FRESH YARN presents:

Becoming a Flower
By Alicia Anka

The lights in the Caesar's Palace showroom went out, the audience hushed, the rhythm section started to play, and a man began singing from somewhere in the back of the room. "I'm so young and you're so old, this Diana I've been told." Everyone turned to look as a spotlight cast a smoke-filled beam through the darkness. I turned too, but I couldn't see him yet. I knew that he'd appeared though because people around us began to clap, even to stand up. Then finally, I recognized his silhouette. As he walked closer, I could make out his familiar smile; those bright white teeth against his tan face. My stomach tightened and fluttered as he moved through the audience, shaking hands, kissing cheeks, stopping along the way for a picture. Suddenly he was standing right next to us. The spotlight illuminated our table like a movie set, featuring four unabashedly smiling little girls and their stoic mother. I wanted him to reach out and grab my hand so badly, and at the same time I wished that he would move on and take the spotlight with him so everyone would stop staring at us. That man was Paul Anka, my father.

In those days, we lived in Las Vegas. Spending my weekends at Circus Circus Hotel playing carnival games, eating in hotel coffee shops and making weekly visits to Leo the lion at the MGM Grand felt as normal as having an entertainer for a father. I simply knew nothing else. But most of the time my sisters and I swam, played in our backyard, went to friends' houses, and busied ourselves with activities just like other kids. And just like many other mothers, my mother carted us around from one activity to another encouraging us to discover our interests and talents.

Although he never said it, I think my father secretly wondered if there was a potential entertainer among us. I also think he knew it wasn't going to be me. Although I may have secretly fantasized about becoming the next Marie Osmond or Karen Carpenter as I sat watching them in some Vegas showroom, I was painfully shy, awkward looking -- glasses, chubby, bowed legs and an unfortunate Dorothy Hamill haircut -- and found the spotlight to be terrifying. The only time I really came out of my shell was when my sister Anthea and I were alone in our playroom, singing and dancing to our collection of 45's. If anyone else walked into the room, however, I beelined it to the couch as if we were playing musical chairs and the music had come to a sudden stop. On occasion, my eldest sister, Alex, decided to play director or choreographer and enlist my sisters and me as stars for her mini productions of Helen Keller, Grease or her personal favorite -- an expanded version of the "Heatmiser, Coldmiser" song from The Year Without A Santa Claus, an animated puppet special that played every Christmas. I could pull it off if the audience consisted of only my parents, but being the center of attention was another story. Just the thought of it made me sweat.

So when my ballet teacher announced one day that we were going to have a class recital and all the parents were invited, I felt the rumblings of fear growing inside my four-year-old body. I'd just warmed up to the idea of being in a leotard, and now I actually had to perform in one -- in front of strangers! Even worse, shortly after, I found out that my father was miraculously available that evening. Most of the time he let my mother attend these sorts of events and on this occasion, I would have been happy just to have her in the audience. I was smart, I knew she was no professional, she too would be nervous. But Dad? How could I match him? Like Las Vegas itself, he seemed larger than life to me at that age. His energy amazed me, and his fearlessness made me envious. He could get a shot at the doctor's office without crying, sleep without a nightlight, recite joke after joke to tables of people, not to mention sing in front of thousands! But somehow, a kernel of excitement wormed its way into me as well. If I can pull this off, there might be hope for me yet! Mom and Dad will be so proud, and I won't have to share the attention with any of my sisters.

The night of the big recital arrived. My parents and I said goodbye to my sisters -- who were thankfully staying at home with a babysitter -- and left for the dance studio. I sat buckled up in the backseat, sweating bullets in my wool coat, pink leotard and tutu, contemplating jumping out of the car at each red light. Knowing that a four-year-old in ballet slippers wouldn't get far, I stayed quiet and tried to will my nausea away by staring intently at the back of my mother's seat. Don't think about it, I told myself. Think about what Anthea is doing right now. She's probably watching The Price is Right. I wish I were watching The Price is Right.

"What's wrong with her? She's so quiet," my father whispered.

"Nothing, Paul," my mother whispered back." Leave her be. She's probably just a little nervous."

"A little? She looks green," he said. He looked at me in the rearview mirror. "You a little nervous, Lish?" He asked.

"Yeah, a little," I managed to squeak out.

"Just do what Daddy does, forget about the audience," he said. "Just do your thing and have fun."

Like he does? My thing? My thing as the introverted middle child with four (at the time three) extroverted sisters was to either share the spotlight or let everyone else revel in it while I enjoyed life in the shadows as the silent observer.

By the time we arrived, I'd worked myself up into a state of shock. The ballet room was brighter than I'd remembered and the floor-to-ceiling mirrors left me nowhere to hide. My mother took my coat and nudged me in the direction of the other kids. The parents said quick hellos to one another and then settled into metal folding chairs along the edges of the room. We took our places at the barre and went through a few basic moves. Then one after another, we danced across the floor in a line, chase-ing and plie-ing. Things were going well. The sickness in my stomach had dissipated. Hey, I can do this. It's not so bad. Class as usual. So I thought.

Then it came time for the special portion of the evening. We would all begin as little seeds scattered about on the wood floor, and when our teacher came around and "watered" us with her magic watering can, we were to grow into flowers and dance around the room however we liked. Becoming a seed was easy for me -- act very small and don't move -- I was a natural at that. But expressing my four-year-old inner flower through improvisational dance in front of an audience just wasn't in my nature. I'll just choose a corner spot in the room and hope she forgets me, I thought. Then I can just pop up in an immediate flower-like state and join the others without anyone noticing. No such luck. After a few of my classmates had sprung to life, "expressed themselves" and then settled into their flower poses, I felt my teacher hovering over me. Okay, one, two three, grow, I told myself. But I couldn't get my head to raise, my legs to work. I tried reasoning with them. It won't be so bad, once you're standing. But it was no use; my body had gone on strike. My teacher tried again. Sprinkle, sprinkle, sprinkle. Still I didn't move.

What came next marked the point of no return. My teacher leant down and whispered into my ear, "It's okay, Alicia. You can do it. I'll dance with you." No, no, move away! I wanted to tell her. Don't reveal my fear! Come back in a minute and I'll be ready! But it was too late; I could no longer just bounce up and pretend that I hadn't felt her, or that I was merely giving my audience an added moment of anticipation before I wowed them with my moves. Parents began whispering, and I peered frightfully at their shoes through the small crack between my ballet slippers. I had failed. Someone please push rewind! I call a do-over! My cheeks grew hot. I curled up even tighter, pressing my face into my legs and nearly burning holes in my tights. Maybe if I make myself small enough, I'll sink right into the floor and disappear. That will amaze them.

Then something even worse happened; the show went on without me. The rest of the girls grew into precious little flowers that danced across the room, parents cooed and clapped, and everyone forgot that Alicia, the seed, was curled up in the corner. Forget fear, I began to feel really stupid, and rather bored as well. God, I just want to stretch my legs. How much longer until this thing is over? I wanted to peek at my parents and see what they were doing, who they were watching. Wait! I wanted to shout. I'm ready now! I'm not afraid, and I can dance the petals off any of these flowers. Watch ME. But it was too late.

When it was over, parents got up from their seats, collected coats and sweaters, and gathered their children, but I stubbornly remained in a tight little ball on the floor feeling like my life had ended at the age of four. Finally, my mother scraped me up and carried me to the car while I hid my face in shame. Just don't look at me! Nobody look at me! As usual, my father tried to turn the whole thing into a big joke while she spoke soothing words into my ear, but nothing they said could cover up what I saw in their eyes. It was a mix of sympathy, disappointment and incomprehension. I had failed them. My mother had been a model, my father was an entertainer; how could they breed a seed that refused to grow? Somehow I knew, even at age four, that that evening would have an effect on me forever.

It's funny because at 34 I can't remember if I ever returned to ballet class after that night, but I do know I took ballet at other times in my life. In fact, when we moved to California, I also tried gymnastics and competed in equestrian riding for many years. However, that feeling of being curled up in a ball on that studio floor has somehow never left me. When I'm in a new social situation, a job interview, or even asked a question in front of a table of people, that little girl appears, and my face grows pink, my palms begin to sweat. Then I hear the sprinkle of the watering can and beg myself to grow. Be a flower, look them in the eye, relax, and tell them what you want to say, I tell myself. No, no, you might disappoint them. The little girl in me argues back. Just stay quiet and be small. Remember, you're good at that!

I can't help but wonder if I'd faced my fears that night and spun across that studio floor like a beautiful rose, perhaps I would have become a good public speaker; a fantastic joke teller; a calm, self-assured hostess or guest. I am none of those things, but I have grown to realize that the first five seconds as a flower are the worst and then it gets a little better with time and, like my father said, you forget about the audience and just do your thing. With this in mind, during adulthood, I've been able to force myself to blossom by doing things that are against my seed-like nature. I've attended improv classes, danced on stage in front of strangers, forced myself to read at friends' weddings, spoke up during work meetings, even sung at karaoke (okay, so I had a few drinks for that one) -- all just to prove to myself that I am not a seed. My parents have grown to understand me; they tell me there is strength in my quietness, wisdom behind my brevity of words. But as we all know, even if the world sees you as a flower, you must feel like one inside for it to be true. It may take me a lifetime to accomplish this feeling, but I'll keep watering and asking myself to grow.


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