It’s been three years in the waiting. Three long years of dance practice, ballet shoes, various pairs of tights, and teachers. Finally, our daughter of almost six years had her first dance recital.
And it was miserable.
It all started a few weeks back. “You know, mom,” she said. I was squatting down on the floor trying to get tights around her thighs and making a mental run around the house with my mind wondering where her tap shoes were. “Dance just isn’t one of my talents.” She said it so earnestly, like she put a great deal of forethought into it. I chuckled a little, because what does a kindergartener know of such things? She said she was a bit behind the step. It was hard to keep up. I lifted up her chin until her eyes were level with mine. I told her she never had to do dance again in her whole life. But the recital was in two weeks, so Lord-willing she’d finish what she started. We Hills always finish what we start.
The first year she took dance she was only three. She was so excited and bubbly, her little pink tutu hanging below her chunky little tummy. She smiled at me and waved as she threw scarves in the air. The next year I was working and had a baby and it was all too overwhelming to keep track of. She had pre-school, which kept her consumed with art projects and new friends. Dance was always an afterthought.
But this year she’s almost six, and I was determined to not miss the much-touted recital. I watched her practice from outside the window at the studio, her body standing in first position, her arms at a graceful arch down at her sides. She dipped into a plie and swept her arms up in a semicircle above her head. I caught her watching herself at the barre to make sure her shoulders were back. Her neck tall. Her toes pointed. She looked just like a bird, slender and curious, standing on the edge of the water. Just like that, she was learning how to be a dancer. And yet her thoughts were elsewhere. Her steps delayed. It’s hard for a girl to dwell in the present when there are four more beats to attend to. There’s no room for reflection. The music keeps on plodding forward like a military march, relentless in its precision.
The day of the recital, I tried to make it exciting. I curled her hair and let her wear pink lipstick. I pressed blush into young cheeks that were too pretty to decorate and told her how special it would be that I would see her on stage. The curtain. The dancing. The thrill!
I waited with what seemed like thousands of other parents in the auditorium to see my little girl prance around in the lights. It was inordinately hot and I ended up on the third row behind a woman who was breastfeeding and next to a lady with a child in her lap. They couldn’t start the show until every last person was seated due to some fire safety issue, so we all sat glaring at the late-comers, our heads sinking in our hands, while people bumped and squeezed their way into random empty seats in the crowd.
Finally, the show started. I had no idea there were so many numbers. Little girls tapped and turned in glitter and sequins with big, beaming smiles. Like freshly-picked apples they bobbed around, red and sweet and buoyant.
Finally, it was time. The curtain opened and I saw my daughter – the tallest one in the class, stand there in a flowing ballet outfit covered in pink flowers. But unlike most of the dancers, who were smiling and waving and acting like they had a slight interest in being there, mine looked as if she was auditioning for the Olympics. As if each step held great importance. She was a bit behind the beat, but in one pivotal moment all the other girls hugged the person next to them and my daughter got to stand in the middle and bring her arms up in a sweeping circle above her head. I cheered out loud and my heart welled up with pride. That’s my girl! That one right there in the middle who is perfect and wonderful in every way!
After her number, I ran backstage to greet her. I wanted to hug her neck and tell her I was so proud of her excellent arm-sweeping and toe-pointing. She didn’t look excited to see me. She begrudgingly took my hand until we left the dressing room, and then shook me loose. She moved her shoulders when I tried to put my arm on her back to guide her forward. “What in the world’s wrong?” I asked. “We were supposed to do a group bow,” she said, like I should have known. But I was already there, and waiting another hour for a bow on stage amongst seventy other girls was downright silly. Right then, my daughter caught the loving eye of her grandmother, who said she was the best dancer in the world and told her she’d have driven a thousand miles to see the show. My daughter smiled feebly as we walked over to the trophy table, and as we picked it up and left she tugged at my hand. “It isn’t even real gold,” she said as she looked down at her prize. “No,” I said. “They never are.”
On the way home, my father stopped and got my daughter a lemon slush. Her face lit up and she smiled the first true, authentic one I’d seen all day. “Can I get a large one?” she asked. She clapped her hands together and began to hum in the backseat of the car. Funny what makes a little girl happy. Not the lights or the stage. Not the makeup or the attention. Just a slush, on the way home, with cool air blowing in her face. She wiped at her lipstick and gave me another sweet smile. As if to say it’s over. Finally.
Our daughter likes to live within her own space. Where you can move as slow as you feel. I’ll miss seeing her arms above her head and the look of her little body in a leotard standing at the barre. But I cannot force her to be someone she is not. For she is growing into her own kind of swan, gliding along the top of the water, learning to dwell within the swollen drops of her own rain.
That’s a kind of dance, I suppose. But it is set to her own music, where there is real gold at the end of the rainbow.