Surveying the large room through her enormous steel blue eyes, four-year-old Nicole shriveled into a pink and white ball in her oversize tutu and began to sob. “It’s okay, honey,” I tried to encourage. “Come play with the other children.” But the more I persuaded, the more the water works flowed.
Every week for the past eighteen years, I’ve spent my Tuesdays with a couple dozen preschoolers dressed in bolts of netting, satin ribbons, feathers, butterfly wings and plastic jewelry. We’ve wiggled to Elmo on “Sesame Street,” we hopped up and down to Tigger the Tiger from “Winnie-the-Pooh,” and “Bopped til We Drop.” These afternoons are free flowing and non-threatening but for some strange reason, Nicole saw this as the ultimate kiss of death. In her mind, she was going to be left all alone with a weird woman with wild hair and several other squirrelly children shaking willy-nilly. Soon the convulsions started. Her chest began to heave and her breathing momentary halted as she geared up for another wail. Copious tears rapidly started to flow and there wouldn’t be enough tissues in the whole building to mop up deluge.
Being the well trained, experienced dance teacher that I am, I knew if I didn’t get help soon, I’d end up completely covered in her lunch. Young children have a habit of tossing their last meal, as if it were a projectile missile, when mixed with sobs of hysteria.
Tip toeing quickly to the door, I gently called to her father. “Rich, you may want to come in here.” Following my advice, this handsome young man, who I’m sure suffered many a nose bleed due to his high stature, ambled is six-foot-four frame next to his teeny daughter. Grabbing his right leg, with the top of her long brown curls barely touching his knee cap, Nicole hung on as if he was a soldier about to be shipped out to sea.
“Just sit in here for awhile until she warms up,” I pleaded. “I’ve got to get back to the other children before I have anarchy on my hands.”
Standing next to his first born, this walking human beanstalk took his daughter’s hand and led her to the center of the room. Slowly he nudged, but again the damn broke. “Daddy, don’t leave me!” Nicole cried. “Don’t make me do this.” Bending down on his knees until they were nose-to-nose, Rich gently whispered in her ear, “I’ll do it with you. There’s nothing to be afraid of.” Wrapping her entire young hand around his middle two fingers, the pair proceeded to skipped around the floor. Next came the ballerina twirls and, with his arms nearly touching the ceiling, he spun his way back. But the most endearing moment was watching him stand in the middle of twenty four-year-olds swaying side to side, hands on his hips, and acting like a fairy princess.
“Wow!” I exclaimed. “You deserve a prize. I’ve never seen a dad do that before.”
For a brief second Rich paused, and then with a quizzical smile, he replied, “Isn’t this part of the job?”
That precious moment was two years ago and I’ve thought of it often, especially when I see how Nicole’s blossomed in class. More importantly, however, I’ve remembered it because it takes me back to my own dance beginnings with my father.
From the moment I was born, music spoke to me. The instant the radio or record player was turned on, I became a whirling dervish, flaying my arms and legs about the room in hedonistic fashion as if I was a pagan honoring a golden cow in a religious ceremony. Most of the time, I was fine to perform solo, but the minute my dad walked into the room, I’d jump into his arms, hugged him tight and placed my tiny feet on top of his highly shined shoes.
“Dance with me, daddy,” I’d squeal, sounding like a joyful piglet rolling around in it’s favorite mud puddle. Firmly holding me, he dizzily spun me about the room over and over until I plopped on the couch from exhaustion. Only a few seconds of rest were necessary before I leaped up and pleaded to do it all over again.
While this recollection is precious, the real reason I hold it dear to my heart is because of what went behind his action. My father was not the most proficient creature on two legs when it came to “cutting the rug.” A little stiff and awkward, he basically stood and acted like a pole while my mother gyrated around him whenever they had an opportunity to twirl on a dance floor. She had the magical gift of making any Fred Flintstone look like the dashing Fred Astaire. Moving to the beat was not a natural act, but in those rare moments of my early childhood, he’d stepped out of his comfort zone and “boogied on down” because he knew how much I loved it. For him, helping his only daughter blossom, despite how uncomfortable it made him feel, was part of his job.
Growing up as an Irish Catholic to immigrant parents, Jack Madden’s life was steeped with tradition. There was order to world and strict rules were required to be followed. As a child, he did what he was told and lived as expected. But when it came to his own children, he allowed us the opportunity to follow our own path. While he imparted his wisdom and demonstrated moral living by example, we were never forced to be like him, live like him or think like him. I’m sure it must have been disheartening at times, especially since it was my baby boomer generation who broke all the rules and ignored our forefather’s customs. But my father provided an environment where my three brothers and I were permitted to forge through our own jungle until we found the life that what was right for us.
As a small girl, I physically danced with my daddy. We did the two step, fox trot and jitterbug on the forest green carpet of our living room and, just like Rich, it was my dad who took me terrified to my first dance class at six-years-old. Holding my frightened hand, he led me to the center of the room to join all the other little girls at the ballet barre and never left until he knew I felt safe.
Unfortunately, as the years ensued there were fever opportunities for us to “strut our stuff.” A debilitating stoke twenty-five years ago destroyed his once strong legs, but that never deterred my ninety-three-year-old father and I from continuing to enjoy a beautiful waltz together – the well orchestrated dance of love and respect between two hearts. By allowing me the freedom to explore my life and his unconditional love, even though he didn’t always agree or approve, my father gave me his blessing to become the woman I was meant to be.
To all you fathers who’ve impacted and nurtured your childrens’ lives by stepping out of your comfort zones to dance, whether it be in mind, body or soul – this one’s for you! You are the choreographer that gives a child the courage to stand on the center stage of life.