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On the joy of doing what you love anyway
After a long hiatus, parents are back to attending end-of-year recitals in crowded, loud auditoriums full of screaming toddler-siblings, otherwise known, on my text thread at least, as hell. I am not all monster, so feel, of course, thrilled that the kids are back onstage, even as Covid surges seemingly everywhere, even if half of them are in masks and the other half are dancing with masks looped around their wrists or under their chins or maybe even with Covid, even if the music is far too loud and the lights far too bright and the program far, far too long. They are doing it. They are in person, side-by-side, in the flesh, once again, as it should be and it is glorious.
My almost-9-year-old has been in two dance classes this year — one for fun, and one for some real training — and this weekend we sat through the former’s showcase. She only performed in one very sweet, joyous, sort of disorganized routine very late in the program, so the bulk of our experience was sitting through piece after piece after piece after piece. At a certain point, I turned to my husband to whisper something in his ear and saw that his eyes were one hundred percent closed. (I flashed on my own father at my childhood gymnastics competitions, holding a newspaper open directly over his face through all my teammates’ efforts.)
But I was weirdly rapt, and could not keep my eyes off one particular preteen: her performance was so painfully awkward — she was so totally lost, so out of sync with the other girls, so unsure in her limb-y, knobby body, so unclear about the moves — that my husband, eyes now open, turned to me, utterly befuddled, and said, “Did that girl just join the class today?”
Hands partially shielding my eyes, I immediately dubbed her “Anxiety Dream Girl” because she was, quite literally, my worst and most common anxiety dream come to life.
As a child I was a competitive rhythmic gymnast and later a professional dancer, so this exact storyline still appears again and again whenever I am battling my own anxiety: I am thrown onstage, and not only do I not know what show I’m in, what steps I should be performing, but I don’t even know how to dance. I just never thought I’d live to see such a thing onstage.
Forgive me if I sound cruel?
I shouldn’t be so quick to point out this one poor girl because her acting and stage presence were actually wonderful; far better than her cohort. The dancing, it seemed, was the problem. And the other kids weren’t all that much better: The little ones — those in the 3-5 range — stirred loud ooohs and ahhhs from all of us, adorable in their matching outfits. Although you could spot the ones who relished the spotlight, it was impossible to tell if any of them had any talent. They were turning in the wrong direction and bumping into each other; they were giggling and waving at the audience and falling over and missing their entrances and exits and getting stuck in the curtain and their masks were covering approximately 3/4 of their faces — exactly the kind of comedy of errors you’d expect from little kids. Did this stop me from crying and laughing in delight? It did not. When a few of the older girls did split leaps across the stage to “Fame” (I wanna live forever!) I had tears streaming down my face.
Other than Anxiety Dream Girl, the teens did actually seem to know where they should be standing, and in which direction to turn. But it soon became clear that none of them were technical virtuosos. But did they care? No, they were wholly committed. They were showing up, step after awkward step. They were showing us all the hard work they’d put in. They were, for the most part, dancing with gusto, proud of themselves in their fairy dresses and blushed cheeks. And it made me feel — could it be? — that I’d never had an experience like that, of doing something publicly, just because I loved it.
When I started gymnastics at age seven, it was just that: training. That’s not to say there wasn’t joy in it. There was, in heaps and bounds, so much so that I eventually competed all over Canada, and later chose dancing as a career. But I was good at it. How did I know it? I advanced. I won medals. I got cast. I did it because I loved it, but for a long time — at least as a preteen — I continued to do it because I was succeeding. I was achieving something tangible. A medal, a qualification, words of praise from Someone Important. And later, as an adult: another job, a bigger break, a good review. There was a ladder and I was visibly ascending.
Would I have kept doing it if I had shown little talent? I quit gymnastics at 13 when it became clear I wouldn’t actually make it to the Olympics. The pleasure was, it turns out, all wrapped up in the success. Would I even deign to try something now — in public, no less — that would make me feel so wildly out of control? That might make me look like a fool?
Looking back at my ultra-competitive world of elite gymnastics, I realize now that no one would have let me out onto the mat — or later, the stage — if I looked that lost. Failure, or lack of preparedness, or just being bad was never an option. If you were bad, you were out. No one cared if I loved it anyway. No one cared if my heart was in it. Could I execute the steps well (better, best)? That was always the only question. But should it have been?
I’m not suggesting that these girls will keep dancing forever, in spite of evidence that they probably won’t — this horrible phrase — make it. Soon enough, too soon, they will come up against the reality of how the dance world, the professional one, at least, really works. Perhaps most of them don’t dream of being professional dancers anyway. Perhaps they just love the freedom of moving through space, the way I always did, the way I still do — a feeling that nobody has monopoly over.
Anxiety Dream Girl made me squirm, but my tears were real. They were the result of being deeply, deeply moved: by her willingness to show up, to get onstage in front of hundreds of people and dance those steps she didn’t know and could not follow. In her awkwardness, she reminded me of what we too often forget: that we are allowed to do what we love, no matter what. That there is real value in satisfying your soul with no outside accolades to show for it. That pleasure-seeking need not produce evidence of even marginal success. That facing our biggest anxieties might actually be a path to happiness, to our own shaky liberation.
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ALL THE THINGS
Finally got my hands on Ada Limón’s The Hurting Kind and Kathryn Schultz’s Lost & Found. The Cut made a map for women seeking abortions — pass along to anyone in need. And Irin Carmon’s wonderful piece about what was missing from Alito’s opinion. The many, many costs of breastfeeding. For LA Voters: LA Women’s Collective Voting Guide and LA Times endorsements.
[An earlier version of the above essay appeared in Motherwell.]