Mother and daughter arrived a few minutes after class had started and crouched by the door as the warm-up music began to play. Jackets were shed and piled on the floor against the wall. Sneakers traded for pale pink shoes and long hair pulled back and wound tight. But they just sat there, huddled together, staring into the classroom.
I’ve seen most of the routines that happen here, the stretches and warm-ups, the plies and piques, the leaps across the floor that send tutus flying. But this routine catches my eye every time and I can’t look away: the get-the-girl-into-ballet routine. I wager that it happens just about as often as the plies and piques. And with just as varied amounts of grace and posture.
This one looked promising. The quiet way they sat there, little girl curled against her mother, snug among their winter coats and bags. It looked as though they were intent on creating space where often there is none, quietly preparing for her to cross the threshold. They were oblivious to the rest of us, mostly parents, crowded in the hallway. So I watched. I was eager to study this mother as she performed this routine with the grace I always wished I’d had.
But then it turned.
“You have to go in there,” she said, standing up and backing away. I couldn’t make out the girl’s reply but I could hear the tone and pitch of her whine.
“You chose this and now you have to go in there.” More whining. More pleading. The little girl reached out for her mama who recoiled swiftly.
“No don’t touch me. Let go of me! You’re going in there and don’t whine about it! You chose this. Not me!”
This went on for some time. The mother repeated the same words over and over, each phrase sharper than the last, as though each breath she took served only to ignite her growing anger. The little girl’s whines turned to cries and took on a tinge of desperation.
There is a space in this routine in which I empathize with the mother. It’s a large space because I’ve been there. I lived in this world of cajoling a girl in a tutu, forcing her off the carpet and onto the hardwood floor, pushing her into the group. I’ve been the one visibly fuming when all of the girls are dancing but ours, who decided to fold her legs into our laps. I’ve said the words that bite. I’ve recoiled and detached myself from her grasp. I know these breaths that don’t calm but fuel.
I’ve done it all. So I empathize. I understand. We’re not perfect. We all get a little lost when the reality of our children’s emotions and fears don’t meet our expectations or dreams.
But then it goes on. It hurts and, pained, I change sides. I can feel the little girl’s heart breaking. She so desperately wants her mother’s patience and grace. As I watch, her shoulders begin to sag under the weight of the shame piling on.
Beyond the scene playing out in front of me, my daughter stands in a row of tutus and toes, her arms stretched out and bent ever so slightly. Her thick, dark hair is pulled atop a head held high. She is strong and graceful. She looks at ease and I believe that she is. But ballet is about making it all look easy. And I can still see it, some of that weight, that shame, still resting on her shoulders. Over time, I learned that my little girl won’t always rush in the way I wish she would. I’ve learned to be gentler with her little soul. To carefully coach her. To wait with her until she’s ready. I’ve learned that the harm is not in watching a ballet class from the doorway. It’s in damaging the heart on the way in.
She rarely tests me on this anymore. She rarely asks me to prove that I’ve learned to treat her with grace. And sometimes, I still stumble. None of us are ever as careful with each others’ hearts as we want to be. But we have to try.
The little girl eventually goes into the classroom. I tried to distract myself, appear to not be watching, so I don’t see exactly how it happens. But she joins the group and points her toes and holds her head up high. The mother starts to vent to another mother sitting nearby. “It’s this way every week!” she says. “She has fun once she gets in there.” The other mother nods and says something supportive. But I divert my attention again. I don’t want to get caught in her gaze or feel her expectation that I’ll bounce my head and commiserate with her. I don’t want to convey to her that her end justified her means.
I remember it all, as though it were yesterday, the anger and the frustration and the words breathed out in a stream of fire. But I always wished I could take them back. And I never looked for support. I hung my head and averted my eyes as I dashed out the door when all was said and done. Ashamed of the shame I’d created. It’s all just a big, horrible circle, you know, when you embrace shame.
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