What I Won’t Tell You About My Ballet Dancing Son
by Ashleigh Baker
When you ask him about sports, he’ll raise his blue eyes to mine and press his lips together. I’ll nod to assure him it’s safe, he’s okay, this isn’t the school lunch table where the kids can taunt.
“I dance,” he’ll say. “Ballet. This year I’m doing hip hop and tap and jazz, too, but ballet is my favorite.”
Try as you might, progressive thinker that you are, modern and open-minded for all the decades you carry, your eyebrows will move up a quarter of an inch.
“Oh!” You’ll tilt your head and hopefully you’ll smile. For a heartbeat you’ll spin through a lexicon of words and phrases, seeking the correct positive acknowledgment.
And I’ll hold my breath as your eyes meet mine over his shaggy blonde head of hair, a wordless prayer as we wait for the moment of reaction. What does one say to a seven year old boy who is built for carrying a football but wears ballet shoes?
Will you be the one who nods, intrigued, silently assuming his parents must be dancers, or that we’ve exploited our child in an attempt at our own anti-sexism statement?
Or perhaps you’ll be the one who asks incredulously what his dad thinks of him doing ballet, because what dad would be okay with a son who dances?
Maybe you’re the family friend who repeatedly assures him it’s acceptable to enjoy ballet – after all, NFL players have been known to take a few ballet lessons it will be valuable when he plays real sports in a few years.
What if you’re the man who scoffs in the face of my little boy’s uncle, declaring loudly that you would “beat that boy’s ass” to cure him of whatever it is that makes him want to dance?
You could be the distant relative who eyes him curiously at gatherings, making frequent mention of the need for masculinity and “boyish” pursuits, taking care he doesn’t accidentally grab the pink piece of cake because, “What are you, a girl?!” followed by a quick inhale and, “So Troy, are you still doing that ballet thing? How’s that working for you? You have any girlfriends there yet?”
You might even be the one who glances over your shoulder, catching my eye knowingly, suggesting in veiled terms that we be “concerned” about our seven year old’s sexuality.
So I catch your eye when you ask him about baseball and soccer, not because I don’t want you to be interested or I’m expecting your reaction to be as nonchalant as if he had said he’s the star of the peewee basketball team. I bore my eyes into yours, conveying with a look my son’s intuitive nature and telling you with silence that I’m not going to answer those questions.
Instead, I’ll tell you about a baby boy who felt music in his soul before he could crawl, grooving to the beat of push-button toys in the church nursery and spawning jokes about his young parents’ need to curb the tendency if he was to become a “good Baptist baby.”
I’ll tell you about a toddler spinning on his head on the living room carpet, the grocery store linoleum, the church foyer tile, eliciting amused comments from strangers about his wannabe break dancing. I’ll tell you of his unquenchable need to move in the presence of rhythm and an obvious inborn ability to feel music.
I’ll revisit the memory of him bounding in the front door on a December afternoon, tossing his kindergarten backpack and, wild eyed, telling us of the music class in which people leaped and twirled to music, strong men jumped high in the air, danced on their toes and lifted ballerinas across the stage. He wore black sweat pants and a white undershirt every day of Christmas break that year, asked Santa for black ballet shoes, watched dozens of online videos of boys’ ballet techniques and by Christmas day had memorized every note and crescendo of the entire Nutcracker Suite.
I’ll laugh and sigh and tell you of his own carefully choreographed dances to specific pieces by Beethoven, Taylor Swift and Mumford & Sons.
I can show you a clip from his first recital, when he was awarded an unsolicited, unexpected dance scholarship and hadn’t a clue what it meant as he smiled and accepted the sheet of paper. I’ll try to keep from beaming, as parents do, and will refrain from repeating every accolade and declaration of talent his instructors have bestowed upon him.
I’ll tell you of the way he glows after a six hour practice, the finesse with which he glides across the floor, the way his very soul leaps from his eyes when he manages a toe touch or perfects a difficult series of steps. I’ll show you a boy who carries himself with grace in manner and spirit, who is strong in character and skill, who is learning of compassion and team effort and how to appreciate the brilliance of life’s beauty.
When you ask my dancing son about this passion he carries and you catch my eye, slightly uncertain how to proceed, I won’t try to convince you this was all his idea or give ten examples of his father’s unwavering pride or waste breath assuring you that my second grader isn’t gay.
I’ll simply tell you what he said to us after his first Nutcracker performance last winter:
“Mama, it feels like my heart is flying when I’m dancing. I think God made ballet because he knew I’d love it.”
If you are queer, or trans, or have mental illness, or all of the above, you probably know something about the perils of presenting yourself as you really are. Dan-Savage-style coming-out narratives notwithstanding, many of us who are placed socially in these ways find that we cannot be completely authentic in all aspects of our lives. I definitely want to express myself, but I have to balance that against other needs, like being able to make a living in a capitalist society. If I dressed the way I’d prefer to, if I talked more openly about the times when my depression and anxiety prevent me from getting work done, I might find it harder to fit in, to stay attached to a professional group, to stay employed, than I already do. So instead, I wear T-shirts and cargo pants, and I let people think (at times) that I’m merely disorganized or not that committed to what I do.
In my opinion, it takes a lot of privilege to assume either that greater authenticity leads to greater happiness, or that the only reason you would leave who you are at the door when you step or roll into work is the formal, organizational structure of the place where you work.
I’m looking at a career in which I may have to try my hardest to pass as cis because my gender identity may “harm the therapeutic frame”.
I always wonder how much my mental health has suffered because I have to present myself as a very different person. I used to struggle with it a lot (and still have odd days). The concept that in order to be happy and a genuine/good person, I must also be ”authentic”, “honest”, and out (everywhere) made me feel guilty, anxious, and less worthy as a person… even though I knew it was what was best/safest for me!
I’m done w/ dealing with people who are convinced that you can only give a fuck about one thing at a time, so I’ll just remind you all that marriage equals immigration, healthcare, and childcare access to a great many people and if you think everyone who gives a fuck about whether or not they can get married is a white, cis, rich gay dude I think you need to take your head out your butt
I can care about homeless kids AND legal protection for my own damn family at the same time
And you know what, as a formerly homeless queer kid who was queerbashed growing up, you want to know the one thing that started turning my small, rural town neighbors’ opinions on whether or not I had the right to exist? It was when they turned on their TVs to the one channel we all got in the middle of nowhere and saw the Prime Minister of Canada telling them that my moms could get married just like them. In a very real way, I think that legalizing gay marriage had a HUGE IMPACT on many peoples’ lives, to the point where my baby sister has not once had to clean the word “dyke” written in dog shit off her locker at school.
Yes there are other issues, yes they are important, but FFS I am capable of caring about more than one thing at a time, and also of understanding that most people who want to get married have bigger, more significant reasons than wanting to have a big stupid party.
Finally, if you are a straight cis person telling queer folks that they’re not radical enough if they want to get married, I hope all the food in your refrigerator rots overnight.