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Let me be clear, though: I was not well liked among the other dancers. My morning class had maybe 25 other students, only two of whom were guys. There was no clear camaraderie between us three males — one was a business major who wanted to continue feeding his dance talents, and the other was a flamenco dancer who was one of the most singularly bad-ass male dancers I’ve ever been within three feet of; both were gay, and as par for the course neither knew exactly want to make of me.
One cluster of four or five girls seemed willing to let me sit with them in those minutes before class began, but they were not friends. They called me Ducky, after the guy in “Pretty in Pink” who definitely does not get the girl. I’d discovered long before that arguing with girls about what they’d decided to call you was not a route to success. Also, I didn’t see a lot of room for argument.
Two of the girls were living the dream: they had their own apartment off campus. When they finally had some of the other girls, and the flamenco dancer, over for an evening, it came out how they were managing to afford it: they were running a phone-sex line.
Here’s how it worked. For some number of hours at specific times of the day, their phone line could have calls forwarded to it, customer calls. When the phone rang, the girls would take turns disappearing into a bedroom with a three-ring binder, like a pornographic “Choose Your Own Adventure” — he says this, you say that; he continues in this way, you talk about this other thing.
Some of the girls who’d gone that evening were telling some other girls, and I’d overheard. And the girls whose apartment it was — squeaky clean daddy’s girls — had seen that I’d heard. And after that, I didn’t exactly have a lot of conversational openings offered to me.
I was only so concerned. Dancers are only so interesting. They live off Diet Coke and Marlboro Lights, and they’re the least likely to be intellectually stimulating. But holy crap, can they move. Okay, there’s every reason to like dancers. I’m sure I was compensating for how they didn’t like me.
The instructors, I’d hoped, would be more interesting. I was wrong. The professor for our first semester, of course, sent me to a counselor. She always had helpful advice for the girls — for example, as we practiced slowly going down into a wide-stance squat, she’d tell us to “Breathe through your vagina,” spurring quick sideways glances between all the guys.
No one ever told me I was a bad dancer. They just let me know I was a weirdo. But I kept working at proving that I was serious. I danced four or five hours a day, four or five days a week. Then I went out three or four nights a week to an all-ages club in the Sixth Street area, where I’d get in another couple of hours of unstructured groove-getting-on.
What frustrated me the most about my year as a dancer in college was just how isolating it was, for such a very physical endeavor. I was used to dancing with people in an interactive way — picking girls up, swinging them around, holding hands, or even simply slinking around one another with no intention of ever touching. What we did in our freshman college classes was dance in isolation, inwardly focused without interaction. I’m sure it was designed into the curriculum, but it only increased my sense of isolation.
I thought I made some serious improvement my first semester, but throughout the second semester I only got worse. Rather, some other people seemed to be getting better, but every week I only felt more tired, less like I was making progress. I’d hit a plateau, and was sliding slowly down its far side.
We got a new professor that second semester, which had initially given me some hope: as a guy, I thought somehow that he’d be more interested in my ideas than the previous semester’s lady.
He listened for a few moments — “I already have the computer and the memory and a bunch of code, now I’m living like a monk and trying save a couple hundred dollars for electronics” — his bushy eyebrows pinching more and more tightly together, until they met in the middle and he dismissed my ideas with a scoff and a pffft and a wave of a hand. Over the next few weeks it became clear that he was a talented dancer and a relentless self-promoter, but in the realm of ideas he seemed full of crap. His choreography felt arbitrary and meaningless, disconnected from anything real. When he’d talk about his ideas behind them, they made no sense. Yet people worshiped him. It drove home for me that people who are full of crap are usually great at persuading people who don’t know better but who want to be persuaded.
At the end of the semester, he and I met to discuss my future. There would be a committee, he told me, made up of one person from each school in the university’s College of Fine Arts: Drama, Music, Studio Art, and Dance. He would be the dance department’s representative, and he agreed to protect me from suspension on the one condition that I agreed to leave the dance department. I’d already decided that quitting the dance department was my only way forward, so I was happy to tell him I planned to leave. I reminded him that I’d only been trying to combine computers and dance into— But he didn’t need much reminding. He remembered, and he chuckled to himself at the absurdity of the notion.
A few weeks later, I received my written notice of suspension from the university. Not four years later, in the very early 1990s, that same professor got a $250,000 grant to produce a computers-meet-dancers production along the same lines I’d been talking about. He bungled it terribly, wasting the whole wad of cash on a single, unfinished 3-D rendering, a fly-through of a human spinal column in the abstract, projected above some dancers who were doing, well, God only really knows what on stage. His idea had been to place dancers at several locations in several cities, with networked computers, and as each dancer moved they would trigger different animations at other sites, so the dancers would be interacting with one another by way of exploring a virtual space together. He wanted the virtual space designed after the inside of a body — rumor had it that they’d used his body as the model.
I went to see the failed performance with my girlfriend-at-the-time. Luckily, I’d shed enough of the misery of my youth that I did not laugh openly at the absurdity of what little he’d accomplished with a quarter of a million dollars. As the virtual camera jittered up along a blocky, boring rendering of a spinal column, though, I did call it documentary evidence that he had not just figuratively but now virtually crawled up his own ass.
If I’d seen him fail at implementing an elaboration on my idea when I was 18 years old, I’d have gone running to dig up my tap shoes in order to properly express my feelings of cold delight. As it was, at 22, I felt only relief that I hadn’t wasted the past four years building some terrible piece of crap that never would have gone anywhere, that might not have made any kind of sense outside of my own head.
Okay, I confess: it was work not to be mad about it.
Still, I was satisfied with the final outcome. As it was, I’d instead spent four years building myself: learning how to be a student. For someone to whom school had never required any real effort, it was the hardest thing I’d ever done.
The process started that night with Lizard. Finally, I saw where I’d gone the most wrong.