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Tiny Dancer

I turned to face the far wall of the dance studio, adjusted my grip on the ballet barre and assumed fourth position. 

"Plié. And. Up." Mrs. Sullivan instructed.

I loved facing that wall because the previous year's recital pictures were displayed there. I marveled at the older girls' costumes and would fancy being "on toe" in my ballet shoes or in high heel tap or jazz shoes just like them. There was a grace that the older girls carried that I could only hope to obtain as I continued to grow in the school.

When Mrs. Sullivan prompted us to begin our grand battements (a.k.a barbie kicks) I felt a sudden sharp pain in my stomach that was quickly followed by a hint of nausea. It would pass I thought to myself. I looked out into the crowd of parents and caught my Mother's eyes. She smiled attentively and gave me a little wink. It was parent observation day at dance class and like most eight-year-old wanna-be-ballerinas, I couldn't wait for my Mommy to come and see all the routines we had been working on the last few months.

The higher I kicked my leg, the more my stomach hurt. This was not a good sign. It was then that I felt the SpaghettiOs I had eaten for dinner shimmy their way up my throat. They were doing a little dance of their own. Swallow. Yes. Swallow.  They appeared to be finding their way back to my stomach.

"And to the side," Joan instructed. I carefully lifted my right foot to kick to the side, but quickly realized this was a bad idea.  It was the calm before the storm. The rain before the thunder.  The grand battement to end all grand battements. Before I knew it, there were SpaghettiOs oozing out of my mouth. I was like a human water fountain.  My black leotard and pink tights were covered in perfect little Os in no time.  In between tears and a blurred view of the floor, I saw ballet shoes being lifted out of my sight. I was giving lawn sprinklers every where a run for their money. The mothers that weren't busy lifting dancers out of harm's way were busy helping me puke into the smallest waste basket known to man.

That wasn't exactly how I pictured parent observation night going. I mean, I didn't even get to finish barre warm-ups. Before I knew it, I was home and on the couch with a blanket tucked under my chin.
When I woke up from my nap I heard Mom chatting on the phone with Mrs. Sullivan who was concerned. I can imagine Mrs. Sull had her work cut out for her Lysoling the living daylights out of her basement after we left. I mean, she would Lysol when one of us sneezed.

Seeing I was awake, my mother hung up with Joan and came over to check on me. When Mom gave me a hug I sobbed. My ego was bruised and my stomach still hurt so crying into my mother's arms was exactly what I needed to do to feel better.

"What, do you think your friends haven't thrown up before?" Mom asked while stroking my hair.

"I know, but I wanted to show you my dances," I sobbed into her chest.  I was extra passionate about showcasing our numbers because it was an "off recital" year and knew she wouldn't get to see them performed on stage.  The school had a recital every other year which I think made it more special.

Mom took my face in her hands and looked down into my eyes, "Well I think the kitchen is the perfect place to see you dance. I get a front row seat that way."

My mother was right. Every night after dance class and sometimes during the week my sister Kari and I would flap, pirouette, pas de bourree and ball change our way around the kitchen. It was better than rehearsing on the carpet because even though we weren't allowed to use our tap shoes in the house, we could really see if we had our steps down on the tile floor.

"There's no music when I practice in the kitchen." I reminded Mom.

"You give me the song and I will sing it, baby," My father interjected from the living room. My parents always taught me to make the best out of a situation.

So a few days later when I was feeling better I danced my little hiney off on that tile floor with the assistance of my father's singing and my sister Kari Ann's dance instruction. She was after all one of the new dance assistants at the school. Kari always executed each movement with such ease that she made dancing look as fluid as walking. She moved in a way that made the hair on your arms stand up. It was enchanting. Sometimes I was in shock that she could move that well.  She was one of those graceful older girls that I hoped to be someday and the best part was,  she was my older sister.

If only we had video-taped the day we had faux parent observation day in the kitchen. My father decided that a Four Seasons' song, "Who Loves You" would be my music even though the "Doll Dance" was just instrumental. We ended up kicking Dad out of the kitchen because he was confusing our counts of eight.

"I'll be back for my encore later," Dad yelled from upstairs. 

My sister helped me perfect every move I was taught in that basement dance studio. Each count of eight turned into a routine and when coupled with music, those movements became a dance.  Each dance had its own heart beat and every time I descended those basement stairs I felt it. Hell, the moment you walked into the Sullivan home you could feel it. It was the pulse of the arabesques, battements and chassés filling the studio below your feet. It was the vigor of little to big feet mastering the ball change, traveling time step, cramp roll and heel drop during tap.

Rebecca M. Fallon Photography
When you entered that house on Monroe Avenue you were greeted by Joan's husband, John, along with a soundtrack of beats seeping out of the studio beneath you. If the base was loud enough you would even feel the kitchen floor vibrating beneath you. If it was raining you knew to take your shoes off and leave them in the kitchen before heading downstairs to the studio and sometimes if you got there before the rest of your class you were able to take a chocolate from the "adult" candy bowl.  There was always a feeling of comfort, a feeling of purpose and a feeling of belonging when you were there.

It was a place where I got to learn new routines to exciting music and a place where I got to share those movements with my three best friends, Allison and Jessica and later as a young woman, Corinne.  We relished the feeling of finally getting down a dance without having to follow Mrs. Sullivan or our dance assistant in front of us. I could fall and slip on my ass in those tap shoes, but if Joan told me I did a good job or asked me to stand in front of the others girls to help show them, I was happy as a clam.

This July after 47 years, Joan decided to close her dance studio. I can't help but close my eyes and revisit all the moments that made that place come alive.  There were those frustrating nights when I had my steps all wrong, yet there were those amazing times when I got down a difficult combination and it felt so right. I can still feel the nervous excitement when it was my turn to dance my ornament to the invisible Christmas tree. Choreographing a movement with our invisible ornaments during the holidays was something I looked forward to every year. Then there was those Xs that Joan would make sure to darken on the floor for each of us. This way we knew where to stand during our routines. I smile thinking of the first time we went to dance class as "older girls" and could choose our own dance attire instead of the standard black leotard with pink tights. I tear up thinking about my last recital as a high school junior and laugh thinking about my first recital back from college. It was a magical place where you could play any character you wanted while you allowed the music to carry you.

I learned life lessons that I will carry with me forever. I learned that being graceful isn't just about pointing your toes and holding your posture as a dancer. It is also about carrying yourself with honor, humbleness and thankfulness as a person.  It is more than what a woman puts into her dance moves; it is quite simply what a woman should put into her every day life. I am humbled to have been a pupil at the Joan L. Sullivan school of dance and honored to call Joan a part of my family. I think I speak on behalf of many of us who have adored and loved Joan for years when I say my world is a better place for having had her in it.

To my sweet daughter, my tiny dancer,  I can only hope to teach you this grace that was bestowed upon me from Joan and your MeMa. Together they taught me what it really is to dance and what it really is to open yourself up and give it your all. My dream is for you to have a talented and loving teacher like your Auntie Mrs. Sull to help guide you on your journey, whether this includes dance or not.

That dance school was a special place. It was a place where your MeMa,  Aunt Kari, Aunt Christy and I had a lot of wonderful memories with amazing people.  By the time I approached fourth grade, Aunt Christy traded her dancing shoes for softball cleats and MeMa hung up her dancing shoes to exclusively focus on her task as the backstage coordinator and right hand woman to our dear Joan.  There isn't a day that goes by at work where I don't check my posture when I'm sitting at my desk. Or for that matter a day that goes by where I don't swear that you move like a Rockette at the age of 15-months. I mean, I need to get a grip.

I am forever thankful for my dance training, but more so for the love that carried me through it. MeMa and Mrs. Sullivan were a great team and I intend to tell you all about it, my Madison Ann. For now though I want you to help me thank someone who was a dear friend to your MeMa and helped mold me into the woman I am today. Thank you, Mrs. Sullivan. Those eighteen years of dance are ones I will carry with me forever and the thirty-one years of knowing you have been an incredible journey. Thank you for all that you were to me and everything that you always will be to so many of us. You are an inspiration and I truly hope that Madison loves something as deeply and cares for something as fondly as you have.

I hope you won't mind when I bring Madison over for some private lessons. I promise we will lay off the SpaghettiOs before we come over.....

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