Too Short to Dance
By Nancy Coveney
Couldn’t she smile? If only she were taller. They loved her kicking, but … Like thousands of other young women, Twyla Tharp came to New York City with big dreams. The self-described Indiana farm girl enrolled at Barnard College to get a degree in art history. But her real passion, her real obsession, was dance.
To meet the college’s phys ed requirement, she studied dance with the legendary Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham. Soon she was fitting her schoolwork in between two or three dance classes a day. A dream was born. But dance is not exactly a surefire, lifelong profession.
When she graduated in the mid-1960s, she auditioned for commercials and tried out for roles — but she just didn’t seem to fit in anywhere. She lacked the technical skills to be a ballerina, and she discovered in a big audition that she was too short for the Rockettes. They “loved my kicking and 52 fouettés on pointe,” she wrote in her autobiography Push Comes to Shove, “but couldn’t I please smile?” And she also learned she was “too small in every direction to work as a Latin Quarter show girl, but I still tried.” And Tharp wondered, Will I ever be a dancer? Do I have any business dancing? The only way to find out, it seemed, was to form her own troupe and create her own style of dance.
For five long years, Tharp and her troupe practiced virtually every day in the basement of a Greenwich Village church. Sometimes the janitors had to “throw them out” on Sunday morning. They worked for little pay and almost no recognition. Constantly, Tharp asked herself, Do you want to do this, or don’t you?
Forty years later, after choreographing over 100 dances on Broadway and in movies like Hair and Ragtime, after winning the National Medal of the Arts in 2004, Tharp still asks herself that question. And the answer is — yes.