Kristin Govers is the creator of The Awkward Ballerina, a one-woman show playing at the Montreal St-Ambroise Fringe Festival that explores living life as someone who loves to dance, and as a creator with Cerebral Palsy (CP), a disorder many have heard of, but few know much about. In the show, Govers offers an intimate view of her experiences, including dealing with bullies and exploring how CP impacted her creative development. With a generous spirit, she shared the genesis of the show among other topics.
First to get the elephant out of the room. What is CP? It is a group of neurological disorders that appear in infancy or early childhood that affect body movement and muscle coordination. It occurs following a lack of oxygen to the developing brain resulting in different symptoms for each person affected. These symptoms may be obvious or not. Govers says that it’s quite possible to know someone who has CP, but not realize it. In her particular case, the most obvious manifestation is that she walks with a limp, but even her doctors missed some of her symptoms, telling her parents, “She’ll grow out of it.” But Govers openly details the impact of CP on her body. Among the things affected are her motor skills, balance, coordination, hearing, vision, as well as having problems with fatigue, digestion, and chronic pain. She points to the team of health professionals that she sees. Nonetheless, she’s quite stoic about it, saying, “You deal with it your whole life. You adapt to it.”
Govers says she always wanted to tell the story about having CP. “I used to say to my mom when I was younger that one day, I’m gonna change the world.” Having a positive impact on the world became something a mission for her that resulted in The Awkward Ballerina. “I had a hard time as a young kid and as a young adolescent. I didn’t fit in,” she further explains. “People were mean and I wanted to rise above it, kind of give a voice to other people who were feeling this way. I thought if I never tell this story, then maybe I would be doing something a disservice. By not sharing this story, I won’t change anything.”
In the show, Govers’ details her many hardships and triumphs. The titular story relates to the fact that as a little girl, she wanted to be a ballerina. “My parents said I couldn’t do it because it was just harder for some people. By losing a dream so young, I had to reimagine that,” she says. Determined to perform, she found other activities that were more accessible, joining choir, singing Broadway and opera, participating in theatre. Other body and movement practices also joined her wheelhouse like yoga. Notably, she didn’t completely give up dance. “I still love to dance,” she says. “I’m not a fantastic dancer and I dance all the time. It might be in my living room or at a party, but the passion is alive.”
Another key theme in her piece is the bullying she experienced growing up. The bullying was so relentless that she pretended to be sick rather than go to school. “In elementary school, I was always so focused on my feet. I had to tell myself heel-toe to remind myself that’s how you walk. I had an elephant walk. And there was a kid at school who picked on me. He stuck his foot out and I went flying and I smashed my face and he was killing himself laughing. I was six. This guy is crazy, I thought. I was so afraid of him.” A girl picked on her when she came home from school as well. “I was afraid to leave my house or play with my friends,” Govers says.
The bullying continued into high school but the abuse became less physical and more emotional and verbal. Students would leave her out because she couldn’t kick a ball or because she walked funny. “I just didn’t feel included and a lot of times I felt very alone. I had a few friends and I clung to them out of safety and wanting to feel a part of something,” she says.
Despite the alienation and bullying, Govers finds something positive to share. She says, “The good thing about it, it allowed me to see people for people. It doesn’t matter where they come from or what their background is or if they’re dealing with an ailment. You’re a good person if you’re a good person. Just be kind. You never know what someone’s going through.”
In spite of all the adversity, Govers developed her creativity and artistic talents that ultimately led to The Awkward Ballerina. After reading a short story about her experiences with CP at a Zoom benefit, she was invited to meet with TJ Dawe, who runs a storytelling-playwriting workshop where the show was developed. Although Govers initially thought she would write about her experiences in the form of a book, she now finds theatre a more impactful way to share the story. “I thought I’d be behind the pages,” she says. “But now I feel like it’s more impactful because I tell it. It opens up discussion. People can ask questions.” She even leaves 10 minutes at the end of the show for people to ask her questions about her experiences or about CP. “A big thing with the show is that people who don’t have someone in their life who is dealing with something like this will have the opportunity to say ‘Hey, tell me about it because I want to know more.’ I’m super happy to share my story. I’m comfortable and ready to share. I’m ready to be vulnerable with strangers, which is also scary.”
Govers has many positive things to say about working with TJ Dawe and the workshop he runs. “Every single person in there is incredible and gives you a lot of support,” she says. “What a support system! I don’t have enough words and thank yous. It changed my life. A year ago I started this and if you asked me a year ago if I’d be here right now, I’d say I don’t think so.”
Whatever self-doubt may have been with her at the start of the process, no doubt The Awkward Ballerina will reflect the open, upbeat, triumphant, and empathetic person she is. Her show is sure to leave an audience feeling like they can do good in the world and realize their dreams, whatever the circumstances. “Ultimately, if something is hard, it doesn’t mean you can’t achieve it some other way,” she says.
The Awkward Ballerina is part of St-Ambroise Montreal Fringe Festival that runs from June 9 – 19. The show runs at Monument National (1182 St Laurent Blvd) on June 11, 12, 15, 16, 18, and 19. $15.25. Get tickets for the show HERE.