My dancer son nears middle school years
By KRIS BERGGREN
The Christmas season is approaching, and in our house letters to Santa are being composed, gifts for far-away loved ones purchased, and party plans in the works. In our house its also Nutcracker time. Among the dozens of local versions of Tchaikovskys classic ballet set on Christmas Eve in Russia is the City Childrens Nutcracker, which involves hundreds of local children as dancers, plus a few ringers as the main characters.
The dancers have been rehearsing for weeks now, striving to perfect basic ballet technique and get the choreography down pat. Theyve been measured for costumes, the CD version of the work is getting lots of airtime at home, and the box office is moving tickets. This year my 8-year-old daughter will perform, following in the footsteps of her older brother, who is 10.
I went through the ballerina phase when I was a kid. I never dreamed I could be the next Mia Hamm, Jennifer Lobos or Marian Jones. A prima ballerina, that was in the parameters. My brothers could run track and play football and Little League. I stuck to just-for-fun kickball in the backyard or the street. In those days the slogan, Youve come a long way, baby referred to a brand of cigarette, not any achievement or accomplishment by women.
Well, I didnt grow up to be a dancer, but I did grow up to be a mom. Elated at the birth of my firstborn, I already had plans for him: My boy would grow up to be a fine, compassionate human being, raised in a non-sexist atmosphere where he would never be pigeonholed into playing with guns and trucks while his sisters got Barbies and ballet classes. His dad, by all accounts a jock as a kid, anticipated teaching our son to pitch the strike zone, swish free throws, and handle a hat trick -- though he would also read with him, take him to piano lessons, teach him to cook.
Today at age 10, my son is a compassionate and fine human being. Several mothers of girls in his class have confided that while their daughters arent especially partial to boys, they do like my son, because hes gentle, quiet and respectful. He loves piano, singing, reading and art. Though he likes gym and plays a little soccer and tennis, my tall son with the broad shoulders never scans the box scores in the sports section of the newspaper or pines after a certain hockey stick or baseball glove. I bet he couldnt name five professional athletes. But he loves to dance. His face lights up when its time to go to Nutcracker practice. So whats the problem?
The problem is that boys dont dance.
I am fortunate to travel in circles that include lots of creative types, artists, performers, poets and teachers -- and their kids -- who applaud my sons interest. But as he approaches those unforgiving middle school years, even his teacher wondered aloud if there was something we could do to toughen him up just a bit.
Most parents probably are just as happy if their girls act like tomboys -- that is, interested in sports, science and climbing trees, all things once considered boys realm. But its still not OK for boys to be interested in things traditionally relegated to girlish interests. We dont even have a name for it, except the ugly sissy. I will never forget what I saw in a toy store several years ago: I noticed a little boy, maybe 5 years old, who had picked up a baton and begun to twirl it. His mother barked at him as if hed just picked up a dead animal: Put that down! Thats for girls! So thats it, I thought. Were afraid our boys are going to be too much like girls if theyre allowed to do girl things. Or, were afraid theyre going to be gay. (Ive got news for you, if you think playing with batons or going to dance class will make your son gay: If hes gay, hes gay. There are gay football and hockey players -- the macho of the macho. There are straight dancers and hairdressers. Get over it.)
Lets get cross-cultural for a minute. In many societies spanning the continents and human history, men, not women, have been the dancers. A poem by Timothy Young, Men Dont Dance in America, includes these lines:
Dancing is the library of our bodies, and dancing is the history of our souls.
I have a proposition. This Christmas, lets all give our children the greatest gift of all, the gift of loving them for who they are, not what they do, and allowing them to love what they love. My dream is that one day a mother can rejoice with her son the dancer as proudly as she does about her son -- or daughter -- the goalie or shortstop. Until then, Im here to tell you, we havent really come all that far, baby.
Kris Berggren writes from Minneapolis. She can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
National Catholic Reporter, December 8, 2000