She Was (not) a Dancing Queen

In my last post I wrote of my ignominious history with Physical Education, and in particular, about the kayaking debacle in which I almost killed my first college P.E. teacher. After three terrifying kayak sessions, I came to my senses and slunk back to where I belonged…a Beginner Aerobics class.

Don’t imagine for a moment that this aerobics class didn’t also hold its own challenges for me. It’s not something I like to talk about, but I suffer from S.K.I.: Severe Kinetic Ineptitude. I’m clumsy, prone to falling, and find it extremely challenging to mimic physical movements. Despite these serious limitations, I managed to plod and stumble my way through the first quarter of aerobics. I gazed with real satisfaction at that first CR (credit) on my report card.

Emboldened by this modest success, the next quarter I signed up for another aerobics class. In my overweening arrogance, I thought I could slack off a bit. I began to miss a class here or there. No big deal…until I missed one too many classes to earn my P.E. credit. I didn’t worry too much about this. I still had four years to take the two more classes I needed to fulfill the phys ed requirement. I figured the credit would simply not show up on my transcript. Imagine my surprise when I found an “F” for Beginner Aerobics on my report card. The shame of it was almost too much to bear. Despite the fact that the failing grade did not count towards my G.P.A., my mother was livid. I resolved to sign up for Jazz dance the following quarter. It would be so much fun, I wouldn’t want to miss a single class!

Have I ever mentioned that I am a spectacularly bad dancer? In high school I used to be in all the musicals. I could sing, I could sort of act, but I most definitely could not dance. For big dance numbers when the whole cast was on stage, the choreographer would hide me in the back row where my graceless flailing wouldn’t be so visible. Sometimes there would be others back there with me. We back row dancers never had to move our feet at all. Occasionally we would be assigned a dead-simple semaphore-like movement to perform with our arms to justify our presence on stage. The choreographer charitably dubbed us “the disco line.” During performances I would grimly fix my gaze into the distance as I performed my moves, pretending not to notice my family members in the audience, poking each other and pointing at me as they squirmed and gasped and yelped in paroxysms of helpless laughter.

I boldly showed up to my first jazz dance class ready to leave my sorry terpsichorean past behind me. I came wearing a ratty t-shirt, shorts, and sneakers and was slightly dismayed to see that everyone else was sporting leotards, leggings, and jazz shoes. The teacher began showing us some basic jazz moves. She eased into things by teaching us how to do “jazz hands.” I have to admit, I was pretty damn amazing at “jazz hands.” I actually kind of blew myself away. She taught us a few more moves. “Step touch” – a piece of cake! A “jazz square” was a little more complicated, but just about manageable. “Step, ball, change” – yes! Chassé – got it! She had us practice these basic moves for about half the class.

It was going pretty well, though she wouldn’t stop squawking at me.

“Adrienne! Relax your shoulders!…RELAX your shoulders.”

At one point, clearly exasperated, she stomped over to me and said as she forcefully pressed down on my shoulders, “Re-LAX your shoulders!”

Suddenly, a surprised expression dawned on her face, “Oh…you have really broad shoulders. Kind of like a football player.”

At that moment, a deeply suppressed memory from my high school days came flooding back into my mind. One day, my dad questioned me about what I wanted to do with my life. I had no answer for him, so I flippantly tossed off the most preposterous thing I could think of…

“I’m going to be a go-go dancer, Dad!”

A pained look passed over his face.

“Adrienne,” he said solemnly, gently, and with the utmost kindness, “to be a dancer, you have to have a fancy body. You don’t have a fancy body.”

Just as I had back then, I soldiered on.

“OK, class! Now we’re going to have some fun! We’re going to put these moves together into a dance sequence!”

The teacher shimmied and pirouetted, kicked and pranced across the gym floor as she called out the moves she was performing.

“It’s your turn now. Form a line and go one at a time. 5! 6! 7! 8! Jump lunge, hitch kick, chassé, cross, side kick, barrel turn, kick, ball change, step touch, step touch, soutane piqué, chaîné, aaaaaaaand jazz hands!”

This was, without a shadow of a doubt, even more horrifying than having to hang upside down in a kayak in the icy cold Connecticut River.

One by one my classmates strutted and danced across the floor with bored expressions on their faces, expertly executing the sequence like a whole chorus line of Bob Fosse protégés.

When it was my turn, I lumbered through the moves like a drunken ox. (I did finish strong, however, with my awesome “jazz hands”). The room grew silent. My classmates gazed intently at the ceiling, at a piece of lint they suddenly discovered on their leotard, at the floor…As for my teacher, she said nothing, but stood there with a thoughtful and slightly stunned expression on her face. Somehow or other, I managed to get through enough of these torture sessions to get another P.E. credit under my belt. Eventually, I got my third and final P.E. credit after one last round of Beginner Aerobics.

Hope you have a wonderful, wonderful weekend and week. I’m leaving today to go to Korea for work. My sister’s coming with me, so I’ll get to play too! I’ll be back in a week with photos and more stories…See you then!

My Mama, the Drama Queen

My mother is a force of nature…

I’ve re-posted this one once already, but I can’t resist posting it one more time.

My dad told us that he heard about my mother before ever setting eyes on her. According to him, Seoul was abuzz with excitement about her acting. This horrified and mortified my grandmother, who considered acting a déclassé pursuit not too far removed from prostitution.

Although my mother gave up stage acting after college, she has worn the tiara of an inveterate drama queen all her life. She is brash and sparkling: like a firecracker rather than a candle. It was a cosmic accident that my mother was born in Korea, and not in America. Korean women titter hesitantly with their heads bowed and a hand covering their mouth; my mother throws her head back and guffaws raucously. When she’s happy, she trills like a bird. When she’s angry, her eyes blaze, the moon eclipses the sun, and darkness falls heavily upon the cold earth.

Her exceptional acting skills have been called into service many times over the years. A Korean couple once called my parents in the middle of the night to ask them to accompany them to the emergency room so that they could help interpret for them. They waited in the emergency room for hours while the woman’s condition worsened. She was doubled over in agonizing pain, but was still made to wait. Suddenly, my mother stood up and started screeching at the top of her lungs like a madwoman, “This woman is DYING! She’s DYING and NO ONE IS TAKING CARE OF HER! SHE’S GOING TO DIE, RIGHT HERE IN THE WAITING ROOM!” Later my mother reported burning with shame and embarrassment as she created the scene, but she didn’t stop screaming until the orderlies rushed over and wheeled the woman away. When the doctors came back, they reported that the woman had had an ectopic pregnancy, and had indeed been minutes away from dying when my mother gave the spectacular performance that saved her life.

My mother continued to hone her craft over many years and in many venues. Bank performances became her specialty. In fact, torturing bank employees across America and getting them to do her bidding became something of a hobby for my mother. As she can’t drive, she would have me take her to the bank. My mother would sit silently, clutching her big shabby purse on her lap until called, whereupon she would blink her eyes like a dazed little bird and wander into the cubicle of her next victim. The affable bank employee would size up this little old lady, crack a few genial jokes, make a few pleasantries…And then my mother would begin.

“Now. I received this letter from you telling me that my CD matured. I would like to withdraw my money, please.”

“Ah, yes, Mrs. Kim, but it’s now July 15th, and the deadline for withdrawing was more than two months ago.”

“Yes. I understand. But I was in Korea, and I couldn’t come until today.”

No matter what the banker said, no matter how patiently he would point to the date long passed, my mother would just keep repeating her request over and over in the same mild-mannered way.

“I couldn’t come by May 1st, because I was in Korea. My flight arrived only a few days ago. I was sooo jetlagged, but finally I was able to come today. And I would like my money now.”

It would go on like this for a good ten minutes. “Pooooooor sap,” I’d think to myself as I would watch the banker squirm like  a pinned insect. Finally, he would succumb to the inevitable and hand my mother whatever she wanted on a silver platter. I imagine those bankers consoled themselves with the thought that they were doing a good deed for this dear, confused little kitten. If they had paid attention, though, they would have witnessed a remarkable metamorphosis as she strode out the door counting her bills like a Korean Keyser Söze.

Her own family was treated to the theatrics as well. When she thought we were watching too much T.V., for example, she heaved the  set into the driveway, pulled the plug out from both ends, and chopped the cord into a million pieces. When I was struggling to finish my Ph.D. with a toddler and an infant to care for and was ready to give up on the whole project, my mother called me one day and pleaded in a voice overwrought with emotion, “Just finish it for your father’s sake. It would mean so much to him. Please. Do this one last thing for him, before he dies.” Never mind that he was in perfect health, the dissertation got written that year.

About four years ago, we almost lost my mother. She was diagnosed with primary amyloidosis and given eighteen months to live. She came back to America to be treated at Sloan-Kettering through a clinical trial of a chemotherapy drug. When it was clear that the treatment would kill her faster than the disease, she was kicked out of the trial, but she had had just enough chemo to knock her disease into remission. Fiercely independent, though still weak as a newborn lamb, she insisted on dragging herself back to Korea on a 20 hour flight, against doctors’ orders and despite the entreaties of her family. My dad shudders when he recalls her lying on the airport floor from sheer exhaustion during a layover. She broke three ribs the day after arriving when she tripped over the suitcases she was too tired for the first time in her life to unpack the minute she arrived, but she had triumphed. Giving Death the finger, she had staggered back to her own apartment, and her own life. We went to visit my parents that summer and met my father’s assistant minister. This grown man in his thirties, married with two children, confessed to my brother in his heavily accented English, “I am scared of your mommy. But I love her.”

Honestly, I could write a whole novel about this woman, but I’m too scared she might read it and I’d be in big fat trouble. Instead, I’ll leave you with some photos of my mama, the Drama Queen from her early acting days.

There she is……….on the left!

In these next two photos, she’s the badass on the right.

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