Last night was my eight year old niece’s dance recital where, in short shorts, a side bun and a one-shouldered sequin tank-top, she performed an epic hip hop routine to ”Like OMG!”, a remix of every single Justin Bieber song. Being the best dancer of every dancer in every age group my niece obviously stole the show and when she tiptoed on stage with her pointed little jazz hands and little jazz toes I found myself screaming her name like a Beatles fan at Shea Stadium. There is something about being with my nieces and nephews that makes me feel completely uninhibited, willing to sing in a restaurant, dance down the aisles of a grocery store and catcall children’s names in a crowded theatre.
It’s strange, because I don’t think I was as this uninhibited when I was a child myself. I was certainly more self-conscious than my niece was last night, when I performed at my own dance recitals, on the same stage, nearly twenty-five years ago. Looking back though, that jazz number I did with my cousin Jenn to “Jump” by the Pointer Sisters was really some of my most inspired work, polka-dotted body suit and all. Guess what we did every time the song said “jump?” My Culture Beat’s “Mr. Vain” routine utilized a much less literal interpretation of the music and was a little too artsy for my taste.
Fundamentally, dance recitals haven’t changed all that much since I was in them. There is still the one talented little girl working it in the front (my niece) and the one uncoordinated girl who is a beat behind everyone else in the back (me). There are still the two amazing little boys who dance with gelled back hair and rolled up collars and there is still the one or two early blooming girls who look awkwardly older than the group now, but will be thankful come high-school for their pubescent jumpstart. There are still the overpriced roses for sale outside the doors and my dad and brothers still sit holding them in the audience. Everyone is still inconspicuously checking the program to see just how much longer is the show and I still hold my chest watching the ballerinas in their tutus dance to Paquita, wishing I was one of them.
Despite these elemental similarities, there are still some striking differences between past and present recitals. I don’t know how, but the theatre has gotten much smaller. When I was eight I could have sworn I was performing before a coliseum-sized audience. I was surprised now to find that they managed to cut thousands of these seats out of the theatre without any structural changes to the building whatsoever. I wondered who is their contractor.
I think the most important divergence, though, is the dancing itself. Whereas my dance lessons were rigid, formalistic and generally very little fun, these kids weren’t dancing to be perfect, to have the best sashay or releve. They were dancing to have fun and indeed appeared to be having an incredible time moving their Shakira hips and shaking their Beyonce butts to the Bar Mitzvah after dinner line-up of songs. These kids seemed to be aware of their bodies in a way that I didn’t fully appreciate until my thirties.
I was amazed by this organic confidence and defined sense of self that so many of these children seemed to posses. I remember how self-conscious I used to feel as a child dancing on stage, worrying that I wasn’t as graceful or as pretty as the other girls beside me; I remember sitting in my room after my recitals, tears streaking the makeup my mother had so carefully applied, knowing that I wasn’t. I think of all the childhood pain that used to thrum in my ears, telling me that no matter who I was or what I achieved, it wasn’t good enough.
I stood outside the theatre last night with a bouquet of roses, waiting for my niece to emerge. She looked so grown-up with her hair pulled up, her cheeks and lips rouged, that I was taken aback by the passage of time and the maturity of her beauty. But when she ran to me, throwing her arms around my waist, thanking me, thanking me, thanking me for coming, the years began to shrink. I felt tears prick at my eyes. Hugging her, I want so much to protect her. I want to insulate her from phones, from Facebook, from boys, from bad decisions and from heartache. I want to protect her from all the things that hurt me, make sure that she never has a reason to cry. I want to tell her that all she needs to do is arm herself with that precious sweetness of hers, that pure heart of hers and the world will open itself up to her. I want to tell her that she needn’t ever be afraid, that people will always appreciate her goodness, that the people she cares about will never hurt her, that things will always be fair, that she will always know what to do, that the person she loves will always love her back, but I can’t. I can’t tell her any of those things. I can’t shield her from the future. All I can do is be there for her, just as I was there for her last night, holding her close, leaning down and whispering in her ear: “Don’t ever stop dancing.”