Last week, with afternoon sunlight coming into the studio, I arrived in Port Angeles, Washington, to teach a choreography class.
It's been a long drive from Seattle. I'm eager to stretch, but I'm so taken by what happens next that it literally stops me in my tracks. A little boy, roughly 4-years-old, watches his sister's ballet class as intently as someone viewing their own version of joy. He copies every move the girls make. I know his excitement, his readiness, as well as I know my own. Why does it so often seem like it's the youngest person in the room who is teaching us the most?
His mother, slouched in a chair, is lost in her phone. So, I tell the boy that I hope he takes class one day. This prompts a sudden lift of his mom's chin and a glance with a great deal of concern clinging to its edges. But I say what I am thinking anyway, "Boys make wonderful ballet dancers!"
"Not in Port Angeles," she says, sitting up straight, as if ballet isn't something her son, or any real man, should get too close to. I might have guessed that she would not agree with me.
The boy looked at me, at his mother, back at me. He jammed his fist into the palm of his hand. It was like watching a leaf wilt on the vine. The whole interaction was pushing against my resolve.
As unsettling as it was at the time, I've grown used to arriving in studios where I can feel as if every move I make is not just visible to the parents but spotlighted, which can make me feel a little self-conscious, as well as the students. It's why I don't allow parents to watch my workshops. It's one benefit of being a master teacher: I can set my own rules. And though feelings can run a little high as parents realize they have to leave, I have yet to find one director who doesn't support my request.
I know—and knew then—that I had to say something more to the boy. It wasn't an overwhelming feeling, more like a ripple in a larger pool of realizations, something that wanted to be expressed and would be. But I could not have predicted what was about to come out of my mouth."You are a natural-born dancer!"
The boy smiled happily, if tentatively, stopping for a quick look at his mom who seemed a little stunned for a moment.
The truth is that all children are natural-born dancers. It's only later that we learn to suppress the desire to move to the music in the air. But I had a teacher once who said that there is so much more to teach about dance than technique. I decided that I would become one of those teachers.
Still, I know what it means to simply accept what I am called upon to do—teach a well-paced class—and I do this, with little want of anything in return but smiles. But I suppose what happened that day is that the belief that only girls should take ballet leaned a little too far in to its unfairness, until a huge part of me screamed, "Don't say that! Dancing is for everyone!"
I would not have put it like this, of course, but I had a deep sense that this bias would help shape this little boy's future. He would be loved and well-cared-for, but who would he become inside?
There is a magic inherent in a dance studio, in being surrounded by people who look like they've found what makes them feel most alive. I think this is what the boy wanted for himself, to move enjoyably through space. But I suspect he will have to learn to do it in other ways, most likely on the ballfield.
And I cannot know if playing ball will make him as happy as dancing seemed to make him. Anymore that I can know why his mother was so offended by it.
But if I let myself remember what must have been happening in this little boy's mind to make him look so happy, I suspect I found his mother's response asked of me something that I found impossible to give: silence.