A few years ago, Mary Ann Lamb got a phone call from Ann Reinking, who was choreographing a production of The Visit starring Chita Rivera. Lamb was thrilled when Reinking offered her the role of Young Claire without even asking for an audition. “And then she said, ‘In the first act, you’re going to play Chita Rivera when she’s a 17-year-old virgin,'” Lamb says, “and I’m like, ‘What am I gonna do? I’m like 50 years old!’ I started panicking. My dream was to be in the room with Ann Reinking and Chita Rivera, but I was scared to death I was going to make a fool of myself.”
Then she remembered an improv exercise she’d learned from an acting teacher back when she herself was a teenager. He’d asked his students to practice moving like the four elements—earth, fire, air, water. Back then, she thought the idea was silly, but now, years later, she found herself using the element of air as a starting point to get into the mind-set of a young girl, making her movement light and floaty. “It was one of the best performances I felt like I ever had,” she says. “I pulled that out of my back pocket. Some messages or corrections that you are given don’t sink in right away. They sink into your being when you are ready to hear them.”
It’s wisdom like this, along with a boundless energy and a constant willingness to learn, that have given Lamb a long career in musical theater. (Her Broadway credits include Fosse, Chicago, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and more). At 59, she continues to be sought out for her expertise, work ethic and a reputation for giving it her all, no matter what. During her 50s, Lamb also embraced a role she never expected to love. Teaching at conventions like Showstopper, at summer theater camps and with public school kids at Jacques d’Amboise’s National Dance Institute (NDI) gave her the chance to share her many stories and experiences with young dancers.
Turn Challenges Into Gifts
Growing up, Lamb was considered hyperactive and struggled with severe dyslexia, which made reading a struggle. Dance was an outlet for her bursting energy and a place where things made sense. “There was something about dance class that I could walk into, and I could just feel the music,” she says. She came to embrace the things that made her different, and to see her challenges as gifts that came with big advantages—not as disabilities. Because dyslexia made it difficult to tell right from left, “I ended up becoming very even as a dancer,” she says. As for hyperactivity, it gave her the energy she needed to persist and succeed in the professional world. “We look at all of what’s wrong with us all the time,” she says. “Don’t listen to those voices. Listen to the voices that encourage and love you and inspire you. And do the work.”
When in Doubt, Go Back to Class
At 18, Lamb visited New York for the first time. She lasted only six months before moving back to Las Vegas. “I was too scared,” she says. “I had voices in my head that did not help me. I had a producer who told me, ‘You’ll never make it to New York,’ and I believed it for a while. But then I got inspired again. I went back to class.” After building her confidence back up, she made it back to New York, this time to stay.
Lean Into Fear
Lamb was in her early 50s when Debbie Roberts of Showstopper suggested that she try teaching. Lamb remembers walking into her first convention class, a ballroom packed with 500 students, and feeling terrified. “I had to learn how to teach. I couldn’t even remember how to do a double pirouette—I just did them,” she says. A workshop in Lynn Simonson technique helped her learn how to develop a warm-up, and she began observing other teachers’ classes and figuring out her own personal approach to thinking about movement, much of which came from her theater background. “To me, dance is just acting with your body,” she says. “Your choreography is your script, just like an actor.” At NDI, Lamb learned to put less emphasis on the technique of teaching, instead thinking about how to get the kids to feel free and connected to their bodies.
Find Inspiration Everywhere
Lamb met Natalie Leonard while judging at a Showstopper competition. After seeing Leonard perform and learning of her dream to dance on Broadway, Lamb encouraged her to enroll in Charlotte d’Amboise’s Triple Arts summer intensive. Leonard took the advice and moved to New York City not long after, where she’s now pursuing a musical theater career.
Lamb says that it’s people along the way who give a dancer their career, and she still remembers the voices of the ones who gave her hers, especially her teachers: “I never thought I could be brave enough to, at 16, go through correspondence school and dance in Vegas, and then have my dream and move to New York and become a Broadway dancer,” she says, “if it wasn’t for my dance teacher saying, ‘The possibility is there. You just have to grab it.'”
April Technique – Mary Ann Lamb
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