Arms wide open

Sometimes - often, really - our children teach us our most important lessons. I think maybe that's the way it's supposed to be; the most important lessons and the hardest ones for us to master are the ones that they grasp before we do. And so they lead us by their examples, and we find ourselves someplace better.

Last Saturday night, at my daughters' dance recital, my 8-year-old vanquished nearly all my biggest demons with a puff of ivory tulle, ribbons and lace, curls and song. She blew away pride and perfectionism and anxiety in a bit of lyrical miracle. I stood dumbfounded in the wings while she made it all look so easy.

It was the 7 p.m. show, a show mostly reserved for the oldest and most accomplished dancers. Karoline wasn't supposed to perform. She was backstage because I was backstage and because her sisters were dancing. Just a few minutes before the curtain rose on the show, I talked with the studio director about one of the senior dancers who had injured herself in the previous performance. She wasn't going to be able to dance in any of her many numbers in that evening show. The group dances would be quickly re-blocked, but what to do about her solo? The music was already programmed-in. We needed that time to allow dancers from the previous number to change into costumes for the following number. There were no older dancers available to fill the slot because they all had dances too close to that one. Karoline stood listening.

"I'll do it," she piped up, maybe even pleading a little. "I'll get up there and dance to Grace's music."

"Have you ever heard Grace's music?" I asked.

"No," she shrugged. "I'll improvise."

And to my amazement, the director said, "OK, Kari, you're on."

That's how my little girl ended up by herself in the middle of a big stage, all lights on her. And she danced. Boy did she ever dance. Fresh creativity personified, unencumbered by worry over whether she was good enough, she let intuition and talent and training and sheer love of the art take over. Somehow she felt the music she had never known, and she anticipated well enough to make it all look like it was always meant to be.

In the wings, the entire company encouraged her, and as it became increasingly evident that she was going to absolutely charm the stars out of this particular performance, their enthusiasm grew. Karoline knew it. Her face was suffused with joy, and her whole body loved every minute of that solo.

Who does that? Who volunteers on the spur of the moment to get up in front of a theater full of strangers to dance alone when every eye will be on her? Well, certainly many people do, but usually they practice for months before, and they are polished and ready. Even then, it takes courage to get up on stage and dance. But improvisation? That's a different kind of brave altogether.

I am the type who rehearses life. I plan. I practice. I think of every possible thing that could go wrong, and I set aside provisions for them. I am careful and fearful and shy. But my daughter? She is brave.

She lives life with her arms wide open to pull joy close.

It's a beautiful thing to behold, and I'm grateful for it every day.

On the morning after the show, I talked with the director. I thanked her for giving Karoline the extraordinary opportunity to experience the moment she did. I think it is a rare director who would have taken that risk. Most people who run studios place unnerving emphasis on appearing perfect on stage. The risk that attitude poses to young dancers is formidable and very grave. I know how blessed we are to have our girls in an environment where creativity and, frankly, the fun of it all, is prioritized. The director told me how impressed she was with what Kari had done and how she much she'd loved watching her. But then she said something else that made me pause.

She said most mothers would not have allowed their children to try that kind of impromptu performance. They wouldn't have taken that chance.

But I didn't hesitate a second. I saw Karoline's face in the asking, and I encouraged her.

Maybe, deep down, I'm a little bit brave, too.

If I am, it's because my children are making me brave.

Foss, whose website is elizabethfoss.com, is a freelance writer from Northern Virginia.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015

@elizabethfoss