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Performance Anxiety

As regular readers will know, I have been for many years, and remain, extremely proud of both my sons – for many and varied reasons. Primarily that pride stems from having observed at close quarters the outstanding young men they became as the best two decades (and more) of my very fortunate life swept me along on the most magical of carpet rides.

And of course, along the way, between the two of them they accumulated a multitude of achievements and accolades to treasure; both as individuals, and within larger groups and teams – membership of which was, I am convinced, a crucial element of their development.

However it may surprise many to learn that one of the activities that gave me the greatest pleasure to follow throughout those years was the boys’ participation in the relatively unfamiliar performance sport of aerobics.

Many, if not most of you, who have heard of aerobics have probably come across it in the context of a gym class where an impossibly svelte instructor casually demonstrates a series of (typically, complicated and challenging) calisthenic-type routines to a host of rotund optimists.

If, like me, you’re a middle-aged man with limited co-ordination who believes the role of the Grapevine should be confined to the production of alcoholic beverages, then you’ll probably have also concluded that attending an aerobics class is one of the least enjoyable forms of public humiliation money can buy.

Imagine then how much money someone would need to pay you in order to convince you to participate in sport aerobics – a competitive pursuit in which teams attempt to perform choreographed routines to musical accompaniment, and have those performances assessed and scored for elements such as artistry, execution, difficulty and compliance with various technical requirements.

And yet it was this very sport of sport aerobics that both Tim and Ben had engaged in willingly inside the first decade of their young lives.

Credit for managing the unimaginable must be given first and foremost to the primary school that the boys attended - where, through astute marketing tactics, athletic young female and male students were persuaded that aerobics was a cool sport worthy of their aspirational attention.

Looking back it still makes me shake my head like a Luna Park laughing clown when I recall what the boys put themselves through to be a part of the sequin and glitter-strewn world of aerobics. Having said that, I am also convinced it was one of the best things they ever did.

And here’s why.

Within our society, for a host of generally unfortunate reasons, it seems many, if not most boys and young men have a great reluctance to pursue artistic endeavours. The principal among these reasons appear to be (a) the fear of being mocked by their peers, and (b) the fear of making a public mistake.

The boys’ participation in sport aerobics encouraged them to face, stare down and overcome these fears in a collaborative and supportive environment. As a parent, especially a man who has passed up numerous opportunities to move beyond his comfort zone over the past half-century or so, all I can say is – How Good is That?!

Imagine getting a group of 10-12 year old boys to listen carefully, then watch, learn and execute a very complex and exacting series of movements. Then imagine having them perform those movements, in precise synchronicity, to music. Not only that, but the reward for achieving some degree of mastery of this very difficult activity is to be asked to perform it on stage, in front of hundreds of people, in order that they might have their performance picked apart. Can you imagine that? I’ll be honest, I couldn’t have. Until I saw it happen.

In 2005, when Tim was just 10 years old, his aerobics team qualified for the National School Aerobics Championships - which were to be held that year in Melbourne. With my older brother, and many of my extended family, based in Melbourne, it was an easy decision for us to agree to make the trip with Tim as a family, along with a host of other students and their parents, to see the event first-hand.

Just a couple of weeks before we were due to depart, the teacher in charge of the Aerobics programme at the boys’ school, Denistone East PS, asked me if I would consider writing a series of introductions to be read out as each of the Deno teams prepared to take the stage at the Nationals. Unexpected though the invitation was, I was happy to oblige. More than 15 years on I cannot recall a single word from any of the handful of Introductions that I put together back then – except for one, which I remember in its entirety.

That one, which I will never now forget, was recited by Ben before Tim’s team made their way onstage for their routine.

When the big day arrived, I suggested to Ben that he should maybe take the words of the Introduction, which I had typed on a piece of paper, up onto the stage with him – in his pocket, you know, just in case. Despite some further gentle encouragement later in the day, Ben continued to decline the offer. “It’ll be alright Dad. I know it”.

And so that afternoon, in front of a packed Dallas Brooks Hall, our 7-year old son delivered the following words, with no notes or prompts, and without missing a beat ‑ but with just a trace of the endearing lisp that characterised his early years ‑ to mark the arrival of the Deno Demons Junior Boys Aerobics team.

(And yes, my sincere apologies to Eminem for the blatant plagiarism):

Your palms are sweaty, but your legs are strong

You’ve been working towards this day for so long

Giving all for the team, sweating blood for each other

But right here, right now is the time to discover

If you can lose yourself in the music, the moment

You own it, don’t ever let it go

You only get one shot, do not miss this chance to blow

Cos opportunity comes once in a lifetime


Yo, Demons – you can do anything you set your minds to

I should add that Ben arrived onstage dressed like a little gangsta, complete with baseball cap on backwards, and plenty of swagger. No hesitation. No fear. Just getting the job done, whilst dreaming of the day he could emulate his big brother by performing ‘wobics with his own brave bunch of mates. Something he, and they, duly did just a couple of short years later.

If further proof was needed that the boys’ involvement in aerobics had paved the way for a future life less restricted by self-conscious avoidance of the spotlight, I offer two subsequent tales.

In Year 9 Tim was one of around a dozen boys who agreed to participate in their (boys only) School’s first ever curricular Dance class. Yeah sure, Dance might reasonably be seen to have been a soft option, but when you and your 15-year old classmates are called onstage for a group hip-hop performance before a packed house at a well-known suburban theatre reality very quickly sets in. Not only did Tim, and the rest of his ensemble, meet that challenge head-on, but I am pretty sure that, in the fullness of time, he reflected on what was both an enjoyable and valuable experience. Not because he dances like MJ (although he definitely doesn’t have two left feet). But because putting yourself out there, warts and all, to be judged and criticised, or at the very least critiqued, by those you know, and many you don’t, demands courage. And no matter where our life’s journeys may take us, those moments when we know, within ourselves, regardless of what anyone else may think, that we have faced our demons, and performed courageously, go a long way to seeing us through those other, inevitable moments of uncertainty and self-doubt.

Which brings me to the final chapter of this story.

From their mid-teens onwards – ie once we thought they were old enough to appreciate and enjoy them – Linda and I had given our boys a taste of the wonderful world of showbiz in as many of its forms as possible. Not just movies, but concerts, plays, musical theatre, along with a couple of cabaret-type shows that were, and remain, a little harder to pigeonhole. (I guess we hoped that by exposing them to as many entertainment genres as possible, they would be able to make their own informed decisions down the track about what they most wanted to spend their hard-earned on).

Club Swizzle, which premiered at the Sydney Opera House in January 2015, was one of those hard-to-classify variety shows ‑ incorporating singing, dancing, comedy, acrobatics, clowning, sword-swallowing, and more ‑ that we dragged the boys along to, in company with a number of other members of my extended family. Little could we have imagined, as we gathered excitedly in the early evening shadows cast by Sydney’s CBD, and its Big Coathanger, how the night would unfold.

Upon our arrival at the Opera House’s Studio our group of ten or so was warmly greeted by Club Swizzle’s androgynous MC, Murray Hill - who was working the room like any well paid self-respecting host(ess?) does. “Well, well, well … I like what I see” was Murray’s opening line; seemingly addressed simultaneously to all of us, and none of us. What we didn’t realise then, but were soon to discover, was that Murray was scouring the crowd for potential talent in preparation for an audience participation segment that was to feature during the second half of the show. All I can say now is that Murray clearly knows his stuff. It is doubtful that any more than two, or perhaps three at the most, of our group would have accepted an invitation to take the stage. What is indisputable, in the light of subsequent events, is that his selection of Ben to do so was an educated master stroke.

Before the show began, by which time we were comfortably ensconced in our seats, with a couple of bevvies on board, Murray approached us again - this time to enquire as to Ben’s age, and to establish his willingness to step up and be part of the as-yet undisclosed onstage activity. Ben being still then only 17 years old, parental consent was obligatory. The width of Ben’s smile, and the glint in his eye, left us in no doubt that he was up for the challenge.

I wonder whether Ben regretted that decision when he discovered, an hour or so later, that he was to be one-half of an impromptu amateur pole-dancing competition. What I know with certainty is that I was seriously concerned for the battering his ego looked likely to take when the first competitor – a striking, slender woman in her late 20’s ‑ delivered a compelling performance that hinted at misspent youth but, in any event, confirmed a high degree of confidence and flexibility. There was a moment, as she completed her routine to the sound of generous and genuine applause, when I experienced that feeling with which most parents reading this will readily identify – namely, an overwhelming desire to protect my offspring from unnecessary hurt and embarrassment. But what could I do? By this point Ben was backstage, preparing for his own introduction to a well-lubricated crowd awaiting his arrival with eager anticipation.

I undoubtedly underestimated my youngest child many times throughout the course of his 21 years. But never was I happier to admit so than that summer night back in 2015. My heart filled to bursting point, and seemingly beyond, as I watched him embrace the moment, bely his youth and relative inexperience, and take the audience on a sensual hilarious journey that simply demanded their acclamation.

And though, much to his disappointment, his age prevented him collecting the winner’s prize of a bottle of Champagne, there was no doubt the boy who had won the crowd’s hearts so effortlessly in the guise of a precocious would‑be rapper all those years before, had done so again a decade on – this time in the role of a cheeky Chippendale, at one of the world’s very greatest entertainment venues.

Encore Ben, encore


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