“You’re doing this.”
The email was a plea from Westport’s Academy of Dance, my daughter’s ballet school. Their upcoming performance of “The Nutcracker”, the annual holiday blockbuster that had entertained and tortured parents for the last century or so, had had an unfortunate setback: the gentleman who had volunteered for years to play the role of Clara’s father had a conflict and would be unable to perform. Would anyone be willing to take his place?
I stared at the email for a few minutes, thinking about the implications, and a classic quandary emerged: does the chance to engage with my daughter’s passion outweigh the outright possibility (or probability) of making a fool of myself?
On the one hand, I am not shy about public performance. The stage doesn’t bother me, and I have absolutely no pride once the lights are shining down on me. Anyone who’s been unlucky enough to have seen me scream David Lee Roth songs on karaoke night can attest to this unfortunate side of my personality. I have a philosophy about performing, most likely born of necessity: enthusiasm helps cover for an utter lack of measurable talent. Scream into the microphone and act like you’re a rock star, and you are one (provided said rock star is surrounded only by inebriated friends as witnesses before the alcohol-fueled memory loss sets in).
But this was something altogether different. I’d seen the Nutcracker dozens of times since my daughter’s first appearance 8 years before. And I’d seen what the part of the father entails. He’s only on-stage for a short time, and the demands are mostly cosmetic, but about halfway through his scene, as the music shifts to a slow waltz, it happens: the dad dances.
Let me be clear: I am not a graceful human being. I am lucky that I stay upright for long periods of time, considering that my lanky limbs often flail about in random directions. I bump my knees into walls, chairs and various kitchen appliances at least three times a day. I have perma-bruises over half of my body from smashing into our open dishwasher. Our dog knows to clear a path for me when entering a room. In general, things are better for everyone when I’m not moving.
But what could I do? My daughter’s entire non-school life is centered around ballet. She dances 6 or 7 days a week, allowing herself time off only to eat, study, and threaten to kill her brother while he’s sleeping. And it’s not an activity like a team sport that allows a ton of parental participation. In team sports, parents can coach. They can cheer their kids on from the sidelines. They can spend quality time driving up and down the eastern seaboard on their way to a never-ending series of travel soccer games (…on second thought, forget team sports, that sounds awful). With ballet, a dad tends to have two opportunities for involvement: he can drop his daughter off at rehearsals, and he can come to her actual performance, which takes place in the dark and practically demands a good nap. That’s pretty much it. I can’t teach my daughter how to plie (I can barely spell it).
So this was a golden opportunity of sorts. I could intimately involve myself in my daughter’s primary activity. And I could do it before the inevitable teen-angst years to come, when her willingness to tolerate her dad’s presence is likely to drop by at least 50%.
And, in a way, it wouldn’t be my first exposure to the inner workings of a dance performance. My mother actually ran a modern dance school (and later the foundation that supported it) for decades. She was not an instructor, but as a child was such an eager and entranced student that she began working there as a young adult, eventually rising to became the studio’s Director. You can imagine the boyhood joy I felt in being dragged to hundreds of dance performances on glorious weekends when my friends were playing baseball. I always assumed it one of my mother’s great disappointments when I failed to show any interest in breaking the gender barrier at her school, so perhaps this was a chance to make amends.
So I sent an email to the ballet school director, and I was in. I managed to pass some kind of audition without tripping over the instructor’s torso, and was awarded the role of Clara’s father, party host and elegant man of the hour. Even better, my daughter seemed excited about my involvement, and looked forward to my chance to peek behind the curtain of her favorite activity.
And I shared her enthusiasm…until my first rehearsal.
I was, to put it mildly, a prancing wreck.
To be fair, my predecessor had been occupying the role for nearly a decade. He had been drafted while his daughter was a ballet student, likely with similar motivations to share a meaningful experience with his young girl. But as I fumbled through the rehearsals, it was clear that I was in a different league. He was tall, elegant and coordinated, and understood all of his marks and moves. I looked like a drunk muppet in the midst of a seizure.
And to make matters worse, no one seemed to care. The teachers were rightly focused on the girls and their performances, and had clearly grown accustomed to not worrying about what the hapless and possibly spastic adult in the scene needed to do. But I was lost, an old guy in sweatpants trying to remember whether to turn right or left, bend down or arch up, or hold hands with the tall girl in heels or the short girl with the hair braids. Actually, no one wanted to hold my hand. I was sweating like a marathon runner in August, and my hands were dripping buckets. Most everyone kept their distance, a smart play for sanitary reasons.
The weekend of the performance fast approached, and all of a sudden it was the Friday night dress rehearsal before the series of official shows, three in all over the two-day weekend. I arrived at the theater nervous, and immediately made two discoveries that only served to boost my confidence further: one, the video I had been studying for direction and pointers was from the wrong year and of absolutely no benefit, and two, my costume was at least one size too big and could not be properly altered in time for curtain call. So I had the dual pleasure of not only failing to know my part but also of having a strong likelihood of a Janet Jackson-style wardrobe malfunction that would expose my private parts to a large group of parents and children.
I stumbled through the dress rehearsal, vaguely aware of where I was supposed to be at any given time and managing to find that perfect midpoint point between being an actual asset and screwing up the entire production. Keep in mind that the part of the father is hardly a main role. Stand here at this point, open this box at that point, fake some dialogue at this moment, etc. I’m basically being asked to play a glorified extra, not reenact Baryshnikov’s Greatest Hits. But there was that one dance scene, where I was required to perform specific body movements to keep in time with the other dancers. And let’s just say that I wasn’t quite in sync with the ensemble yet. I looked like Joe Cocker dancing with a team of Beyonces. Thank god for the patience and attention of the young woman playing my wife in the scene. She noticed the terror in my eyes, pulled me aside for extra help (like a math teacher in high school, only our ages reversed), and practiced our moves until I had a reasonable amount of confidence that I wouldn’t throw up. But was I properly prepared? Absolutely not.
The next day came, and I arrived early to the theater to get my head together. I was immediately escorted to the men’s dressing room, where I met an assortment of professional ballet dancers who were playing the larger male roles to accompany the serious student dancers. Changing into my oversized costume in front of these impossibly muscular physical specimens of human perfection did absolutely nothing to improve my confidence. These guys looked like they lived at an Equinox, and hadn’t consumed a trans fat in years. I looked like I lived at Wendy’s. This boost was furthered by their choice of legwear. Professional male dancers wear male leotards, which serve no actual purpose other than making one’s genitals appear to be the size of basketballs, and on the verge of bursting through their thin fabric at any minute. Having reduced my masculine self-esteem by at least half, I quickly escaped the dressing room and sat down backstage to await further instructions while wondering how I found myself in this mess. I sulked a bit more when the mother in charge of cast makeup turned to me and exclaimed “can I do something about that forehead?” and started pounding makeup on my face like she was beating a dusty pillow.
And then, salvation arrived.
My daughter emerged from the kid’s dressing area, she and her fellow cast mates moving somewhere backstage to continue their preparations. I had never seen her before a performance, and she looked ethereal in her wispy snowflake dress, her face in angelic makeup and hair tied tightly in an elegant bun. She saw me dressed in my overflowing costume, and beamed a smile as wide as I’ve ever seen from her. “Daddy, you look awesome!” she said, her friends giggling at the site of me transformed into a 19th century aristocrat. “Let me help!” She quickly sat down next to me, grabbed the box of makeup that had been cast aside and started dabbing bits of blush and who knows what else on my face. I smiled and let her have her way, her compliant subject in this backstage rite-of-passage (again, our roles completely reversed and yet utterly satisfying). As she laughed and performed her makeup magic, my nerves subsided. “Are you ready?” she asked me, an exaggerated look of worry on her face that couldn’t mask her excitement at having me here with her. “All set”, I replied, with a wink. She laughed, and as she walked away to join her castmates, she turned back towards me and shouted “Good luck!”. I just about melted, and realized how lucky I was to be present in this perfect moment (albeit in a puffy shirt and ballet shoes).
And, as fate would have it, the shows went off without a hitch. My mind rebooted to its proper settings, I clicked into gear and somehow retained the directions I was given. I hit my marks. I bowed at the right times. And, come the moment of truth, I danced as properly as could be expected from a man of my age and suspect abilities. I even heard cheers from the crowd during our curtain calls. These may have been leftovers meant for the line of dancers before me, but I took them for my own and am not giving them back. Thinking back to the decades of dance performances I had sat through as a boy, I remembered the beaming smiles of the girls onstage, knowing that their loved ones were watching and feeling proud of what they had accomplished. I couldn’t help but smile myself. Mom may have known what she was doing after all.
Alas, my mother was not there to see the moment. 10 months earlier, she had been diagnosed with late-stage lung cancer. Six difficult and trying months after that, she was gone. She died far, far too young, robbed of the chance of seeing her grandchildren grow and see herself reflected in their bodies and faces (or, in the case of my daughter, her jetes and arabesques). I’m not a believer in afterlives and spirits, but for a brief moment I imagined my mother’s satisfaction, looking down at the sight of her son and granddaughter on stage together, knowing that her life’s passion was being passed on. My smile widened a bit more at the thought of it.
The next year, and in the three years that followed, additional emails arrived from the school, only these times directed solely to me with the subject line: “Reprising Your Role”. Needless to say, I’ll be appearing again in this year’s performance, my fourth in a row. No rush to come see me this December, as I expect I’ll be playing this part for a few more years until my daughter graduates. The school tends to lean towards the comfort of the known entity in their volunteers, however hapless they may be. I’m already stumbling through rehearsals and fearing for the maintenance of my public dignity. But I can hack it, for my daughter, my mom, and truthfully, maybe a little for me too. And my daughter’s got this amazing new blush she can’t wait to try out on me. Who am I to say no?