Excerpted from Piano Girl by Robin Meloy Goldsby, Backbeat Books, 2006.
I’m not scared, not at all. Of course I’ve never hiked through this particular corner of the city dressed like a hooker.
I’m scheduled to play Maurice Ravel’s Piano Sonatine for the spring music department recital at the Chatham College chapel. I know the material. I love the material. I’ve practiced it until the piece is playing me, instead of the other way around. I’m confident and secure with my interpretation of the composer’s intention, and I’m looking forward to the night’s performance.
I walk onstage, sit down at the Steinway concert grand, and adjust the height of the bench. There are about seventy-five people in attendance, a small crowd for such a big space.
Something is wrong with me. I feel, I don’t know, hollow. My hands are tingling. I take a deep breath, and begin playing the first movement of the Sonatine.
That’s when it hits me. About sixteen bars into Mr. Ravel’s elegantly written composition, my heart starts pounding. Boom. Boom. Boom. My hands sweat and shake, and I’m moving in slow motion, except for my right knee, which has developed a high-speed twitch.
“You can do this, you can do this,” I say to myself five or six times.
Another voice, a strange one coming from inside my head, starts poking at my self confidence.
“Who are you?” I think.
The Voice of Doom, he replies in a loud, whiny voice. I look around. No one else can hear the Voice of Doom. Just me.
Get . . . Out . . . Of . . . Here, I think, trying hard to concentrate on the notes.
Nope, he says. I’m not goin’. You’re a fake, and it’s about time you realized it. Fake, fake, fake! You’re gonna massacre this piece big time and all these people will hear you do it. You’re nothing but a big faking faker. Fake, fake, fake, fake, fake.
He’s yelling at me from inside my brain, somewhere between my ears and the top of my skull, and he keeps getting louder and louder.
I try to argue back but I can’t get a word in edgewise.
This is awful.
I can’t locate the notes. Or if I find them I play them so slowly that I have no idea where I am in the piece. Everything I’ve learned is gone—out the window like bubbles blown through a ring on a windy day.
I steal a glance at the audience. Grandma Curtis and Grandma Rawsthorne are in the second row with Aunt Jean and Uncle Bill. They’re all smiles and don’t seem to notice anything wrong. That’s good. My parents are in the row behind them, but I look away before I can catch their reaction to my train wreck. Oh no. There’s Bill Chrystal, with a pained expression on his normally placid face, hovering on the side of the chapel, looking like he’s ready to dash out the fire exit if things get any worse.
I’m freezing and my hands shake. I’m having an anxiety attack.
Oh. Wait. Now I get it. I’m onstage alone and the audience is paying attention. I’ve gotten used to the chatter and the laughter of the cocktail lounge. Where are the clinking glasses and the waiters barking orders at the bartender? Where is the whir of the blender, where are the cheerful hellos and goodbyes and how are yous? Where is all the noise? And how come these people are listening? What do they expect to hear?
No, no, no, no, no! Don’t just sit there! Talk! Smoke a cigarette! Have an argument with your neighbor. Dispute the check with your overworked waitress, because you did, after all, only have two gin and tonics and you’re being charged for three. Order another round of Strawberry Margaritas or some of those tasty chicken fingers. Do something, anything, but please please please don’t listen to me. It is enough for me to listen to myself. Really, it’s enough.
Well, there you have it, says Voice of Doom. Another concert career comes to a screeching halt.
The next day I decide to audition to be a showgirl in the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus.
Maybe I’ll be good enough for the circus.
No you won’t, says the Voice of Doom. VOD is pushy and he’s off to an excellent start.
Debbie McCloskey is going to audition, too. We get ourselves made up like a couple of teenage tarts, pack our dance bags with circus-appropriate items—blue eye shadow, little pots of glitter, hair clips with sequined fruit appliqués—and climb aboard the Fifth Avenue bus that takes us to the circus site, the Civic Arena in downtown Pittsburgh.
“Back door, please!” Deb yells at the bus driver. ”I don’t know about this bus stop,” she says to me. “Isn’t this a rough part of town? Deb is from Ellwood City. Every part of Pittsburgh is a rough part of town for her.
“Naw, don’t worry,” I say. I’d taken the bus down there every Saturday for years for flute lessons. By the age of nine I’d been using public transportation to get everywhere in the city. I’m not scared, not at all.
Of course I’ve never hiked through this particular corner of the city dressed like a hooker. Showgirl makeup, big hair, and high heels at 8:30 a.m. have a tendency to make a girl look like last night’s leftover, no matter how young she is. We endure and ignore the taunts and the leers, and run as fast as we can in our tight skirts and colorful heels. Out of breath, windblown, and short on composure, we drag our dance bags up to the guard at Gate B of the Civic Arena.
“Through the tunnel to the Center Ring, please, Ladies.” We tiptoe past cages of tigers and lions. They’re being fed huge chunks of raw meat on a hook. My feet feel like huge chunks of raw meat on a hook.
“You know,” Deb says to me. “We really should wear sensible shoes to these things and change once we get where we’re going.”
“But I don’t own a pair of sensible shoes.”
A camel spits at Deb.
“Don’t get too close to the cages, girls!” yells a very short (some might even say dwarf-like) man with huge arms. “These cats will have you for breakfast.”
Maybe being a concert pianist isn’t such a bad idea.
But you’re not good enough. Remember? says VOD.
We reach the center ring. This is amazing. In the first ring The Flying Zucchinis—or whatever they’re called—are practicing their trapeze act. I stand there, looking up, with my mouth hanging open, as a young female Zucchini releases the trapeze, hurls herself through the air, somersaults three or maybe even four times, completely misses the other trapeze, drops into the net, and laughs. In ring three is a leather-clad woman shouting commands in an Eastern European language at six stampeding horses. She has a whip and the horses are bolting around her in a circle. When she whacks her whip on the ground, the horses leap in the air, spin around, and gallop in the other direction. Wow! Heigh-ho Silver! Ride like the wind! I’m getting dizzy just watching. They make a lot of dust. I cough. The trainer looks over her shoulder at the large group of girls gathering for the audition, and her eyes narrow. She cracks the whip, three times, loudly, and turns her attention back to her animals.
“I love this,” I say to Debbie. “It’s like going to the circus for free!”
“Sign the sheet and go stand in the line, please. We’re eliminating girls based on appearance.”
Oh great! I have a lot of confidence in my ability to look like a circus showgirl. I’ve been practicing ever since my parents took me to Las Vegas when I was sixteen. We saw Sammy Davis, Jr., Gladys Knight and the Pips, Steve and Edie, and several hundred showgirls wearing nothing but feathers and sequins held together by dental floss.
Debbie and I shed our coats, brush our hair, re-apply our weather-worn fuchsia lipstick and do our best showgirl walks as we strut to the middle of the center ring.
I am wearing a white french-cut leotard and silver shoes.
“Robin,” whispers Deb, as we take our places in the line. “That leotard is completely see-through!” We stand there posing, grinning at the choreographer as he looks us up and down. After his gaze moves on to the girl on my right, I glance down at myself. Double drat. My nipples are standing at attention like twin lieutenants at a West Point parade. Merde. Who knew it would be so cold in the Big Top.
“You in the white! And you next to her in the blue,” shouts the choreographer. Debbie always wears blue because it makes her eyes stand out. My white outfit is having a similar effect, but not with my eyes, exactly. “Can you two dance?” he asks.
“Oh yes,” we say in unison. This is a big fat lie. Deb can dance a little; she’d been the star majorette at Ellwood City High School. But I am certainly not a dancer. My sister is the dancer. I am the piano player.
No you’re not, says VOD. You just think you’re a piano player.
“Yes,” I say again to the choreographer, “I’m a very good dancer.”
“Can you do a time step?” he asks.
“Yes! I can do a time step!” I say. I turn to Deb and whisper, “What’s a time step?”
“I can’t teach you that in 30 seconds, “ she says. “I barely know how to do one myself. Just move your arms around a lot and smile like crazy. In that outfit, they’ll never notice your feet.” She exits the ring to put on her tap shoes. I claim to have forgotten mine.
I notice a Channel Four camera crew setting up on one side of the ring.
Oh good—we’ll be on the news tonight!
“That’ll be a great story,” says Deb. “Nipple Day at Ringling Brothers.”
“Ah, come on, look, it’s not so bad now. I’m getting warmer. Maybe the lights are helping.”
I survive the time-step cut. I wave my arms around and smile and bounce and before I know it, I make it to the second round. So does Deb.
“And now for the ballet combination,” says the choreographer.
Oh come on.
You know, I honestly thought that all I would have to do for this job was ride an elephant or hang from a ring. I mean, no one goes to the circus to see a ballet. This choreographer fellow is going way overboard.
I stumble my way through the ballet combination without harming myself or anyone else. The final part of the audition is coming up. We’ll be required to do thirty chené turns across the ring, starting at one side and stopping when we get to the other. What is this, the Bolshoi? Sorry, but turning or spinning of any kind has never been one of my strong suits—I suffer from motion sickness, big time.
The assistant calls out the names of the girls who have made the third cut. I’m sure that I’ve failed the ballet combination and I’m already packing up my gear when I hear my name.
“Robin Meloy, you’re up second for the chené turns,” says the assistant. I look at Debbie for help, but she’s busy practicing, twirling and revolving and pirouetting like a crazed dancing doll in a jewelry box. I don’t want to rehearse—I’m afraid I’ll get too dizzy before I have to do the real thing. All around me girls in bright leotards and metallic shoes are spinning around, whipping their heads from side to side; whirling dervishes in high heels and lip gloss. I feel a little queasy. I stand perfectly still and try to focus on the horizon.
The camera crew positions itself on the far side of the ring, in the spot where we’re supposed to stop. The first girl jumps gracefully off the edge of the ring and spins her way, in a perfect line, to the far side. She stops suddenly, strikes a perfect “live at Caesar’s Palace” showgirl kind of pose, and ambles out of the center ring. I hope she’ll be trampled by one of the stampeding horses, but alas, she is spared.
“Miss Meloy, you’re on!” There is weird mazurka music playing—hoopa, shoopa, shoy, yoy, yoy! I have no idea if I’ll make it to the other side—I’ve never tried this many turns—but I figure I’ve got nothing to lose. I leap from the border of the ring and start spinning. I try to “spot” my turns, snapping my head back and forth to prevent dizziness, but I can tell, after seven or eight revolutions, that it isn’t helping.
You wouldn’t want to throw up, now would you? says VOD.
As I approach the other side of the ring, I remember the camera crew. Oh no! I am hopelessly out of control by now, reeling toward the Channel Four news people like an albino bat with nipples who has lost its sense of direction.
I trip on the camera tripod and lunge into a rotund cable man.
“Whoa, lassie!” he yells. Together, we tumble onto the dusty floor. Down, down, all the way down.
Everything is spinning around me, there’s a 250-pound union technician on top of me, electrical cable around my ankles and sawdust in my hair.
See? says VOD. I told you. You’re not even good enough for the goddamn circus.
The cable guy takes his time getting back on his feet, helps me up, and brushes the straw off my leotard, an activity he seems to enjoy.
Deb, though not perfect, manages to execute her turns without knocking over the news crew. The audition is over.
“Thank you, Ladies!” says the choreographer. “Those of you who have been chosen will be notified in four weeks! We will only be selecting eight showgirls this year, and we’ve been holding auditions in every major city in the United States of America. So don’t be sad if you don’t get in. You’ve got some very stiff competition!”
The cable guy laughs, a little too loudly.
“Thank you for coming to audition for the greatest show on earth!”
“Well, that’s that,” says Deb. “I really think we need to finish college anyway, don’t you? You know, interim semester in England and all of that. It would be a shame to toss it all aside to join the circus.”
“Yeah. And I don’t think I could deal with living on a train with all those animal smells.”
“And the costumes. They look pretty from far away, but I’ll bet up close they’re really cheesy.”
“And Lord only knows what they give you to eat. Slop or something.”
“Right. And they probably make you clean up the elephant crap when the show is over. And you know that horse lady with the whip is some kind of S&M freak who is really nasty to everybody.”
The choreographer walks past us.
“Excuse me, Sir!” I say. “I just want to tell you that we’ve had a fabulous time and that it would be a dream come true for us to work in the circus!”
“Oh yes,” says Deb, batting her big blue eyes. “A dream come true! If a genie popped out of a magic lantern and gave us three wishes, being in the circus would be the first one!”
“Why, thank you, girls! You’ll be hearing from us.”
Later that same afternoon, I go to play a piano job at LeMont, a half-tacky-half-fancy restaurant with a great view of Pittsburgh’s Golden Triangle. The event, a public-relations spectacle for a fashion company, will be attended by a large crowd of glittering guests. I hustle into the restroom, wipe off my excess circus-showgirl-hooker makeup and brush the lacquer out of my hair. Whew. That feels nice. I change into the little black Audrey Hepburn dress I’d thrown into my circus bag earlier this morning. As I make my way to the piano, I hear the welcome sounds of conversation and laughter. I play my first notes, relieved that no one is paying much attention. Voice of Doom won’t find me here, I’m sure. I feel a tap on my shoulder.
“Hey there, lassie! You certainly do get around town, don’t you girl?”
It’s the cable guy I’d toppled at the circus audition. He’s at the restaurant to videotape the fashion event.
“You won’t be doin’ any dancin’ here, will ya? Let me know if you get the urge and I’ll see if I can track down a helmet.”
“Oh. I’m so sorry about that accident at the arena,” I say. “Don’t worry. I’m not at all dangerous while seated at the piano.”
The Channel Four news runs footage of me twice on the evening broadcast. In the first story, I’m spinning like a madwoman trying to get a job in the circus. In the second segment I’m sitting at the piano, perfectly content, playing “My Funny Valentine.”
I hardly recognize myself.
Four weeks later Debbie and I get letters welcoming us to the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus, Red Company. On the top of the stationery is a chain of elephants, linked together trunk to tail. We are to report to circus camp in Florida for training two months later.
The job pays $175 a week, thirty-five of which I’ll have to pay back to them for weekly rent on the circus train. Circus food, or slop, is included in the rent. The contract covers a six-week probationary and training period, and then eighteen months on the road wearing scanty costumes—probably posing in a feather headpiece and a magenta sequined bikini while surrounded by lions, horses, and tiny people flying through the air with the greatest of ease. Predictably, my parents aren’t thrilled about me ditching my college education to join a highfalutin version of the carnival. Debbie says no to the circus without a second thought. It takes me a little longer to make up my mind. I turn down the offer. But at least I know I’m good enough.
Robin Meloy Goldsby is a Steinway Artist. She is the author of Piano Girl; Waltz of the Asparagus People: The Further Adventures of Piano Girl; and Rhythm: A Novel.
New: Manhattan Road Trip, a collection of short stories about (what else?) musicians.
Robin Meloy Goldsby is the author of Piano Girl; Waltz of the Asparagus People; Rhythm; and Manhattan Road Trip. She has appeared on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered and Piano Jazz with Marian McPartland. Robin is a Grammy-nominated lyricist and has received a Publishers Weekly Starred Review for her book, Piano Girl.. A Steinway Artist and cultural ambassador with artistic ties to both Europe and the USA, Robin has presented her reading/concert program for numerous women's organizations and embassies worldwide.