The Ballet of Service

By Amanda May

Harold Shapiro

Smoothing and twisting her hair into a bun, she prepares. Looking into a mirror, she adjusts and primps for the night’s performance.

To ready for opening, no detail is too trivial. She makes sure the props are put in place, perfectly aligned. There is much attention to precision, to exactness.

After a flurry of last minute checks, updates, notes, and a bit of gossip, a hush. The 80s rock stops blasting from the back and a quiet, sophisticated calm comes over the night’s players. The ambiance of the space changes with the realization that all the seats are soon to be filled.

The house lights come up, soft music fills the air, and the night begins.

But this is not a night at the ballet. It is dinner service at your local fine dining establishment.

Or perhaps it is ballet… it’s certainly performance, and when done well, it can become a show of epic proportions.

The parallels are infinite. Dancers and servers alike have their own routines. Some eat right before, some hours in anticipation. Some become chatty, while others withdraw. Both will be expected to draw from years of experience, and perfection is expected. Both must be ready for audience reactions before they react. Feet are tired. Any sort of personal drama is masked and buried for the course of the evening. War stories are swapped (a dancer fell, a plate shattered; the audience stiffened, gaping at either spectacle).

She stands with the others players, ready. Standing tall, but relaxed, she steps onto the floor, hands clasped graciously in front of her. Beginning slowly, she floats and twirls her way around the room gaining speed, sensing and gauging the audience one by one. She must be attentive, but not fretful, and always, always have a pleasant expression on her face. No matter what chaos surrounds or erupts, she must appear like glass, smooth and flawless.

Each diner changes the narrative of the dance as the night progresses. Some are seasoned professionals themselves. They are polite and make all the right gestures, giving and following cues, ebbing and flowing with the rhythm of the evening. Inevitably, there are characters that change the arc of the story as well, villains that demand disproportionate amounts of attention, coming in green, completely new to the pace and timing of “the ballet.”

Regardless of her partner, she must dance well. So, she fox trots, twists, and tangos without irony or disdain, even though she is there for the elegance of ballet.

Without so much as an intermission, not a drop of wine has dropped on the starched white tablecloths, and everyone is at ease. Once each dish, themselves vignettes of art within the evening, have been enjoyed and fawned over, the act closes with a swift removal of dishes and silverware. She marks new wares, clean plates and sparkling forks and knives, placing them exactly where your hand may fall when act two arrives.

With utmost respect to the art form, it’s possible that certain parts of serving may be even more difficult than ballet performance. The element of necessary improvisation makes service infinitely complex, as well as time management. The server must be juggle their time, essentially undertaking multiple performances, each table its own, simultaneously and seamlessly. You must pace and anticipate needs, preparing for the second course, while simultaneously starting the first elsewhere. All of this, in multiples, staggered. Also, everything must be done with absolute grace, without breaking a sweat, hardly changing your heart rate.

On perfect nights, the choreography is so fluid it’s invisible, all staff gliding around almost silently, communicating with the slightest gesture or look. As a diner, you may not even notice, but an extremely produced performance has taken place all around you.

The audience files out, glowing, dazzled, and satisfied. The lights dim. The ephemeral performance is over. The stage is cleared and everything is disassembled, only to come together again for the next evening’s performance. She smiles.

Amanda May is the Communications Manager at The Arts Council of Greater New Haven.

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