It's How I Walk
By Jessica Edwards
“Walk!” my director commanded. Only weeks away from opening I Never Saw Another Butterfly, and she was bringing this up now. Feeling the self-consciousness creep up my back and flood into my cheeks, I tentatively walked across the band room. The baggy legs of my overalls swayed gently over my Adidas sneakers. As I walked back, I realized my hands were in my pockets, and I immediately pulled them out from their hiding places.
“You’re supposed to be a school teacher,” my director remarked casually, “but you walk like a 12 year-old boy. It’s just not working for me. Honestly, I love what you’re doing with ‘Irena,’ but the way you move is killing me. We really need to work on this.”
“No kidding!” Little Sarah, who was named for her mouse-like stature, chimed in, nodding her head in agreement. I feared now that the red flush, which had completely engulfed my face, was now traipsing down my neck. Although our play was only for the annual student-directed One Act Festival, I was still very excited. To find out now that my entire physical persona was wrong for my character snatched the little confidence I had right out of my hands. Regardless of the fact that I was only a lowly sophomore with a lot to learn, I still wanted to wow the audience, considering I had one of the lead roles in our play. However, not only was this my first-ever official stage experience, but I was also acting alongside Little Sarah, whom I worshipped.
In our play, I was Irena, a gentle, caring teacher running a school in the middle of a Jewish ghetto during World War II. Little Sarah played Raja, a little girl who spoke to no one when she first arrived at the school, but who slowly opens up to Irena as the play progresses.
Concerned and quite embarrassed, I asked, “Is that really what I look like?”
“Well, it would be a hell of a lot easier if you were dressed for your character,” my director pointed out to me. I inspected what I was wearing. My Sambas: already a year and half old, they were perhaps the most comfortable shoes I had ever owned, and they were rarely given a break from my bipedal lifestyle. Unfortunately, they were flatter than a depressing game of Frogger, and did little to encourage any hip action. Hovering above my sneakers floated the wide-legged openings of my overalls. Like my Sambas, they, too were both a staple of my underclassmen years and the most ineffective way to flaunt my buried femininity. My director, apparently noticing my wardrobe‘s problems as well, said, “From now on, you have to bring heels and a skirt to practice. It’ll help you a lot.” I nodded in concession, but for the time being, I was still stuck in my hip-hiders.
“I’m going to let you in on a little secret,” Little Sarah began, drawing my attention back to the task at hand. “You are a girl; you have curves. The trick to walking like a girl is to show off those curves.” Then she spun around, and with her back towards me, she sang, “Big booty, big booty, big booty!” and shook her butt at me. For as little as she was, she had a surprisingly big behind. And she flaunted it. “Stick out your boobs and your butt,” she said, projecting her chest towards me. I made my best effort at mimicking her. “Now, when you walk, look up. And sway your hips with each step.” She made it sound so easy. Head up, boobs out, hips swaying, I took a stroll around the room. But when I tried to sway my hips, I ended up taking ridiculously large steps, as if the bigger the steps I took the more the my hips would swivel. I looked like a drunken drag queen.
“Who walks like this?” I asked, feeling the self-conscious crimson mingle with the beginnings of an ache from arching my lower back. Without a word, Little Sarah strutted past me again in silent response, hips shaking and chest protruding. “How do you know how to walk like that?” I wondered aloud, completely bewildered at how anyone could make it look so natural.
“I don’t know,” Little Sarah replied. “It’s how I walk. I’ve always walked like this. Just… do what I do.” I tried. I tried to walk just like Little Sarah. I swayed my hips. I kept my head up. I put my shoulders back. I tangled up my legs and tripped over myself. The laughter erupted again.
“I think,” Little Sarah finally managed when she caught her breath, “your biggest problem is that you keep taking these enormous steps. Try taking smaller steps. And walk with your feet together. You keep spreading them apart like you’re a boy. Pretend you’re walking on a painted line, with each foot directly in front of the other.” I tested out her advice. Again, I perked up my whole body. I put my legs together and walked—one foot in front of the other. My hips were actually swaying! But, rather than a sophisticated female, I more closely resembled a wobbling bowling pin.
Embarrassed and incredibly frustrated, I plopped down into one of the chairs. Perhaps becoming an actress was only meant for the truly gifted. Like organic chemistry for medical students, learning to walk like a woman was the theater’s way of weeding out the gold from the gravel.
All actresses were required to know how to walk like women, and I was staring down the tunnel of a dramatic excommunication. Walking like a girl was a lot harder than I had ever expected. Somehow, I was supposed to keep my legs together, detach my hips from my abdomen, lift up my chest, and keep my eyes straight ahead. Since birth, coordination had never been my forte. At 15, I could barely rub my tummy and pat my head at the same time. But even organic chemistry could never compare to the daunting feat I faced when trying to multitask while in motion.
“We still have a few weeks for you to learn this,” Little Sarah reassured me. “Don’t worry if you don’t get it right away.” Strangely, these few words were enough to drag me out of my pouting. Granted, I still felt like a failure of femininity, but at least I knew I had time to practice.
“Would you guys mind if we called it quits for the night? I really think my pride can only take so much of this,” I confessed, desperately needing a break from the barrage of criticism. My director conceded, but I knew this would not be our only “extra rehearsal.” When I left practice that night, I resolved to perfect my walk by the time the show opened.
My parents’ bedroom became my first arena for practice. With floor-to-ceiling mirrors on the closet doors and a huge mirror in the attached bathroom, it was the perfect setting to practice my strut, complete with a length of carpet long enough to act as a runway. Of course, I never practiced when my parents were home. With heels strapped on, and a skirt flitting about my legs, I pranced up and down my makeshift runway. However, it did not take long before I realized the outstanding flaw of my new stage. Compared to the hard-packed orange carpet that coated the band room floor, the cushiony, off-white carpeting in my parents’ room was treacherous, considering the high heels I was wearing. My virgin ankles were already unsteady in these unfamiliar shoes, and the runway carpet accentuated any occasional teetering.
Ironically, my ankles were not the first thing to start aching as I pranced around my parents’ room. In fact, it was not my back, nor my hips, either. In utterly embarrassed honesty, it was my neck. I found that having so many mirrors surrounding me provided the perfect opportunity to check myself out… from all angles. Unfortunately, they were never meant to be used for round-trip ventures. Walking towards them allowed for an excellent view of my stature, but walking away from the mirror is where I nearly landed myself at the chiropractor. In order to keep my eyes pasted on my rapidly-improving ‘butt-er strut,’ I was forced to perform an Exorcist-esque, radial neck twist. Craning my neck provided me with the undeniable proof I so desperately wanted. My hips were, in fact, swaying back and forth! The mirrors also provided an unexpected advantage; I was so strongly focused on my reflection, I never allowed my head the opportunity to droop. Suddenly, multitasking did not seem so hard after all.
After a few weeks of strutting around my parents’ room and the band room, I ventured into more public venues. The students crowding into the hallway outside my journalism classroom became the first unsuspecting victims of the newly-discovered femme fatale inside me. Even with a backpack encouraging gravity’s deteriorative posture, I kept my body elevated. Quietly, I presented to the world my most womanly walk. I imagined nobody ever noticed the girl in the overalls with the green backpack, subtly strutting down the hallway. I hoped nobody noticed. As much as I wanted to show the world my more feminine side, I would have been positively mortified if anyone had acknowledged my actions. Nevertheless, I continued introducing my estrogen-laden gait to my peers, casually strolling past them on my way to class.
By the time opening night arrived, my stroll was nearly perfect. I still had trouble with it on stage because I only moved a few steps at a time, which greatly shortened my chance of finding the rhythm. While we were waiting for the curtain to rise, I paced backstage, trying desperately to hold a steady, teacher-like strut. More than by the crowd, or even my lines, I was terrified about my walk. Little Sarah took my hand. “You can do this,” she whispered. “Break a leg!”
“After all this work?!” I whispered back, feigning offense. The curtain began to rise, silencing any chance of a retort. Quietly, we walked on stage. I sat at my desk, while Little Sarah moved to center stage for her opening monologue. The glaring, hot lights slowly lit up the stage, blinding my poor eyes that had become well-adjusted to the pitch black behind the curtain.
The last thing I remember from every night of being onstage was trying my hardest to not squint, reeling back from the fluorescent dawn. Inhaling deeply, I no longer worried about how I walked. I worried about Raja. I worried about the Holocaust. I didn’t think about how Irena walked. I didn’t have to. She knew how to walk. She knew she was a woman.