Dancing with Parker, One Class at a Time

I am a choreographer. Well…I am a lot of things, but I am also a choreographer. Mostly for musical theatre, but I also choreograph a myriad of other types of things. (If you look carefully, you can see that my profile photo is actually inside a theatre.) I spent years as a dance teacher, as well, but I gave up the restrictive studio life in exchange for the freedoms that being a freelance choreographer afforded me.

What is the point of telling the aforementioned? When you have children, I think it’s natural to hope that that your offspring follow in your footsteps. We want them to be our little protégés. But I think we want them to be better than we were, should our child choose the same path as us. And you can look at this two ways—we want the same things for our children because we want to be able to share our passions with them, or it’s just selfish longing. Either way you personally feel about it, I try to be mindful of pushing my passions on my boys.

Starting at four years old, my mom sent me off to hula lessons every Saturday morning. It was kind of the thing that every parent in my neighborhood did with their kids back in the late 70s/early 80s. Four is a good age to start trying out structured activities and classes. They are starting to be interested in trying out new things and have enough focus for classes. It’s also a great age for large-group socialization. I went from hula into a variety of classical dance classes—tap, jazz and ballet. I have two younger sisters and two younger brothers who also, starting between four and seven-years-old, took dance lessons. Collectively, the five of us spent six days a week in a dance studio. This is the life I know. Now that I have two little boys reaching an age in which we should be exploring their potential interests, I am trying to be open-minded, but it’s definitely a challenge for me as I have fantasies of them being on So You Think You Can Dance “Team Street” or in the next national tour of Newsies.

My first-born, like all first-borns, has been our big experiment; so needless to say, Peter and I are probably screwing up left and right with him. I had this grand idea that if I dragged him around with me from the time he was born, he would naturally take to all social situations and innately love all things arts and performance-related. So from infancy, I strapped him to my back (and often to my front) and took him to rehearsals with me. Parker attended choreography and dress rehearsals for at least two community theatre musical at a major theater before he was walking. I stuck him in a pack-n-play at my side during dance rehearsals in preparation for a student Christmas concert. During the spring musical season at my school, he would would go to Saturday rehearsals with me where my student Assistant Director would watch him when I wasn’t using him as a human prop to demonstrate lifts to dancers. When he started walking, I brought along toys, snacks and sometimes  baby gates and continued our routine. As time went on, however, Parker wasn’t quite as on board with my plans.

As he got older, Parker started clinging to my leg during rehearsals. Try demonstrating grande battements with a twenty-month-old sitting on your foot wrapped around your shin as if your leg were a dingy in the middle of the Pacific. Other parents would assist by peeling him off, whisking him away and providing him with distractions so that I could do my job, but this often resulted in his screaming endlessly. It got so bad that when Parker started talking and would see me don a pair of yoga pants, he would immediately say, “Mommy, I don’t want to see the dancing people.” I began to realize that my plan of inundating him with music and dance had backfired in a big way and I resigned myself to coordinating with Peter to leave him at home where he was happier.

Now that Parker is four, I have jumped on the athletics bandwagon and he is registered for soccer, which will start soon. I figure this will be good for running out all of his energy and I will get a better idea if he likes sports. If he does, I will go from there. In my heart I would like him to be interested in dance or gymnastics, but for now I will be happy integrating him into any group activity, and as I said earlier, truly he has to discover his own passions.

A few weeks ago I received a Facebook invitation from a friend and colleague to a new class she is starting up for children and adults. Lisa Kimsey is a long-time dance teacher, educator, choreographer and the founder of The Movement Center in Hawaii. She has created a new class that combines BrainDance with creative movement and skills development. BrainDance was developed by Anne Greene Gilbert and is a series of movements/exercises based on eight developmental movement patterns that people move through in the first year of life. This type of “dancing” is a great full-body and brain warm-up that children can use for dance and sports. In addition to movement, the technique incorporates breathing, stress reduction, and even develops social skills. Since I have been looking for something for Parker to try, this sounded perfect!

After signing up for the introductory class, I prepared Parker by talking about it in a very general way, telling him that he would be experiencing a fun class where he would meet new friends. The idea of meeting friends definitely piqued his interest.

On the day of the class, Peter made the mistake of asking Parker, “Are you excited for your dance class?” I could have killed him. Seriously. Thinking I was dragging him to a dance class, Parker immediately did not want to go. So I “corrected” Peter by telling him, “No, Daddy, this is our special class where we are going to play with friends,” while shooting Peter the “I-am-going-to-kill-you-later” look. I managed to reluctantly get him in the car (with my yoga pants successfully donned), and off we went to our special class to play with friends.

As I expected, Parker stopped dead in his tracks at the door when he saw a bunch of excited students ranging from three to six years old bouncing around the room. I had to carry him in, put him in my lap in the circle, and was one of only three parents who needed to participate with their child, but I was determined to get him through it.

Photo courtesy of Caryn Yee and Smarty Dance

The first few teacher-lead exercises required me to physically guide Parker because he was still very reluctant, and, man, was I getting a workout! Having to slide my butt forward and backward across the floor while taking my forty-pound child with me was a lot more than I expected to do on a Sunday afternoon. By the fourth exercise when we were rolling onto our backs with our feet wiggling in the air, Parker was beginning to let go of me and try on his own. We moved on to pretending to be various animals, and he willingly pretended along with the group. We learned new vocabulary and skills that included “on balance” and “off balance,” and while music played and he flitted around the room practicing poses and his balances, he ventured farther and farther away from me. I was able to step away from the students’ playing area and let my own child explore his imagination and physicalities by himself.

Watching this unfold was magical for me. This wasn’t just about him discovering dance. This was about learning, being imaginative, exploring his physical space, and his being brave and taking risks away from me and under the guidance of an amazing dance educator. This is ultimately what I want—for my son to grow, be inspired by great people, have positive and fun learning experiences that my husband and I cannot necessarily provide, and, hopefully, find his passions along the way.

When the class was over, Parker was bouncing to the car, still full of excitement, and we talked about it on the ride home. He shared his experience in great detail with Peter when we got home, and I knew it was a hit. Throughout the week, he has also talked about wanting to go back to his “special class.” We have watched him practicing his balance poses and triumphantly telling us that he can “balance” because he learned it in his class. Demonstrating retention and connection of skills goes above and beyond my expectations because I was just hoping he would enjoy himself enough that I would be able to get him to go back!

As a dance-mom-to-be, I will be signing up Parker for Smarty Dance at The Movement Center as soon as a class time is scheduled. Will he be this generation’s Gene Kelly? I can continue to dream, but for now I am excited for the learning that will take place and for the hope that he will eventually want to try other dance classes. And I will continue to don yoga pants because I anticipate having to help him transition into class a little at first, but feel pretty certain that his needing assistance will be short-lived and I can go on to being a greenroom mom very soon.


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