My older daughter told me recently that she wants to quit ballet.
What? I said. Quit ballet? You’ve been studying ballet since preschool! You were one of the most graceful toddlers in the synagogue’s auxiliary gymnasium!
But ballet is starting to get more demanding, she said. And she has so many other activities. Like swim team. And acting class. And piano lessons.
I get it. But the truth was, I felt a little ambivalent about her decision. In part, that is because I’m a little ambivalent about almost everything. I have a hard time committing to a brand of hand soap. I’m one of those people who takes a really long time ordering at a restaurant, because I have to consider -- and systematically reject -- every other item on the menu. And nothing sends my ambivalence into overdrive like parenting. Wait, what? I’m supposed to guide you in making a decision -- which you feel compelled to resolve at the age of 8 -- and which will almost certainly have lifelong consequences? Awesome. Because I just switched over to a new brand of hand soap and I’m feeling really good about it. So I am totally ready to take on the next thing.
I wouldn’t feel nearly as much angst if my daughter had decided to quit something that isn’t quite so hard to learn. Like cycling. Or snowshoeing. But ballet dancing isn’t one of those professions you can just pick up later in life. For fun. I mean, let's be honest. The Russians kick the dead wood out of their dance classes by kindergarten. But even in this country, becoming a ballerina takes years of training. You spend several hours a week at the barre, just learning how to point your foot harder. You have to know the French word for almost every step – including over, under, beat, and cut -- so that by the sixth grade, you can execute all of those French commands on the tops of your toes.
Sure honey, I thought. Take a few years off. Explore some other interests. Go to Burning Man, if that makes sense to you. But good luck returning to ballet in middle school. When you’re already used to eating. And having normal-looking feet. And you have no idea what glissade means.
On the other hand, there are good things about quitting ballet at a young age too. Everyone knows that by the time kids get to middle school, they start splitting up into athletic groupings based on their natural physical traits. The tall kids go out for basketball. The short kids become gymnasts. Or cockswains. Left-handed children with glasses sit quietly in art class and draw spooky pictures of wizards.
And by the time this athletic differentiation occurs, there is only one group of people – apart from those tiny plastic figurines in your jewelry box, who are not actually people – who can perform 32 consecutive turns on one foot, with their toes jammed into a cardboard box. And those are the svelte girls who have toothpicks for arms, number 2 pencil legs, and necks like a baby giraffe.
I know this because I devoted much of my childhood to dancing. By the time I was 12, I was performing in a local (amateur) dance company. Our ballet teacher rode us like miniature ponies at the state fair. Although I later discovered that she intimidated many students with her drill sergeant demeanor, I frankly never noticed. Probably because I went to Catholic school for 8 years, with the same plain-clothes squad of nuns patrolling the classrooms.
But I worked hard. So hard that one weekend – while I was rehearsing on pointe, as an understudy for one of the toothpicks – I tore a plantar wart right out of my foot. And that was objectively gross. But it was also sort of lucky. Because my ballet teacher was so mean, she wouldn’t let me take time off to get it properly treated by a podiatrist anyway.
Yet it soon became clear to me that I had no future as a dancer. Not a ballet dancer, anyway, or any sort of Rockette. I was blessed with a sturdy, athletic frame that is naturally suited for many different kinds of activities. Especially ones that involve digging up potatoes, or climbing up trees to escape British soldiers. But in the world of ballet, being strong and sturdy doesn't cut it. You also have to be reasonably long and lean and have legs that are longer than your torso. Unlike me, my daughter trends on the tall side. She received at least half of her genetic material from her father, whose people are much more optimally-proportioned than mine. But what if my gene pool ultimately takes over, and she just grows up to look like a leggy cockswain?
Perhaps this discussion seems superficial to you. And I don’t mean to sound like a Chinese gymnastics coach, or a member of the East German women’s swim team. But dig this, dreamers. Ballet is one of those disciplines where physical capability – and proportions -- do matter. It can hardly be a coincidence that the world’s most popular ballets – including Coppelia, A Midsummer’s Night Dream, and The Nutcracker – were staged at roughly the same time that Charles Darwin’s half cousin, Sir Francis Galton, began categorizing people by the circumference of their heads. Eugenics is totally evil. And over time, its practice became widely discredited. But like it or not, it remains the unofficial mantra of every classical ballet teacher in the western world who’s ever tried to squeeze a big-boned peasant woman into the bodice of a child-sized tutu.
I realize I have some personal baggage around this issue. Ultimately, I'm probably just ambivalent about my daughter’s decision to quit ballet because I know first-hand what happens when you quit ballet.
And what happens is that you end up working at Arby’s.
Why Arby’s? It's a good question. I guess I'd have to say, because it was the 1980’s. And it was the Midwest. Because this town has a lot of fast food restaurants -- more fast food restaurants per capita, in fact, than almost any place in the country. When I say that, I’m obviously using the word restaurant very loosely. But when I was growing up, fast food was just the path of least resistance. Much more so, anyway, than pursuing an “educational internship.” Whatever that was.
I did have a gift for food assembly. Nobody at the Arby’s restaurant on South Park street could drizzle au jus sauce on a roast beef sandwich as skillfully as I could. I know this because at 14, I was chosen to be Park Street Arby’s Employee of the Month. Not once, but twice. And that was awesome because really -- who needs a Broadway dance career when you can spend your days wiping exploded ketchup packets off the floor? And serving dogfood-grade meat to your fellow townies? And riding your bike back and forth to work every day -- in a brown polyester pants suit that was perpetually stained with garbage -- for only 3 dollars an hour?
Perhaps the best explanation for why I worked at Arby’s, though, is that after quitting ballet, I had absolutely no idea what to do with my free time. Some people may want to work at Arby’s. They may like working at Arby's and if that’s the case, more power to them. And no offense to the Arby’s Employee of the Month program. But heating up au jus sauce in a tin crock to the same temperature every day is not a super challenging task. Remembering to ask customers if they want fries with their chicken sandwich doesn’t contribute much to your personal growth. And warming a triangular dessert food – which the management team routinely referred to as “pie,” with no sense of irony whatsoever – doesn’t feel like an investment in the future.
In that sense, I guess Arby's was the perfect job for me at that time. Because this is what I wrote, that very same summer, in my diary: “I really don’t care about my future. At all.”
When I wasn’t working at Arby’s, I did keep myself pretty busy. After slinging the au jus on Park street, my friends and I might slather ourselves with baby oil and lay out all afternoon, on a narrow strip of sand next to a small lake that Midwesterners like to call a “beach.” Or we might slather ourselves with baby oil, tie our inner tubes to the dock, and float there for a few hours, a little bit stoned. And why not? It was the perfect activity to take on, after eating a big lunch of Arby’s roast beef sandwiches.
When we needed a break from getting sunburned -- or it was a rainy day -- we watched MTV. Kids these days can’t possibly understand the appeal of sitting in front of the television -- for hours and hours on end -- waiting for their favorite video to come on. Back then, in 1984, we didn’t mind staring at MTV all day. That is because it was still pretty new. My friends and I still loved Duran Duran. And personally, I had a lot of free time on my hands. I had absolutely no hobbies whatsoever.
It does sometimes bother me – now that my memory is starting to falter – that I still remember so much about MTV. I can remember almost nothing from high school Calculus. I have forgotten most of the names of the clever people in my Freshman dorm. I can recall very few of the Broadway shows I saw in New York, including (ironically enough) The Madwoman of Chaillot, which my mother recently told me we saw. Yet I can somehow recall every single video by Culture Club, Tommy Tutone, ZZ Top, Aha -- and of course, Duran Duran -- that MTV aired between 1983 and 1985.
And those weren't the most common ones either. I saw a lot of Asia’s best work that summer, for example. If I had to guess, I’d bet I watched Heat of the Moment almost 200 times. And what a fabulous concept. A live stage performance of Asia, cut into a Brady Bunch-grid of random visual images. A girl. A tambourine. Hourglasses. A bouquet of carnations. 16 small bouquets of carnations. Then faces. Faces smiling. Faces frowning. Faces getting slapped. Looking back, I have no idea what any of those images meant. And even today, I’m still a little confused by the fact that nobody in that band was actually Asian. But at the time, I didn’t care. I had all day. Duran Duran was coming on soon. And also -- did I mention – I had absolutely no hobbies. Whatsoever.
Another one of my personal favorites was Survivor’s Eye of the Tiger. Because that was a classic song, performed by aging rockers who were not the least bit afraid to use a wind machine. There they were. Just marching down the street –with their berets, and their mullets -- right into the wind machine. They did have man boobs. In retrospect, that video may have been more boobalicious than Centerfold by The J. Geils Band, which -- awesomely, I think -- got an early jump on the theme of Catholic pedophilia by staging a video in a school classroom surrounded by a bunch of young women in cheap lingerie.
Still, J. Geils was no Steve Miller Band. What member of the MTV generation doesn’t remember the video for Abracadabra? I couldn’t tell you what the hell that video was even about. But I remember with perfect clarity that it also involved some old guys. And a wind machine. Not to mention, a Freddy Kreuger mask, and a French mime pulling a dove out of a balloon. “Blank panties with an angel’s face." Oh my God - I just put it together -- was he talking about the mime?
And don't forget about Toto’s Rosanna. Man, could those guys snap. They were like, a whole band full of cool dudes in aviator glasses, snapping on a set that appeared to have been stolen from West Side Story. Except that it also featured a crazy blond woman in a red dress, who was trapped on the other side of the chain link fence, doing a strip tease dance to a synthesizer solo. Was that supposed to be Rosanna Arquette, or was that just a joke? If you don’t get that cultural reference, please don’t worry about it. You were probably doing something else at the time. Like hobbies.
I’m not saying it was a bad summer. I was a little stupid and confused but I did have fun. And over time, my diary entries got marginally less depressing. Eventually, I even branched out and joined the tennis team. I made JV.
Still, when I look back, I think that quitting ballet -- at the same time that I was hitting adolescence, and becoming a poster child for the MTV generation -- wasn’t an ideal scenario. If you’re going to quit ballet – or let your daughter quit ballet, as the case may be -- it’s probably better to do it in elementary school. When she’s not yet old enough to get a lame job. And she’s still wearing sunscreen. And she still takes advice from her mom, about how it’s good to have hobbies, and care about her future.
And I'm sure it will all work out in the end. Who knows – she might end up getting really into snowshoeing.