My daughter Harper is a dancer, and by default, I am a dance mom. When Harper was about 2 ½, a friend encouraged me to enroll her in dance classes. In her best Montessori pre-school teacher voice, Donna explained that dance helped with left and right brain balance and confidence. I signed on the dotted line so quickly I almost lost my own balance.
At first, it was fun to buy the frilly tutus, to shove Harper’s chubby little legs into blush pink tights, to sweep her wispy hair into a bun for class. And oh, how I laughed at her determined little face as she watched her teacher in the big studio mirror.
In her first recital, Harper wore a green leotard and a bright yellow sunflower headband. She and her classmates popped up out of giant, plastic flower pots as the “farmer” watered them.
Awwww, the audience said, when their little heads first popped up. The toddlers climbed out of the pots, did a few steps around the “field,” then headed back to the pots. That is when it all went wrong. Another dancer climbed into Harper’s pot. And in true toddler form, she didn’t handle it well.
She stood through the next section of the dance with her hands on her hips, giving the other dancer the stink eye. When the dancemate headed back to the pots, Harper gave her a big ole forearm shivver and knocked her out of the way, so she could land safely in her own pot. The audience roared with laughter, and thankfully there were no arrests for assault. I am assuming by now that the statute of limitations on her offense has expired.
My husband’s concerns that we seemed to be paying a lot of money for her to dance primarily in a circle like a peg leg pirate, and her obvious lack of rhythm, gave way to a little bit of a skill set, and the years in dance began to add up. Future recitals and then competitions took a slightly upward turn, and my dance mom fate was sealed. Currently, most of my dance mom life can be summarized by the slogans on the t-shirts I wore for the week at our most recent national competition.
Day One’s Competition t-shirt said, “Dance Mom Squad.” No, we are not like the Dance Moms of TV fame with designer purses or shoes, because we spent all our money on dance, and our sweat pants sometimes have holes.
Most of the moms on my squad are much better at it than I am. They have color coordinated sewing kits, healthy, balanced lunches and snacks in insulated coolers for their dancer, and incredibly positive attitudes. Some of them are former dancers, born to the dance mom life, who speak Dancinese, a complicated language containing words like tuck, lunge, prep, turnout, combination, leap, and bound.
They memorize the order of dances, organize the costume on their hanging racks, and carry Command hooks with them for backstage quick changes. One mom has something that looks like a coal miner’s lamp, which she straps around her forehead and which allows her to see in the dark backstage. She is nothing short of a dance ninja, and I’m jealous..
I, on the other hand, have in a Ziploc sandwich bag with holes, a variety of pins, paper clips, a stapler (not kidding), double sided carpet tape, and a glue gun, all of which came from my kitchen junk drawer, to hold Harper’s costumes together. So far she has not had any Janet Jackson Super Bowl mishaps, so I will stick with my “janky” tools.
For sustenance, I usually grab a can of Diet Dr. Pepper that I let Harper share for a caffeine boost, and I don’t worry about a breakfast or lunch with fiber, as I figure she’s ingested enough loose costume sequins that she will stay regular throughout the day. On a scale of 1 to 10 for dance moms, I am a solid five with extensive room for improvement.
Day Two’s Competition t-shirt said, “I Can’t—My Daughter has Dance.” That summarizes our lives for about the last three years. I have missed happy hours, baby showers, planting flowers, and sometimes a personal shower, all due to dance. Would I like to go for a Girls’ Weekend? Yes, can you schedule that for about five years from now?
I have to admit that we have used dance as an excuse from time to time as well. I have been conveniently unable to provide garage sale help, make an airport run for a friend, and work as a debate tournament judge. I have yet to cross the line of using dance as an excuse to miss a funeral or wedding. I do have a small remnant of a conscience left.
Day Three’s Competition t-shirt said, “I got 99 bobby pins, and I Can’t Find One #dancemom.” Dance hair and makeup is a science. I can name by brand and identify by shade 7 of 10 red lipsticks with just a glance. I stock up on hair products, and I even ordered a package of grandma-like hair nets to corral Harper’s hair into a smooth bun. CVS greets me like they used to greet Norm on Cheers. I help them make monthly sales goals with purchases of packs of bobby pins, only to be one short when I need it.
I have watched moms use accessories that look like kitchen scrubbers, old tube socks, and something I am pretty sure came from an auto parts store to create a hairdo to last all day. They ambidextrously apply mascara, carry on full blown conversations with bobby pins in their mouths, and stab relentlessly at the backs of their daughter’s heads to create a secure hold. Spritz, squirt, pin, swish, squirt, spritz.
Harper’s long, thick, auburn hair most closely resembles a full grown draft horse’s mane, and after one particularly brutal session wrestling with her hair, I knew she would run away from home if I ever tried again. Luckily a friend stepped up, and now I go get coffee for Heidi while she performs her dance bun miracles. Shampooing and make up removal following a performance are best done at a car wash.
Just so you know I am not completely feeble, I have actually earned a rep for being able to apply eye-liner that has an almost Asian flare to it. Not exactly something I can add to my resume, but handy at competition time.
Day Four’s Competition t-shirt said, “Never Dreamed I’d be a Cool Dance Mom, But Here I am Rockin’ It,” and some days I actually think I am. Just this week I correctly referred to a ballet position and did not endure Harper’s wrath when I mispronounced some French word. I remembered to wash her favorite of the five identical black leotards so she could wear it to pointe class, and I got a parking spot closest to the studio door, so when she dragged her exhausted body out, I was right there.
I no longer gag at the smell of the costumes after the second or third wear, and I have learned to check Harper’s bag for leftover snacks which grow science-experiment-like mold. I have made friends with Danette, the sweet lady at the dance supply store, who calls to tell me when tights are going on clearance so I don’t have to take money from my 401K to buy them, and who talks about how to treat a dancer’s foot callouses with me.
Danette also shared with me an old dry-cleaner’s trick of diluted vodka sprayed into costume underarms to keep away odors. I plan to try that with PART of the next 5th of vodka I purchase. Any dance mom who says she doesn’t drink is a liar.
And I have adjusted our lifestyle to fit dance storage needs. Despite modern home trends, I have maintained a guest bedroom, not because we have guests (we can’t, we are always at dance), but to serve as a costume storage-sewing-staging area. As if women don’t have enough trouble with our overstuffed closets--where we keep clothes that are our current size, one size before our current size, the size we were when we met our spouse, along with a couple of outfits for the dream date or party or cruise we have planned from browsing Pinterest--now we have to find a place for costumes to live. Problem solved if we never make any out of town friends who need to spend the night.
Day Five’s Competition t-shirt said, “Not the Dancer, Just the Financier,” and Lord knows, we have dropped some bank on this dance stuff. Among the things I did not own a few years back are a special rolling duffle bag with a pop up clothing rack, a battery operated fan for hot days in the dressing room, a squatter’s camping stool, special felted costume hangers, a hand held steamer, and sample sizes of everything from baby powder to Superglue.
For the cost of a typical community college education or a compact car, we have kept Harper in dance shoes. Seems silly to just have tan jazz shoes when you could also have black ones. Clearly tap shoes with cork inserts are superior, as the tone they make on the floor is so much sharper (read annoyingly loud).
Pointe ballet shoes, which as far as I can tell are specially made to smoosh Harper’s toes together and break off her toenails for a feral child look, help create beautiful dancer lines and a classic ballerina style. They cost so much that I literally thought the clerk had added an extra zero when we bought her first pair.
I suppose when Harper is done with dance, I will miss the constant movement of her feet under the dinner table as she memorizes steps during choreography season, her unabashed twirls and combinations down enticingly open grocery store aisles, the smile on her face when she sticks a turn, and late night bobby pin runs. I’ll let you know.
Cathy is a retired public school English teacher and Public Information Officer.