Department of English

Fall 2010 Edition

Telling His Story

Ashley Herd
Expressive 1010 1st Place
Professor Danielle Dubrasky

Roger Rosenblatt wrote, "We exist by storytelling." I have heard countless stories from friends, family, and even strangers. Some I have passed on, some I have kept to myself, some I have forgotten, but one I wanted to honor. I had a desire for people to know what this person had gone through, the changes he made, and the struggles he was still facing. Telling an amazing story is no easy job, but I wanted to get it right. I pondered ways I could tell this story. What was the right way? I realized the best and only way to tell this touching story was on the stage.

The stage at Riverton High School was my home away from home. The heavy black wings hid the other dancers and me while we waited to go on. When I danced on the rough, uneven wood of the stage, paint would rub off on my feet and leave them black as the night. My favorite time on the stage was during April, when we would cover it in marley. Marley is a black rubbery floor that my dance company would tape down on top of the stage. Dancing on the marley was perfect. It did not grab at our feet like the uneven wood, and it caught us gently when we were on the floor. The auditorium in front of the stage holds 1,500 people. Before I would go on, I was always nervous. It did not matter if it was friends, family, or half the school there to watch; I would get butterflies. Once I was on stage the bright, colored lights would blind me. At first it was disorienting, and the catcalls coming from all directions would leave me feeling more lost. When the first note of the music started, everything changed. The music would fill my ears and work its way through my body. In those moments, nobody was there. It was only me, the music, and the story I had to tell. I told a lot of stories through my dancing on that stage, but one changed how I felt about dance forever.

I was lying on my stomach in the dance room staring at a paper. It listed the criteria that needed to be met for our new assignment. I looked up at my good friend, Jordan, whose hair was sticking straight up in the black braided headband she always wore. I elbowed her leg and tried discretely to mouth, "this is perfect." I did not want to interrupt my dance instructor, who was explaining the assignment, but I was so excited. We had to submit three ideas for dances to go in our fall concert. The theme this year was Retrospection, and I had the perfect idea. I scribbled down my idea to choreograph a dance about my grandpa's struggles and the changes he made in his life. Underneath that I wrote, "I want to choreograph this piece," and underlined my untidy scrawl.

A year ago my stubborn grumpy grandpa had been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. The family knew he smoked, but he kept telling himself that we were oblivious. He had managed to convince himself that we could not see the smoke billowing out of the old red barn. The barn was ancient: the red paint was chipping off, two doors hung unevenly on their hinges, the windows were covered in dirt, and under the roof sat hay that had been there since my great grandfather's time. Also, the barn was a safety hazard; it was practically begging to burn down. Obviously, we noted when smoke was coming from there but my grandpa stuck to his story of quitting years ago, and we let him continue on with his stories, knowing there would be no way to change his mind.

The changes he proceeded to make in his life after being diagnosed were astounding. His relationship with my grandma had always been rocky. They never showed affection. Likewise, my grandfather's relationship with his children and grandchildren was similar to the one with his wife. Did he love us? Yes, of course, and he always made sure we were comfortable, but besides that he did not show a lot of interest in our lives. When the doctors told him he had about a year to live, his outlook on life changed, and it changed fast. He showed love towards my grandma. I watched in shock as he teased her, held her hand, and kissed her cheek. He bought her a new wedding ring and a new car. I could tell he was making sure she would be taken care of when he passed. He also fixed his relationships with his children, and for the first time he told me he would come to watch me dance.

Thankfully, my dance instructor liked my idea for a dance and she let me choreograph it. The movement came easily to me and ideas sprang up in my head so often I could barely focus on anything else. I knew exactly how to tell this story. In my dance, Sierra, a member of our dance company, represented my grandpa at this point in time. She started the dance in her purple shirt, then stood on the side of the stage and watched as groups of people crossed. The groups crossing the stage were reruns of my grandpa's life, and one girl from each group, also dressed in a purple shirt, represented my grandpa in earlier times of his life. Sierra went in to fix the hurtful things she had done to the people she loved. Every person started on stage left and worked her way to stage right. This depicted moving through life.

Finding music was a difficult task. I could not find a song that fit exactly with my grandpa's story. I easily looked through 200 songs. I would listen to twenty seconds, then move to the next. I started to feel discouraged. One day, as I was watching the girls run the dance, an idea popped into my head. I called up my friend, Trey, and asked him for a favor. Trey is a talented musician and I knew he would be willing to write a song for me. He dragged his friend, Riley, into helping, and together they wrote a song for my dance.

Teaching the girls on the company was my biggest struggle. I felt so passionate about my grandpa's story that I needed them to feel it too. I wanted it to look perfect, so I pushed and pushed them during practices. Every time I watched the girls do it I could spot something wrong, and I always felt as if they were lacking emotion. I wanted them to feel the same way I felt about what my grandpa had done in his life, but how could I expect them to? He was my grandpa, not theirs.

After three months of hard practice, concert time arrived. My whole family came to watch, including my grandpa. I could not help but wonder, what if he did not like my dance or what if he did not understand what I was trying to say about him? My dance was the closure in our concert, and when the time came to perform I was so nervous I thought I might throw up. My heart was racing. I was pretty sure if I looked down I could see it thumping through my shirt. It was making an attempt to leap out of my chest and hide in a dark corner. I stood in the wings with the other girls on Dance Company, and forced myself to take a deep breath. I looked around at the girls. They were all completely silent and focused. They knew my grandpa was here and that this dance meant a lot to me. Sierra stepped on stage and a single beam of yellow light lit up her body. She looked over her shoulder and started to dance. Trey and Riley came in with the music right on time. Like magic, I was suddenly calm. I stopped worrying about everyone else and danced for my grandpa with the girls that I loved, on the stage that felt like home.

The dance ended with us standing in a circle and one of our hands was placed on the shoulder of the girl next to us. I could feel all of us breathing in unison, like one giant living organism. I looked at Jordan, who was standing next to me, and saw tears trickling down her face. After the curtains closed I looked at all the girls. Most, like Jordan, had been or were crying. The air was thick with emotion. I did not need to push them, or tell them to show more emotion. They felt it, and they understood. They knew what my grandpa had done and what he was still experiencing. We had made a connection on that stage that could never have happened with strangers. We loved each other, and we were a family. What I did not realize before was that us being a family made my grandpa their family too.

The girls on Dance Company gave each other hugs before heading off to find their family members who had come to watch. I thanked Riley and Trey for writing a song for me, and playing it live. I then slipped off to go find my grandpa. My whole family was standing in my high school's common area playing with the kids. My grandpa was sitting alone, on a stone wall outside the auditorium. He had on blue sweat pants, a white polo shirt, and brown slippers that he always wore because of how swollen his feet could become. He was hugging his oxygen tank and the tubes that went up his nose were slightly crooked. He looked tired. I walked over to him and sat down, but I was not sure what to say. He looked at me, put his hands on my shoulder, and told me how proud he was of me. He began to say something else, but stopped in the middle of the sentence. He started to tear up. This stubborn old man who had shown hardly any emotions for the first seventeen years of my life was crying.

My mom, grandma, and dad came over and they all had tears in their eyes, too. It was a bittersweet moment. We were connected with a bond of love so deep it could never be broken, but it was there because my grandpa was dying. I knew I had accomplished my goal. My grandpa understood how much I respected the changes he had made in his life, and my family got to watch me show that to him. Through my dancing I had told his story, and I told it right.

I was on Dance Company for three years, and I danced on the stage at Riverton High more times than I can count, but that moment, that dance will stay with me forever. The night we performed it, I formed a strong link with every girl on the stage. We truly made my grandpa's story come to life. We were there solely to pass on his story and allow it to resonate in the hearts of others. That was our only purpose.