From horse’s hooves to ballet shoes

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I’M PORING over the entries to the next dance eisteddfod – I know we’ve got to tick the contemporary solo under 14, that’s easy, but OMG what about all these others? Not just the obvious ballet, hip-hop, jazz and tap, but modern, lyrical and even lyrical expressive – I’m tearing my hair out here. It’s like a completely different language, I mean – I’m a horse person not a dance person.

I was lucky when my son was small that I very soon noticed his interests dovetailed with mine – i.e. horses, horses and more horses. His best toys were an already second-hand collection of my little ponies that we picked up at his kindergarten fete one day and paid 50 cents each for. I can remember the names he gave them 20 years later: Paris, Hank, Charlie B, Angel and David. (I can partly remember the names because I’ve never been able to bring myself to throw them away and they’re still in a toybox in my room somewhere.) His growing obsession with all things equine allowed me to extend myself from someone who had ridden a bit all her life and knew a bit about horses into someone who knew a lot.

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Twenty years on and a lot of pony club, horseshows, natural horsemanship, horse rescues, horses bred, bought and sold, we still have six lovely equine friends in our paddocks, and although I ride much less, I spend a lot of time talking to and working with them, and Sam trains the young ones.   As we went I learned to plait manes, and call dressage tests, to know the difference between a Liverpool and an Oxer, a six-bar course and an AM5, and when to give him advice and more importantly when not to (at least I think I mastered that skill although he would probably disagree).

But his younger sister, although she loves horses in a broad humanitarian way has a different skill – one to which I’m completely new. She is a lovely dancer and getting better all the time. When I realised we were heading towards a fairly serious hobby, I was relieved that it wasn’t horses. No more charging around the countryside with a float and camping gear and horses in tow, no more standing out in the wind and the rain and the hot sun in numerous Australian country towns, no more one day a rooster and the next day a feather duster depending on that peculiar combination of horse and rider and the many variants involved. No more, oh, thank goodness, no more arriving at a showground and hearing the twanging nasal sounds of ‘We’re the Boys from the Bush and we’re back in towwwnnn’. I imagined being a Dance ‘Mom’ as a veritable bed of roses. I’d already been so inept at doing hair and make-up that I’d been given a withering look and told she’d do it herself. Suits me I thought, I’ll read a book, or better still write one, while I’m sitting around genteely with oodles of time on my hands. Plus I thought, at least it can’t be as expensive as horses.

Ah, how wrong can a person be! First of all of course there’s the hours of training – five and even six days a week, and that means a punctual and reliable taxi service. Then there’s the incredible array of ‘stuff’ – leotards, dance shoes of all kinds, tutus, bun-nets, bun-pins, bobby pins, tights, dance shorts, and of course costumes.

Halfway to her first solo eisteddfod in which she was entered for her self-choreography, she announced she’d ‘forgotten’ her tights, and then after we’d dashed into our local dance shop and got back on the road, her shorts. A quick sideways duck into the shop where, in Australia, ‘you don’t pay for any fancy overheads’, and we were on the road again.

Then came the nerves, and with it the Jekyll and Hyde personality change.  (Oh, I remembered that one SO well, culminating in a moment at Caboolture showground when my son, sitting up on his 16.2hh showjumper, looked down on me and exhorted me to: “get off my high horse.”  And then cantered off furiously when I laughed.) Anna having by then criticized me for everything from my posture to how I tap my hand on my knee when I drive, to my laugh, I decided the best thing to do was to keep quiet. “Why aren’t you talking to me?”, she moaned after a few minutes silence. “Talk to me.”

It was fear, of course, and I understood that. It was also not helped by our rather overwhelming dose of reality when we got to the eisteddfod. I mean, here were girls with literally mobile racks of costumes – the amount of make-up they had would fill a Louis Vuitton luggage set. We sat in the corner at the back with our little chiller bag from Aldi, and the mini-make up set and the one costume, adapted form her Year Six formal dress at primary school and I felt, I can tell you, like a rank amateur. Why had it not occurred to me that if Anna was going to do well at this I was going to have to do well also? I was going to have to learn the language, buy the stuff, be the support system.

Just a little luggage...

Just a little luggage…

It caused me to stop and think about how it’s not that hard if you’re a parent and your child has an interest in something you love to do and that you fundamentally understand. It’s much harder when it’s something for which you don’t have a natural affinity, but it’s just as essential, if not more so. I think many of us have felt the emotional blackmail from our parents to do something that pleases them rather than to do the thing that pleases us, and perhaps one of the most active areas of growth as a parent is to jump in with that. To be on board for your child and help them develop their passion so it can sustain them throughout their lives at whatever level they choose.

We were so overwhelmed by the professionalism of the girls around us that in a way it worked for Anna, she was so convinced she wouldn’t get a place she simply relaxed, went out and danced like an angel. When she got a Highly Commended she was as pleased as if she’d won. Our journey home was very different – she chatted amiably all the way home. Stress relieved, mission accomplished, first solo eisteddfod down.

And a dance mum explained the difference between the dance types for me. “Contemporary is slow controlled movements,” she explained patiently. “Modern is more expressive and emotional, and lyrical or expressive or lyrical expressive is a combination of those with its own element thrown in.” Ok…makes a 2.1 dressage test look easy by comparison really. In fact a room full of hormonal teenage girls in full preparation for a dance contest makes driving around the countryside with horses and a horse float look easy.

To be honest I don’t see the novel being written, or even read, anytime soon, but I am fully involved in the Dance Mom’s Handbook.  (Actually I made that up, but if it doesn’t exist, it probably should…now there’s a good idea.)

Meditation on: Our Inner Child

“The end of childhood is when things cease to astonish us, when the world seems familiar – when one has got used to existence one has become an adult.”
– Eugene Ionesco

Photograph of Anna by Candida Baker

My daughter recently turned 12, and over the past six months or so I’ve watched that perilous rocking between childhood and young womanhood with a sense of trepidation and excitement – on her behalf, and on mine too, I might add.

I could almost pinpoint the exact moment when lists of girlfriends gave way to lists to One Direction’s names, with Harry being Numero Uno of course; the moment when riding up the lane on her bicycle became ‘boring’; when going to the movies with mum or dad became no match for going with a rabble from school.

My daughter’s growing up – no doubt about it. And, paradoxically perhaps, I see part of my continuing job as her parent to help her stay in touch with her inner child – to help her, if I can, to keep her soul alive with those little things that have sustained and nourished her throughout her childhood.

I’ve seen Anna look after herself in dark moments by dancing, or by drawing, and as a small child she could summon her imagination and her humour to her rescue easily. May those qualities stay with her always!

Surrounded by Anna and her friends, I’ve been thinking a lot about the inner child recently – by the time I was 12 my mother was an alcoholic, my father was often drunk and abusive and for me childhood was something I wanted to leave behind as quickly as possible.

Through a friend’s posting on Facebook the other day, I chanced across a wonderful letter from the poet Ted Hughes to his then 24-year-old son, Nicholas. Nicholas was only a baby when his mother, the poet Sylvia Plath, took her own life, and sadly, Nicholas too committed suicide in 2009.

In part of the letter Hughes talks directly about the vulnerability of our inner child, and of its essential importance to our lives and our own understanding of ourselves. He writes:

“Every single person is vulnerable to unexpected defeat in this inmost emotional self. At every moment, behind the most efficient seeming adult exterior, the whole world of the person’s childhood is being carefully held like a glass of water bulging above the brim. And in fact, that child is the only real thing in them…It’s the centre of all the possible magic and revelation. What doesn’t come out of that creature isn’t worth having, or it’s worth having only as a tool — for that creature to use and turn to account and make meaningful.”

In inner child therapy what is looked for is what therapist Robert Burney describes as the tools to unlock the magic of the inner child, without giving it free rein to drive the bus, and derailing life because of its lack of a proper place in someone’s life.

One of the main keys to understanding this internal secret garden is to remember what your child liked to do when he or she was young. Often, if we stop and ask our inner eight-year-old what it might like to do as a hobby, a surprising answer will emerge – an answer which can lead us towards a more creative, more joy-filled life.

 “The analogy between the artist and the child is that both live in a world of their own making,” wrote Anais Nin in her diaries.“Every child is an artist,” said Picasso, who knew a bit about his inner child, “the problem is how to remain an artist when you grow up.”

Such a multitude of grown-up concerns drive us away from that childish sense of glee and excitement in life – so many shoulds, musts, can’ts, fill our days, and as we grow older the accumulated weight of life’s lessons seem, well to me, I must confess, sometimes overwhelming.

Living in the country I’ve learned that sometimes something as simple as lying on my back under a tree and looking at the patterns in the leaves against the sky makes my eight-year-old grin with pleasure.

If I could say anything to my daughter now and have her remember it, it would be always listen to your heart.

As Ted Hughes writes: “The only calibration that counts is how much heart people invest, how much they ignore their fears of being hurt or caught out or humiliated. And the only thing people regret is that they didn’t live boldly enough, that they didn’t invest enough heart, didn’t love enough. Nothing else really counts at all.”

Quote of the Week: 

Happy is he who still loves something he loved in the nursery: He has not been broken in two by time; he is not two men, but one, and he has saved not only his soul but his life.
G.K. Chesterton.