To my daughter,
dancing

by Louise Campbell

June again, the whirlwind finale to a busy school year. The calendar strains to contain all the playoffs, wind-ups, and cool-downs, but I am a smug June veteran, confident in my ability to anticipate all these events. After all, I've cheered from enough sidelines, goal lines and finish lines to know the score.

But, as ‘jazz-dance’ encroaches upon yet another calendar square, I am mystified. Somehow, these past months, your dance class was barely a blip on my radar. Maybe it’s because of the time-slot, those hectic weeknight dinner hours when I drive home, pick-up, drop-off, pick-up again, and prepare supper all in one seemingly magic, fluid movement.

Or maybe it’s because it was a new activity for you. Until September, I hadn’t heard you mention the word ‘dance’ since you were four and I forced your tiny feet into precious pink ballet slippers. You lasted twenty minutes before declaring, “I quit dancing!” so vehemently I assumed it was a lifelong decision. This year when you said “jazz dance”, I signed you up, signed the check and shrugged it off as a passing whim.

Until June, when suddenly I am signing more and more checks, all to the dance studio. Costume: seventy-five dollars. Recital tickets: sixty dollars. Performance DVD: fifty dollars. Photos: twenty dollars. The little voice in my head intoning, “for everything else there’s MasterCard,” is what really brings your dance class to my attention.

Fully armed with cash, checkbook, and debit and credit cards, I take you to your dress rehearsal. You immediately disappear backstage, so I slink past the DVD and photo hawkers and settle into a front row seat.

The first onstage are four-year-old ballerinas. Round sturdy little bodies stomp into second position, sparkly in pink tulle and rosebud tiaras, exactly the girly fantasy I once so unsuccessfully tried to foist upon you. They bow and curtsy, bow and curtsy, basking in the scattered applause, and have to be coaxed off stage.

Now come the six year-olds, as fresh and bright as a summer garden. They skip, jump, lie down on the stage. “Wake me up before you go-go,” their song instructs, but three of them forget to wake up, and remain posed in repose. The teacher speaks to them and they start over. This time, a blonde daisy of a girl skips the wrong way and confusion reigns. They start yet again, but are distracted and giggly. The limelight has cooled; their concentration has expired. Now they are simply bored. So am I. I hope you will be next.

The curtain ripples stage left, and I catch a glimpse of your group’s costume. If there is one dance thing I have noticed, it is your disappointment in this outfit. The navy pinstripes and red necktie have none of the flashy glamour you crave. The sleeveless, backless top is discomfortingly sheer, and I imagine that you and your classmates slouch backstage with your arms folded across your chests. I agree that it’s an unfortunate choice for eleven-year-olds, but I have offered all the pat reassurances I can think of. “It will look good onstage. It won’t look see-through under the lights.”

Finally your class files onto the stage, and I can see that I was right. The bold colors look cheeky and sophisticated, the white blouse mercifully opaque.

Not a nipple in sight, nor, I realize with alarm, are you. Where can you be? Stricken by a sudden bout of stagefright? Or maybe a ‘wardrobe malfunction’ – I worry guiltily that the elastic strap I glued to your hat has fallen off. Or possibly you are looking for me? I picture you, abandoned backstage, distraught, missing your cue while you search for your mother. I crouch on the edge of my seat, ready to spring to your rescue.

The music starts, the stage-smiles light up. It is your smile that acts as a beacon, that draws my eyes front and center to where you are poised beaming, to where you have been all along. You aren’t who I was looking for: you are taller than I thought, more willowy than I expected, and achingly, elegantly more beautiful than I ever imagined.

You move then, lissom, lithe, flowing into the melody with a smooth confidence. The song is smart and sassy, and so are you, insouciance radiating with every pirouette. Chasse, glissade, jete – agile movements I never knew you knew.

This is what you were doing all those nights when I expelled you from the car and sped off to fetch your sisters. You learned this light-footed grace while I bought milk at the Quick-mart or picked up the dry-cleaning. Here before me is the mysterious, exotic creature you became while I boiled spaghetti. I am once again on the edge of my seat, awestruck.

Afterward I meet you in the lobby, where you are reassuringly yourself again, cheeks flushed, arms across your chest.

“How did I do?” you ask, although I can tell from your voice you already know.
“You were amazing,” I say. “Absolutely amazing,” I repeat, because really, what else can a mother say when she hasn’t recognized her own child?

You roll your eyes and lead me out of the theatre. “Take it easy, Mom. It was only a dress rehearsal.”

I blink at you in the sunlight. Only a rehearsal. Practice for the big night, and for all the times ahead when I will be watching, more mindful of your steps, as you spin away from me, back, and away.

 

© Louise Campbell

“A gender-equal society would be one where the word ‘gender’ does not exist: where everyone can be themselves.”*

I’ve always been aware of gender conditioning and actively tried to combat any lingering prejudices or stereotypes in my own parenting, even down to encouraging dolls with my boys when they were little. It’s great to read people writing about gender issues they’re experiencing with their kids. For too long these subjects have been discouraged or silenced. I’d love to publish some more creative writing on this topic, especially if you are struggling with a child who actively tries to move away from gender normative preferences. A society where everyone can be themselves thanks Gloria for those aspirational words.

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* Gloria Steinem