Thursday, November 17, 2011
I was surrounded by Russians as I crouched down in my white tuxedo and top hat. As the fog rolled past and the gate opened I took a moment to marvel at what was happening. It was a feeling made up of part wonder and part internal laughter. The music started and I led the group of Russians behind me in our opening number.
Each Sunday one fall a few years ago, I would drive down to Branson so I could sing, tell jokes, and dance for the entertainment of gleeful octogenarians with Yakov Smirnoff. Before I moved to southern Missouri, I never would have imagined that any part of that sentence would be true. Yakov had been on The Mystery Hour a couple of times, so I had gotten to know him pretty well. Yakov’s main comedian that year, Dallen, was Mormon and needed Sundays off to attend church with his family, so he needed someone to fill in for him on Sundays. I really didn’t need anything else on my plate, but I thought about how I could forever have the first sentence of this paragraph as part of my life experience if I did it. So I said yes.
My basic duties would be to do some improv as a warm up before the show started, sing and dance in the first number, make some announcements before intermission, and then be a singing and sword fighting pirate.
The prospect was both exciting and terrifying at the same time. Yakov is very particular, and his theater seats more than a thousand. My favorite part of the preparation was when Yakov came up to the Skinny Improv and he and I practiced our sword fighting in the lobby in front of the huge windows. I like to think of people I know walking by saying, “Is that Jeff? Is he sword fighting? With the famous Russian comedian? We can’t go to the hookah bar anymore.”
I can tell jokes, so I wasn’t too worried about that. Ordinarily, the singing would be the hardest part of this whole scenario, but I told them immediately that I can’t even come close to singing, so Dallen laid down some audio of him singing that I lip synced to.
The dancing would be the biggest challenge. My mom was a dance teacher, but I hadn’t ever learned a choreographed dance, that I didn’t create, on my own. Yes, I have made my own before. Not the point. The point is, I love dancing, I love it more than I should. I like going to dance clubs, but not the grinding in a big crowded pack kind of dancing, the “hey everyone, check out this move” type of dancing. I love love love wedding receptions for the dancing. In fact, I would like to make it a requirement that I go to a dancing wedding reception at least once a year. I’ve got in dance battles with strangers, and in my mind I’ve won them all. Michelle describes my dancing as a butterfly awkwardly escaping from a cocoon over and over. I would just call it a butterfly dancing his dreams out.
But, choreographed dancing?
I practiced over and over in our living room watching DVDs of the show, and went down and rehearsed. Finally, finally, I had it down-ish. The first time I was all nerves. As the gates were opening the guy across from me nodded and we walked toward each other, turned, and walked toward the audience. Yakov’s famous Russian dancers followed and we began our choreographed number. It involved a lot of kicking and spinning, and then at the right time the other comedian and I would step out and tell a joke, and then get back in line with the dancers. After a few performances, I was like, “Alright, I’ve got this down, I’m doing it.”
Then, I saw a video of it.
Yes, strictly speaking, I was doing the right dance moves (except one show where I completely screwed up). However, a couple of things stood out. One, I hadn’t ever realized it, but I was a foot taller than all the Russian dancers and looked like Shawn Bradley out there. Two, my kicks reached maybe, maybe waist level, which I felt pretty good about. The Russian dancers kicks went really high, you know, like real dancer kicks. I looked like stiff angry bear on his hind legs, surrounded by professional dancers.
It didn’t ruin me on dancing though. Tonight, I did a stand up show in a small theater, that was part of a variety show. It went well for me, even though I didn’t have a mic, and it was sparsely attended.
The highlight for me was a dancer. He started out doing the entire Billie Jean performance that Michael Jackson did when he first unveiled the moonwalk. The guy had the short black pants, glitter socks, glittery glove and fedora. I could barely contain myself. Then, in the second act, he did an original number that was a pop and lock routine. Oh man, oh man, oh man, I love both popping and locking. I’ve only seen it on TV, or done by crappy street performers. It is what I imagine I do when I’m dancing that comes across as the butterfly/cocoon struggle. This guy was legit. I kept wanting to grab everyone next to me and say, “Do you guys see this? Are we really seeing this live?”
Afterwards I told him that he dances the way I think I dance. He said he liked my armadillo joke.
Although he didn’t compliment my dancing, I could tell that he recognized and respected me as a fellow dancer.