General Non-Fiction posted April 7, 2019 Chapters: Prologue 1 -2- 3... 

This work has reached the exceptional level
The participants are small, but the lessons are huge.

A chapter in the book Lessons in the Key of Life

Pre-School Dance Lessons

by Rachelle Allen

I am a teacher in the creative and performing arts, and these are the lessons I learned from the lessons I taught.
Oh, how I loved my pre-school dancers! So full of life! So energetic and perpetually happy! So very pink and/or purple! They lived for their weekly dance class and always tried their best. Plus, they had the most disarming knack for assessing -with deadly candor-  the people and situations presented to them.

One day, I was feeling glamorous and sophisticated as I swept into the dance studio, wearing my brand new, lipstick red, hooded, woollen scarf.

"Hey, Shelley," said one of my little cherubs, "Why are you wearing that towel on your head?"

A quick glance in the mirrored wall straight ahead, and I realized that, yes, indeed, I actually was not Meryl Streep in The French Lieutenant's Woman, after all. To my horror, I looked substantially more like Rocky Balboa.

Another time, as everyone was getting into street clothes again at the end of class, one little dancer put her dress on over her leotard, folded her arms across her chest, and said, "There! Now I don't care if the boys lift up my dress; they won't see anything!"

"Yeah, why do boys do that anyway?" asked I, seeking enlightenment.

Giving me a look of embarrassed disbelief, she exclaimed, "Because they think girls in short dresses want SEX!" The tone that implied that someone my age really should know that by now. (She was four and had three teenage brothers.)

But the best exchange, by far, was during the conversation we were having as a class, as we sat in our circle for warm-ups. Age was the topic, and everyone was expected to share. When it got to be my turn, I copped to being five-and-three-quarters since that made me older than anyone else in the room.

"Really?!" asked most of the girls, stunned.

"Yes," I insisted. "I'm just very tall for my age."

I watched as their little wheels turned this information over a bit, comparing and contrasting my maturity level with that of their own and, possibly, an older sibling's or two. Then I watched, ever so slightly indignant, at how quickly that concept was accepted as plausible.

One street-smart girl did finally try to shake some sense into everyone. "You're not five-and-three-quarters!" she shouted out with an edge of disdain in her tone.

"I'm not?" I asked. "How old do you think I am?"

"You're, like, 81!!!"

"Wow," I said, "Not even 80?"

Lesson: Always listen when children tell you things. Even if their conclusions aren't exactly spot-on accurate, the undercurrents of their truths are uncannily close.

                                                                                             Stage Fright
Dance classes at the JCC were broken down into ten-week increments. On the last week, we would perform all our routines for the parents. We called them "recitals," but, out of deference to the pre-school need for continuity, everything about them was exactly as it had been the preceding nine weeks when no one was watching: floor warm-ups, barre warm-ups, leaps, turns, chasse, a trip to the water fountain, a run-through of each dance we'd learned, a cool down, and, finally, a group bow. And, it was held right in our beautiful dance studio, too.

Unfortunately, though, until I acquired some experience, I was agog when a dancer or two in each class would become cowed --sometimes even to the point of tears-- by the presence of adoring eyes upon her. It happened every semester and, even in my twelfth year of presenting these shows, I could not predict who would fall prey to it. I was fascinated, though, by how rarely it affected the ones who'd been quiet and reserved all semester.

In my third year, one ballerina's experience was so excruciating that it evoked a change in how I dealt with the affliction forevermore.

Her name was Chloe, and she was three and as cute as life gets, with huge, brown eyes and an infectious smile. Her vivacity and social skills were equally fabulous, and she always learned the dances very quickly. Never would I have expected this little firecracker to have experienced angst when the room filled with parents. She just always seemed so confident!

Yet, when I started the music and sat, facing the class, with my back to the audience, to begin warm-ups, I panned the line of girls before me and noticed that Chloe was glassy-eyed and trembling. I'd learned that sometimes not acknowledging the symptoms, simply continuing on, as if everything were just fine, worked to coax a cutie back to participating. But it was always a toss-up what the outcome would be, and I spent the first five minutes of most recitals holding my breath and beseeching God for mercy.

I always instructed my little dancers to perform directly in front of where their families were seated "so they can get lots of really good pictures of you." This one time, though, I was so very sorry I had.

I heard my stage-frightened girl's mother start to hiss commands at her in rapid-fire, staccato blasts: "CHLOE! PAY ATTENTION!" "STOP JUST SITTING THERE!" "DO WHAT THE OTHER GIRLS ARE DOING!" "I MEAN IT! DO YOUR WARM-UPS! HURRY UP!! GET GOING! I'M NOT KIDDING!"

Surely it wouldn't take Benjamin Spock to realize the folly of this tactic. It's not as if humiliation is ever a motivating force, after all, and against mounting fear, it borders on just plain foolishness.

As the rest of the class headed to the barre, Chloe remained glued to her spot on the floor, now crying with abandon. I went closer, smiled at her with love, and held out my hand to, hopefully, coax her back into the fold, but she had fallen over the edge by now. With immense pomp and drama, her mother stood up, actually pointed at Chloe, and shouted, "EITHER YOU GET OVER THERE TO THAT BARRE RIGHT NOW WITH THOSE OTHER GIRLS OR, I SWEAR TO YOU, I AM LEAVING! I HAVE A LOT OF WORK THAT I SHOULD BE DOING BACK AT THE OFFICE; AND I AM NOT ABOUT TO STAY HERE AND WATCH YOU JUST SIT!!!"

The scene had now reached Bona Fide Debacle status.

My pink tutu'ed little sweetie slumped over now and absolutely howled.

"OKAY, THEN!" trumpeted her mother. "YOU HAVE MADE YOUR CHOICE! I. AM. LEAVING!"

And, with that, she actually trounced out of the room!

Chloe bolted after her, screaming as loudly as her little voice could muster, "NO, MOMMY! NO, MOMMY! NO, MOMMY! PLEASE DON'T LEAVE ME!!"

A collective, stunned silence shrouded all the adults in the room, and I felt tiny pinpricks along the entire circumference of my eyelids. I offered a rueful, omniscient glance to my fellow survivors and turned to my remaining dancers and said brightly, "Okay, first position please! Nice straight dancer backs. Ready? Demi-plie'. One, two..."

When the recital was over, I got some construction paper and markers from the Early Childhood storage room and drew a picture of a ballerina and her teacher doing high leaps. All around the border, I drew red and purple flowers, and then I wrote:
Dear Chloe,
Roses are red,
Violets are blue;
You're a great dancer,
And I love you.

I dropped it off in her JCC daycare room, and the teacher, after I recounted the horror story, assured me she'd give it to Chloe the minute she awoke from her nap.

From that day on, I always included the following paragraphs in my letters home to the parents about upcoming Recital Days:

There's a fascinating commodity that performers in the creative arts can fall prey to: stage fright. What's amazing about it is that, contrary to what anyone would think, it can actually affect even the most confident and outgoing of souls. Stranger still is the way it can also be so inconsistent. One time it may be of no concern at all to a dancer, and, at the next performance, it can make him or her completely freeze up.

I always appreciate how supportive and enthusiastic the JCC parents are about these recitals. I cannot get over how, every ten weeks, at one, two, and three o'clock in the afternoon, we are dancing to a full house. And, likewise, I understand how disappointing it can be to leave work and then have your cutie not want to dance.

But we're making memories here, so, if your dancer simply cannot perform this time, then please give him or her a warm hug, bring your sweetie onto your lap, and enjoy watching the show together. It's still a fun time you're sharing, after all, and you know very well that, the minute you get home, he or she will perform every last routine for you with gusto and panache.

Thankfully, never again did stage fright ruin anyone's JCC Dance Recital experience.

Lesson: Sometimes the best you can do is damage control.

Next time: Performing Arts Camp experiences!

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