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My dancer son nears middle school years


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 it’s also “Nutcracker” time. Among the dozens of local versions of Tchaikovsky’s classic ballet set on Christmas Eve in Russia is the “City Children’s 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. They’ve 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, “You’ve come a long way, baby” referred to a brand of cigarette, not any achievement or accomplishment by women.

Well, I didn’t 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 aren’t especially partial to boys, they do like my son, because he’s 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 couldn’t name five professional athletes. But he loves to dance. His face lights up when it’s time to go to “Nutcracker” practice. So what’s the problem?

The problem is that boys don’t 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 son’s 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 it’s still not OK for boys to be interested in things traditionally relegated to girlish interests. We don’t 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 he’d just picked up a dead animal: “Put that down! That’s for girls!” So that’s it, I thought. We’re afraid our boys are going to be too much like girls if they’re allowed to do “girl” things. Or, we’re afraid they’re going to be gay. (I’ve got news for you, if you think playing with batons or going to dance class will “make” your son gay: If he’s gay, he’s gay. There are gay football and hockey players -- the macho of the macho. There are straight dancers and hairdressers. Get over it.)

Let’s 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 Don’t Dance in America,” includes these lines:

Dancing is the library of our bodies, and dancing is the history of our souls.
But we’re not like Lakota or the African Zulu, we don’t understand the beating drum. White men don’t dance in America.
Dancing is motion that’s more than emotion, it heralds men to the dreamworld. Dancing is immediate, the negation of age, it carries us into our boy joy.
It’s boy joy, it’s boy joy, it’s boy joy ... it’s joy.

I have a proposition. This Christmas, let’s 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, I’m here to tell you, we haven’t really come all that far, baby.

Kris Berggren writes from Minneapolis. She can be reached by e-mail at bergolk@earthlink.net

National Catholic Reporter, December 8, 2000