Three weeks or so ago, I had that old familiar bitter-sweet pang of regret. Not really serious – and it never lasts very long. Nor does it happen often. Perhaps once every six or eight years.
It’s not exactly real pain. Just a sense of melancholy. A thought of what might have been.
The trigger for this regret was our first trip to a movie in two years. And what a fabulous choice – the remake of West Side Story.
To avoid crowds, we went at 10.00 a.m. on a Monday morning before Christmas. We figured everybody would be busy with last minute work or shopping.
We were right. Only 10 people in the whole theatre. It felt safe.
And it is brilliant. I loved the original movie, especially the beginning where the apparently random lines slowly morph into New York City. No one who has lived in New York could watch that without a warm glow inside.
But this one surpassed that movie in almost every way. Both the singing and dancing were brilliant. So full of verve. So full of feeling.
And it used the City of New York with true originality. If I may offer one spoiler, it even went to the Cloisters, that completely improbable spot at the northern tip of Manhattan that seems to be straight out of medieval France.
We walked out in that spirit of excitement that a good movie can engender, especially one full of Leonard Bernstein’s music.
Plus, in my case, that pang of regret.
What few people know, even many of my friends, is that I once wanted to be a dancer.
My parents sent me to dancing school from the age of four until I was nine, when we moved from Washington, D.C to New York. I was taught to master the five ballet positions and much else about dancing that I have long forgotten.
Most of all, I learned to enjoy the feeling of movement in my body and the joy of working with a rhythm. Even as a child, it made me feel very alive.
I was well trained by the age of nine.
Although I always loved ballet, I don’t think that is where my dreams took me.
As soon as I saw all those musicals developed in the 1950s, that is where my heart lay. The King and I, Oklahoma, South Pacific and even Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. Many others. I had the records and knew the songs off by heart.
I belonged in them.
Unfortunately – or, in hindsight, fortunately – my life took another turn.
I never had dancing lessons again. I was so busy acclimatising to all the changes that a move at that age entails that I didn’t even ask about them for about six months. When I did, my mother said that the dancing teacher had told her my body was stiff and I could never be very good.
(Much later, I was told by a dancer friend that being stiff is something any devoted dancer can overcome with a bit of work. No reason to stop a career. But by then, it was way too late.)
I moved on, I was good at schoolwork and found many new interests. I did a degree, then another and eventually ended up with a PhD.
I spent my life using my brain – researching and writing. It has been a good life; I have loved what I did and still do.
I rarely stop and think about that lost dancing career. And when I do, I think of all the physical pain involved, all the difficult rehearsals and, if successful, the demands of travel which necessarily impinge drastically on family responsibilities.
And, like the little boy who wants to be a footballer, I need to remind myself that the probability of my ever making a success of such a career was very, very small. I would never have made it to the big screen.
Yes, the regret is extremely rare. It is a fantasy that I am much too practical to contemplate very often.
But once in a while, when I see a movie like West Side Story, I want to say, “Wait a minute, I’m supposed to be in there, dancing like there is no tomorrow.”
Do you have a career regret? What is it? Are you actually better off without it?