Today, I’m writing to say happy birthday to Gene Kelly, the beloved tap dancer who would have been 100 years old today.
I’m also writing to talk about a lesson I have learned from his movies, a lesson that I didn’t quite latch onto until today when I re-watched some of my favorite clips from his films, a lesson that is terribly appropriate for me at the moment.
Gene Kelly was a different breed of dancer. Where Fred Astaire was high and regal, almost aristocratic, Gene Kelly was lower to the ground, more rugged, bigger in build and blue-collar in his presentation. Give Astaire the top hat and polished cane. Give Gene Kelly the mop, the broom, the trash can lids, the newspaper, the curtains. Give him ordinary objects, readily available.
If you’re obsessed with So You Think You Can Dance (like me!), then you saw the opening group number last night was a tribute to Gene Kelly, and what Tyce Diorio did so well in choreographing that number was highlight that very approachable “everyman” quality in Gene Kelly’s performances.
And what I like about that quality is what I’ve heard observed by documentary films, professors of mine, and what I love seeing in Gene Kelly’s performances: the man is resourceful. He always made the most of his stage. He used not just one prop, but many, and not fancy ones either. Mops and brooms are for cleaning, for removing dirt. They’re in everyone’s house. But Gene Kelly could make those items dance. I think particularly of the newspaper dance he did in Summer Stock, where he made a squeaky floor board and a newspaper his dance partners, and did so with seeming ease.
I think, often, we tend to always think we need one more thing to make us what we need to be. I need pants and shoes and a couple shirts and then I’ll be ready to teach. I need my office unpacked and then I can write. But the truth is, I don’t need those things. I have those things. I have clothes, I have a room of my own. I can do this.
Last night, I got a rejection for a conference proposal that I was really setting my heart on. I wanted it, badly, and I didn’t get it. And though I get rejections all the time, and usually they roll right off my back, this particular rejection left me in tears. I cried like a pitiful, rejected little girl. I moped a little for the rest of the night. I became irrational and morose and compounded my disappointment with feelings of guilt. It was, in a word, awesome.
And my friend Mary called this morning to see how I was doing (much better, thank you). We hashed out the evening’s disappointment, and then we talked writing. We talked about being organic to the kind of writers we already are rather than trying to be the writers we think we’re supposed to be. That’s what we spent grad school doing: trying to be those writers, the ones we deemed legitimate. But that’s not helpful, and it’s not right. We’re reaching the point where we are figuring out the writers we are, as ourselves, instead of setting our sights on becoming [fill in name of completely awesome but totally different writer here].
I haven’t been making the most of my stage. I’ve got newspaper laying around, I’ve got brooms and mops stacked in the corner, I’ve got creaky floorboards and cartoon mice and curtains hanging and chairs to climb on. But I haven’t been making the most of them. And I could be. And that’s what Gene Kelly has taught me today, on his 100th birthday.
Make the most of my stage. If it’s newspaper and floorboards, or if it’s plot arcs and characters. If it’s red notebooks and gel pens. If it’s a stick of butter softening on the counter. Use it. Make the most of it. It’s real, and available, and can dance just as well as that top hat and cane I’ve been secretly wishing for. The top hat’s not coming. But the newspaper is here. Use it. Make the most of it. Start now.