The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, May 5, 2006


The preschool dance recital and other hair-raising rites of passage

When my seven-year-old son was younger, I had hoped he would want to try dance classes. My motivation was not the wish for him to develop the grace or flexibility or finely tuned muscles of a dancer; it was that we knew so few boys taking dance classes — and by "so few," I mean "none" — that I figured he'd be assured of the lead role in every performance. He could probably make it as far as an audition for the New York City Ballet before I'd ever have to console him in the face of a rejection.

Even as a preschooler, though, he preferred baseball, and not until my daughter Holly turned three was there any actual discussion in our household about dance classes.

That was when I discovered that dance programs for young children essentially divide into two camps: With Recital and Without Recital. The former kind of program tends to be more traditional: children practice all year for one big performance, complete with frilly costume, hair wound into tight buns and a coating of lip gloss on tiny mouths. The latter emphasizes dancing for fun, for exercise, and as a general creative outlet, with no such artifice as an official performance date to end the year.

The latter certainly sounded to me like the way to go. Of course ballet for preschoolers should focus on gross motor skills and forget the lip gloss, shouldn't it?

So it's hard to explain how it was that two weeks ago I found myself watching from backstage as Holly balanced precariously in her pink ballet shoes and ran her hands curiously over her stiff yellow tutu. And yes, the stage lights glimmered off her shiny glossed lips.

As to what changed my mind from initially favoring the purity of an it's-just-for-fun, no-costume-expenditure-necessary creative movement program to a buy-the-performance-video-for-just-forty-dollars recital-oriented program, I can only say that I made the decision the same way I make most decisions involving my children. I read up on what several child development experts have to say on the subject; I researched the American Pediatric Association's official standpoint; I soul-searched long and hard as to my own deepest feelings about it, and then I followed along with whatever my playgroup friends were doing. I almost always go along with whatever the other playgroup moms decide to do, because then I figure no matter how bad a decision it is, Holly will have lots of familiar faces with her. Someday Holly will be giving me her own lecture on peer pressure, saying "If all the other moms decided we should jump off a cliff, would you tell me that at least there would be lots of familiar faces on the way down?"

Anyway, back to the recital — Holly's class did a three-minute interpretive dance based on the Winnie the Pooh song. Not that the teacher called it interpretive, of course. She had carefully choreographed the whole routine and had been teaching it to the girls since September. But believe me, it was interpretive. Some of them just stood there and smiled. Some of them looked at each other's feet as if for spontaneous inspiration. When the girls were supposed to hold hands and dance in a circle, it took them ten or fifteen seconds simply to agree on clockwise versus counterclockwise. The resulting tug-of-war looked like skaters doing a crack-the-whip. Unfortunately, Holly was the whip. As half the girls pulled the circle one way and half the other, Holly spun across the stage like a top, ending up in a tiny heap on the floor. She stayed there for a split second, then arose and pranced cheerfully back to the rest of the group.

Although I'd like to say that Holly's first stage performance was a wondrous moment that ended much too quickly, it was in fact among the longest three minutes of my life. It was a relief to see the girls finally retreat to the stage wings as the curtain came down: relief not because they had danced well but because they had survived.

Much as I might think the recital was a bit superfluous, in retrospect I realize how much Holly learned from it. She learned to wait patiently while about 80 other girls performed before it was her class's turn on stage. She learned that you can prepare for something for six months and then have three minutes to do it right. And she learned that when the group can't decide which way to revolve, sometimes you're the one who ends up spinning off into space — and then you just have to rise gracefully and try again.

All that, and the chance to wear lip gloss. Holly can't wait to do it again, and I'm beginning to appreciate the experience myself. At least that's how I feel right now, with 11 months to go until the next one. I'm just hoping next year's costume comes with a little more padding, in case Holly ends up face-planting the stage again.

2006 The Carlisle Mosquito