"All right, but not a minute after." I was having flashbacks to being thirteen years old and, having just moved to Florida from the former Yugoslavia, showing up at the Academy's courts at 6:40 a.m. for a 7:00 a.m. session. I was so used to the tiny windows of time that were given to me on the adult courts in my hometown of Novi Sad that I didn't want to waste a second. By the time a coach arrived, I'd already be warmed up and ready to launch straight into hitting. I'd mellowed a lot since then, but that Type A, gotta-get-it-right girl was still lurking inside me. We practiced our routines a hundred times and I videotaped Jonathan executing the more intricate footwork that I couldn't get down during our rehearsals. At night I'd go to my hotel room and watch the footage over and over again, pausing it to practice in front of the mirror. I was relieved that the first episode of the show would feature the guys. All I'd have to do was sit in the front row and smile. But I became even more panicked when I saw how good they looked. They looked like naturals. Even the guys who weren't as coordinated could pull off a decent performance by standing in one place while their professional pixie partners twirled and sashayed all around them.
The next day, as I was psyching myself up for my big dancing debut, I was in for another shock: the preparations were like a prom, a wedding, and a beauty pageant rolled into one. Spray tans, hair extensions, fake lashes, manicures, and endless layers of makeup. All in all, the process took six hours. Sitting in a chair for that long was tedious, but I did learn how to make the nose I inherited from my dad appear smaller. The tricks of shading can work wonders. When it was all over, I hardly recognized my lacquered-up new self and I was exhausted before I even set foot on the dance floor. My outfit was a long, frilly pink ensemble that looked like Cinderella swathed in cotton candy. My eight-year-old self would've died for that dress, but the thirty-four-year-old me had very different taste.
I looked around at my competition -- Shannon Elizabeth (actress with never-ending legs), Marlee Matlin (actress with spunky spirit), Priscilla Presley (actress with confident grace), Marissa Jaret Winokur (Broadway star with energy to burn), and Kristi Yamaguchi (Olympic ? gure skater who looked like she was born to dance) -- all decked out in sparkles, spangles, and heels. There was a hum of nervous energy in the air, and with a jolt I realized that I was out of my league. These women all had backgrounds in performing and playing to an audience, while I'd spent my career tuning the crowd out so I could focus on the ball. Without a doubt they'd know how to work the camera, and I didn't have the slightest idea where it was. Was it too late to back out?
"Ten minutes until curtain!" the stage manager yelled. Yep, it was way too late. We each took our place for the cast introduction and I was lined up at the top of the stage's stairs next to Jason Taylor, the stud NFL player who had performed beautifully the night before. I must have looked like I was about to face a ?ring squad because he took one look at me and said, "What have we gotten ourselves into?"
"I have no idea," I managed to squeak out.