Cultural Descent


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This essay by Charley Pearson examines the trials and travails of supporting daughters in their quest to perform ballet. Be prepared for a chuckle or two.




Someday I’ll be macho. Such was the desire of my youth. Then I grew up, went academic, and had a pair of daughters. And my daughters chose ballet.

Ballet can be macho, right?

Every year they took more classes and went through more shoes. “Couldn’t you try a cheaper hobby, like automotive repair or high-altitude horticulture?” You guessed it—rolled eyes. Dads get lots of those. “Just drive us to class, and remember to pick up the carpool tomorrow night.” Thus I spent my evenings.

As the years passed, the studio roped us dads into more and more tasks. They started off easy. We got talked into being ushers. Then things got fancier, with set pieces to build and rolls of Marley flooring to be laid. All well and good until the studio added Nutcracker performances. That meant bookcases, towering candy canes, giant mutant gingerbread cookies, all on rolling platforms, to be broken down for storage in a warehouse far away. Who knew letting your daughters dance meant negotiating a twenty-four-foot van through the suburbs of D.C.? Close encounters of way more than the third kind.

After a performance, other parents celebrated with ice cream and flowers. Not our core group of dads. The moment the curtain closed, we attacked that stage like a bunch of roustabouts at a circus. We had the floor rolled up, the sets broken down, the trash thrown out, and everything back in the warehouse by something after midnight.

I took a day off work to recover from all this relaxation.

Of course, during the performance, since we were backstage anyway, we got collateral duty, racing up and down hallways playing riot police to several hundred girls to make sure each gaggle of them was in the right place at the right time to make their appearance onstage, then out of the way for the next group, then back again for curtain calls. If there’s such a thing as soccer moms, we were ballet dads.

Am I sounding macho yet?

I must say, working backstage was revealing. Out front the audience sees a relaxed, effortless performance, graceful dancers smiling their way from leap to spin. Okay, fine, jete to pirouette, not that we knew the words back then. Elegance, beauty, and poise. Behind the scenes, it’s a little different. Like the professional who flies into the wings on a breeze of applause and promptly leans over her knees, gasping like a horse after a couple of marathons and a derby or three. She grabs the bottle of water you hold out, snatches a sip and flings it back, jabs her pointe shoes in the rosin box, pants a whole bunch more, and dashes back to the wings, one ear never having left the musical cues, until suddenly she straightens and floats back onstage, twirling so lightly the audience just knows how easy it all is.

If you think ballet is romantic, you ain’t been backstage.

After a play, there’s a cast party. After an opera, there’s a cast party. After a ballet, there’s ice packs, hot showers, and Band-aids. When my daughters first started on pointe, the teacher gave a lecture on what to do when the blisters popped. There was no “if” anywhere in that speech.

And that was just the beginning of the ballet saga. One artistic director had more ideas.

Once those Nutcrackers started, the director realized he needed adult male bodies to litter the stage during the party scene. Surprise, we dads qualified. (This was about as difficult as earning a place at the Russian front in “Hogan’s Heroes.”) Once he had ten of us semi-volunteered, he got around to telling us we weren’t just milling around onstage pretending it was fun to be dressed in white tie and tails. No, no. He expected us to do a little ballroom dancing. And we had to do it without dropping champagne flutes with little pink plastic inside to look like the bubbly stuff (it tasted awful) (hey, we’re guys, we had to try). “Rehearsals every Friday. Don’t be late.”

Okay, it was actually fun. We admired each other’s stunning incompetence, and gradually helped each other remember the steps. That’s us dads I’m talking about. The women playing party scene mothers all knew what they were doing. If the director said soutenu, the ladies did a turn and we dads stood around scratching our heads and watching their feet. Once we figured out exactly what we were supposed to do, we did it wrong anyway. Well, at least the first three or four thousand times.

Then the director informed us we had to wear stage make-up to avoid looking washed out under the lights. We really weren’t ready for make-up. Maybe that’s why he never told us these things in advance. Volunteers were hard enough to come by in the face of ignorance. Gotta say, though, if you engage in liberal use of an eyebrow pencil all over the forehead and cheeks, you can add enough pseudo-wrinkles to look really old onstage. My younger daughter took one look and said, “Don’t ever do that again.”

We managed to get a little revenge. That director was playing Drosselmeier, and we kept forgetting the name (that’s our official story, and you can’t prove otherwise), so we took to calling him Beetlejuice. And intermission, naturally, was halftime.

See? Macho? Oh, shut up.

And then—was all that enough for the studio? Apparently not. There was something else one particular teacher wanted. She conned five of us dads (was blackmail with pictures of us all in formal attire really called for?) into showing up for the last half of an advanced ballet class to help the girls learn partnering. The basics of some pas de deux steps that untrained guys could handle. Or so she thought.

Man, those girls were heavy.

Well, actually they were pretty skinny. But us guys had been holding down office jobs for twenty-five years, lifting nothing heavier than a number two pencil with a barbell eraser. We were the nerds back in high school. There wasn’t a jock in the lot. The thing we had in common was kids in dance class and a long history of nothing even faintly resembling exercise.

By the way, if you think we should have been politically correct and called those girls “young women,” sorry, not a chance. These were our little girls and their friends, and no matter how tall they seemed to be getting, no matter how long since they stood on our feet to dance, there was no way we could accept the possibility they would ever grow up.

Denial is a wonderful thing. Highly recommended.

So we helped the girls do some interesting spins, and us guys all starting doing pushups, sit-ups, and actually going to the gym. Not one of us failed to get in better shape. It was completely out of character, and severely jeopardized my long-held goal to be pot-bellied by fifty.

Eventually we moved on to lifts, from shoulder sits to fish to back-bending things overhead. There were always plenty more girls than the five of us, so we cycled through one after another, across the floor, up and down. But girls don’t always come in multiples of five; they’re sort of random from week to week. One day, during one exercise, the last three girls went with the first three guys, and suddenly I looked at the other unused dad, he looked at me, and off we went across the floor, pas de bourree, glissade, something, something, lift. I tried to pick him up. I really did. But his overstuffed waist was hard to hold, and he never jumped. He just wanted to sprawl across the floor in a theatrical fashion. How the teacher managed not to laugh or kick us out is beyond me.

At the end of a class the students tripped merrily away and us dads sagged against the wall until we could stumble our way out and peer around vaguely for our shoes. But don’t think it was easy for the girls. They had their share of pain. Gripping the waist for a lift takes pressure. When one girl rubbed her side after a shoulder sit and said it hurt, the teacher looked at her like she was daft. “Well, duh.” What, you expected ballet to be pleasant? The instructor taught us to grip with the flats of our fingers, not digging in fingertips and leaving ten bruises. Flat-out fingers = find rubber ball to squeeze = more exercise. What’s a lazy office drone to do? (See the equals signs? I told you we were nerds.)

Alas and alack, this led to the ultimate ignominy. Us guys were ignorant. Utterly uneducated. When the teacher told everyone how to set up for the next event, we hadn’t the slightest trace of a wisp of a smidgeon of a clue what fifth position or plié meant, and we still couldn’t believe dancers called that bar a barre. What the heck language is this, anyway? (Oh yeah, maybe French.) So we indulged in the time-honored practice of ragging on each other. “Hey, if you want to learn the rules, play the game.” “What, you mean dance?” “If you take a class, you can tell us what you learn.” “I ain’t taking no ballet.” “I’ll take if it you take it.” “No way.” “Chicken.” “You just wanta sucker me in.” “No, really.”

This went on for two years plus change.

Finally, one summer, we had out-dared and out-harassed each other so much we reached the final male put-up-or-shut-up stage. Or we were finally mature enough not to worry what other people thought. (Hah. Wanta buy a bridge in Brooklyn?) So the next week, in unison, right after the spring recital, apparently operating under the safety-in-numbers theory, all five of us signed up and started beginning ballet classes.

Yeah, I know. I didn’t believe it either, and I’m the one who did it.

So anyway, here are these five fathers who have furnished age forty a fond farewell and who, therefore, are seriously contemplating the possibility that they might someday, in the still distant but more or less foreseeable future, approach middle age. We lined up in the back of the room as if we had a prayer of hiding our presence from any of the gaping, giggling ladies. An adults-only class, thank goodness. And so it began.

Good grief, that was work. That was friggin’ hard. What on earth did people see in doing this for fun? We dads spent the summer competing with each other and commiserating on the quantity of aches and pains we managed to accumulate. It was so completely horrible we all signed up to continue in the fall.

Hold on. Wait a minute. Let me reexamine that sentence.

I’m not sure if we were having more fun doing the dancing, or getting in shape for the first time since our teens, or giving the instructor the hardest time we possibly could. I’m voting for number three. We were rowdier than any teacher would put up with in a children’s class. Not that we always got away with it. One of the instructors was about as laid back as a drill sergeant. Have you seen Judi Dench’s version of M in James Bond flicks? Or Meryl Streep’s gentle mentoring in “The Devil Wears Prada”? Amateurs.

Anyway, we stuck with it. Three years went by, and most of us guys were taking two or three classes a week by then, losing over thirty pounds each. There was even one snowy, icy Saturday when the teacher had to come in, but all the intelligent students stayed home and concentrated on complex cocoa-brewing conundrums, so the class consisted of one woman, one other dad, and me. You have no idea how many bragging rights we milked out of a ballet session with more men than women.

And it wasn’t just hard work. Over the years, the dancers accumulated injuries like a football squad. If you knew all the times that treacherous floor snuck up and attacked somebody, you’d understand why we called it “full contact ballet.” One day I got cocky and went for record elevation on a grand jete. Couldn’t figure out why my foot hurt afterward, until everyone said there was a loud crack when I landed. Later that evening, the x-ray told the tale. For the first time in my life, I’d broken a bone.

Success! I was now among the ballet injured. I figured this finally qualified me for jock status.

After enough time, enough thought, and enough dancing with a variety of ladies, something else penetrated the thick skulls of my fellow male dancers. Why didn’t more guys in high school do this? If you were going for something physical demanding, what was the attraction of a smelly locker room filled with stinky guys when you could be surrounded by attractive females and a remarkable lack of competition? Boy, my gender is slow to catch on.

Ah, but sigh. All things pass. My daughters, despite their promises to the contrary, did grow up. They went to college, I moved, and the ballet phase of life came to an end.

But there is one memory of those jumping, spinning days I will never forget:

The five of us guys, after a year of classes and a lot of failed attempts both to remember the steps and simultaneously do them properly, actually completed a full floor routine, one after the other, where we all got it right. We grinned, gave a few whoops, and whapped a series of rather loud high-fives.

The ladies laughed. But that drill-sergeant instructor froze in the act of switching music, glared over her spectacles, and growled in no uncertain terms.

“Ballet,” said she, “is not macho.”

Charley Pearson (Clyde, North Carolina) has short stories published in Marion Zimmer Bradley’s “Towers of Darkover” and “Sword & Sorceress XI” anthologies. His humor collection “The Marianated Nottingham and Other Abuses of the Language” recently won the Silver Falchion award for best anthology at the Killer Nashville Writers Conference.