My mother is a ballerina.
No, really, she is. She’s a ballerina.
Well, okay, not exactly. But I bet she’s more of a ballerina than your mother is.
Last weekend, my mom stood center stage at the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts, her feet in a perfect first position – not an easy feat in New Balance running shoes -- as she held the microphone and introduced the umpteenth spring recital of Dance Theater West. My mother will be 66 next month, but this month she was 16, en pointe as Odette the dying swan, ethereal in layers of white tulle and a sparkling crown, in Mom’s personal twist on a classic: Swan Lake with a Splash.
Her own real stage career was short in stature, just as she is. She’s always explained there wasn’t room on the stage for a 5’4” chubbette with a proclivity for orange gum drops and candy
corn (trust me, she’s exaggerating greatly, although it is true that she’s nowhere near
In any case, the New York City Ballet never called. But for as long as I can remember, my mother has taught dance. Judging from the kids who swarm her any time we’re out together in public (“Susie! Susie! Susie!” they call across the mall or the grocery store -- she’s the Pied Piper of the plie), George Balanchine hasn’t had the impact my mother has.
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I’ve always gone to her recitals. For years, long before I had kids of my own, I sat in the audience with the other family members. While they twitched and yawned through the long program, waiting for little Emily’s five minutes of fame, I was rapt, watching my mother’s spirit in each kid. It sounds corny, but I can’t come up with a better way to say it. Every toe point, every arabesque. It’s her. She floats (or trips or hops or clumps, depending on the kid) across the stage, and on the stage they are her kids, her creations, more than they are their own mothers’ children.
I have to admit that for years, I laughed through each recital. It started when the first kid took the stage, and continued
till the curtain. One of the great things about Dance Theater West is that there is no emphasis on perfection. “Don’t think about what your child can do for the art of dance,” my mom and her business partner tell the parents. “Think about what the art of dance can do for your child!”
They really mean it. So the kids trip over themselves for an hour, pleased as punch. It’s great. It’s also hilarious, particularly when you see your own mother stumbling, wandering offstage, pulling her leotard out from up her rear.
But somewhere along the way, Mom decided that while she liked the creative, loose aspect of dance, what she really loved was teaching ballet. So she stopped taking the younger kids, focusing instead on the older, more serious kids – the tweens and teens. She never got mean, kept the same generous spirit, but she did get tough. The kids responded. A couple
of years ago, watching the full length ballet that her recitals have become (the little kids now have their own show, earlier in the day) I found that I wasn’t laughing anymore. Instead, I got a little teary.
And this year, I sobbed at the sight of Katie McDowell dancing the role of Odette – her gorgeous skinny arms holding my mother’s poses, her ballet-slippered first position a mirror of my mother’s New-Balanced one.
My own daughter, Annabelle, performed earlier that day, in the kids’ recital. Naturally, I cried through that one, too. I’d been welling up for weeks, during rehearsal. Once she actually has to move across the floor, Annabelle’s just as lost as the other
five-year-olds. But standing still – lifting an arm above her head, pointing her toe to the side – she’s got “it”. Genetics at work. It skipped me, the ballet gene (although I did get the chubbette gene), but it landed hard on Annabelle.
I knew early that I’d never dance, but it was a long time before I realized how much that mattered. Not that my mom ever said she had hoped to raise little ballerinas – only that she wanted her daughters to be
happy (similarly, my dad’s never said a word about my choice of alternative journalism over his career pick,
law). But what she did want was a teenage daughter who would talk to her. For years, I’ve heard her mantra, delivered to particularly cranky, hormonal teenage ballerinas: “Honey,” she tells them, “let me have it. I was raised by the pro – there’s nothing mean you can do to me that my Amy didn’t do, when she was 15.”
It’s true. I was a bitchy teenager. And while there’s got to be some part of her that’s at least a little bit proud that she’s making other women’s daughters into the ballerina I never was (my sister, either) I think in some ways, for my mom (who is now one of my two best friends; my sister’s the other) it’s more about recreating that mother/teenage daughter relationship. She gets to do it over and over, with a new crop every year.
All that said, it was important to all of us, I think, that at least one of Susie Silverman’s grandkids love dance. The first time baby Annabelle pointed her toe, there was a collective sigh of relief; a ballerina had been born.
I lasted about three weeks in ballet, as a kid. This year marked Annabelle’s third recital. In three years, she’ll move up to her grandmother’s class. I sobbed, watching Katie McDonald, seeing my mother and imagining Annabelle as Odette.
Every year, my mother worries it’s her last. She’s healthy – the youngest almost-66-year-old I’ve ever seen. But she’s superstitious, a worry wart. She’s got to hang in there, though. Just another decade or so, til Annabelle’s ready for center stage.
About the Author:
Amy Silverman lives in Tempe, Arizona with her husband
Ray Stern and daughters Annabelle and Sophie.
When she's not wiping noses and butts at home, she's associate editor of New
Times, the alt weekly in Phoenix, where she also spends a lot of time wiping
noses and butts -- and editing. She's a contributor to KJZZ, the Phoenix NPR affiliate, and although having
kids has pretty much limited her traveling to San
Diego and Disneyland, she's been writing quite a bit
lately for The New York Times travel section.
Amy's proud to say she's been published by both
Playboy and Fit Pregnancy, and that John McCain once
yelled, "Can't you shut your daughter up?" at her father in the Senate dining room,
to which her father responded that that was impossible.
Amy likes to balance her motherfucker persona at the
alt weekly by co-teaching the Mothers Who Write workshop, which focuses on memoir/fiction and poetry
for mothers of all ages and writing experiences.