Aisha Tyler - Self-Inflicted Wounds Heartwarming Tales Audiobook
Excerpt from Self-Inflicted Wounds: Heartwarming Tales of Epic Humiliation
\nChapter 17: The Time I Danced Tragically in Front of My Entire College
Just because I could sing, doesn't mean I could dance.
People often make this unfortunate extrapolation. If you can carry a tune, the assumption is that you are a crunk beat away from getting your Usher on and doing a backflip into the faces of the evil opposing dance team while a crowd full of hard-luck kids with hearts of gold tauntingly intone, «Ooooooh.» I could not manage a backflip with a gravity harness and a team of assistants, but this matters not; it is a skill set people assign to me anyway. The fact that I am black does nothing to help disabuse people of the notion that I can drop it down and back it up.
I cannot drop it down and back it up, unless you are talking about a shitty car with a weak suspension into a parallel parking spot (1).
In fact, being black has not helped me at all in this regard. I know that is typically our domain, but I spent my childhood making tiny villages out of mud and sticks when I should have been booty popping and krush groove locking. The boogie wonderland passed me by; I missed out on this skill development completely. And much like learning a language, I'm pretty sure the neural pathways that govern dancing form at a very tender age. If you don't start learning early, after a certain age you are reduced to the dancing equivalent of only being able to speak barely functional English. I have mastered a limited number of dances that I interchange with gusto, much like the facial features on a Mr. Potato Head. They are rudimentary and visually lackluster, and they have served me for years (2). It is far too late for me to change now.
I will never be the lead inStep Up 17: Old Lady Finally Gets Around to Krumpin'. I have made my peace with this.
But in college, I had not yet come to terms with my lack of dancing skills or with my utter lack of physical dexterity of any kind. In my head, I was a gazelle, lithe and graceful, gliding across campus like a wayward angel fallen to earth, strewing fragrant blossoms and opals in her path.
In reality, I was a massive, galumphing klutz. Towering, awkward, and completely oblivious to anything happening around me. I was insanely accident-prone. I had the unique ability to find the one sharp item in a room full of down pillows and dandelion fluff, then impale myself on it violently and repeatedly, perhaps nicking a few bystanders in the process. I was the human equivalent of Mechagodzilla, crushing all in my path to dust in an orgy of carnage.
I would often write off my clumsiness to context or exhaustion or the thoughtless interference of others. But these were feeble and groundless protestations. One night, walking alone midwinter across the icy campus quad with an armful of books and a large cup of coffee, on my way to a last-minute study session the night before midterms, I managed the kind of feet-in-the-air, ass-over-teakettle earth-shattering tumble that you might see in vintage animation classics likeScooby DooorHong Kong Phooey. You could literally hear the «whip-eedip-whip-whip-whip-whip-whee!» of my feet slip-sliding on the ice, then soaring far above my head, as books, coffee, my backpack, and possibly a tooth went airborne then clattered with a thud to the solid, unforgiving ice. As there was no one around for a quarter mile, I could not blame this fall on anything but my staggering inability to control the movements of my own body.
My ass throbbed like a bongo drum for three months after that. When it came to pratfalls, I didn't fuck around. Major irreparable personal damage was the name of my game.
So why I ever thought it was a good idea to enter a lip-synching contest where I would be expected to fake sing,anddance, to a popular song, onstage, in front of
others, is a mystery. I mean, my fellow students were drunken college kids, sleep-deprived and starved for entertainment, but they weren't drooling imbeciles. Someone was sure to notice my total lack of dancing ability and highlight it to others in the kind of «point and screech» physical stance used by body snatchers to alert their fellow aliens that someone among them still possesses their human faculties. Even going in, I knew there was no way for this to end but terribly, humiliatingly, and with someone possibly losing an eye or a digit. Or both.
I forged ahead anyway, mostly because my best friend assured me that we would have really cool outfits. Still stinging from the shame of that abominable mock turtleneck, I would have agreed to a public stoning if it meant I could change perceptions about my fashion sense. A public stoning would have been less painful than this performance. At least with a stoning, there's no choreography.
Of all the professions people fantasize about, pop star is the only one people assume they could do right away if given the opportunity, without experience, training, divine gift, or dumb luck. People may armchair-quarterback their favorite football team, but no one thinks that if the coach reached out through the flat screen and tapped them on the shoulder, they could suddenly shake the D-line and make a mad scramble for second down. And while we may complain about, criticize, or abhor politicians, very few have the stomach to stand bare before the nation while people dig through every filthy detail of their pasts, poring over offhanded comments and questionable investments, parsing letters to ex-girlfriends and drunken photographic tweets. We all talk a good game, but most of us know when we're outclassed.
That is, in every discipline but pop performer. As evidenced by the litany of teary-eyed, bleating tragedies that stream past the camera at the beginning of every season of American Idol, every bobblehead with half a vocal cord and a Hot Topic half-shirt thinks they have what it takes to be the next Bruno Mars. Never mind that they've never had a voice lesson or held an instrument in their lives (3). Everyone thinks that all they need is the right lighting and a copy of Pro Tools to be the second coming of Gaga.
I, apparently, was one of these bobbleheads. And this was my shot to show everyone how selfless I had been to choose academia over my true calling: uplifting lives and devastating hearts while jamming to a funky beat. (4)
My friend and I entered the contest as a duo. Concept was everything, and the song would drive the look, so we set about picking an anthem. This being the '90s, we immediately chose Janet Jackson, and us being idiots, we settled almost as rapidly on a song that was completely out of our league. Remember, this was the zenith of MTV, when it was still relevant, impactful, and hit creating. Oh, and it also actually played music videos rather than just a litany of reality shows featuring drunken trainwrecks in desperate need of parental guidance, stumbling about like human pinballs in search of a hole. MTV was still Music Television at the time, and the videos that were kicking the most ass were ones where everyone wore leather and looked like background actors inThe Crow. Janet was awesome then, and we were all part of the Rhythm Nation.
We had this thing locked up.
Except for the fact that neither of us could dance. At college, I had accumulated a group of friends whose favorite pastimes were sitting around eating bacon-topped pizza, arguing about the feasibility of large-scale organic farming, and drinking cocktails that had been mixed in an industrial garbage can. None of that involved dancing, choreography, or physical exertion of any kind (5). The most physical we ever got was getting drunk and running outside in our shirtsleeves to construct a life-threatening ice slide in the frigid wee hours of a January morning. No matter. Pop stardom was my destiny. Bring it on.
After watching the video for «Rhythm Nation» one thousand times and finding ourselves able to replicate absolutely nothing therein, we decided we needed a ringer, someone who could make us look better and, failing that, dance around wildly to distract everyone. Luckily, the house I lived in had a resident dancer and choreographer who was a fantastic dresser with a scintillating personality and killer stage presence. We threw ourselves on his mercy, much like a frumpy housewife might fling herself at the feet of RuPaul, begging him to make her more feminine. We were failures at dancing, but more than that, we were failures at being sexy girls. We needed serious help. We needed a gay man (6).
Buoyed by his agreeing to be our resident visionary andsergent instructeurand encouraged by his faith in us (7), we set about remaking ourselves in Janet's image. Naturally, I thought I should be Janet, being tall and hard to camouflage. My best friend was short, blond, and adorable not particularly Jackson material (8). We wrestled with this, and since we valued our friendship more than we cared about what was quickly turning into a massive drag on our free time, we agreed to split responsibilities. Much like Stevie and Paul, we would live side by side on the piano and share the spotlight, offering up a shining example of racial harmony for all to see.
None of this was top of mind, particularly. Most of the time, we were drunk on vodka and grapefruit juice. But it did seem as if, executed properly, we could change the world with this shit. Or at least get laid.
We were renewed, our vigor and commitment made fresh. Unfortunately, the initial enthusiasm sparked by the addition to our two-man band lasted about a day. College students are notoriously lazy, veering madly between floor-sprawled apathy and manic all-night productivity. The diagnosis of bipolar disorder when a person swings from wild bouts of intensely effective hypermania and elation to long dark periods of depression and inertia should be voided for college students. Embracing bipolarity is the only way you can actually get through college: weeks of procrastination, defined by days huddled in the dark of your dorm room in unwashed sweatpants, weeping and eating Snickers bars by the fistful, followed by 48 hours of mind-boggling effectiveness, during which you clean your entire room, including your roommate's sty of a side (9), take apart your computer, rearrange its guts to make it 17 times faster, put it back together, throw away the leftover parts (which were just decorative anyway), make a seven-layer lasagna using only your hot plate and a bunch of leftover ketchup packets, write three research papers, and finish an entire semester's worth of clinical-psychology reading in one night. Rinse, and repeat.
Our first few rehearsals were pretty high-energy and motivated, and then we just fell apart. We were exhausted and not very good. Also, as college kids, we were prone to easy distraction - the lure of a party or a half-eaten pizza or an extra hour of sleep proved irresistible. Instead of actually dancing, we began engaging in mental training - you know, the kind where you think about something a lot without ever actually doing it. I am a professional at this kind of training. I visualize myself winning the Olympic Pentathlon, inventing a phone that can be controlled by brain waves, or doing the laundry. I do not actuallydothese things, but I see myself doing them, and that is almostmoresatisfying, because I am also lying down.
By the night of the performance, we were not even close to ready. We did not know the choreography, we had not memorized the lyrics, we could not dance, and I was developing an epic leg cramp. But this thing was happening, so we put on our best approximation of the wardrobe from the «Rhythm Nation» video black leotards and tights, borrowed leather jackets, and ballet flatsªa combination that, I hoped, would magically make me a better dancer. I prayed fervently that beefy white tube socks stuffed into delicate slippers might have some kind of transformative effect. It did not.
Panicked, at the last minute we decided to pull in a fourth, a girlfriend of ours who was bored and avoiding homework and who knew even less of the choreography than we did but had a great body and was willing to wear lingerie. We figured, if nothing else, she could parade around and distract everyone from noticing the cat pile of madness that was our dancing. She was game and played her role with gusto, striding back and forth for no particular reason, gesticulating wildly, blowing kisses to the audience, and generally shaking her moneymaker.
We, on the other hand, could not have shaken our moneymakers if they had handles on them like giant human maracas. But we did our best to communicate the spirit, if not the actual choreography, lyrics, look, or anything else of that music video. We stumbled back and forth across the stage, straining to keep time to the beat, faces masks of concentration, bodies a tangle of arms and legs, flailing and pulsating with utter lack of rhythm. We were an aerobics class in an insane asylum. But we sold it with everything we had, and as the song ended, we froze, posed in triumph, arms raised like gymnasts, gasping for air, chests heaving, faces lifted to the sky, feeling like champions. In that one shining moment, we were winners. We were, indeed, a part of the Rhythm Nation.
Also in that moment, we knew, deep down in our hearts that our performance had sucked. If there had been a real Rhythm Nation, our passports would have been revoked. We were terrible.
Happily, most of the audience was too drunk to care. There were girls, they were onstage, they were wearing tights, and that was good enough for them. They applauded loudly and cheered lustily. Whether it was because they loved the performance or because it was finally mercifully over didn't matter. We had vamped like crazy in the ultimate vamping contest, and in situations where appearance is everything, it may matter more that you look like you fit the part than that you actually fit it at all.
And I learned that when all else fails, dance your ass off. Preferably in suggestive clothing. Hey, entire careers have been built on less. I'm talking to you, Madonna.
1. It is definitely not getting hot in here.
2. I can do an excellent Wop, and under pressure, I can deliver a serviceable Running Man. Honestly, that's about it. I'm more of
an ideas person.
3. Guitar Hero does. Not. Count.
4. Even using the phrase funky beat disqualifies me from ever being able to recognize one. I sound like a character from Yo Gabba Gabba.
5. Using a visibly unwashed hand to stir vodka into fruit juice
is not exercise.
6. In retrospect, no one could help us. We were a lost cause.
7. He didn't believe in us at all. We offered him tears, then booze,
and finally, money.
8. Although in Michael's latter days, he resembled her far more than he resembled me.
Video: Self-Inflicted Wounds by Aisha Tyler
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