Mommy and Daddy are out there somewhere in the dark. I want to wave to them but the lights are very bright. I have to squint to see our leader in her black leotard at the front of the stage.
She drops down and bobs back up. I drop and bob. She sticks out her foot. I stick out my foot. Next comes the twirl. I remember this part, so I start first. Beside me, a little girl with yellow mesh around her face has stopped moving. I think about roaring at her. I am dressed in a scratchy lion costume too, and I bet I could roar really loud. Drop. Bob. Twirl. I am doing very well, I think.
Then the leader turns around with one big jump—it takes me two jumps. I put my hands on my hips, and shake my lion tail. The music stops and I hear clapping. Our leader walks off the stage. The girl beside me is moving now and she bumps into me. I turn to walk off the stage. I still can’t see Mommy and Daddy but I wave anyway.
As the class—if it can be so dignified—straggles off the stage, we laugh and clap and laugh some more. Undeniably cute, these two-to-four-year-olds are a cleverly costumed jumble of poor coordination, suspect timing, and inability to focus. But the appreciative and amused conversational murmur running through this crowd of siblings, parents and grandparents suddenly shushes. The next class is in place.
As the lights come up, I smile brightly and hold my pose. Without turning my head, I know that the other four are ready too. The opening chord of our music sounds and we begin. We move as one, our choreographed tap routine working around the bales of hay in our set. Our cowboy hats and flared skirts with stiff crinolines are perfect for this western music. We’ve presented this in competition already, so we have it nailed for this recital. Our final flurry of tapping finishes in perfect timing with the last twangy note and we strike our closing pose, smiles still in place and not a gelled hair out of place. As the lights dim, we strut off stage, staying in cowgirl character. They watch for that.
Good grief. This second set of kids looks like they’re about seven years old. How has a gormless gaggle struggling to play Follow the Leader somehow morphed into a self-directed, coordinated, and clearly competitive dance troupe within just a few years? Their performance represents a giant leap both in individual skills and in teamwork.
This dance school end-of-year recital being staged in a professional theatre is an eye-opener for me. My formal dance instruction was in gym class a hundred years ago (Oh, the joy of learning ballroom dance in t-shirt, gym shorts and runners), supplemented by ill-advised but blessedly short-lived forays into continuing education classes in line-dance and two-step as a what we might generously call a mature adult.
Turn left. Your other left, Isabel.
Not that I didn’t like dance. As a young teenager, I watched countless Saturday afternoon editions of American Bandstand on a black-and-white TV, wishing I could do that. Yet if hope is not a method (as retired US Army Chief of Staff Gordon Sullivan points out in his book of the same name), then neither, it turns out, is wishing.
Post-recital research reveals how gormless gaggles become disciplined troupes. This dance school has two streams: recreational and competitive dance. Kids in the competitive stream must take at least four classes a week. Not much wishful thinking going on there: When would they find the time?
Not really content with my own jumble of poor coordination and suspect timing through the years, I nevertheless bailed on the effort to develop the individual skill required for dance. I can only marvel at the effort it takes to move beyond that, to become an effective member of a troupe.
At first glance, it’s hard to think of two things further apart than the Army and the Arts, as represented in this case by competitive dancers. A second look shows at least some common ground, and not just the scratchy uniforms/costumes that set these groups apart from their civilian peers. To transform rag-tag inputs into well oiled (and/or carefully gelled) outputs—whether troops or troupes—both use practice, practice, and more practice.
I wish I could do that.