me, she says, you can stay. and then she turns to my partner and thanks him for his time but no, he's not right for this part.
you could have knocked me over with a breath of fresh air.
after digging for white rhinestones in chinatown (don't ask), i skip over to the coffee pot in midtown to catch up with renee and stacy (who should have been at this audition, really) and before we separate, i get a call from the casting agent letting me know that i got the part. yeesh - they beat the talent agent to the punch?!
costume fitting tomorrow afternoon, deep in the heart of brooklyn. huzzah!