A message popped up on my Facebook screen. “Recital tomorrow at 6:30!” Heather wrote. “I know; I asked Denise about it a few weeks ago,” I responded. “I’m planning to be there.”
It was a hot Saturday of Father’s Day weekend, so of course it was time for recital. It’s always sunny and always hot, and they always have to pull the curtains on the high windows at the Citrus Fair so it’s always stifling with the hundreds of bodies in seats. We rushed back from Scarlett’s party in Santa Rosa and I made it to the Citrus Fair building with approximately two minutes to spare. I was greeted at the ticket table by my old youth group leader’s wife, who had the biggest grin on her face when she realized who I was. “I’m so happy to see you!” she said. We made a bit of small talk, and then she mentioned that I should look for her husband during intermission, as he’d be running the spotlight during the show. “John E. had a brain tumor,” she told me, “so if he doesn’t recognize you right away, just tell him your name and I’m sure he’ll be thrilled to see you.”
A brain tumor? I’d had no idea. I paid my $8 (some proceeds going to help defray medical costs for one of the four-year-olds at the studio, fighting stage four testicular cancer) and, taking a deep breath, I walked into the dark auditorium. I squinted at the sea of people, but didn’t see any convenient empty chairs, so I made my way to the top of the hard wooden bleachers at the back of the room. As my eyes adjusted to the dim light and I began to recognize people, I couldn’t help but remember all the other times I was here for the recital; only mostly those times I was up in the oven of a dressing room, wrangling littles, attempting hair and makeup that wouldn’t melt under the spotlight, wrestling into lycra-heavy costumes, my skin sticky with the miserable damp sweat you get in a tiny 120-degree room on a June day. Not two minutes after I sat down, Heather’s voice came over the sound system. “Welcome to the Cloverdale School of Dance annual recital. Tonight’s theme is ‘Wish upon a Star.’ There will be a 15 minute intermission.” Studio teachers, some in costumes and some in street clothing, stood in front of the curtain for introductions to the audience. Denise has been working on this for more than 20 years, I thought to myself. She grew herself a studio and teachers to teach for her, so she’s not teaching every class anymore. Good for her.
Spotlights, music, curtain.
* * * * * * *
I found myself squinting in the dark at the program, trying to make out the names of those children in each class, each dance. Who was the teacher or older student for each group? Which children had parents I knew? Parents my age? Parents who, the last time I saw them, were stumbling from lack of sleep after an all-night Project Grad? Or at my ten-year-high school reunion? I was so far back from the stage that I couldn’t tell whether any of the kids were easy to pick out as being related to someone I knew. It was difficult to relax into “watch tiny kid do cute things” mode; I was looking around at the audience with their babies and toddlers, their fluttering programs, trying to move the still air around a little. Which people might recognize me, there alone, no babies or toddlers, no nieces or nephews in the show?
* * * * * * *
It was mid-June of 1996, and I had just graduated high school the day before. Someone had picked me up at 5:30 AM with my hard-earned prizes from the very same building to which I’d be heading back in a few short hours. I’d been hypnotized, played casino games, attempted to counteract exhaustion with caffienated soda but still felt like a zombie, and at home I slept on the couch for a couple of hours because my grandmother was sleeping in my bed. We’d had whirlwind days: Lissa graduated 8th grade, and then my last day of school and high school graduation, followed by a party at our house and then Project Grad. I’d never been so tired, and I knew I’d be expected to be at my best for another whole day despite the lack of sleep. People couldn’t be quiet enough in the main part of the house to let me sleep, so I gave up, got up, ate something, and headed right back to the Citrus Fair building for dress rehearsal. It was going to be a really hot day, I knew, which meant those upstairs dressing rooms would be miserable. We dress rehearsed; we wrangled small kids who weren’t pleased about the hair and the makeup and the costumes and the heat; we put wet compresses on Heather’s heat blisters (!), and the four of us who had graduated and been up all night just gritted our teeth, went out there, and did our best to perform the dances we’d been preparing for months. The very last dance included a large group in traditional ballet costume performed to Pachelbel’s Canon. To this day, that song for me evokes not weddings but that sweltering June day, the pink tights and black leotards, my sleep-deprived performance.
* * * * * *
I couldn’t help but remember that day, as I sat in the dark room and watched some of the younger girls from that Canon dance were now teachers in my old school, credited in the program for their choreography. The dances were all done to Disney songs, and each teacher or older student came out with a group of littles to help them do their dance. I continued to study the program, and then I noticed a high school friend (with a niece in the show and two young nephews in the audience) standing at the side of the room. We had a short, whispered conversation in between performances, during which time I learned we weren’t the only ones from our class in attendance. “Toni’s here, Darren’s here, Liz. It’s like reunion,” she said. Only those other people had little girls or little boys in the performance; that was the difference.
At intermission I went up into the balcony to say hi to John E. “Emily!” he exclaimed, and gave me a giant hug. It was awesome. I hadn’t seen John E. in at least a decade, and his daughter I’d once babysat was now one of the teachers for the studio. “My youngest kid, Jordy? He just got his driver’s license yesterday!” he told me. I never even met Jordy, because I’d been too busy to babysit for most of senior year. “You’re making me feel old!” I told him. John E. was super proud of his kids, and was thrilled to see me. I hadn’t expected to see him at the recital but I was glad I did. As my high school youth group leader, he’d seen me at my worst (an angsty teenager) and still always saw the best in me. He was the kind of dad I wish I’d had, and I was glad that at least for a couple years there was an adult man I felt like I could count on to listen when I had something I needed to angst about. “I hope your kids spoil you rotten tomorrow,” I thought to myself. “I hope they know how lucky they are to have such a great guy for a dad.” Downstairs, I said hi to Liz and a few other people I knew in the audience, and then I spotted someone I never thought I’d see in a million years, someone I’d danced with at my previous ballet school; someone I hadn’t seen in at least twenty years. I gave her a hug, and she told me her daughter had been a mouse (as had Heather’s daughter and Liz’s daughter) in the Cinderella dance. “I’m not the only one here!” she told me, and led me over to her friend, who was someone ELSE I’d danced with as a kid and hadn’t seen in 20 years. We hugged and chatted a bit, and I told her my sob story about why I had to quit ballet. “I just stopped sometime in high school, because I thought it wasn’t cool,” she told me. “Now sometimes when I take my Pilates class I peek in at the adult ballet class next door and think about taking it.” We talked about how once we’d been those little girls on the stage. Now we were both here watching the children of our friends perform the same steps we’d once performed (or, at the very least, looked cute in costumes on a stage for a few minutes.)
The show started back up again, and the older girls began to do their own dances. I was no longer looking at last names in the program, because most of these kids were too old to belong to anyone I knew, but I did recognize a brother and sister as being the children of one of my sister’s elementary school teachers (you don’t forget a name like the daughter’s), and they were among the best dancers. Many of the families of the little kids had left after intermission, so there were quite a few empty seats. I found a space for myself and started to focus on the choreography and technique. I hadn’t even noticed until I looked to my left that another high school friend, M, with a daughter who had danced in the Mary Poppins number, was still there watching the 8-18 year-olds perform. “You used to do this, didn’t you!” she whispered to me. “Yes, and I’m still friends with the owner of the studio,” I whispered back. “Who are you here to see?” she asked.
Myself, I wanted to answer. Myself, but I haven’t danced on this stage since a swan song the summer I was 18, a solo interlude to help give the studio’s dancers time to change costumes. I was working at the pool that summer and at the Boys and Girls club, and I divided my time between being waterlogged and sweating in the studio to learn a 3-minute solo, the calluses sloughing off my toes and into my pointe shoes; my feet constantly bloody. I knew after my diagnosis it would be the last time I’d ever dance on stage, and I don’t know that anyone in the audience of that recital realized just how much I’d be giving up. I was so good, even if I could never have been pro because of my body type. Compared to some of these girls dancing in this recital, I was so, so good. And I can never do it again.
My daughter or son, I wanted to answer. The child I haven’t had yet. The one who will, someday, be the reason for me to come to a performance or a competition or a meet. I’ll be the one in the audience with the giant grin on my face, with my son or daughter the one in the cute costume mugging or frowning at the dark sea of faces. Or, if he/she takes after my sister, will be the one directing everyone else on the stage during the performance.
“Heather’s girls,” I said.
* * * * *
After the recital, someone from the school (possibly Denise?) put this photo up on Facebook. It’s that group of dancers from the Pachelbel’s Canon number. We were doing a photo shoot with a professional photographer a couple of weeks before recital, and I think this was one of the outtakes – a “silly” photo. I’m the standing furthest left, and looking at this photo, it’s hard for me to believe that was really me. I was 25 pounds underweight. My eyebrows were caterpillars and my skin was terrible. I was exhausted from rehearsals for recital, for the play I was in, for all the huge end-of-year school projects. I didn’t have any boobs or a butt or muscle in my arms. But I was beautiful.
Four of the girls in this photo are now mothers, and one has her first baby on the way. At least five of them were once or are currently teachers at the studio. One I know absolutely nothing about. I’m the only one I know of for sure who can no longer dance. And I’m glad I can’t go back and tell 17-year-old me that in 14 years she’ll be right back in the same place, watching her friends’ kids on the stage, knowing it will be many years, if ever, before the kid on the stage in the costume is hers. It might just break her heart.