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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10 Comments

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

  1. heathermarsten04

    Wow, makes me mad to think that a teacher could be this mean. We had a similar experience with a nun who was my son’s kindergarten teacher. She picked on him, put him at a discipline table, and let other kids pick on him. His behavior was not the problem, it was hers. We moved from Catholic school to public school and the kid excelled – he has since graduated magma cum laude in college and has a job!!! I also apologized to him.

    It always hurts when we don’t notice the mean behavior of others to our teachers. You were right to have him finish what he started. Changing schools was brilliant. Also, your apologizing and hugging him and letting him know that you learned from this to listen more carefully to what he is really saying. Parenting is not easy. It is moving from one challenge to another. Our kids need to know that we aren’t perfect, but we do take steps to improve. You have fostered some important bonds with your little one.

    • Thanks for your comment, Heather. You’re so right on all counts. And it’s great to hear how well your son has done. I’m a big believer in making it clear to my sons that the important thing is NOT to be perfect (which I’m not), but to always, always, always try your best — and to take responsibility and apologise when you make a mistake.

  2. That teacher deserves a piece of your mind! Seriously, who does that to a little kid? Mean people suck.

  3. I’m really glad to hear this story has a happy ending.

    I have to say the whole thing really got me thinking about gendered expectations and how our culture (and I’m assuming the Aussie culture as well) really has some very strict codes that have a strong influence on what boys and girls do. Usually I’ll read a lot about how females are boxed in by these gendered expectations, but this presents a different view on how boys are boxed in – how boys are prevented from doing things that are considered “girly”, and how those expectations are reinforced by adults. I have to wonder if that teacher even knew how their actions were impacting your son.

    In the end, I suspect that when we say a boy can’t do something because it’s too “girly”, that comes from the same sexism source that says that girls can’t do something because it’s not girly.

    • Sexism certainly does work both ways. It’s funny, because as a Mum of boys, I’m having to deal with it in really different ways than I expected. I was all set for making sure to teach them to treat girls equally and so forth (which I do), but it’s quickly become apparent that boys who don’t fit into the “normal” mold are at just as much a disadvantage. It’s opened my eyes to a whole new world.

      There’s the things I expected, like family members telling BB not to be a girl when he cries — as though crying is girly and girly means weak. But then there’s the way he’s not-so-subtly encouraged to pursue “boy” hobbies, and stop telling people he likes pink, and stop being cuddly and affectionate. I spend more time encouraging him to be his own person no matter what, than I do talking about gender equality.

  4. First of all, I have the chills. Second of all HE LOOKS SO MUCH LIKE YOU IN THAT LAST PICTURE. Thirdly, I KNEW it. I knew something was going on in that class that was upsetting him. Bless his sweet little dancing heart. Squeeze him for me, wouldja?

  5. I think you handled this very well, Jo (we’ll discuss what you might do to that teacher some other time), and I’m so glad that BB found a class that really suits him. The new school sounds wonderful, and I hope BB is happy there for years to come.

    • So do I, Kay. They’re on summer break at the moment, but he’s looking forward to starting again in February. He actually started at the new school in October but I wanted to make sure he liked it before I posted about it. 🙂

      And yeah, that teacher is all kinds of wrong.

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