A Jazzercise Miracle on Main Street, U.S.A.

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Pete Ryan illustration

Growing up in Las Vegas and visiting Disneyland only on rare and glorious occasions, my initial career goal was to be Cinderella. You know, the one who gets to wear a tiara and a big poufy dress while waving to her adoring fans from atop a sparkling pumpkin carriage.

Many years later and living in Orange County, I finally had my chance, thanks to a longtime Disney tradition of inviting local groups and schools to perform for the crowd awaiting the Christmas Fantasy Parade. For me, an avid Jazzerciser, it meant the annual “Jazzercise Extravaganza.” No poufy dress and no tiara, but it was as close to a princess gig as I was going to get. Sign me up.

The first year I did it, in 2009, I was so excited I could barely breathe. We were a hundred strong, doing our dancing thing in front of thousands, Sleeping Beauty’s castle glowing in the distance, beckoning us forward. Huzzah! In my mind, we were pixie-dust perfect.

Then I saw the video.

My husband taped the whole thing, and the next morning I sat waiting on our living room couch, eager to see the movie version of my wish come true. But wait, what’s this? The camera revealed that our dance lines weren’t as Rockettes-straight as I’d thought, and moving in sync was but a dream. One woman actually broke ranks and disappeared into the crowd only to run back a few minutes later.

“I think she had to tie her shoe,” my husband said. 

Oh, my. I felt my face flush, suddenly embarrassed to realize this was what the family and friends I’d begged to be there had seen. Admittedly, we were a happy, earnest troupe, staying mostly in step—just not the sister act to the Laker Girls that I’d envisioned.

I dragged my gaze back to the TV. The problem, I decided, was that the parade was open to any and all Jazzers willing to learn the routine; no auditions were required or even considered polite this many years after high school. But I did know someone who knew someone who coordinated the event. Maybe I could get a grassroots effort going for tryouts instead of the current come-one-come-all policy. We wanted to look good, right? For Disneyland. For any kind souls willing to shell out the price of admission and parking. Think of the grandkids!

Indeed, things did change but not with auditions. Two years ago, I signed up to be in the parade again. When I got to the rehearsal hall backstage, it was filled with 200 cheerleaders already practicing our routine.

I stared at the newcomers and their short, pleated skirts; stark contrast to our black yoga pants and matching T-shirts. At least the “Jazzercise” logo across our chests had some glitter.

The event coordinator took the mic to welcome us back. “And an added welcome to our high school cheer teams joining us this year,” he said.

Now I was really confused. “You mean they’re doing the parade with us?”

“Looks like,” a Jazzer-buddy said, draping her arm across my shoulders. “I hear participation’s been down last couple of years so they’re combining groups to fill in the gaps.”

“But we’re outnumbered two to one.”

“Hey, you’re the one who wanted us to have a more polished look,” my friend reminded me. The ponytailed girls practiced around us with energy and precision.

I sighed.

Still, the show must go on. We all practiced again and again until it was time to wind our way through the back lot to our entry point near It’s a Small World. A velvet dusk had settled in. Any minute now, thousands of holiday lights would bedazzle the Disneyland night sky and illuminate the richly decorated garlands suspended above Main Street.

We stood in formation, waiting to be let loose on an unsuspecting public. They’d positioned the Jazzercise teams at the very end of the parade line, after the preteens and definitely after the cheerleaders, making us the caboose in a living diorama of the stages of life.

The now-familiar announcer’s baritone voice boomed: “Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls,” and the thrill was on. I could hear our music—a jaunty, pop version of “Deck the Halls”—coming through the overhead speakers. I stood on tiptoe to see the access door opening ahead and the first few rows starting to dance out into the rainbow glow from the Small World ride. A few seconds later I, too, emerged, goose bumps and all, onto the hallowed asphalt.

I’d only been out there for a giddy few minutes when the music dimmed to a whisper, barely audible from the distant front lines. Apparently no one had told the sound system folks that we’d increased our group by 200 this year, leaving those of us in back in a silent void but for the crowd’s collective gasp. I somehow managed to keep going like a dazed mime, while several people around me stopped altogether, frozen under the spell of thousands of eyes staring back.

And then it happened.

The crowd started singing. It started out low, then it started to grow.

They sang without music or maestro or tune.

They sang without cueing, not a minute too soon.

They sang “Deck the Halls” ’til the music kicked in.

They sang to keep us going, not giving in.

I could scarcely believe it, could barely fathom I was really hearing this spontaneous chorus of support, yet both sides of the street shouted out the song’s well-known lyrics with eager abandon until the timing glitch was fixed and the music reached back to find us a few long minutes later. Yes, Dr. Seuss fans, my diva heart did grow three sizes that day.

The next morning, watching the video of our previous night’s music malfunction, I smiled. I realized that the imperfections I’d once rallied against were what won hearts and inspired the song.

I finally understood that everyone, not just a select few, should have a chance to dance in front of a cheering crowd and feel like a rock star. Or a princess. Such experiences are best shared by all.

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