Dancing in the Weeds

Fail. image by Mike Jackson,

Pamela Hetherington is a Philadelphia-born dancer and educator, and the founder of Take It Away Dance Productions. Her new Fairmount studio, soundspace 1525, provides the city with something rare: a dance venue specifically geared towards percussive dancers. Here, she provides a personal perspective on an all-too-common challenge: self-production in the arts.

-Julius Ferraro, co-founder

The cliché is true that failure is easier to spot than success. Back in June, I found myself in some second floor bathroom of the Gershman Y, about 15 minutes before the first curtain, puking into a toilet. Running for my life into that bathroom, I was pretty easy to spot—let’s just say that.

Just five minutes earlier, I was doing what I always do before shows, which is to be alone and avoid people. Another cliché is also true: ignorance is bliss. I was feeling pretty OK about this show I had just spent six months choreographing and producing. A dance colleague of mine told me recently that nobody gets anywhere in the arts without being a little delusional. At that point, I was a lot delusional.

The trigger to all of this was the stage manager. She had just come upstairs to call time, and I took that as my cue to run down the stairs to check the audience. There’s just no way to predict how many people will come out to your show in Philadelphia. I have definitely done shows where my family of three comprised 33% of the audience. But, in the past couple of years, there were times I ran out of seats. I was crossing my fingers for the latter. But I took one peek out of the wing that night, and I knew. I was SO SCREWED. In about three hours, I was going to owe a lot of fucking money, and I didn’t have it. I wouldn’t even have enough to pay one person . . . and I had to pay ten. My face burned. My panic-vomit rose.

So, there I was, back in that bathroom stall, puking. My friend, who had worked with me on the show for the last few months, found me in the bathroom. I know she said something to me. But I wasn’t listening. I just wanted her out of the bathroom. There was no danger in me not leaving the stall in time for the top of the show. There were people in the seats. The musicians were there to play. A public TV station was even filming us for a fall program. But all I could play in my mind was the end of the night, when I’d have to cough up this money I didn’t have, and the painful tomorrow morning when the losses would become even more bitter. All I wanted at that moment was to take my three minutes of ugly cry in peace. Let me hurl and then somehow do a show—that not many people wanted to come see.

I’m not terribly rational in a pinch. I fall hard. And I’ve found that, because dance is so tied up in who I am, that I take my art failures much harder than non-art failures and very personally. It’s funny. Years ago, I worked for a corporation, managing massive projects involving millions of dollars. Did I make mistakes? Absolutely. Every damn day. Dumbass mistakes that I had to own. For the most part, though, I didn’t take the weight of the world on my shoulders when I fucked up. In the corporate world, mistakes are amortized, and the lost amounts? My boss used to tell me, “just bury the cost.” The hundreds of thousands of dollars of cost. And I did. I went home, didn’t think twice about what I had just spent the last 7 hours doing, and I was still able to do some damage at TJ Maxx. Not my money. And now it was. Karma?

I couldn’t roll this shit downhill. I had to answer to myself. I had to pay for all of this myself, literally.

At first, I would have told you that my failure was that I didn’t sell enough tickets. I couldn’t pay people. Losing all of that money, though, wasn’t the failure.

The big mistake was me. I had become so emotionally invested in a specific vision and a specific outcome that it prevented me from making the decisions I needed to in order for this show to work, on any artistic or financial level. And, at the core of that problem, was me, again. I wasn’t able to say a simple word: no.

Tap shows are a strange beast. We are improvisational soloists, but we are also choreographers. It can be a challenge to reconcile the two things in a concert setting. In this particular production, there was a ton going on: all kinds of musical styles, set-ups, moods, and approaches to the art form. All of them valid, but were they all necessary? Would everything have been better if I had tried to do even half as much?
I said yes to just about everything that felt good. I was afraid to say no because I knew I would have to face some very unpleasant outcomes.

But I should have said no a hundred times along the production process: when the theater manager couldn’t tell me for sure what the stage floor surface looked like under the marley (answer: there were holes in the floor), when I realized that there were no working lights in the theater, and when the theater manager told me the sound booth was not accessible to renters. I had to source lights and cables that I had no idea how to use, and I rented an entire theater’s worth of sound equipment. Saying “no,” for example, would have caused me to either change theaters, or reschedule the show, and I was afraid. I thought, stubbornly, I’ll make it work.

And I should have said no a hundred times along the creative process: when the cast and crew ballooned to an unwieldy size, and agreeing to eight musicians, when four would have been fine. In my perfect world, art is inclusion. But that’s not good arts-making. Good arts-making needs and demands boundaries. I was so deep in the weeds, it was ridiculous.

The painful failure I had to admit was that I spent so much time managing show production that I sacrificed the quality of what was actually going on stage. That hurts, even now, to write.

It might be weird to admit at this point that, overall, I’m proud of the show and what we all accomplished that night. But, the truth is, I made a show that sucked. Admitting where I went wrong sucked even harder.

What do I do now?

I work within this new awareness, and I’m grateful for it. I’m not going to stop making dances or working with live music in new ways. But I’ve let go of my vision of what a “concert dance show” is supposed to look like. For example, I am making art on a much smaller scale. The audience for what I do, right now, is also small. It’s just my reality. It’s about being real with myself and what is possible in my artistic life and this moment in time.

I never want to stop challenging myself to make dance and music that pushes me to learn something. I want to keep making that work with people that inspire me to be better. I can say “yes” to all of that.

Illustration by Mike Jackson,

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1 Comment on "Dancing in the Weeds"

Lee Ann Draud
2 years 7 months ago

Loved your honesty, Pam. I don’t envy you having to deal with that night, but you certainly learned something from it.