There are women we meet or see who stand as an example of what is possible. One such woman is Lena Horne. I saw her on Broadway in her one-woman show, "Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music." It was like seeing the perfect dress and knowing, "I want that!" I wanted what Lena brought to the stage: fearlessness.
Although I was born in Hell's Kitchen in New York City, I was raised with a Minnesota sensibility, delivered straight from my grandmother. The path was narrow and the rules were strict: Mascara was for hussies and if you pierced your ears, you were a pirate. It was essential that you were a "nice girl," because otherwise, "What will the neighbors think?" At one point my grandma asked me why I had to sing in saloons when I could just as easily sing in the church choir. I murmured "It's not the same," and got out of the room as quickly as possible.
So I began my singing career in floor-length, high-necked gowns, trying to figure out what everyone and anyone needed or wanted me to be. Then I saw Lena. She sang with passion and fire, and, oh Lord, the way she moved her body. She sang from her thighs on up. When her performance ended, I whispered to myself, "That's a whole 'nother way to be a woman."
The freedom with which she moved and sang was a revelation. My onstage permission slip was short: stand or walk. The idea of "gettin' down" into the sound had never occurred to me. I sang from my lungs, period. Lena bent her knees like she was lifting a heavy load, and unwrapped her pain for all of us to see, the pain embedded in her being from losing her son, her husband and her father in the space of two years. You could see her descend into it just before she sang "Stormy Weather." The sound of her voice ran through us, brought us to our feet in gratitude that anyone could tell the truth like that.
That night, she taught me with something much more powerful than words: She taught me with her presence. She gave herself complete permission to be who she was, to bring her full heart, her full knowing to that stage, to her audience. A door opened in me that will never again be closed.
That's why I love to see this time's fearless women performers like Katy Perry and Lady Gaga who are willing to offer what is real and true for them, even if it wouldn't be on my grandmother's approved list.
As for me, I'm still working on fearlessness. Last fall I was hired to sing the "Streisand Songbook" with the Palm Beach Pops symphony orchestra. I had three months to prepare, and spent many afternoons learning Barbra's songs and placing my voice around them. One afternoon, in the midst of rehearsing "I'm the Greatest Star," my inner critic asked, "What if you're not good enough?" I felt tears begin, but I quickly put that aside by saying, "Stop that. Put your whole heart and voice into it, and you'll succeed."
I did. For those six concerts, I sang from my thighs on up and invested each song with my own experience. "The Way We Were" became an affectionate postcard to the former boyfriend I had recently seen for the first time in many years. "Don't Rain on My Parade" was a feisty response to my fear of failure. And "Happy Days Are Here Again" became an anthem reminding myself and the audience that, no matter how dark life may seem, love and joy have a way of showing up.
Thank you, Lena, for showing me a whole 'nother way to be a woman.