Beach ball arms and baby steps
We began to wonder about halfway through the class if perhaps the two sisters had arrived at the class with no parents at all. They were not twins, but they were wearing matching dresses and polka dot tights, and each had a thin braided nylon eyeglass cord strapped to her thick glasses, which made their already large eyes look as if they were drawn by Disney animators. We wondered about their parents because of the number of times the older sister, trailed directly on her heels by the younger one, came over to ask us to tie the superfluous laces on her ballet slippers.
I offered to help after watching them spend a considerable amount of time fiddling with their laces while sitting on the floor near where we were sitting. I fell in love with these two imps, each with nap-matted pigtails, looking up at my husband and me through their askew glasses. I was ready to hand over my wallet and keys, so shoe tying seemed within the practical realm of assistance.
But they had us after that, no going back, tagged like the kind lady who feeds pigeons in the park. We tied laces three or four times, then spent additional time reasoning with them that the laces looked great and there was no need to untie them again only for us to retie them. Michael wondered aloud when making dinner later that evening if perhaps — referencing their prescription frames — they might have mistaken us for their actual parents.
These two were part of the tidal wave of effervescence that crashed around the room, back and forth, and between the circle with Ms. Lemon the teacher and the outer rim of parents. We saw the non-twins father after class, out of sight of the picture window that looked into the studio from the hall. I am taking a mental note to send mine his way next time with her adorable messy top bun and slippery, truly useless, ballet slipper laces, just to see if he can resist returning the favor.
This was the first dance class for Ruth after signing her up a couple days earlier at the local YMCA, so I had thrown together a pink velvet leotard, a pair of blue sweatpants and a pair of hot pink New Balance velcro sneakers. I tried to convince her there was an athletic, Misty Copeland kind of vibe to the ensemble, but she was on to me when every other girl cavorted into the studio dressed in her favorite dance skirt over a leotard or princess gown, with tap and ballet shoes at the ready. Ruth’s fuss with us, however, didn’t last long because there were mirrors. The one length of studio wall was her biggest fan, throwing back as many smiles and nose wrinkles as she could give when peering over her shoulder during toe and heel tap exercises to make sure her audience was still delivering her its undivided attention.
I was kicked out of ballet class at age five, just as we were honing the position of holding an invisible beach ball between our arms. My introduction to the classical craft lasted for a handful of classes in the basement of the local community center, taught by a chain-smoking autocrat who didn’t think I had enough focus to stick with it. Now I sat and watched Ruth, who grew more confident with each exercise, as she carried a little deflated beach ball by hugging her arms to her tummy and bent her knees into a deep plié.
I don’t feel bad about my failure, I can’t remember being particularly heartbroken at the time either. My athletic pursuits later in elementary school and beyond would support that I was built with neither the patience nor the limbs to be a ballerina. I don’t know how long Ru will hang in there. She loves the idea of ballerinas, she adores the activity of dressing up like one and flinging herself across the floors of our house. I feel it’s as close as she can get to being realized as a princess, which is perhaps why I threw sweatpants on her before I had to dig a crown out of the dress up box. Now she and I have each had our introduction to ballet, a few decades apart, and we will share that experience forever, no matter how far she goes past carrying the beach ball. She might not remember her first class, just as my mom had to remind me of the details around my early, and short, career in ballet. Recently my mom handed me a Ziploc baggie of ballet slippers that I wore as a kid, which was a sweet, tender passing of the torch that I seem to have forgotten all too soon, considering Ruth was wearing sneakers to class. But now her nostalgia makes more sense, now that we have shared the experience of being within the blast zone of an overwhelming charge of exuberance produced when a handful of toddlers explodes into a space to learn something new. The resulting cloud of frenetic energy actually shook a series of giggles out of me.
I sat on a folded workout mat at the side of the studio to watch the class. I reveled in the childlike eagerness and trust to try something entirely new, especially when there is someone behind us (our parents, somebody else’s parents, doesn’t matter it seems) to give us a thumbs up when we turn around and look for encouragement. One feeds the other— one step, one wave, another step, a quick thumbs up, a third step, a glance in the mirror only to find the best audience ever.
On the teacher’s music playlist, as the girls were learning foot positions, there was a George Winston piano solo that began. It’s a particularly sad tune to me, one that makes me think of what might be playing in a movie when a parent looks back at milestones in their grown children’s lives, through a single montage of bright moments and personal losses, stitched together seamlessly.
This song triggered some introspective leaning in me that almost stole me away from the moment. Most of his songs do that to me. I tried to find the specific title afterward to reference it here, however I couldn’t find it easily, and furthermore I would not recommend an in-depth search through the catalogue of George Winston if you have plans for your day that don’t include sitting around with a box of tissues looking at old photos.
As the beginning chords played, I reminded myself to stay present in the room with the exhibit of boundless joy in front of me, and not to get wistful or make a detailed list of all the things I’d have to remember when I’d recall this moment in the future, or to fast forward through all the potential little dramas that might try to push themselves into Ruth’s life in the year’s ahead. Her only drama at the moment was not wearing a tutu and occasionally forgetting there was a wall-length mirror in the room. As the sentimental debate happened within me, the teacher pulled away from the gaggle of students and stepped toward the stereo, then shuffled the music to something completely different, a happier, bouncier tune to match their energy more than mine. Once again I was as free as my own little girl in the dance space, ready to hold my arms in a broad beach ball to show her she was doing the right thing.
Author’s note: This post is the first in the written collection for “How Do You Do” which also has a podcast of the same title. The premise of the podcast and the posts are to talk about introductions to ideas, people, and experiences. You can listen to the first episode here.