05.07.12 Truth & Wisdom

A Choreographed Life

A Choreographed Life

BY Heather Toner

I like to imagine the world as an MGM musical. Everything is in technicolor and every so often someone’s emotions moves them to start singing and dancing. And everyone around them joins in, each person knowing the choreography and singing along. It all seems spontaneous, fun and real, but it’s actually not. That sudden burst of dancing is actually completely choreographed, rehearsed and practiced over and over before it’s caught on film. That’s the little tidbit I try to forget. Because I really want to believe that it’s real. I want a choreographed life.
I’m a planner. I like to know what’s coming next, which is maybe why I wanted to become a dancer. I like having the steps mapped out for me; I like knowing what the next move will be 5 beats before it happens. I like knowing that when I jump my partner will be there to catch me. It all feels so secure. The audience may think it’s real, but it’s really just an act.

For the first half of my life, things were very planned on and off the stage. Society gave me these well-enforced steps: Go to school, work hard and become good at something, get stellar grades and then you can go to college. Once you get to college, work hard and you’ll get a good degree, get a good degree and you’ll get a good job. Get married, get promoted, buy a house, have kids, etc. There was already a well-planned out route for how to live your life – a recipe for fulfillment – and I was told that if I stayed on course and follow the path, all these things would happen.

Like so many young women, I was told that there were certain expectations I had to live up to. I needed to be smart, pretty, talented, sexy and motherly. I felt sure that if I just followed the plans of society, I would meet all these expectations easily. I was given lots of opportunities and I was told that, if I didn’t take them, I’d live to regret it. I’ll admit that I was given a lot and really there was no reason for me to not follow the path laid out for me. So whether out of fear of regret or just plain ambition, I did what I was told.

But what I didn’t realize is that life isn’t quite as choreographed as I had hoped. Even if I followed the steps to a tee, there was still a chance that things wouldn’t go as planned. I may still fail at meeting all the expectations. My partner could drop me, I could turn the wrong way, I could fall and get hurt. I thought I was untouchable, until life crept in and proved me wrong.

Life has this annoying habit of sweeping in with unexpected events that have the power to change everything. And then you’re left at square one again. Everything you thought you knew, you were sure you understood, has been eradicated and your back at the beginning not sure what steps to take next. This has happened to me a few times in my life, but after every time I was thrown for a loop, I would still revert to planning the future just as I had before. You’d think I would learn that planning is pointless, but I guess I didn’t know any other way.

For instance, when I quit dance I felt like I had amputated a limb. My identity for 20 years had simply been “Ballerina.” I didn’t know who I was without that title. And I was terrified without it. When I abandoned it, I felt like I was letting down all my teachers, my family, my friends and myself. It was a huge expectation that I let fall. But that career, the one I had worked so hard to get, turned out to be not so great for me. So I left it and started making new plans. I was going to be an intellectual. I’d go back to college and become a great thinker.

Then when I finished college, again I felt like I had things figured out. Now I had played strictly by the rules, now I had a degree and I had gotten good grades. I had a fancy degree from a world renowned university, so when that didn’t equate to an instant career, one that I could be proud of and talk about at parties, I again felt deflated. I had mastered all the steps, why was I still not meeting expectations? Eventually, I got over the disappointment of not landing my ‘dream job’ and started to plan out other aspects of my personal life.

Then when I got married, I felt incredibly happy. I had found the man of my dreams and we had made it work against all kinds of obstacles – everything had finally gone according to plan! But then, once again, I found myself at a loss. What was my next move? Marriage is usually where the fairy tale ends, so what happens next? I wasn’t ready for kids and my new husband couldn’t even get a job in the US. My ideas about what it meant to be a wife, the plans I had for life after marriage, didn’t seem to make sense anymore, now that I was actually in it.

I guess I was expecting a kind of clarity to kick in; my marital instinct. Why did the future still seem unsure even after our “I do’s?” I couldn’t understand it. But eventually, we figured out how to make things work. We found jobs and better jobs. We settled into our little apartment and made it a home. We made it through the tough financial times and we started to really feel comfortable with our lives. I felt like I was back on the right path.

Then death crept in. Tragedy and calamity overtook us. This was the worst of the unexpected obstacles, because there was just no way to plan for tragedy. I found myself seriously wondering if we’d ever be able to recover. Life couldn’t just go on as it used to, because these unseen events had irrevocably changed us. I was terrified of what the future held, but we were able to move on with our lives together. And if anything good can come from our loss I suppose it could be the fact that it finally broke through my MGM musical cloud. I finally realized that everything was essentially out of my hands and choreography truly only happens on stage.

I’ll never truly know what comes next, no one can and that’s just the deal. We can practice and we can prepare, but it doesn’t really matter. It still is probably all going to turn out a little differently. We have no control. And as scary as that may sound, it also really means that anything, and I do mean anything, is possible. And that knowledge is actually so uplifting to me…In fact, it makes me want to burst into song and dance…

Featured image by fd on Flickr

Heather Toner is a freelance writer and dancer born and bread in Los Angeles. She blogs for several sites including DIY Dancer and her personal blog, Lilac & Lace, and performs with some regularity with regional dance companies throughout Los Angeles.  She started dating an Irishman eight years ago because she liked his accent – 4 years and a lot of immigration paperwork later, they got married.  Heather and her hubby currently reside in the slums of Beverly Hills.


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