culture by any other name

I have to admit, I didn’t exactly grow up in a cultural hothouse. My dad’s favorite singers were Hank Williams and Johnny Cash. I remember having the Columbia Records Library of Classical Music, but I don’t remember ever hearing it played.

In one sister’s room, I could hear kind of a hush with the Herman’s Hermits and in another, climb Stairways to Heaven. (I’m pretty sure the real heaven, should it have stairways, does not have the cochlea-decimating decibels that hers had. But I could be wrong.)

Going to plays meant seeing my sister be a turkey in the Thanksgiving first-grade special. And dance? Well, where does dancing in the living room to the aforementioned Hank Williams fall on the cultural scale? (Dad did teach me some serious jitterbug skills. But that’s another story.)

The cultural high point of my young life was probably my mother taking me to the Woodstock Theater (real plush curtains–in a movie theater!) to see My Fair Lady. True, a devout love of musical theater has stuck. But were it not for junior high and high school field trips, I probably wouldn’t have had much exposure to museums, orchestras, or theatre with an “re.” If not for high school chorus, I might still think Handel was something found on a car door. Not that my parents wouldn’t have liked all those things, but let’s face it, with seven kids, my parents were lucky to get to the dollar movie for Love Story.

Were it not for those trips, I would not have discovered my love for a Chicago holiday institution–the Nutcracker Ballet at McCormick Center. Since then, I have been as passionate about seeing the Nutcracker as some people are about seeing Elvis. (Unfortunately, I’ve managed it about as often. Being cultural is expensive.)

So, when my second child showed some promise of grace and rhythm, I did what any suburban mother does. Enrolled her in ballet, at age 4. She was born to dance in her little French maid costume (purple, with feathers), and was, of course the shining star of the class. Meaning, that at four years old, she didn’t fall over once in the recital and she ended facing the right direction. But she was less than enthusiastic, and unlike a good suburban mom, I didn’t push it. I let her quit.

Over ensuing years, she tried soccer (great goalie, but the concept of kicking and running at the same time was kind of lost on her); track (hmmm, tall; you get hurdles); violin (fun, until high school teachers deemed orchestra was not primarily a social club); show choir (“All of these girls are 5’1″ and blonde, mom.”). And finally her niche, voice and theater.

So I was somewhat startled by her proclamation at 16 that she wanted to take ballet. Really? And more startled when, after a few months, she accosted me rather indignantly, “I love this! Why didn’t you ever put me in it before?”

“Um, I did.”
“Yes. Four years old. Glen Ellyn Park District.”
“Oh. So why am I not a prima ballerina now?”
“You quit.”
“Why didn’t you make me keep it up?”
“‘Cause I’m a terrible slacker mother who cares less about the welfare and passions of my children than where I’m going to get my next chai latte.”

National Ballet Day was yesterday. Who knew that, 13 years later, we’d be celebrating it? I’m pretty convinced that the reason we are celebrating it that this child, allowed to pursue and discard her own passions over the years, knows now who she is and what she loves. I couldn’t force that at four. I can’t do it now at seventeen. And maybe she’s behind all the girls her age who have been dancing since three. Maybe she’ll never get a college scholarship for it or dance the Sugar Plum Fairy. (Though she played her in a Nutcracker play.) But–she loves to dance. That, my cultural and noncultural friends, is something to celebrate.

4 thoughts on “culture by any other name

  1. Jill I loved this post today! I never pushed my son either and I too have often wondered if I did him a disservice. SO glad it has worked out for your daughter the way it has- still looking for the carrot to dangle in front of my son to help him discover what he can be passionate about!


  2. We had this experience with our daughter and beautify pageants. Entered her first one at age 14…didn't do well but said she had a lot of fun. Nineteen pageants later at age 18 she won a title of Miss Franklin County Teenager. Fun to see her progress and growth through stiff competition.


  3. Jill: I'm a fellow member of the Pencil Box Crew.

    What a lovely story. I'm so happy your daughter found her niche.

    A similar thing happened with our son, only we forced him to stay with guitar lessons the summer he turned 14. In spite of tears and begging, we didn't relent. He's a talented musician now, as well as a stellar animator.

    I have a great drawing for a basket of 35 office products on my blog this week..


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