“I’m doing all this to save your ass, when what I really want to do is drop you on it!”
My 3-year-old is standing in our kitchen doorway, and she’s exasperated. She’s pretending to be Jennifer Grey in Dirty Dancing, in the scene when Baby snaps at Johnny while he teaches her to dance. Frances and Johnny are working on a deadline. They are sweaty and exhausted, and their friend is having a dangerous secret medical procedure. Also, they are attracted to each other. Tension fills the scene like humidity on a summer day.
My toddler hasn’t even a subliminal awareness of the reasons for the scene’s tension, much less of the tension itself. But she has a vague understanding of grown-up discussions and passions playing out on the screen, and I’m fine with that.
My child has been watching Dirty Dancing since she was 18 months old. Well, not all of it. But she is allowed to watch the dance sequences and a fair amount of the dialogue too.
It’s a common assertion that Americans are prudes, especially when it comes to what they feel comfortable exposing their children to. If that’s the case, my family missed the memo.
In 1947, when my mother was not quite 7, someone sneaked her in to see A Streetcar Named Desire on Broadway. She was told not to tell anyone. If Marlon Brando’s nudity and primal rage combined with Jessica Tandy’s seduction and descent into madness weren’t thrilling enough, the secrecy of the matinee trip to the theater enshrined the memory for my mother.
Who sneaked her into the theater and swore her to secrecy?
When Johnny and Frances sway to Otis Redding’s Love Man, he teaches her how to use her body like a dancer does. He tells her to lower her shoulders to create a frame, to bend her knees so that she can isolate her rib cage and hips.
My toddler practices with them. Sometimes she gets frustrated—dancing is hard—and I tell her that in time, if she wants, jazz classes will give her the foundation for many types of movement. She jumps off the bed and runs to the living room to tell her father that she wants to start classes right now.
There’s a lot of innuendo in the film, as there is in Grease, another favorite in our house. Heck, when Liesl strokes Rolfe’s hair in The Sound of Music, you sure don’t feel that you’re watching a movie intended for kids. Not every movie we watch is vibrating with romantic undertones. We’re passionate Wiggles fans and God help us, Caillou has infiltrated our child’s orbit of late. We also spend a lot of time outdoors or within the covers of books. Still, movies are a big part of our home life.
I don’t fear my child absorbing some grown-up interaction; I trust my intuition in drawing the line. I don’t worry about our Dirty Dancing dance parties. Is there a better place for a child to witness a depiction of romantic attraction, even sexual dancing, than in the safety of her mother’s room and arms?
Who better to teach her how to use her shoulders and hips than her mother? If she wants to move like Johnny Castle, I’d like to be the one to teach her. I’d like her to cultivate strength and coordination, to feel that her muscles are at her disposal.
Such control might help foster a deep belief that she is in charge of her body in all matters, a belief all parents want their children—and especially their daughters—to absorb.
Much of parenthood is answering questions, even when they haven’t been asked. It never occurred to my mother to be anything but completely honest in discussing lust, love and sex as I matured. I never felt overwhelmed. Somehow she knew where the line was. She respected my intelligence and curiosity even as she edited her candor with regard for my youth and innocence.
Sometimes we don’t choose what our child is exposed to. In the third grade, my class took a field trip to a bread factory in downtown Los Angeles. Our bus passed through a decaying neighborhood, and my classmate asked our teacher about a homeless man he saw urinating on the street. The teacher replied: “We don’t look at things like that.”
My mother happened to be a chaperone on that bus. Outraged, she took me out of the school the next semester. “We most certainly do look at things like that,” she said. An educator had told a child to look away from another person’s misfortune, to embrace ignorance, cowardice, and worst of all, indifference. The teacher was actively avoiding a lesson in empathy. What could be more backward?
No parent gets it right all the time, but I try not to worry about it. Whatever we see in life need not be shrouded in our parents’ anxiety over whether or not we should have seen it or how it will affect us.
Some Juilliard students were sitting around the Lincoln Center fountain last summer, singing songs from Cabaret. When we got home, my then toddler asked to hear the music again. I put on the original cast recording for her. We danced the night away.
The next day she drew on the wall. “It’s okay to draw on the wall, Mama?” she asked, knowing full well it wasn’t okay. I gave her some wet paper towels and together we washed the crayon markings off the wall. As she scrubbed, my daughter sang the lyrics to her new favorite song.
“Hush up, don’t tell Mama. Don’t tell Mama, whatever you do…”
I guess we all enjoy rebellion, no matter how difficult our parents make it for us to find something to rebel against. Or perhaps toddlers have a keener sense of irony than we give them credit for.
Leslie Kendall Dye is an actress in NYC. She has written for Salon, Word Riot, The Mid, Off the Shelf, Tipsy Lit, Scary Mommy, The Toast and others. She and her husband and daughter are a family that rarely sleeps in the city that never sleeps. You can find her at twitter, @HlAnimal.
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