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May 23 2012

My Week as a Dance Mom

By at 10:00 am

giselle ballet american ballet theater“Have a great time being Dance Mom!” my 12-year-old son chirped mischievously as I set off with my 8-year-old on his first day of rehearsal for Giselle with the American Ballet Theater at the Metropolitan Opera House in Lincoln Center.

My younger son has been taking dance classes for almost a year now, so when another mom told me about the casting call for background Village Boys in Giselle, we thought we’d give it a shot.

My feeling was it would be a one-of-a-kind, priceless experience. How often, after all, does the average child–or adult, for that matter–get to be on stage at the Met, standing within a few feet of some of the world’s greatest dancers and getting a view even a front-row ticket couldn’t buy? Add to that the chance to work in a professional environment, surrounded by gifted, extremely dedicated and hard-working people, and have the same level of professionalism and hard work expected from you in return, and I figured, yes, that’s worth a week of my life. (And if he failed, well, you know how I feel about failure.)

I suspected it would be hectic, but I thought I knew what I was getting into. My younger brother had been a competitive ice-dancer, and I was his official chaperone for several years. How different could this be from that?

Here’s what I forgot to factor in: My brother was a teenager, not a second grader. And I was in my twenties then, not my forties.

As soon as my son was selected to be a Village Boy along with four others, the mothers were promptly swept out of the rehearsal hall, given our instructions regarding Opening Night, arrival time, and the role of understudies versus the boys on call for any given evening or matinee, and told to go amuse ourselves for 90 minutes–we could come pick up the kids after they were finished.

But…. But…. But… I hadn’t even gotten the chance to tell my son I was leaving. What if he looked up, saw that I was gone, and freaked out?

I wanted to ask if I could just pop my head in and let him know that I’d see him later in the reception area? But, then I thought, was I becoming That Mom (a.k.a. Dance Mom)?

So, I kept my mouth shut and dutifully followed the stage manager to the door.

An hour and a half later, as promised, she delivered all of our boys back to us. No one seemed worse for wear, or even curious where we’d gone. Everyone was full of happy chatter about costume fittings, and getting to ride in a cart for one of their scenes. As my son skipped and sang all the way home (to the tune of The Tigger Song), “Dancing, prancing. Dancing, prancing. Full of fun, fun, fun!” I decided he hadn’t been too traumatized by my temporary abandonment.

Opening Night came less than 24 hours later. My son was scheduled to go on. Now, I’ve lamented before about what a stubborn case he can be. As a result, I had this image of him climbing into costume, assuming his place backstage, hearing his cue, looking out into the mammoth space that is the Metropolitan Opera House, and digging in his heels, saying, “Nope.”

I was pretty sure that, if I were there, I could talk and cajole him into it, despite any last minute stage-fright. But, guess what? No mothers backstage. No exceptions.

So I dropped him off with the paid chaperone, told him to break a leg (“Huh? Why?”), bought a ticket, and took my place in the hall (which, from the very highest balcony looks even more cavernous, BTW.)

The music started, the other dancers who weren’t my son came on (I suppose; I was a little overly focused), and then he came on. And then he came off. And then he came on two more times. He did, I presume, everything he was supposed to do (and without my intervention, go figure!). People asked me if I felt proud. Is numb terror a form a pride? In which case, yes, I suppose I did.

We went home. He chattered the entire ride on the subway about the lead male dancer and his really cool, really high jumps. I tucked my son into bed. I felt that I had handled the entire thing quite well, managing to suppress my anxiety so that it didn’t affect him.

I guess I did it very, very well. Because, the next morning, I woke up unable to move my head and neck. Ah, there’s where all that suppressed anxiety went. Good to know.

But, it was take two aspirin and on with the show, as he still had several matinees and a week’s worth of evening shows to get through.

For the next few days, we fell into a routine: Pick him up from school, bring him home, put him down for a nap, wake him up, feed him (not too early so he’d be hungry during the performance, but not too late, so he’d be uncomfortably full), do missed schoolwork at home and, if not enough time to finish, on the subway. Arrive at the theater, send him off with the chaperone, amuse myself for an hour and a half. Subway home. (Oh, and also arrange for my older son and younger daughter to simultaneously be where they were supposed to be, and under adult supervision.)

christie dance moms

One of Lifetime's Dance Moms.

We did this for seven days. He handled the schedule great. I was exhausted. How do those Dance Moms on Lifetime (and everywhere else) do it fulltime? It’s a completely irregular and time-consuming way to live, and it prompts such inadvertent thoughts as: Should I let him eat ice cream at this party? He’s only on stand-by today, but, what if he has to go on and he’s too full of sugar?

When I wrote about my family’s nudity policy (or lack thereof), I invoked our love of the musical, Gypsy. There’s an exchange in there where Gypsy’s formidable mother asks, “What did I do it all for?”

And her daughter replies, “I thought you did it for me, Mama.”

Even more than the ladies of Dance Moms, that is definitively not the Mom I want to be. (I spent several years covering international figure-skating for ABC, ESPN and TNT, among others. I wrote a half-dozen behind-the-scenes books on the subject. I know the signs of an over-involved parent, and I was watching myself like a hawk.)

In the end, I think it was a massively positive experience for my son (and I expect my neck to get back to normal… someday). For me it was… eye-opening. Not only about the sheer amount of work involved, but about the fact that, even in a professional setting, my son can get along without me perfectly well. His father and I are raising all our kids to be independent. I guess we just didn’t expect to see evidence of it so soon?

Taking all of the above into account, would I do something like this again? Probably. (Would I try to pace myself better? Definitely. Would I let my son have fun and eat ice cream even though he has to perform later–hopefully always.)

Which is a good thing. Because, as we were walking home, hand in hand from his last performance, my little boy–who’d just proven he could manage perfectly fine without any parental hand-holding, thank you very much–asked me, “So…. What ballet are they doing next week?”


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