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A Year of Dance: A Story of Knowing When to Quit (And When to Change Course)

My Little Dancer - Feb 2012My eldest son, affectionately known as Big Brother, started learning dance at the beginning of this year. He’d wanted to learn ballet since he was about two years old, and quickly grew enamoured with jazz after watching a couple of episodes of So You Think You Can Dance?. So in early February, we signed him up to a dance school. I blogged about it, told everyone I knew about Big Brother’s dancing progress, and generally enjoyed seeing him happy.

The year has not been without its dramas. There have been times I’ve wondered if I’ve done the right thing; times Big Brother has wanted to stop dancing. In August I wrote about his struggles with a girl in his class who kept hitting him, and another girl telling him that boys aren’t allowed to do ballet. But we persevered and overcome those obstacles.

Things settled down. For a while.

In September, Big Brother started dragging his feet on Saturday mornings. He’d ask, “Can I skip dance class this week?” He’d say, “I’m very tired this week. Maybe we should stay home instead of going to dance class.”

Every week got to be more and more of a drama to get him to leave the house. I’d be just about carrying him to the car to get him there in time. We’d have showdown after showdown — he didn’t want to eat breakfast, get dressed, brush his teeth, etc etc. It was a struggle. And when I mentioned the end of year concert, he’d fight me all the harder.

The thing is, throughout all of the dramas during the year, he’d kept dancing at home. He’d randomly put on his ballet shoes and do little dances. He’d do leg stretching exercises and forward rolls and practice tapping. And even while he was fighting me over going to dance class, he still wanted to dance at home.

I persevered and forced him to go. It was a hard decision to make — this parenting gig doesn’t come with an instruction manual. But I thought it was better for him to learn to see things through, even when they’re hard, than it was to let him quit something halfway through. Besides, as much as he hated going to dance class, he was always in a good mood when I picked him up.

Until he wasn’t.

It was early October when it happened. I picked him up from dance class and asked him the same thing I did every week: “Did you have a good time?”

He started to say yes. He started to nod. And then he changed his mind. He shook his head and his little lip quivered and he said, “No. I didn’t.” And then he started to cry.

My heart broke. It’s one thing to teach your five-year-old to persevere with their commitments, it’s quite another to watch him break into tears after enduring an hour of that commitment.

Once he’d calmed down and we were in the car, I asked him what had happened. “I don’t want to go to dance class anymore,” he said.

I couldn’t find it in my heart to argue with him; to make him keep going. He was so upset, so fragile and vulnerable in that moment. But…

…but he loved to dance.

“Okay,” I said carefully. “I understand you don’t want to go back to that dance class. If you don’t want to go back, you don’t have to.”

“Really?” he asked.

“Really. But do you still like dancing?”

He gave me a suspicious look. “Ye-es…”

“Well, would you like to try a different dance class?”

He thought about that for a minute. “With a different teacher?”

“Yes.”

“And different dances?”

“Yes.”

“Because I can’t do the finale dance.” And then he started to cry again.

Over the next few days, the story came out. He told me the things that had been happening at dance class for months — things he’d never mentioned to me before because he didn’t want me to be upset, and because he didn’t want to get in trouble. He told me about how, when he cried because he couldn’t do something his teacher told him to go sit in a chair by himself. He told me about how his teacher didn’t talk to him directly, just talked to the girls. He told me that he didn’t know how to do the finale dance and when he made a mistake his teacher told him to “stop being a baby a just do it.”

I was mortified. Horrified. At myself, as much as anything, for forcing him to go through that experience week after week. So I apologised to him, and I sympathised with him, and I cuddled him and we made a deal. He promised that he wouldn’t keep things secret from me if someone did or said something that made him feel bad or sad, and I promised that I wouldn’t get angry at him if that happened. (Not that I would!)

And then we looked for a new dance school.

We found a great new school not far from the old one. Yes, it’s more expensive. But you know what? You can’t put a price on your child’s passion and enjoyment. This school has a 50 year history, classes for ages 3 all the way through to a full college-degree in dance. Big Brother gets individual half-hour lessons in ballet, tap & jazz, and song & dance (where he learns to sing into a microphone and do dance routines). Next year, his classes are 45 minutes each and he gets to learn acrobatics as well. There are lots of boys at the school (including a couple in his class), and the dance routines are set up with both boys and girls in mind. And do you know the best bit?

He’s happy.

My Happy Dancer

 

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Boys, Ballet and Becoming a Dancer

The dance studio had once been a warehouse, the mirrored walls and barre not enough to conceal its origins. There was no air-conditioning and the high roof was made of metal. The room was a sauna in the summer heat. None of the children noticed. While the mothers fanned themselves and drank bottle after bottle of water, preschool girls in leotards and flouncy pink skirts tied on their ballet slippers and giggled excitedly together. Another group of girls, these ones more experienced at six years of age, danced in a circle as they chatted about costumes and make-up and how much they’d practiced.

At the front of the room, abandoned by the excited girls, lay a veritable plethora of backpacks, drink bottles, shoes, tights, tap shoes, ribbons, skirts, and fairy-themed lunch boxes.

I’m the mother of two boys. I have never seen so much pink in all my life.

I hefted Little Brother a little higher on my hip, and looked down at Big Brother. He was holding my hand so tightly I thought my fingers would fall off. Was he worried? Intimidated by the glitter and sparkles and giggling girls?

He looked up at me, his eyes shining with the type of excitement only a four-year-old can muster. “Mummy! Look at all the dancers!” His words tumbled over each other, his lips barely able to move past the grin plastered across his face. His voice was strained, not with fear, but with a sheer exhilaration that brought tears to my eyes.

“I know,” I said, fighting back tears and trying unsuccessfully to match his enthusiasm.

“I’m going to go make some new friends,” he said, letting go of my hand.

I looked back over at the girls and their perfect pink ballet shoes and ruffled socks, their white tights and pale pink overskirts, pretty blue leotards and beautifully bound hair. Then I looked down at my little man with his tank top and shorts. “Hang on,” I said, fighting back the urge to flee from the spinning pink perfection. “Let’s just sign in first.”

What was I doing? What in the world would possess me to bring a four-year-old boy to a ballet class?

Big Brother has loved dancing since before he was born. In the last trimester of my pregnancy, he’d be still, unmoving, for hours at a time. But the moment I turned up some music, I’d feel him kicking me in time to the beat. As he grew, so did his love of music and dance. For the last year he’s been leaping and twirling and dancing around the house, desperate for a pair of ballet shoes and the chance to be a star. So when I came across a reasonably-priced dance school nearby I figured that, as a good parent, I should let him have a try; let him explore whether he really wanted to learn ballet, or whether he would be happier dancing around the house to the beat of his own drum.

It wasn’t long before the class started. Fifteen pretty little ballerinas sat down in two straight lines, their eyes fixed on Karen, the dance teacher. “Go on,” I said to Big Brother, trying to keep my voice light. That was all the encouragement he needed. Off he went at an excited skip, complete with pointed toes and a bright smile on his face.

He listened. He did as he was asked. He did some ballet running and some butterfly flying, he talked to the girls (who mostly ignored him), and he grinned excitedly through it all. Meanwhile, I sat on the sidelines watching him with a mix of pride and concern. Would he notice that he was the only boy in the class? Would he notice that he was one of only three boys in the entire building — him, Little Brother, and a slightly older boy playing with a football? And if he did notice, would he care?

Halfway through the lesson the children stopped to have a drink of water and change into their tap shoes. Big Brother hurriedly put on his shoes and then approached the bored-looking older boy who was there with his sister.

“Hello,” Big Brother said. “I’m a boy too. I really like your ball. How many years old are you?”

“Seven,” the boy said.

“I’m four years old. That means I’m a big boy.”

The other boy didn’t answer, just looked down at his ball.

“Alright girls,” Karen called. “Come and sit by the wall. Two straight lines.”

Without hesitation, Big Brother said goodbye and went to join the girls. He may have sought out the only other boy in the room, but did he care that he was in a class full of girls? Apparently not.

At the end of the class Karen said goodbye to us both and told Big Brother that he’d done well. Big Brother beamed like he’d just won a year’s supply of chocolate. “See you next time,” he said.

The he looked up at me with shining eyes. “Mummy! I’m a dancer!”

 

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