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The other day as Bryan and I sat in the new local frozen yogurt shop eating our toppings-heavy desserts, I observed that every one of the employees in the brightly colored building looked to be 18 or younger, which for some reason made me think back to my pre-career days and the ups and downs of working as a teenager/young adult in retail.

With a B.A. in Communications/Writing under my belt since 2002, I’m an editor at a medical publishing company now, and my primary job is transforming peer-reviewed manuscripts into copyedited/proofread/presentable articles worthy of publication. But long before I resided in a cubicle from 8:30 to 5, M to F, I wore several different hats, “uniforms,” and almost never had to sit for 8 hours straight.

First Paid Gig: Choreographer

The summer before my freshman year of high school, the local community children’s summer theater sent out a notice asking for citizens to volunteer with various duties, such as supervision, costume-making, set design, and choreography. I had been choreographing fake shows and recitals in my living room since I was 8, so I jumped on the opportunity to work with live human beings. The show was Annie the Orphan, and not only was I co-choreographer but I was asked to be in the show as an extra orphan. I loved wearing ratty clothes and keeping my hair messy!

I worked with those kids 5 days per week for about a month and a half during the summer, and it was so rewarding to see them memorize the steps and then execute the routines together as a group. I was flattered when the show’s director paid me something like $100 at the end, even when I thought I was solely volunteering. I continued working with the group for a few more years until it was time for the torch to be passed to another eager freshman longing to be a choreographer.

Hanging out with my favorite mice from "Cinderella."

The cutest trio of boys performing the Lollipop Guild routine in "Oz."

Still, I held the title of “choreographer” for several years after leaving the children’s theater. I was asked to choreograph my first high school musical my sophomore year (Pirates of Penzance) and continued until I graduated (How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying) and then came back a few years after to choreograph Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat for a different high school.

One of my favorite dances, "Coffee Break," from "How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying." That's me on the right.

Every choreography gig I took on had its challenges (people who just couldn’t memorize steps, the difference between recorded music and a live orchestra), but the end result always gave me the goosebumps. I just loved seeing everything come together; no longer were there individual “steps”…everything was a performance.

I got to wear The Best Costume Ever during "Pippin."

First Retail Job: Eckerd Pharmacy

During the latter half of my high school years, I began working after-school/weekend hours as a navy-blue-shirt/khaki-pants-wearing sales associate at the local pharmacy. My primary responsibilities were working the cash register, stocking shelves, and changing price tags. Despite the minimum wage pay and the occasional wacakdoo coming in and kind of scaring me, I actually enjoyed the job, especially when I had a constant stream of customers.

I loved organizing, and beautifying the cold medicine aisle was one of my favorite duties; those skinny little Sudafed and Advil Cold & Sinus and Tylenol boxes were always tipping over like dominoes. A nice night for me was pulling up a plastic tote, sitting in front of the shelf, and getting each and every one of those little boxes on its feet again, stacked straight like soldiers on duty.

Every now and then, I’d work at the back register in the pharmacy department. This became one of my favorite assignments; it was certainly hectic at times, but I enjoyed answering the phone, getting people their prescriptions, and, at times, counting pills. The pharmacists were funny, easy-going, and good people all around. For me, the pharmacy was the VIP club of the store, and it was always my secret desire to get assigned back there.

Retail Experience #2: Old Navy

By the time I started college, I was interested in expanding my retail horizons. I was getting tired of stocking pill bottles and cigarettes, and I sought to work somewhere “cool.” With its pulsing store-wide music, bright colors, and relatively young clientele, Old Navy became my home-for-the-summer employer.

I wore a navy blue company t-shirt and got to sport a headset, which we used mostly to crack jokes about other employees or customers. I was too new to work the register, so I rotated between greeting people at the door, assisting in the fitting room, and maintaining general organization.

The job was kind of like a big party, but gradually it grew a little too big for me. I often felt like the managers were so concerned about pushing sales that the general appearance of the store was being ignored. I liked things spic-and-span, but a few items out of place were nothing if the dollars were rolling in.

That said, my favorite part of the job became “truck night,” those Friday nights when the store closed at 9 and a giant tractor trailer with new inventory rolled up and deposited boxes and boxes of new clothes. We’d lock the front doors, blast the radio, and go to our assigned spots to open boxes, tear off the protective plastic, slide hangers under every shirt collar, and begin the art of organization, arranging by style, color, size.

My OCD tendencies were pleased. Just like stacking those cold medicine boxes, I was happily engaged in the comforting repetition of organization.

Retail Experience #3: Store of Knowledge

Yet another summer between college years, and I did not want to return to the chaos that was Old Navy. My friend had been working at the Store of Knowledge at a different mall, so I applied to one at my local mall. The Store of Knowledge (now bankrupt) was the official retail store of public broadcasting stations across the country; I called it “the channel 12” store. It sold science and dinosaur toys, mind games and puzzles, and merchandise tied to all those PBS specials like The Three Tenors, Riverdance, and the Donny Osmond version of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.

Dressed in my khaki pants and store-assigned denim shirt (::shudder::) and black apron, I worked the register here and there but mostly helped customers as they browsed the store. My favorite assignment was working as the greeter; I’d stand at the front of the store and demonstrate some wacky new toy or gadget to passersby, being generally goofy and silly.

At one point, the store starting selling all of this “princess” merchandise, so I dolled myself up in a tiara, boa, and a magic wand and took on a whole new princess persona, complete with British accent and an air of royalty. I’d guide customers around the store as though they were visiting my kingdom; the kids (and parents!) loved it. It was the closest I’d ever get to being a Disney face character (one of my life-long dreams). (And no pictures from that gig, unfortunately.) 😦

***

After the Store of Knowledge closed, I returned to Eckerd Pharmacy for another semester or two to fill in the gaps before real-life began. I tried never to work during the school season, mostly because I had a pseudo-job as an editor on the university newspaper (we got paid a stipend at the end of the year) and participated in theater and dance events, which took up a lot of my time. I also found a seasonal internship at a local newspaper, which was a great stepping stone to my career.

I got my first big-girl job the day after I graduated from college. Knowing what today’s college kids face, I feel especially lucky that I was hired for a full-time editing/writing position less than 24 hours after being handed my diploma.

What made the job even better was that the office was directly across the street from a birthday party center, and I was hired on an on-call basis to serve as the “Super Cool Dance Teacher” for children’s parties. Sometimes I’d leave the office during my lunch break, dart across the street, teach 8 to 12 kids a fun dance, put on a mock recital for the parents, and then return to the office by 1 to resume writing.

I worked at that office for 5 years before moving on to where I am now. I can’t skip across the street to be an on-call dance teacher anymore, but hey, at least I don’t have to wear a denim shirt.

What did you do before finding your first big-girl/big-boy job?

Ever since the day in February 2010 when I returned from a weekend run hobbling in pain, not a day goes by that I don’t obsess about my hips. This past weekend was no different, but instead of thinking about all the anatomical components of a labral tear, I was focusing more on the girly-girl aspect of my hips; specifically, how to move and groove them!

Thanks to a dance-related group I recently joined on Meetup.com, I was motivated to join some new friends on Saturday in Center City for a dancehall class. Shamefully, I had never heard about the style until I read the description on the instructor’s website:

“…a Caribbean street dance that is all about confidence and attitude. This style of dance includes elements of African, Hip-Hop, House, Zouk, Salsa, and Jamaican Folklore. The Flava style is creative, expressive, fun, and the music takes you away. Dancehall Flava dance can be seen in videos by artists such as Beyonce, Rihanna, M.I.A., and Sean Paul.”

In short: You shake your hips. A lot.

My closest friends know that even though I am a contender for the Nerdiest White Girl of 2012 award, I have this unexplainable attraction to African-rooted dance forms and music. I love gospel music. African drumming. African dance. I think I love The Lion King on Broadway more for its African chorus than its association with Disney. I love reading African travelogues. I think I was the only one in my circle of childhood friends who so desperately wanted a black Barbie doll at age 8.

An art festival print I couldn't resist, from contemporary African artist Hussein Saidi.

I am still very white in many ways, but I’d like to think that I’ve come a long way honing my movement since my high school days studying the standard ballet, tap, and jazz at Cute Little Suburban Dance School. There was a time where I was the whitest of white girls, always on my toes, my gangly arms awkwardly akimbo, but somewhere between college and now, things changed, and I finally feel the earth when I dance. Maybe it’s all the yoga, the fact that I’ve been practicing “being grounded” for the past nine years. Maybe all that root chakra stuff, the countless tadasanas with my feet nestling into the earth, being in tune with the body’s own music (the breath) finally got me away from always wanting to be in releve, balancing on my toes. There was a time when lifting my foot in the flexed position gave me the heebie-jeebies. If it was pointed, it wasn’t right.

But now, I love being barefoot. I can flex my feet when I dance, and point them when I have to. Instead of constantly being in releve, most of my movement is in plie. My arms aren’t gangly anymore, and I can control their movement. I’m not afraid to throw back my head or swing my entire body side to side.

All that said…the dancehall class was still a bit of a challenge for me. But a fun challenge! First off, my bum hip doesn’t like to roll to the left. Everyone agrees on having a “bad” side of doing a certain move, but seriously, that is my honest-to-god bad side. I roll too much to the left, and things could get out of whack. My Shakira days are over.

Second, it’s been a while since I’ve had choreography. And not even a full-blown combination, but just someone at the head of the studio saying, “Do this move, with the arms like this and the legs like this.” The technical side of my brain needs to learn the move first before the creative side is allowed to take over and add my own flair. When that technical side of my brain is working, the creative side just shuts off. That’s when the nerdy white girl emerges, so eager to get the form right, trying to get the counts. The flow shuts off, and I am more concerned about where all my body parts are supposed to be rather than just feeling the move from the inside out.

Fortunately, the instructor was very down-to-earth, all smiles, and just there to provide us with a good sweat, a good time, and a good variety of moves to whip out at the club. At some points we just followed along with her and mirrored her movement; for the latter half of class we worked on a combination. By the end of the hour-long class, I was feeling more comfortable with the choreography and finally got a chance to feel the movement and really let myself loose. I am still very self-conscious of my balletic upper body and envied the others girls in the room whose shoulders rolled effortlessly like butter. Even though I was the minority race in the class, there was never any notion of competition or snobbery or discrimination. I was probably less nervous in this class than some of the group classes at my gym. (Ever been the newbie at a Body Pump class?!)

The few girls from the Meetup group gathered briefly afterward for a chat, and we discussed ideas for future dance events. Looks like I’ll be getting in touch with my African roots yet again next weekend for what else but…an African dance class!

About the Author

Name: Jennifer

Location: Greater Philadelphia Area

Blog Mission:
SHARE my practice experience in conscious dance and yoga,

EXPAND my network of like-minded individuals,

FULFILL my desire to work with words in a more creative and community-building capacity;

FLOW and GROW with the world around me!

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