Episode 13 — For Elise (You’re My A-Team)
[February 15, 2019]
You did amazing tonight.
I know it was you because I felt tears flood my eyes during a Beyoncé song (and God knows it wasn’t the music that moved me). I can’t stand Beyoncé or any of her overplayed, twenty-year-old songs that all the girls dance to.
Nevertheless, you were terrific.
Tonight was the first time that I’ve ever watched you dance and been able to connect with you. To understand you. To be so excited for you and then to be so physically upset when your troop didn’t win.
If you want to know the truth, I stayed upset all the way back to my car and, well…I’m still kind of upset.
You know how competitive I can be. You’ve seen me coach enough soccer games to realize it doesn’t always bode well for the bystanders (or the kids in the league). Tonight, I wanted to be like Abby Lee and hunt down whoever made the wrong call to tell them the way it should’ve been.
Do you remember the referee calling foul on us during the Pink Jelly Beans soccer season? It was the wrong call, and I challenged it, and I was right. I know soccer, so I know a bad call when I see one.
But I don’t know dance.
I know how every sport scores everything.
But I don’t know dance.
It’s one-thirty in the morning, and I decided that right now is an excellent time to teach myself. That probably doesn’t surprise you. I want to figure out how scores work, and who decides what the scores are, and what makes a dance the winner.
More than that, I want you to know that I want to know not because your team lost.
I want to know because you care about dance, and I want to care about dance because I care about you.
Last year, your mom started watching football with me. It was weird, but it has made our relationship that much more fun. I don’t know that she made that decision for me but — if this makes sense — it did feel like one made toward me. She still likes the Rams over the Packers, but I can work on that.
She knows I care, and she has begun to care, too. The trip we took together for the Super Bowl this year was one of the best mini-vacations we’ve ever had together, and trust me — it had nothing to do with the game. People are actually saying it was the worst game ever as far as the Super Bowl is concerned.
It’s not about the game or the sport, it’s about the connection and it’s about the people you get to make those memories with. I was happy I got to experience that with your mom.
Do you remember when I took my dad to the Super Bowl? The next year, right after we took our trip to Sacramento together — right after that year’s Super Bowl — he died. When I think of football, I think of my dad. I know you think I just like sports, and while that’s true, my love for them — and football, especially — has a lot more to do with him.
I’m telling you that, I think, as a way of explaining why Nolan and I go to so many football games together. He loves them — which I’m happy about — but also: I want him to experience with me what I wasn’t able to with my dad until way later in life.
I didn’t really like my dad when I was your age. Sports were the only topic of conversation that I seemed to be able to tolerate having with him, so I learned all about them to build that connection.
Well…all of them except for golf. I’m not sure why I never tried to understand golf, but I do remember that — two months after my dad died — I turned on the T.V. in our old Pasadena house, found the biggest golf tournament in the world, and began to cry when some guy who I knew absolutely nothing about won his Master’s championship title. Maybe it’s too little too late, but I started to learn more about golf after that because it makes me feel connected to my dad. When I visited our friend Brannin last month, we went to one of the most famous golf courses in the world together, and I bought a sweater just because I know that my dad would’ve freaked out if he knew that I ever stepped foot on those greens.
All of that to say…
Tonight, I started researching dance.
I Googled, “What makes dancing great?” Some internet person’s answer responded with “connectivity to the music” and “technical work.”
You guys did better than anyone else at both of those things. Therefore, I can say with complete confidence — after one early morning spent doing some exemplary dance research — that you guys deserved to win tonight.
After I was convinced enough of that, I started watching dance videos. A couple of hours have gone by since I began my research, and the excitement of seeing you perform again tomorrow has left me sleepless. You dance in twelve hours, and I can’t wait to cheer you on again.
You are stunning on that stage, Elise.
I know I kept telling you how cute you were earlier this evening, but you’re growing into something more than cute, too — into beauty. Even Grandma sees it. I showed her the photo I took following your performance, and she said that it’s nerve-racking to see you all grown up beneath those lights.
If I’m honest, that scares me, too. I am getting used to it (at least, a little bit) with Nolan, but it feels way different with you as my daughter. It’s frightening. I can’t help but think of all the boys who will be in love with you one day. The boys who are staring at you while you dance. The boys who will be knocking on our door all too soon, asking to take you out.
I want to protect you. I want to keep you young. I know you’ve wanted that for so long, too, but as much as I wish that it were possible, we can’t stop time.
You wowed me on stage tonight. I keep thinking, If I got teary-eyed to Beyoncé, how in the world am I going to handle watching Elise dance solo — let alone to a song that I’m so deeply connected to? A song that has brought me through tremendous experiences — both high and low and deep and wide — during the past two years.
At first, I thought I dove into all of this late-night research because of how upset the loss made me, but then I realized that none of this is about winning or losing, or judging, or right calls, or bad calls.
This is about me loving you. This is about wanting to connect with you. With your heart. With my beautiful girl.
Shows us who we are and who we want to be,
helps us find our own truth,
allows us to invest in something new, and to explore something new,
and is an expression of our humanness.
Whereas artists want to make a better place for people to heal,
dancers are encouraged to just be themselves. When that “being” happens, the audience can — in turn — feel themselves.
I read that tonight, and it is precisely what you helped me — an audience member — experience.
I know I’ve shown you the videos of Bon Iver’s collaboration with T.U. Dance. It’s part of why I suggested his song, Creeks, for your solo dance tomorrow. Justin Vernon, the vocalist, described why he wanted to team up with a troop for a project like that in the first place:
“I have never been moved by dance before. After seeing this dance troop, I saw real pain and real struggle and real redemption, and I didn’t know bodies moving around to simple music could do that much to me.”
He said that he loves and is comfortable playing music and guitar, but that he wanted to make something with this dance troop because watching the movement of their bodies makes him uncomfortable. It felt like he had to fight for it, and he did. He gave it everything he had, and it became something marvelous.
Justin believes that art connects people physically and emotionally and that whatever that way may be, it means something. Before that collaboration, he had only experienced that type of art through music — never through dance — and wondered what might happen if he stepped out of the way and gave the stage to the dancers. What would the audience be able to see inside of themselves? What would he?
I just watched all of his videos again — everything he and the troop made available online.
I tried to watch it with new eyes. I tried to understand the story the dancers were telling.
If I’m honest, I struggled a bit with that part. I kept getting confused and had to look up their explanations, detailing what it all meant.
In one interview, the troop’s choreographer said that there is a sense of community — a beautiful and hopeful message. A journey that inspires. One that is supposed to make you “feel” in a time where “feeling” is desperately needed.
From my limited perspective, I can’t say that I see all of that yet, but I am still moved by watching it happen. Over time, I hope I get better at understanding. Watching dance right now feels — to me — sort of how I imagine learning math might feel to you.
Maybe you can teach me.
You told me that tomorrow will be the first time you perform Creeks in front of an audience outside of your own mirrored reflection.
You told me that the other girls’ choreography is better than yours.
You told me that you are nervous.
You told me girls are supposed to dance to songs sung by female vocalists.
You worried that you might forget something.
I have something to say, too, and I want you to hear it:
The connection that your dance holds with the music you’ve chosen is special. It sets you apart. It’s why I sat you down and showed you the videos I showed you. It’s why I asked you to choose from the sixteen songs I gave you because those songs tell such in-depth stories.
I’ve enjoyed music as much or more than sports (if you can believe it) ever since I was your age. Most of the connections that I hold to the songs that I love are birthed out of personal experiences that they have played the soundtrack to.
Often, I’ve put the music I enjoy into separate boxes. Work music. Workout music. Driving music. Praying music. Singing music. Creating music.
Bon Iver’s music, however, seems to transcend them all. Justin’s creativity stirs up so much emotion in me. It helps me feel. It even helped me realize that I have something inside to feel in the first place. He is my all-time favorite musician, ever. I’ve never listened, seen or felt more connected to an artist in my life.
You are deeply connected to your mother, and it is something special to see. To be honest, I am jealous of it. But not in a bad way. More of an inspiring way.
I do think that different types of bonds exist between fathers and sons and mothers and daughters, but different doesn’t mean lesser. Mom and Nolan — and you and me — can have just as strong of a connection and relationship, no matter how different it looks.
Mom and I talk about these things a lot. We know that, as we all get older, it will become harder and harder to have time with you. We’ve tried extremely hard to build a solid foundation with you both — as a family and individually — so that we aren’t sitting here alone one day, when you’re our age, wishing you wanted to visit us. Neither of us has ever had the kind of connection with our parents that we believe we have with you, and we wouldn’t trade it for the world.
I want us to keep building these connections. It’s easier to do when you’re young. I know you’re looking older and more beautiful every day, but you’re still thirteen…my dad waited until I was thirty-three.
I refuse to wait that long.
So here I am. Let’s dance together. Maybe our dance isn’t literal — I think I might step all over your toes, and God knows I can’t bend in half like you can — but our connection can be.
Tomorrow, don’t be nervous. Don’t look for a mirror. Don’t worry about your friends. Don’t worry about their dances. Don’t worry about how yours will compare. I’m as competitive as anyone, but in the end, it doesn’t really matter.
Tomorrow, look for me. That’s all. That’s the connection that I want you to have with this dance tomorrow.
I know it’s not the song your teacher gave you. I know she might not understand it. I don’t expect her to. She did the best that she could do, but in the end, I asked you to dance out of the longing of my heart’s desire to connect with you, and wondered what it might be like if we were both to combine something that we love, together.
You fulfilled my wish.
That’s what this dance is about: one step each of us is making toward the other.
I know you’re going to be amazing. I have never been so excited to see you dance, and I am so proud of you.
I asked Dave Tosti to come and watch with me. He’s one of my best friends, and he was the first person I showed that Bon Iver /T.U. Dance video too, and he was so excited when I told him about your solo. His daughter dances, as well, and he knows how special this moment is. If I’m honest, Dave does a better job of connecting the dots I can’t connect — of feeling the feelings I’m learning exist inside of me — and I wanted to invite him to see you perform because joy demands to be shared with other people, and I am overflowing with it toward you.
I might cry. It will be hard for me to hold it in, but even that is something new, and I’m glad that I’m finally learning how to let go. So, maybe this time, if I do start to cry, I won’t hold back. We’ll see what happens.
I can’t wait to see it.
I can’t wait to see you continue to grow. Continue to dream. Continue to tell us all the things that you are going to go. The places you want to live in. I can’t wait until you finally get to visit Australia. I can’t wait to see all of the dances that you will create and perform.
Elise, you are a gift to our family, and your friends, and this world.
You are a gift to me.
Tonight, before you fell asleep, you told me, “Thank you for letting me dance at The Rage.”
It’s exactly where you should be. Seeing you grow and progress the way you have is worth every cent. Plus, you love it, and it’s fun — and I love seeing that lived out in you.
It’s three o’clock in the morning now, and before I stop writing, I need to tell you something: I don’t know if I can go to the awards for Creeks.
I keep going back and forth in my mind, and I haven’t made a decision yet, but I need to say I’m not sure.
I didn’t ask you to do this dance to win a trophy.
You are the trophy, Elise.
I don’t need you to bring one home, but I do know that both of us want it. I know you deserve it, too. I also know the judges don’t understand our story.
This story…the one I wanted to write out for you here, tonight.
I thought, perhaps, spending the time to explain in more detail might help you understand my heart in it, too.
My heart is for you.
If the dots connect, and the lines between them add even more to your dance tomorrow, good. But beyond anything that has to do with winning or losing, I want us to be connected, and this dance has — for me, in some way — deepened our relationship more than I ever realized it could.
I hope that you will agree.
I love you, Queeny!
Have fun up there. Be yourself.
P.S. This letter was written to — and only ever for — Elise. Sometimes, I worry that my family or friends will think these kinds of letters, once shared, were only ever those “for you (but really for me)” gifts. That’s never been the case. Not for a single one of them. That said, though…
One of the coolest opportunities I’ve ever had was to be able to hand this letter to Justin Vernon, himself. He was getting into his vehicle one night following an intimate show that I attended. I gave him the letter and said, “Thank you for helping me connect with my daughter through your music and her dance.” His face turned into one big-ass smile as he shook my hand and thanked me for flying all the way to his hometown to thank him.
I met Michael Jordan (my childhood hero) when I was fifteen years old. My kids have already met their favorite people in the world. Now that I’m forty-three years old, much of that childhood excitement escapes me… but I don’t want it to. It was fun to shake the hand of a guy whose music has had a significant influence in my life. (I felt like a child, too. I literally hid in the ice-machine room of this hotel, waiting for Justin to get to his car, while my friend Matt kept a lookout to make sure I didn’t get caught. We laughed like teenage boys who had just met the lead singer of their favorite band. Minus the “teenage” part, I guess that’s true.) It was a night I’ll never forget, and Justin’s kindness, care and excitement about my story made a significant impact in my life.
P.S.S. My friend Matt (the one I mentioned above) loves celebrities. His camera roll is full of a folder that TMZ would love. (That’s an exaggeration, but I give him a hard time because he runs into more celebrities than anyone I know and seems to spot them everywhere.
After I handed the note to Justin, he left — we thought — for good. As it turned out, the night wasn’t over, and he came back to the hotel later that night. He walked right into the restroom where, of course, Matt happened to be using the urinal. Matt didn’t take a photo (thank God), but he did strike up a conversation, and — despite breaking all men’s restroom rules — it ended with a midstream fist bump over the dividing wall.
Though Matt didn’t have a letter for Justin, he always swore that, one day, he’d ask the man where all of his creativity comes from. I laughed as I saw them talking outside the bathroom following their “bonding experience,” and Matt finally had his opportunity.
Justin answered, “I don’t know, just trust,” which has since spawned countless conversations between Matt and me (and others) in the weeks that have followed.
That said, in an upcoming Craig Brain chapter / episode, I am going to take what that answer — and those conversations — have taught me, and talk about the topic of trust.