When I was 5, I twirled across the room of my suburban Chicago dance studio. It was our last class, and parents had been invited to view our progress. So my mother sat, with all the other mothers, on the side of the classroom and observed. She didn’t clap. She didn’t bring a bouquet of flowers. She took a picture or two.
Fast-forward 33 years, and I find myself not far from where I grew up, armed with a packet of information about my daughter’s three-minute ballet debut, which is part of a 45-minute show at a high school auditorium. The packet is so thick and the typeface is so small that I can barely find the basics, such as what time my daughter should arrive before her performance.
Apparently arriving on time is not the most important thing, though. In terms of importance, the packet wants me to know this: that I can buy a show T-shirt, that I can pay for an ad honoring my daughter in the show program, that I can order a $40 video of the show, that I can order a photo of my daughter for $18 or more, that photography and videography are not allowed during the show, and, oh, that I better not forget to order and print my online tickets, which cost $19 each for any audience member older than 2, because otherwise I will need to pay $25 at the door to see my daughter dance.
Maybe I should mention that my daughter is 5. And that some of the performers I was paying big bucks for the privilege to watch were 2 and 3.
Nine months into my daughter’s first ballet experience, I was relieved we had reached its final curtain call. It all began innocently, with me thinking my daughter’s natural grace should be augmented by lessons. So with 1983 visions of beginner lessons dancing in my head, I signed my daughter up for Sparkle Stars ballet.
The name should have been the first warning sign, but I ignored it, since nearly every class my daughter had taken up until then had included some version of the word “star” in its title. The ballet registration paperwork said my daughter would be required to buy the practice uniform and wear it to class every week. That sounded reasonable, but in reality, it was not. The pink tutu with silver sparkles came with a mandatory teddy bear in a matching pink tutu — which also sparkled. It also came with an equally impressive bill: $90.
I admit, though, that the first time my daughter wore this tutu and I took her to class, I was smitten at the sight of her, and all the ridiculous extravagance was forgiven. But as the door to the studio shut and I stood outside watching, the music began and so did the dancing — or what you could generously call dancing. That’s when my forgiveness ended and my questions began: What are we teaching our children by calling them stars and giving them outfits that are stage-worthy before they know first position?
When I took ballet, my classmates and I dressed in some variation of leotard, tights and ballet shoes, but if an outsider observed us, we resembled what we were: a group of beginning ballet students who weren’t coordinated in either style or movement. But standing there, watching my daughter learn to point her toes in an outfit that suggested she should be doing pointe, something was missing. Perhaps it was raw authenticity.
A few months later, when I was informed that my child would need to be measured for her performance attire for the spring recital, I was confused. Had they sent the email to the wrong set of parents? Wasn’t what she already wore to her class performance-quality?
No, I was told, it was necessary to purchase another outfit for my daughter’s performance so that she would feel special. I did want her to feel special, didn’t I?
I didn’t respond, because how do you answer that question in the negative anywhere in America other than in your mind? So, instead, I forked over another $90. And then another $95 for tickets. And then another $18 for the photo.
Finally, it was show time and I thought about flowers. Was it proper to bring my daughter a bouquet? It had to be — ridiculousness was center stage, and I was ready to acknowledge it properly. So I went into the backyard, picked a few wildflowers and wrapped them in a wet paper towel.
After my year of training in 21st-century American parenting extravagance, I should have known this homemade bouquet would be a small token in the face of the ridiculousness it was commemorating. The area outside the auditorium was filled with what must have been $100 bouquets bigger than some of the dancers themselves, making my home-picked bouquet of wildflowers seem paltry.
I wasn’t sure if this fact should make me feel guilty or proud. But when I handed the tiny token to my daughter, her eyes grew bigger than any $100 bouquet.
“Hey,” she said. “Those are the flowers I helped Daddy plant. And now they’re so big!”
“Just like you are,” I said.
She smiled at me, and I smiled back, and together we shared a moment of beautiful simplicity while the otherwise star-filled world orbited around us.