When I was 6 years old, I was kicked out of ballet class. It wasn’t because I’d misbehaved or because I refused to learn the step. It was because I was challenged when it came to grace … or in the words of the kids in my gym class — I was a big ol’ spaz.
I tried, I swear. I practiced the moves at home and everything, and when it came time for our end of the year recital, I was so excited. It was Cinderella and my classmates and I were supposed to be the oranges, as in the fruit, which was kind of a weird role to play, but fine. I was going to wear that hideous, orange tutu and steal the show … as a citrus.
We were partnered up for our recital number, and apparently we were matched by ability. My partner was the other spaz in the class and she was even clumsier than me. So clumsy, in fact, that she broke her leg a week before we were to perform, leaving me to dance solo.
It was beyond awkward. Please don’t ever try to dance a duet by yourself, especially when you’re 6 and have no natural inclination for dance, at least according to the teacher. Whatever lonesome, freaky shuffle I did onstage sealed my fate. I remember the lady who ran the ballet studio telling my grandmother (my guardian at the time) that it wasn’t a good idea for me to re-enroll in ballet the next year.
“This one’s just not a ballerina,” she said.
“What about just taking class because she enjoys it?” my grandmother asked.
The teacher shook her head.
“There’s really no point that I can see, but maybe you could try again in a few years.”
Then she added: “Somewhere else.”
I was devastated. Imagine being a little kid and hearing your teacher, a woman you so wanted to please, saying that about you after your very first time onstage. It ruined me. I became so self-conscious that to this day I’ve never attempted to dance again. Not even at bars, where I would sit in the corner with my amaretto sour while my friends went wild on the dance floor, and barely even at my wedding, where I was more fearful of dancing in front of 150 people than I was of tripping down the aisle. The phobia was severe, and it persisted.
Then I had a daughter. That daughter literally danced before she walked. She did nothing but dance. She danced with music or without. She danced when I fed her blueberries and when she played in the mud. She loved moving her body and surprisingly, it seemed that from a young age, she actually might have some sort of musical inclination. Her first sentences were song lyrics, sung remarkably in tune.
We live near a ballet studio and I’d often pass it and see all the little girls fluttering out the door with their hair all done up in buns and their tiny feet tiptoeing in pink slippers and my heart would just burst at all that cuteness.
I was sure my daughter would love that too. I have got to put this child in ballet, I thought. This must happen immediately. So I yanked the poor thing into a leotard and bought the beautiful little shoes and scraped what little hair she had into a bun and tossed her into a ballet class with visions of the Sugar Plum Fairy dancing in my head.
Turns out, my kid hated ballet. I mean hated it with the passion of 8,000 blazing furnaces. The first few times she sulked and smoldered quietly on the sidelines, and I thought she’d warm up to it. I mean, tutus. She loved tutus. But no. By her fourth ballet class she began to scream in violent protest, so I took her home and asked her what her deal was.
“I HATE ballet, Mommy!” she yelled.
“Ballet is NOT FUN, Mommy!” she yelled, more emphatically.
I tried to reason with her and I told her that her friends took ballet. I showed her a picture of me in my orange costume, which she correctly declared to be ugly and stupid. Finally, I asked her what she didn’t like about ballet, because she so obviously loved to dance outside of class.
“It’s too quiet,” she said, matter-of-factly, “I want to run and make noise. I just want to dance MY way instead, with no shoes on. And my leotard is itchy and I don’t like it.”
I promised I wouldn’t make her go back unless she changed her mind, but I went to bed that night a little heartbroken. I imagined recitals and The Nutcracker and realized that my dance aspirations for my daughter had more to do with reparations to my long-ago damaged ego than with her passions.
But healing me wasn’t my daughter’s job, and I couldn’t relive my childhood vicariously through hers.
My little girl wasn’t a ballerina (at least not so far), but unlike her mom, she was very clear that she had no desire to be. I hadn’t given birth to a delicate dancer. My daughter seems more inclined to front an all-girl punk band, or something like that. The truth is, she’s too young to know right now and nothing is set in stone, which is the truest beauty of childhood. They can be anything at any time and right now, my daughter wants to run and play her way and my job is to step aside and let her grand jeteé (or stomp or kick soccer balls) down her own path, wherever that may lead.
I hope she doesn’t dance ballet. I hope she does whatever makes her happy and excited and keeps her filled with enthusiasm. And I will support her no matter what activities she chooses or what talents she possesses or doesn’t.
Right now, she likes to dress up and play drums and make up the words to her own songs. She tells everyone she wants to be a “flamingo scientist” when she grows up. She loves sports and asked me to put her in soccer next fall and if next fall comes and that’s what she still wants to do, even though I know more about math than the game (and I know very little about math, I assure you), I will be there on the sidelines, cheering her on and jumping up and down like the spaz I am.More On