There is a girl in my past that I loved. She was me, or rather, the ballet-dancing version of me.
When I was 6, I decided that I needed to be a ballet dancer. A lot of six-year-olds feel that way, but by the time I was 16, I was dancing at the School of American Ballet in New York City for the summer. At 17 I was accepted to the highest level of training at the Pacific Northwest Ballet School and moved from Texas all the way to Seattle, Washington—by myself.
I did fabulously, but just when I expected everything to go right, a stagehand made a mistake. Scenery moved when it should have stayed still and I fell 5 feet onto the stage. I haven’t done a proper arabesque since.
Life continued, like it does.
I fell in love. I made babies.
For the most part, I tried to distance myself from the dancing life I had. Every time I came close to it, I burned. I burst into flames of so many names: fear, desire, regret, anger. But, being a creature of the stage, I cannot help but tell my story.
I always felt like that girl—The Ballet Me—died. I didn’t know how I could be a dancer without a body that could dance. I finally faced the loss and gave myself credit for enduring it. Dancing will be a part of me forever.
Then my children learned that I was a “ballerina.”
By the time Hazel Belle was 3 or so, I’d accepted my loss enough to frame and hang some beautiful photos of me dancing. My daughter took to pointing them out to guests by saying, “That’s mommy when she was flying.” I blushed every time and took a minute to enjoy her beautiful perspective.
I have always been afraid of living out my fantasies through my children. We’ve seen Gypsy. You and I have met those kids and the grownups those kids become. People have asked me for the last 20 years: “Are you going to put your kids in dance?”
I speak out-loud about 20 percent of what I’m thinking: “I want them to do what they love.” Because here’s the truth: If I could put DANCE in my KIDS, then I would. In spite of my years of pain, in spite of my tragedy, I’d do anything to help my children experience that kind of love that I have known. I motivated myself when I was dancing. I pushed myself. I formed dreams for myself.
I cannot put dance in my kids, but I can watch for what they put in themselves.
Hazel Belle enjoyed ballet camp when she was little. They watched Tinkerbell movies and made wands. But when she was old enough to start really learning ballet, her sensory issues emerged.
Tights and ballet slippers became a burden to her. We both cried when she “quit,”—though I shed my tears in private.
It killed me that her love for freedom of expression and movement of her body were limited by a silly dress code. Thankfully, our dance studio is just the right combination of empowerment, flexibility and tradition. “Modern,” her teacher said. “Modern dance could be just right for her.” I told Hazel Belle, and she couldn’t wait to go to modern dance class in her shorts and t-shirt.
At 6 years old, dancers get to be in the recital. Hazel Belle and I marched into that theater, hand-in-hand. I didn’t tell her, but I was thinking, “Days in the theater have been some of the happiest in my life.”
She went to join her group, and I sat down to try to manage 35 years of emotion.
At her performance the next day, my daughter was good, but not great. Don’t get me wrong; to me, she was the loveliest creature to ever grace the stage. I swelled so huge with pride I almost screamed, “THAT’S MY BABY!” But the professional dancer I can never turn off could see that dancing might not be her thing.
“Mama, I don’t want to break your heart,” my daughter told me.
“Oh, baby, you’re not in charge of my heart. Tell me anything you need to say.”
“Well, I tried because I know you love it,” she began. “But dancing is not my thing.”
“No problem, Cute-iful. And what a wonderful girl you are for knowing how to be gentle with me AND telling me the truth.”
Hazel Belle sighed with relief—and so did I, inside.
My three-year-old son still loves his Mommy and Me dance classes, but I’m not holding my breath. This summer, my daughter attended clay camp and I think we may be on to something. My ten-year-old son is deep into Dungeons and Dragons and regularly wears a crushed velvet cape to school. My eight-year-old plays the guitar, and I’m pretty sure that one day a 40-something Harry Styles will cry himself to sleep over the young buck who takes his place.
I cannot put my kids in dance or dance in my kids. But I can love what they love and free them from the burden of my expectations.
Go, babies! Love—and even lose. I’ll be right here.