Embrace New Skills, and Open New Doors

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I'M a classically trained professional dancer, and I have three different jobs. My main one is performing with a group named Evidence, A Dance Company, which is based in Brooklyn. I'm also a co-choreographer and dancer in a three-person musical comedy group, Adira Amram and the Experience. On Saturdays, if not on the road with one of those groups, I teach dance at the Ailey School.

I enjoy learning new steps and routines, but last year I had to learn a skill that I never saw coming: puppeteering.

Several years ago, Eric San, a turntablist known as Kid Koala, hired our comedy group to open for him on one of his tours. Instead of mixing and playing songs from a computer the way many contemporary D.J.'s do, he creates music by manipulating sounds on records to produce new melodies. Like our comedy group, his shows and albums might be considered avant-garde.

Last May, Eric asked us if we would participate that fall in his world tour, which he described as a vaudeville show. He said that this time, besides energetic dance routines, he wanted us to incorporate puppets into the act. My puppet would be three feet tall, the torso of a robot character from one of Eric's graphic novels.

In the show, the robot would emerge from behind a cloth-covered trunk, swaying as it lip-synched the heart-aching lyrics to a blues song. My colleagues Adira Amram and Jessi Erian Colón would operate other puppets from different parts of the stage.

I didn't have the faintest idea how to make an inanimate object move on stage. And the challenge was even more daunting since we wouldn't even see the puppets until hours before the world premiere in Geneva, because they were still being made in Canada.

To help me become more comfortable with the task, my boyfriend bought me tickets to the musical "Avenue Q," which uses puppets. As I watched, I started to understand how you could almost make a puppet an extension of your body and have it convey emotion.

We rehearsed our show for three days with Eric, but I had only a rudimentary foam prototype of the puppet I'd be using. Adira and Jessi used two Muppet-like puppets that belonged to Eric's young daughters. Our puppets' creators in Montreal also chatted with us over the Internet, giving us some tips before we left for Europe.

STILL, I was a little nervous. We'd be performing before hundreds of people. I wanted to do a good job because I take pride in my work. But I also wanted Eric to hire our group again so we could continue collaborating with him. I value being a part of a group that charts new paths with him; he's very creative and the entire process pushes me to be a better artist. That's more important to me than the paycheck. It's the reason I keep such a busy schedule -- to continue building my network and creating new things. I hope to bring all my experiences together.

Everything worked out well for us in Europe. Nine hours before showtime, we unfurled the Bubble Wrap that had safely cradled the puppets across the Atlantic, and started using them.

The moment that the puppets came alive, the audience did, too. I called on all I'd learned from "Avenue Q" and even channeled the "Sesame Street" puppets of my childhood. And, thankfully, Eric asked us to perform on another tour, which was recently completed.

Even if you work in a nonartistic job, you can learn a new skill by taking the approach I did. Whatever the challenge, see if there's a model for what you need to learn, or something similar, and check it out.

And don't be afraid to ask for help. It sounds so simple, but some people don't want to reveal any difficulty with tackling something new. When I needed help with the big feathered fans we also used in the show, I found someone in the performing arts who could teach me. Often, you don't realize how generous people can be until you ask. If you're learning a new skill, there's probably a person in your workplace or network who can help -- and wants to.

Along that line of thinking, try talking about your assignment. Once my group got the job, I talked incessantly about having to learn puppetry -- I think I was psyching myself for the challenge. And you never know who's listening -- maybe it's someone with good ideas.

Finally, never shy away from learning a new skill. It can lead to a new career path or help build an arsenal for your life's journey. Learning to work with puppets ignited a new interest for me and provided a whole other way to express myself.

As told to Patricia R. Olsen.

employment

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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