From hot rollers to hairspray, the frenetic scene in the dressing room before a dance recital in the 1980s was one girl’s first taste of beauty.
As a fouryear-old, I tap danced on toy boxes and picnic tables—any sturdy surface that would hold me—while my parents’ record player spun Barry Manilow. I was always putting on performances for anyone who would watch—usually captive audiences like my thennewborn sister and our neighbour’s dog Kiwi. So it wasn’t surprising to anyone that when my mom signed me up for dance classes, I was all in.
Every June, as other children were counting down the days until summer vacation, I counted down the days until our annual dance recital. In the beginning, this was because I couldn’t wait to be onstage—a showgirl, just like Lola in the song “Copacabana.” Later, it became about the beauty rituals around it and because for that one day, I could be part of that world of cool girls who were old enough to wear makeup and have solo or duet routines: the girls who smelled like Love’s Baby Soft and watermelon lip balm, wore bike shorts and Body Glove zip-front bikini tops to jazz class and whose freshly permed hair was often in a scrunchie or banana-clipped back from their faces as they pivoted and pas de bourréed to Bananarama.
The dressing room backstage at Minkler Auditorium in North York, Ont., in 1988 was a crash course in beauty, and I took in the sights, scents and sounds around me with the zeal of an anthropologist. The hairstylists and makeup artists weren’t
Odile Gilbert and Pat McGrath, but they seemed just as skilled. Moms, aunts and grandmothers, as adept at French braiding and applying false lashes as they were at lacing up skates and sewing Halloween costumes, had to work fast, especially if their dancer had multiple costume changes. Rolling racks filled with plastic-wrapped costumes in sequins, fluorescent fabrics, polka dots and tulle were everywhere, so space was tight. Every tabletop was covered with dusty eyeshadow palettes, waxy lipstick bullets, glitter, bobby pins, cans of mousse and jars of hair gel, and every electrical outlet was occupied by curling irons, crimpers and Conair Hot Sticks, the latter giving off a slightly-burnt-plastic scent mixed with notes of L’Oréal Studio Line hairspray as they warmed up. I watched the older girls transform in front of mirrored vanities framed with light bulbs, and I marvelled at all of it—the products they used and how they used them, especially the professional-dancer tricks, like putting a thin layer of Vaseline on your front teeth to keep your lips from sticking when you’re smiling at the crowd or using hairspray on the soles of your jazz shoes to provide traction on a slippery stage.
For my first recital, my transformation was less dramatic: My mom dabbed her plum Clinique lipstick on my lips and cheeks and curled my hair, which almost always fell flat before I even set foot onstage—but I didn’t mind. Because I knew my time would come, and when it did, I planned on using everything I learned backstage.