For the first several weeks of dance class last fall, Ella entered the studio tearfully. The first day, as she sat against the wall watching the other children leap and twirl, she turned to me and said, a bit desperately, “Mama, I want to do that.” But she wouldn’t – couldn’t – move from the edge to the center of the room. This weekly ritual was painful for both of us, and more than once I was on the verge of pulling her from dance class, waiting another year, or forgetting it altogether.
When she was a toddler, she was fearless. She would climb the stairs, jump off the couch, laugh at anyone, tackle her twin brother, play with worms, splash in puddles with unending exuberance. She took to skiing without a backward glance as she careened downhill. She pedaled her tricycle – then a bike – with happy abandon. Then she went to preschool, and my oldest daughter realized there is a whole, big world out there.
Even in a safe place, surrounded by a dozen other children her size, she stuck close to her brother or her teachers. At home she was silly and strong and independent. But at school, she was reserved and quiet – attentive and engaged, but still shy. As her brother expanded his social horizons, running further and playing more with the other children, she still clung to me each morning at drop off.
This year I have watched her, a kindergartener now, branch out to new friends and new experiences. She has learned to spell bigger words and read on her own, add numbers and measure dinosaurs. She maneuvers through other students on the playground at recess. She took weekend ski lessons all winter, with her brother there by her side, and played soccer and t-ball. And she started dance lessons.
From Wednesday through Tuesday, Ella chatted happily about dance class and the moves she was learning and the other kids there. Each Tuesday afternoon, though, the anxiety returned as we arrived at the studio. Ella wanted to dance. I wanted to instill the importance of finishing what you’ve started and the value in overcoming anxiety to get to the fun of something that is initially scary, but ultimately rewarding.
Ella’s dance teacher, Miss Kathy, who is ingenious in ways beyond dance instruction, created a Bravery Chart to help ease the initial angst of class. For completing tasks like walking into class by herself, sitting with the other dancers during attendance, and remembering to have fun, she received a sticker each week. Although still a bit nervous at the start of each lesson, Ella was soon smiling through dance class with the other children and showing off new moves at home.
We all have our fears to face, whether we’re 3 years old or many decades beyond – starting a new job or leaving a comfortable but unfulfilling one, walking through the doors of a new school, training for a marathon or a 5K, moving away from home, ending a relationship or diving into a new one, writing a book, meeting new people, fighting or accepting an illness. Sometimes we have no choice but to confront a challenge. Sometimes we choose to simply take the easy, comfortable way. Often, though, if we make the decision to face what makes us fearful or anxious or just uncomfortable, the rewards are big: personal happiness, professional satisfaction, new friends.
For my daughter, sticking with dance class was a challenge. Would she have been OK if we had decided to wait for another year? Sure. But we both knew she wanted to do it, and I think we would have regretted that decision, even if it had meant less hectic Tuesday afternoons.
Last weekend was the recital. It’s a big deal, with some three dozen groups performing and hundreds of people from throughout our area turning out to watch two shows. Ella was excited, but also nervous – not with stage fright, but with her usual separation anxiety. When I left her backstage before each show, she was clingy and a bit tearful.
But when the curtain came up, there was her smile and her six-year-old shimmy. Not a hint of the fear or anxiety she’d exhibited months ago or a few minutes earlier. Just pure, dancing joy – proof that sometimes doing the thing that is hard is also the most fun.