The Bullet Proof Baby: Ch. 8 - Thing One & Thing Two
The Bullet Proof Baby: Ch. 10 - The Tiger Mom Agreement

The Bullet Proof Baby: Ch. 9 - A Vaganova Head

Vaganova Head

She came so far, so fast, and neither of us saw it. She saw the things that weren't good enough and I saw the way she caved in on herself every single time she missed the mark. I held my breath and bit my tongue. Once upon a time ballet dancers do not coach their offspring; it's reprehensible.  

We all miss the mark. All dancers miss the mark. If that wasn't true, Wendy Whelan would have would have emerged from her mother's womb with the perfect arch and an astonishing turnout. Ballet dancers do not sprout pancake tutus on their fourteenth birthdays, but it is still a horrible truth that this line of demarcation might as well be engraved in bedrock. Especially Mr. Balanchine's Bedrock. It is also true that human children develop at their own pace. While I agree it is important, but not imperative, to establish turnout very early, I do not agree with an arbitrary line. The judgement at fourteen of 'yes, a dancer' or 'not a dancer' is like establishing an education path based on a standardized test at fourteen. 

Several of the brightest and most successful people I know were not functionally literate until their late twenties. I wasn't mathematically literate until I was twenty-three. One day it wasn't there, and the next day I was inhaling calculus for breakfast. Some people dance effortlessly and some people take forever to learn what seems like a simple variation. The connection between mind and body is not a straight line and the bridges required to complete the connection come in their own time, if they come at all. How can you be certain? You can't, and this is why we make a choice.  


There are two primary schools of dance: Dance or Die, and Everything Else. Dance or Die isn't a guaranteed heartbreak, but there is going to be a hole in your middle eventually. That's what dance or die means. When a person packs it all up and heads for The Big City (pick one) to act, or make music, or write books, they have not necessarily invested the entirety of their childhood at the expense of all other things. Olympic hopefuls have done this thing; entire lives given over to a single state of being. Never mind the associated financial cost. How does a parent even make this decision? Not lightly.

There are two primary types of Dance or Die dancers: Dance or Die, and Rate of Return. Anywhere in the world, the starting salary at a major company is less than $15,000. You cannot live on that. No one can live on that. They live on it anyway. You could spend your entire viable life as a dancer in the back row of the second core of a second rate company and have very little to show for it at twenty-eight, the first time you injure a body part. Elizabeth did not want this life. Maybe soloist at ABT would have been enough, but I doubt it. The girl didn't want to be Wendy Whelan so much as have the ability to transform herself in that way. The girl wanted to fly with all her heart and soul. 

In December of 2014 she took herself off the pre-professional track. She marched her classically trained Vaganova self to one of the better known schools of Everything Else. After all, a step-down process beats cold turkey any day, right? I don't know that it does. I expected her heart to break the day she slipped off the narrow pink waist band and cut the ribbons from her slippers, but it didn't. Those are symbols, part of a required uniform. They are not the angle of her arms, the shape of her hands, that minute but unmistakable difference in turnout, or the specific precision of her bourees. And most assuredly, they are not the angle of her Vaganova head, sculpted until it could turn no other way.

Her heart broke later and I wish, I wish, I wish...


She started at Ridgefield the second week of January and by the third she was in trouble. What she was, was not wanted or needed. What she was, needed to be beaten out of her and she did take one hell of beating. I don't think she would have stayed another two years if it hadn't been for that first audition.

I don't know what the hell got into her. Making the leap from Ridgefield to a summer intensive with the French Academie of Ballet is bit like trying to step back onto the platform with your eyes shut. It takes an act of faith, incredible courage, or both to even submit the paperwork. I stopped breathing for a while and eventually surrendered to the process. After all, it wasn't mine, it was hers. When she was accepted at FAB, the lights came back on. Maybe not at 100 Watts, but there was light in the room. She danced in the city for three weeks. That might not sound like quite so much until you think about what's happening in that studio. It was very clear that seven months later, a couple of those missing bridges mysteriously built themselves. 

There are no recitals at Dance or Die schools. There might be a presentation at the end of the year, mostly for the family. There are no presentations at the end of most summer intensives. She went back to Ridgefield with a Company Jacket and took another beating for the next nine months. When a person is told, on a regular basis, just exactly how much they suck, life is pretty dark. My theory is that being accepted to the FAB, The Bolshoi, and Ailey 2016 intensives got her through the year. It is very hard to take that sort evidence away from a person. 

I have no idea how she got into the Ailey program. She has no idea how she got into the Ailey program. All we know is that she wanted it bad enough to let the FAB and Bolshoi invitations expire. It was going to be Ailey or nothing. The Ailey audition process is a lot longer. Separate auditions are held in at least five major US cities and several countries for a single five-week program. It's a very long wait.  Most companies want a response no later than the third week in March. The letter from Ailey came three weeks after the Bolshoi deadline. FAB expired shortly thereafter. Nothing like cutting the lines to the reserve parachute before you even know if the main will open.


The main opened.


Both the Bolshoi and Ailey auditions have two parts. The second part happens after half the room receives a tap on the shoulder. Ailey did something a little better than the Bolshoi, which is fine, there is no reason to expect an explanation when you've received a tap on the shoulder. You suck it up, collect your things, and then maybe throw up in the parking lot. 

There were at least sixty young women in that room which left at least sixty parents in the warmup room. We sat in chairs, we sat on the floor, some of us cried. About halfway through the first part, five or six teachers came into the room to talk to us. They wanted us to understand what they were looking for. More importantly than that, they wanted us to explain to our girls that they'd done nothing wrong, weren't failures, not 'less than', and should be encouraged to keep dancing and to come back and try again next year. 

When his daughter came back to the room, with twenty to thirty other girls, the man next to me pulled her into his belly and chest, swaddled her in his heart, and sobbed with her. Then he bent down and wiped off her face and said, we'll be back year. 

When my daughter did not come back into the room, I completely lost my shit. 

What did Ailey want in a student? They wanted a combination of ballet and Horton. Light on the ballet was not a deal breaker, but light on the Horton might be a problem. I don't know if my kid could have spelled Horton when she walked in that room. But what they wanted, more than anything else, was teachability and dance or die. Did I mention I lost my shit? Those last two things carried enough weight to allow for the possibility that she could pick up the unlikely lateral movements and make the transition in five very hard weeks. 

All the clocks stopped the day the letter came. She remained in stasis from the first week of April until that first 6:30 train out of Westport the last week in July. The beatings didn't stop, but she knew a thing she hadn't been so sure of in the past. She knew a thing. 

I dropped her at the station at 6:30 and picked her up twelve hours later for five weeks. She didn't talk a lot about her classes so much as she talked about being free in the city. They had a 90 minute mid-day break. Some ate, some rested, some just fucked off the way we do when we can, but she bolted for uptown and the used record stores. She didn't talk so much about her classes, but she would answer questions. I don't know how well a person can speak about a thing when they are completely immersed in it. You have to come up for air to speak. 

I wish I could have bought her more time.

Ailey does have a performance at the end of summer intensive. They have four, actually. They sell tickets on the street, same as any other performance. The line to get in was actually painful. I sat between two women who attended without children. How is that possible? Why would anyone do that? Why would they care?

Because it was AWESOME. 

I was breathless within the first five minutes, well before my daughter did her thing. She told me she had a solo, all of fifteen seconds, she said. She told me she was responsible for her own choreography which had to work with the rest of the performance. There were two fifteen second solos, she neglected to mention the other side of the stage. 

For fifteen seconds lateral Horton co-existed with Vaganova precision in a way I didn't think possible. I'm not sure she has any idea what she did. There is no video, there are no photographs and it is never going to happen again. Had I known, I would have thrown myself through those doors all four times. I did not know.


Here is a regret; a deep, deep parental regret. On the way home she asked if she could homeschool in order to continue with the company. My go to as a single parent working a lot of hours is: there is NO WAY I can handle that. When a response like that is so amplified, there is no possibility of hearing anything else. Shit. She could have home schooled herself. I didn't have to physically be in the room and I didn't have to be in charge. She was perfectly capable of driving her own future. She didn't need me for this. She also accepted my response. I'd like to be able to say it hurt me more than it hurt her, but that isn't true.

I picked her up at Ridgefield after her first class, sometime after seven. She looked wrong when she walked out of the studio, and wronger when she got in the car. I asked what was wrong and got the stock answer: nothing. I'm fine. (shut up) That lasted about 100 yards and then she lost her shit. 

I don't want to tell you this. I don't want you to be mad. I don't want you to be disappointed... I just can't do this anymore.

She was almost sixteen and the gaps were closing very fast, but she could not take another year of beatings. Even if she could, it would not have mattered, Jess would have beaten it out of her anyway.  

Sometimes I think I would give anything to do that one part over again. 

This is profound grief.