Our Ballet Studio . . . part two of What To Do When DCFS Comes Knocking
Our Ballet Studio
“. . . a safe haven for those who wish to learn dance.” - dance studio’s program description
The park appeared to have forgotten its purpose. The building and lake were owned by the city and were collectively named a park. The lake was large enough to attract geese and occasionally fishermen, but for the most part it was deserted. The building was in need of an update with a gravel parking lot on one side and the ruins of a volleyball court on the other. It housed a makeshift dance studio that my daughters attended. Upon opening the front door, the wooden coat cubbies surrounded you in a sudden, yet comfortable square. The dance class was held on the other side of the cubbies in that room, with the dance floor rising six inches off the floor and crowded into three-fourths of the large room. A piano stuck between the dance floor and the wall seemed misplaced because there was no room for the stool to pull out and comfortably play. The room was like a camp lodge, with a fireplace on one side but instead of a kitchen on the other, there was a storage room and bathrooms. Metal folding chairs lined one side of the room and there were tables and folding chairs on another wall. The wood-paneled walls were partly covered with pictures of animals and characters from the Pirates of the Caribbean torn from magazines. The far side of the studio, where the fireplace was, was lined with stuffed animals stacked randomly on several bookshelves. A bulletin board had names written on large post-it notes with columns of smaller post-it notes taped below the names. If it weren’t for the multiple large windows on three of the four walls, the room would seem dark, crowded, busy. The light pouring in from the windows drew the focus outside which made for a pleasurable dance class in the daylight.
The instructor was a woman in her 60s, short, gray spiky hair, long dark shirts, black leggings and scant yet dark eye makeup. She seemed to be a no-nonsense instructor and at the same time very casual. Although I had no dance experience, she taught dance as I think most things should be taught, little by little, patiently focusing on proper technique each step of the way. Though the building was not what one would expect for a ballet studio, the style of the instructor seemed to suit it: simple, natural, casual.
When entering the studio one evening, I noticed a small piece of paper taped onto the front door that read, “In this room, we are all the same age.” It made me smile in remembrance. It was the type of sentiment I would have scribbled in my journal as a teenager, impressed by its imagined depth. The more we attended the classes, the more I read what was posted on the walls. One picture portrayed a bunny asking that we not eat it. Another was of Paul McCartney recalling his conversion to vegetarianism. He had been fishing one day and had compassion on the fish he had caught. He realized that the fish was just like us. On a bulletin board between the bathrooms, there was a one page article written by a PhD in History. From what I remember, the article could be summed up as follows: it is too bad that people don’t know what I know, and they should. I was so amused by the article that it inspired a conversation with my daughter. I asked if she thought her father, a physician, would write a similar article: it is too bad that people don’t know what I know about the body, and they should. She didn’t think he would because it would be “proud.”
Since the building was rented, I could not be certain who posted these pictures and notes at first. As I came to know the dance instructor, there was little doubt that she posted them. Over the course of a year, I learned that the dance instructor was a vegetarian. She did not go to County Fairs. When reading a Charles Dicken’s biography, she learned that Dickens requested that after his death, his horse be shot and buried next to him, apparently because he loved it so. This disturbed the instructor so much that she no longer wanted to read the rest of Dickens. Generally, the instructor loved to read and had no children. Her husband worked at a local university and she had an Obama Biden bumper sticker. During a rock-n-roll dance recital, she expressed fondness for the 60s. This is what I learned about the instructor over the course of the first year. This is all I claimed to know about the instructor. I was there so my daughters could learn ballet. And as long as those agendas remained on the wall and did not intrude upon the dance floor, I was comfortable at this makeshift dance studio.
In fact, I was more than comfortable; I thoroughly enjoyed watching my daughters learn dance at this studio. Her teaching philosophy mirrored my own in some ways and her love of nature, though I was not a vegetarian, was something I shared and respected. We were introduced to the studio through other homeschooling families and the students were welcoming of my daughters, seeming pleased to be adding to their numbers. What attracted many of these families to the studio was its simplicity. The costuming consisted of a black leotard with a scarf wrapped around the dancer in different ways for each dance. Not only did this require no extra payment which I appreciated having three daughters to consider, but it also avoided the immodesty so common in many other studios. Whether this was on purpose, I’m not sure, but the dance routines reflected modesty as well. As to methodology, I appreciated that the instructor did not teach to the test. Rather than introducing techniques for a specific dance routine that would be performed at a main event at the end of the year, her primary focus was on technique and form and the dances arose out of what they were learning. The performances were scattered throughout the year and in different venues which helped to embed in the dancers that their focus was not on learning routines for one big performance, but about gradually refining their form and technique.
In the Fall, my daughters were expressing concern that they were still learning a dance routine they were expected to perform the same week. I hadn’t been observing the classes for a while, so I went to see what was concerning them. They were learning a dance choreographed by another student and not only was this student not explaining the routine clearly, she was also insisting that they “better get it right” at the concert as she pressed her finger to my daughter’s chest. Both the student’s father and the instructor noticed her treatment of my daughters. After class, the father told me to thank my daughters for being patient with his daughter. In a subsequent class, the instructor told this other student that she could not choreograph another dance because of her behavior toward my daughters. I was thankful that she addressed the situation without me having to mention it. To help my daughters “get it right,” I videotaped the dance so they could learn it in the few remaining days before the concert. Though learning a routine from a fellow student in such haste did not seem ideal, I was never a dancer so I trusted that the teacher knew what she was doing. The program description said that dancing is about problem-solving and this was a problem dancers probably faced all the time. My daughters performed the dance that Saturday and afterwards, said that they felt better about that dance than the other dances. Problem solved and lesson learned.
On a couple of occasions the instructor ventured where her opinion was not invited. The bulletin board with all the post-it notes were lists of books that the dancers had read. One time when my daughter submitted her books, she had a list of three or four Boxcar Children books. Upon seeing the list, the instructor accusingly asked, “Is that all you read?” I was taken aback when I heard the question. After this, though I never discouraged my daughters from bringing their book lists to her, I did not remind them to do so. As far as I know, they did not bring a list of books to dance class again. She also had advice for how my daughters should practice their musical instruments: thirty minutes a day. When my kids didn’t agree knowing that I had told them otherwise, she persisted and said that I, their mother, would tell them the same thing. I heard what she said but didn’t think it was necessary to contradict her or to even discuss it with her. I waited to get to the car to remind my children of my expectations. I know what works best for our family and it is not the thirty-minutes-a-day approach.
These interactions were harmless, I thought, in the scheme of things and did not alter my enjoyment of the studio. The one conversation that gave me pause was when the instructor was discouraging the girls from telling people what they wanted for special occasions. She felt that they should be interested in giving gifts rather than getting gifts. This sounds good, but consider: Children earn very little if any money of their own so they are dependent on others to provide things that will help them pursue their interests. They are also dependent on others for transportation that will enable them to buy what they want even when they have money. The instructor, on the other hand, being an adult, has the freedom to make money, save money, drive to places to buy things with her money. As I listened to this discussion, I thought about the letter she gave to parents before Christmas. She asked that we not give her Christmas gifts and that if we insisted on doing so to please donate to a certain charity. At the time, the letter struck me as . . . pretentious. So are we to believe that her disinterest in gifts is because she thinks only of giving gifts and the children’s interest in gifts is because they think only of getting gifts? Is it not possible that their differing context in life is more relevant than a difference in generosity, she being independent and them being dependent, she being able to buy things she wants at any time, and them not having such freedom? In my mind, the only reason this conversation should be had with children is if you have first determined that they are particularly demanding and even if this is the case, I’m not convinced that it would have the effect desired. While I didn’t say this in class, I assured my children later that they are free to share what they want for these special occasions because I want to know, their father wants to know, their siblings want to know, their grandparents want to know and their friends want to know. Apparently, the instructor is the only one who doesn’t want to know, and that’s fine because she doesn’t buy them gifts.
Both the letter and the conversation bothered me. They were too personal, moralistic, pretentious. It took me some time to decide whether to enroll again. After thinking it through, I concluded that it was the kind of conversation that some adults feel the compulsion to have with children, even if I do not. So, though I knew that I would be looking for another studio for the following fall, I decided to finish the year at this studio as it would be difficult to start midyear at another studio. I enrolled and paid in full for the next session - January through May. Not only did I enroll my older daughters, I also enrolled my youngest partly because one of the students in the class lived in our neighborhood and I thought it would be nice for them to get to know each other. The other reason was that she was no longer taking naps, which when I had her enrolled before made it difficult to get to lessons on time. And yet another reason was because at the Christmas concert, the instructor had the girls her age do this adorable dance where they dressed as crayons and before they started their routine, they stood under a ladder to be sharpened. The girls turned in circles and the instructor dropped shavings around them. I was hooked. We were looking forward to the next session and would have continued to enjoy the studio had the instructor not taken on another likeness to this building that housed her studio, a forgotten purpose.
To be continued . . .