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Degas at the Stop N’ Shop: Adventures of a Dance Class Dad

Dancing With a Hippo

Dancing with Hippos (and other ungainly beasts.)

 She comes marching out in her black leotard. Blond hair up, skin shocking in its clarity. Behind her the next ballet class has begun,  Degas ballerinas struggling with the fifth position. She is still wearing her tap shoes. Her face, impassive and blank in a way it rarely is at home, makes a curious, tiny twist when she sees me. Her mother usually picks her up from dance class.

We march down the stairs. Outside the enclosure of the dance studio the world is summery, sun-struck, even at 5:30 in the afternoon. We stand there a moment, squinting in the dappled warmth and light.

“Daddy, I’m thirsty. Do you have any water?”

“No,” I say, “but I’ll get you some.”

The dance school is located in a strange no-man’s land between River Road and a gas station. Beyond River Road is the Levee and beyond that, unseen, the Mississippi River. In the other direction, past the gas station, are Carolton Avenue and St. Charles Avenue, with their enormous live oaks. But these calming forces of nature feel distant in that short stretch on the way to the gas station, which is hectic with cars. I hold her hand.

“Daddy,” she says, “Sometimes I get to see the older girls do hip-hop. I’m jealous of their moves.”

“Really,” I say, “You’re jealous?

“Yeah. They’re really good.”

I walk beside her, enrobed in the idiot silence of fatherhood, stumped as to how to respond this. If you are a guy, you are never entirely past having the potential to freeze when talking to a pretty girl, even if that girl is your six-year-old daughter.

She is still wearing her tap shoes. Their clicks are like a metronome counting the beats until I can formulate a response.

“Wait here,” I say, when we step inside the gas station store. Her shoes click loudly on the hard tile. I peruse the enormous offerings behind glass, searching for water, hoping to get out of there before she starts whining — for a Sprite, or a Coke, or some other sugary thing I am not going to give her. While I frantically scan the windows packed with beverages, the place erupts with clatter, a shocking noise. I wheel around  to see her in an impromtu tap dance session. She’s actually got just enough skill to make it charming and not obnoxious, though it’s a fine line. I turn around, find the water, and head to the cashier, who, thank God, is smiling.

“Ok! Ok! Enough,” I yell. By some miracle this causes her to stop. I pay for the water. Then we head for the door.

“I want to sit down,” she says when we get to the doorway.  There are boxes of soda stacked in the window. She plops down, turning them into an improvised cafe. Once seated and comfortable, she hands me, her trusted assistant, the bottle. I stand there like a butler, twist the top off, and hand it back. No words are exchanged.

She is sitting on cartons of Diet Coke and Coke Zero. If Degas went on a field trip to the Stop N’ Shop he might come up with something like this. But Degas, as my wife, a former Ballerina, often points out, painted those girls with such contempt, making their faces piggish and smudged. Evangeline in the window is so beautiful and vivid. She lifts the bottle and tilts her head up and takes a few gulps. Then she sits leisurely with her drink.  I try not to stare. Sunshine everywhere, the mellow gold color of late afternoon, a faint aura of playing hooky, the two of us in the gas station.

While she sits, I watch the expressions on people’s faces as they pull into the gas station. The corner of Carolton and St. Charles is busy corner. Everyone is either fighting their way into the heart of New Orleans or fighting their way out. A man pulls in very fast, navigating between two cars and stopping short at a presumptuous spot near the door; he is young, a tough-looking, agitated guy with his seat way back.  The car is a ratty blue Neo. Or a Neon. I can’t tell. I wonder when it last broke down. When it will break down next. I wonder what his problems are. Who he is mad at.What his job is. What kind of physicality it required.

Earlier that day I had done work in our backyard that involved moving bricks. It was very physical. I couldn’t find a way to make it feel like a workout as opposed to just work. Handling little children is similar; the body refuses to let it contribute in any way to your vanity. It feels harder than any workout and yet produces no muscle tone or sense of energy.

Now I remember the pieces of the nice cheese I had brought in a napkin, which I hold out to her. Leftovers from a school function. She peers at the selection, chooses one, and nibbles judgmentally. I keep my hand out, near but not too near, like someone feeding a beloved-but-dangerous animal in the zoo.

Her gaze drifts to the boxes on which she is sitting. “Coke Zero,” she says  matter of factly. And then, as though it were a puppy, she strokes a box a few times and says, “Ah, lovely Coke Zero.”

A bizare moment.  She is very sophisticated for a six-year-old, sometimes.

A moment later she declares that this last piece of cheese, a pecorino, is not to her liking, and disgorges a half-chewed wad of it into the napkin in my hand.

I take a few steps to throw it out and when I turn back around, I see that Evangeline has stood up and walked, with the impeccable timing of a kid who gets in the way, into the path of the surly-looking dude in the crappy blue car. He is right there, nearly tripping over her, his burly body suddenly inflected at the waist as he reaches for the door handle. Tattoos running up his arms and neck.

There is a delicacy to the way he avoids stepping on her. Something about the way he twists his body around and over hers is incongruous with my earlier impression. It is balletic, the exertion of someone wishing to be discreet. He smiles. There is a softness to it.

“Excuse us!” I say loudly, like bellowing bull running across a meadow.

“No problem,”  he says, almost laughing. Looks me in the eye. Such sweetness to the moment. It shocks me. He is out the door, the moment done.

“You all finished?” I ask.

She nods abstractly.

“Knock back one more sip,” I say. When in doubt, encourage hydration.

She dutifully raises the bottle up high and, like sailor draining a bottle of beer, knocks back a gulp.

I take her hand, and we march out of the gas station. I see another parent come in with their leotarded little girl and note she is wearing sneakers and a pink tutu. My daughter is in a black leotard and tap shoes. I should probably have changed her out of the tap shoes. Bad for them to be out scraping on pavement. But then the sound of their clicks is so lovely. Surely she will outgrow these shoes before the taps wear down. It is worth it to hear the clip-clop of her feet as we march the short distance to the Vespa.

Each click thrills me, for some reason.

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