My two year-old daughter and I were recently invited to Nutcracker dress-up-and-dance playdate. Brilliant! Róisín LOVES to dance, and we weren’t quite ready to retire the fairy queen costume I’d made her for Halloween. And I was enthusiastic for other reasons.
When I was a little girl, I listened to the Nutcracker and other Russian ballet suits obsessively, making up stories and choreographing dances in my head. The music is so dramatic and evocative that I still find it hard not to get excited and want to leap/slink/prance around when it’s playing on the stereo. Imagine how thrilled I was in fifth grade when I finally got the see the Nutcracker onstage! I devoured books about dancing, I dressed up in old crinolines from the 1950s and pretended they were tutus, I daydreamed endlessly about performing onstage. But then I took an actual ballet class.
Ballerinas (or so I thought at the time) are petite and flexible, with silky blond hair, dainty feet, and no curves whatsoever. I was big for my age, chubby, and could barely touch my toes. I felt like an elephant towering over the other girls at the barre, and every time we had to glide or leap across the room one at a time I wanted to curl up in a little ball of shame. I don’t know how many weeks I lasted before I dropped out, but I knew I would never be ballerina material.
I continued to daydream about dancing, and to see choreography in my head when I listened to music, but I became more and more firmly convinced that there was a huge chasm between dancers and non-dancers, and that I was doomed to live forever on the non-dancer side. Even though I got involved in theater productions that often involved bits of dancing, even though I learned how to do various kinds of social and folk dancing fairly well, I still thought of myself as a klutz who would always be on the outside looking in.
As I got older, I realized there was other kinds of dancing that I might like better than ballet. I started playing Celtic music in high school, and had fantasies of learning to step dance. But at that time I had no idea there was any option besides Irish competition-style dancing, which also only seemed to be done successfully by the skinny and highly flexible.
Then I saw Wendy MacIsaac perform. For those of you not familiar with Wendy, she’s a great fiddler, but also a wonderful Cape Breton step dancer. “Wow,” I thought, “that looks like something I could actually learn how to do!” No leaps, no high kicks, no fancy shoes, just rhythm and musicality. I wasn’t sure how I’d manage to learn, since I didn’t have the means to go to Cape Breton, and North Carolina wasn’t exactly a hotbed of Cape Breton culture, but when the student is ready… Within a year, I was playing full-time in a band (Cucanandy) with Malke Rosenfeld, percussive dancer extraordinaire, who is not only a wonderful performer, but a gifted and generous teacher. She fed me bits and pieces of technique between rehearsals and gigs, and motivated me to practice with the prospect of dancing with her onstage.
After Cucanandy disbanded in 2002, I began teaching dance classes in Asheville, NC, and after just a few years had started a semi-professional performance group with some of my incredible students. We called ourselves Twisty Cuffs, and danced at all kinds of events around the region. As much as I love to teach and dance with other folks, I think the most rewarding part of that experience was getting to finally choreograph for a group, finding a way to take my excitement about a piece of music and put it into motion.
As I watch my daughter stomp, bop, turn, and shake around the house, I pray that I will be able to support her in finding a way to keep that joy and love of movement alive. I pray that poor self-esteem, insecurity about her body, and narrow-mindedness will never trip her up the way it did me. And I thank the universe that I finally found an outlet for my own passion about dance.