How a Shared Passion Keeps a Mother and Daughter Close
"That's Mikhail Baryshnikov," my mother said when I interrupted her to show her the book. She was a professor of child development, always elbow-deep in students' papers.
"Who?" I liked the strange sound of his name: the hard k's, the brush of the sh. "Who's he?"
She gave the only possible answer. "He's a dancer. One of the best ever."
Taking the book, she swiveled away and paged through it, absorbed in the images. Then she turned back to show me a photo of Baryshnikov dancing. He wore loose black pants and a sweater tied around his shoulders and was midmovement, leaning to one side, arms low, gazing intently into the mirror. "He's so focused, yet so relaxed," she said. "See? Even something simple like this he does with such precision that it becomes beautiful."
For the first time in what would become a long history of looking at dancers with my mother, I experienced the pleasure of recognizing what she meant: I saw how the tension between Baryshnikov's apparent ease and his consummate control made the photo come alive. And then I recognized something else: Mom had a whole shelf of ballet books because she cared about ballet. She was the center of my universe, but in all my orbiting of her, my basking in her affection and attention, I'd never quite considered that she wasn't entirely consumed by me. The idea was alarming, but also a little thrilling.
My own ballet career was already over. After a year of kindergarten classes, it was obvious to everyone, including me, that I had zero talent. Mom didn't mind when I told her I wanted to quit. More than a dancing daughter, what she really wanted was someone who'd go to the ballet with her; my dad, in the grand tradition of dads, was not interested. Hopeful that I could be molded into a fan, she bought us tickets to the dance season at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, near where we lived in California. Our seats were orchestra, row F, dead center. "I need a good view of their feet," Mom said. Sometimes during a performance she would murmur with amazement, and I would study the stage, trying to see what she saw.
She'd witnessed all the greats. "Oh, yeah, I saw Nureyev in '69," she'd drop with the air of someone talking about Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock. "Easter Sunday in Amsterdam. Giselle. People threw tulips on the stage." As a teenager traveling in Europe with her family, she went alone to London's Covent Garden before dawn and waited for hours to buy a standing-room ticket to see Margot Fonteyn dance Swan Lake.
In the early '70s, my newlywed parents had moved to Princeton for my dad's master's degree. Her own graduate studies postponed, bored at a desk job, Mom, who hadn't danced since childhood, joined a ballet class of local teenagers. When I think about this now, it seems like the height of daring. Taking on a notoriously difficult art as an adult when even proficiency is a pipe dream? Sharing a barre with a gaggle of bun-headed Jersey girls? But the hopeless audacity exhilarated her. She was a minister's daughter, a middle child who'd worked summer jobs at psychiatric hospitals and inner-city preschools and who, for her 15th birthday, asked to be taken to Montgomery, Alabama, to march with Martin Luther King Jr.
Ballet was a respite from responsibility, something just for her. Its Zen-like focus on the body was an indulgence. She bought records of piano accompaniment and did extra work at a makeshift barre at home. She fought her way en pointe. Once, she got out of bed and fell to the floor, her legs exhausted, and was perversely pleased to have to call in sick. Another time, two young men from her office came to watch her class and, presumably, to ogle her in her leotard, and she took a guilty pride in showing off her lean, strong body. But after two years, my parents moved again, and Mom's dancing days ended.