In 1977 I, along with my pre-school peers, danced on stage during our first ballet recital. The routine was supposed to end with us turning to our partner and giving her a hug. I pivoted to my left, then to my right, but every dancer was already hugging someone else. All alone in my pink satin tutu, I took center stage and began to cry. I was the humiliated dancer without a buddy, the one who didn’t follow directions. Freud would say that experience lay dormant in the caverns of my consciousness until it resurfaced forty years later.
Rocky entry aside, I loved ballet as a kid. My teacher, Ms. Koche (pronounced Co-shay), ran a tiny dance studio in the basement of her bungalow. She charged a whopping dollar per lesson. To this day, musty odors and tattered hardwood floors make me want to put on a scratchy record and dance. I still remember the thrill before our annual recitals. My mom’s makeup brush tickled my cheeks, and pink ribbons were wrapped around my pigtails moments before we took our places backstage.
Decades after the Great Dance Debacle of ’77, I enrolled my own young daughter in our park district’s ballet class. For five years, Emi learned from her nurturing dance teacher, Ms. Kim. More than once, we forgot Emi’s ballet shoes, tights, or leotard. Ms. Kim would still allow Emi to participate and say with a smile, “Next week, let’s remember to bring your ballet bag, NOT your soccer bag!” Emi’s dance instruction mirrored my own childhood memories of Ms. Koche’s treasured studio. Dancing was simply fun and free of regulations.
By age eight, Emi had outgrown our park district program. We reluctantly transferred to a dance studio where two of Emi’s friends attended. From the moment I entered through the swanky glass doors, I knew Dorothy wasn’t in Kansas anymore. Sleek leather sofas faced four mounted flat screens that displayed live feeds from each dance class. On a Saturday morning, amid a crowd of sophisticated moms clad in tan pants and Polo sweaters, I foolishly wore yoga pants.
Although I was an instant outcast in my new posh surroundings, I hoped Emi would have fun with her friends and continue to love dance. Two years later, Emi is in the company ballet program, takes four classes a week, and participates in company dance benefits and productions. The friends who started with her are much less involved.
Emi has thrived, but I can’t say the same for myself. Although we’re just a 10 minute drive, Emi is one of the only dancers not residing in the studio’s indigenous suburb. Most of the kids go to school, camp, and church together. Their parents know one another and often discuss community events that I know nothing about. The other dance moms have never been rude, but I’m missing a mama tribe. I don’t have anyone with whom to carpool or chat effortlessly with during classes.
Despite my insecurities, I reconciled long ago that this isn’t about me. I’m the adult and my desire to have a friend sit with me on that swanky leather sofa doesn’t trump Emi’s love for dancing at this particular dance school.
My thinking shifted one Saturday when I got a call from the studio’s owner. Her voice was saturated in disdain.
“What do you mean?”
“We have a dress rehearsal going on right now for tomorrow’s benefit performance.”
“I’m so sorry! I don’t know how I missed this information. I can bring her right over.”
“All the other girls are already here in full costume, hair, and makeup. We’ve finished rehearsing her routine. We may do one more run through, so get her here for that or she can’t dance in the show tomorrow.”
Based on her tone, you would have thought I had strangled a puppy with my bare hands. I hollered to Emi, “Get in the car NOW!”
My befuddled husband witnessed the hurricane of commotion that ensued, “What’s wrong?” he asked.
“I screwed up,” was all I could manage as I slammed the door.
Emi was fighting off tears, worrying she wouldn’t be allowed to dance in the show the next day. While driving, I asked her to search the emails on my phone and find the one(s?) I had missed regarding the dress rehearsal. She searched by the dance studio’s name and up popped dozens of emails. There, buried in the avalanche of notifications about summer classes, costume fees, t-shirts, and ticket orders was one lonely email informing me about the day’s dress rehearsal.
I screeched into the parking lot and raced Emi into the building. We were greeted by the studio manager, Ms. Y. “Hi Emily, go in and sit with the other girls in your group,” she grumbled through clenched teeth.
With Emi out of earshot, but in full view of the perfectly dressed mommy onlookers, I apologized profusely to Ms. Y. I explained that I’m bombarded with emails from two PTA’s, my son’s basketball team, chess tournaments, teacher newsletters, and volunteer commitments. I threw in the fact that I’m a working mom who is drowning in additional work messages and I simply missed the email.
Ms. Y shrugged and said, “This happens to someone every year. I’ll go speak to the owner and plead your case. Hopefully, she’ll let Emily dance in the show tomorrow.”
Plead my case? I hadn’t realized I was on trial. I wasn’t a negligent mother, or a heroin addict. I was a busy mom who hadn’t read an email!
Though I knew it was ridiculous, tears brimmed in my eyes. Part of me was grateful to Ms. Y for going to bat for us, but the other part of me was furious. Furious that my mistake would be taken out on my daughter. Furious that I was likely being judged by the other moms who had gotten their daughters there on time, in costume, makeup, and perfect hair, while my kid sat among them feeling ostracized. Furious that I had no dance mom friends to console me or to text me a reminder in the first place. Furious that I was so furious. I knew the fate of the free world did not hinge on if they allowed my daughter to perform in a 120 second dance routine. Gun violence, poverty, human rights…these are issues to cry over.
Ultimately, Emi was permitted on stage the next day. Unlike her mother, she rebounded quickly and was excited to get ready for the show. Determined not to mess up again, I struggled to do her makeup precisely according to the video instructions. I’m not joking. There’s a video providing specific colors and mandatory application techniques. I nervously checked that Emi’s bun was perfectly level with the bottom of her ear lobes, per the studio’s regulations. I triple confirmed that we packed her hair piece, tights, shoes, snacks, water, and nude leotard. Still, I was sure I was forgetting something.
I wish I could report that I relaxed and beamed when Emi performed her three-minute dance. Nope, I sat and scolded myself the whole time over the fact that I:
- forgot my ticket at home
- hadn’t bought Emi flowers
- snuck out after Emi’s dance number, drove to the nearest store, and bought a dozen roses
- was sitting alone and missing my son’s final basketball tournament
Despite the Great Dance Debacle of ’17, I’ll probably keep Emi enrolled in her ritzy dance studio. From what I’m told, this is what dance studios are like everywhere. Apparently, spending thousands of dollars on dance lessons to be publicly berated is standard protocol. But if I ever find a little gem hidden beneath a brick bungalow, I’ll transfer her in a heartbeat.