The Golden Rule
We have taught our children the Golden Rule: if someone's criticism does not empower you, it has not been said for your benefit. Question why this person has offered criticism - it probably reveals more about them then it does about you. It's their problem, not yours. This has been useful in armouring them against hurtful comments from adults, children, friends, relatives and - occasionally over the years - ballet teachers.
Our son joined a particular early morning ballet class, a few years ago. Getting him there at that time on a weekend morning almost killed me. It was also taxing on his sister, and a certain degree of chastisement was often required to motivate her to get dressed at this time in the morning when she didn't need to go to school. The danger of teaching children the Golden Rule is that they become immune to ineffective parental chastisement. Bribery, threats, bargaining and coercing were all met with a look and a sigh. She knew and I knew. No words needed, and she remained resistant to my attempts; they exposed more about my desperation than they did about her lack of cooperation. Despite this, we were never late, but, initially, we were also never early. I discovered, to my horror, after a couple of weeks that all the other children were arriving to class a whole half-hour earlier than the start time. A competitive parent lurks not so deeply inside me. If the other parents were getting there thirty minutes ahead, I was going to get there forty minutes ahead of time. Like shoppers on a pilgrimage to the January sales, we were going to arrive even before the doors had opened. We would display our ballet-devoted virtue by having to wait at dawn in the street, our exhaled breath visible in the cold. This is what we did - for nearly two years. Equipped with the Golden Rule, our daughter could effortlessly dismiss any rebukes with a sigh and a look, and I eventually gave up trying to get her into the car as dawn was breaking. It was easier to just leave her at home.
This episode taught me humility. After two years, I finally struck up conversation with another parent explaining how we had successfully endured these early mornings for such a long time. She replied that they had all been getting up at 5.30am in order to make the 7.00am train. Their story also involved a younger sister. My face fell. I had been defeated. We had been leaving at 8.30am. We only live fifteen minutes away.
There was an occasion several years ago when we were offered the chance to watch our children perform. The tickets were free, but limited. I have quite a large family, and lots of friends - all interested in ballet and free tickets. However, we could only apply for a certain number; which we did. And we received our full allocation. Imagine my horror to discover that other parents had received twice the number that we had. Their audacity had paid off; disregarding the guidelines, they had put in for twice the amount and been given them. I was disgusted - not only by the thought of my dejected family complaining over Christmas lunch - but by the fact that I had been beaten. This injustice made me rage. A spectrum of utterances were being prepared in my mind ranging from the abusive to the morally sanctimonious; including the abusive and sanctimonious: "How can society ever hope to function, if people demand more than their fair share, you self-centred cretins!" I was a stamping Rumpelstiltskin. I took a breath to scream my contempt at these people, ready to do considerable and unforgettable damage in the process. My words were going to burn. Then I remembered the Golden Rule. This was going to empower nobody. It was going to reveal more about me, than about them. My bitterness, envy and scorn would be visible for all to see - my cover blown. I said nothing.
I got the number of tickets I wanted anyway. I figured that as the tickets were free, a good number would be returned. We simply requested the number we wanted on the day of performance and the tickets were handed over. I felt smug. I too will break the rules - as long as it's not the Golden One.
Next time the blog will resemble the extra content that you find on a DVD - a DVD Extra.
I have just watched a clip of St Petersburg dancer, Polina Semionova Everything is perfection; a symbiosis of music, body and movement. A woman dances, alone, on the stage of a deserted theatre. The shapes she makes are precise, lucid, definite. There is a moment when she notices something beyond the camera, stops, almost collapses, but then resolves to stay strong, but draw away. She seems to be telling a story about freedom she is embracing abandonment or relishing solitude. Her confidence grows until she finally soars.
In ballet there appears to be no room for error. This young woman has only perfection as her benchmark. However, there is more to her performance. I am unable to comment on her technical skill, but the first thing I notice is flow. Polina Semionova is completely at ease inhabiting the movement. It is as if the dance is dancing her were such a thing possible. Effort and strain are absent. She is making nothing happen; it is just happening. The second noticeable thing is her enjoyment. Her face is ablaze with pleasure. There is nothing aloof about this dance; it is impish, mischievous, joyful almost to a point of overflowing.
In discussions about ballet with our son, we talk about striving less and releasing more. We ask him what would happen if, like Polina Semionova, he let the dance happen to him. He replies that on those days when he yields to a flow he is less tired after class and he is corrected less by his teacher. But, the urge to impress is great. The impulse to push for approval is inherent. Release seems counterintuitive. The old habit must be inhibited while the new habit moves from intellect to body. He is trying to try less. A paradox.
At the weekends we strive. We are together as a family for such a short time just Saturday afternoons and Sunday. This time feels fragile. I want our time together to be perfect. We make arrangements and plan ahead, often filling the weekend with too many treats: films, walks, Pizza Express, meeting friends, trips to the ballet. We want to savour every second. He just wants to rest. Sometimes we notice our error, and plans are changed. This feels like it has all gone wrong; I've let everyone down. In my head, it's catastrophic. The time flies too quickly and we have savoured nothing. Sunday afternoon is already here and as dusk falls, the familiar feelings of dread return to my stomach. I try to fill the evening with silliness and carbohydrates: jokes and comfort-food. No one sees that I'm concealing my inner reality and it is costing me considerable effort. I fear that I am failing.
Next weekend, I'm going to strive less. I'm not going to fill the time with activities. I am not going to aim for perfection. I just intend to make myself available to all of them the children and their mother. I will find the flow and the joy. It will take some effort: trying to try less.
P.S. My Mum replied by email to the "Could you make it funnier?" blog
"... interestingly I enjoyed your intense ones more. No pleasing some people!"
Or, perhaps, sometimes we try too hard.
"Could you make it funnier?"
One avid and vociferous reader of the blog has asked if I could make it more amusing. She feels, perhaps, that it has a tendency to be earnest. This very attentive reader happens to be my own mother. I think her comment reveals as much about her own parenting style as it does about my writing. So this blog, Mum, is for you.
Over the last couple of years of being the parent of a dancer, I have developed several unexpected obsessions. These obsessions then lead to small but significant victories. Here is a list in ascending order of importance; the most urgent preoccupations come last:
Writing this has revealed to me that the socks are more important to me than health and safety. We learn something new every day. I'm not too ashamed; it's the truth after all.
If you fancy writing about your own obsessions and victories in the comment box below, it will help me feel less alone.
Next time, Mum, I'll be returning to my usual mawkish soul-searching self, as I talk about the pressure to be perfect.
We find ourselves sitting in the front of the upper circle of The London Coliseum. This is an unusual event - something we have never done before. All four of us are here. Both children have been granted a special licence to stay up way beyond their bedtime. Money has been spent on this; we are - for once - in proper seats. We can see the whole of the stage; there are no pillars in the way, and we are neither standing nor squatting on benches tucked in the furthest corner of the auditorium. We are doing it properly.
In my head this is a test: Let's see what this is all about. I am spending so much of my life invested in this that I need some clarification. Is it worth it?
The children are both trembling with anticipation. Their excitement is thrilling. They are among the only children in the audience, and their enthusiasm is only just contained. I am in denial. These people filling every seat are not my tribe. But, in reality, there is little difference between us; we have ventured out on a Saturday night to watch ballet; for the next few hours nothing else is important.
It would be easy to scoff. The costumes in the court scenes appear a little dusty, the backdrops twee, and the whole event might belong to another age - not that of CGI, lasers and LEDs. But there is something else. While we are here, our lives are transformed. I am absorbed in the spectacle: its scale and extravagance. My intellect seems somehow short-circuited; the pleasure is visceral. My body expands and my breathing slows. We can just see into the orchestra pit, a reminder that the accompanying music is not incidental: an assortment of skills have come together with one goal in mind - our enjoyment.
I am not prepared for the impact of the swans. The sight of so many in perfect synchronisation evoke awe. Reality and imagination merge: I see swans, dancers, women and swans again. The sound of so many pointe shoes on the stage as shapes evolve and revolve echoes through the auditorium. The moments of stillness affect me most. For brief seconds they stand motionless. This is not like a painting; paintings of ballet often show movement. These dancers are still and silent illuminated against a backdrop of darkness. Three dimensions blend into two. Like everyone, we are there to see Tamara Rojo. When she dances, we are unable to focus anywhere else. Her performance is wholly embodied and all consuming. She moves in a way that is beyond human: graceful, determined, exact and complex. The epitome of Yeats: "How do we know the dancer from the dance?"
I am absorbed in the story, but is was not the raison d'être. Are there different interpretations of this bizarre folk tale: a story of metamorphosis, abandonment and fascist control? The pleasure is in the pageantry. A display of folk dances and ballet virtuosity: leaps that almost hover, and pirouettes that threaten never to end.
But really, sharing this with the people I love most is the point. Watching them as they are engrossed and amazed is its value. The conversation has its own dance on the way home. The ballet has created a shared memory. The following day, the world seems a little different - as if we have experienced an alternative to the banal. I am calmer and happier, aware of a more courtly and opulent reality. This is what our son wishes to be part of. It is not something I fully understand, but if this is what fuels his passion and makes him happy, so be it. We are aware of what it takes.
Back to Square One?
It is the first week of term, and it feels like we are all back at the beginning. The ground that we had covered has been rescinded, and the knowledge and experience that we gained is forgotten. We are missing him. He is missing us.
Monday morning was horrible. The feelings of misery started in the car and continued during our ritual traffic-beating cup of tea in the café between 7am and 7.45am. As a father I felt useless. As a human-being I felt wretched. At that point in time - and my perspective has changed a little since - this was not what I wanted. I want to feel like someone's dad all the time - not just for a fifteen minute Skype call, and for the duration of using online banking to transfer the fees. I wanted Christmas to come back and to have a complete family around me. The first couple of Skype sessions didn't help. He was being brave, but I could sense the stress in the speed of his speech and there was an his face seemed almost inanimate - hardly daring to move. He gave us full details of the day he has lived, but I would rather these stories were not being related through the screens of two iPads.
It is in that moment of time that I feel I have failed. I think that the Freudians refer to it as 'enmeshed families'. Families who are over-involved in each other's lives; who are unable to make a distinction between themselves. The values and experiences of one are the values and experiences of all. These are the families who exercise the most conditional of loves and resemble the most controlling of cults. Is this us? Our daughter, incidentally, is not that keen on school. Further evidence for my general parental crap-ness. What sort of children have we brought up?
I would listen to these thoughts more attentively if the children concerned were not eleven and five. My job is to keep them safe: listen to their anxieties; offer reassurance; become involved with their worries. The plan is to provide them with enough security that they eventually want to leave. We support them so that they grow strong. Our family is the broad base at the stem of the wine glass. It might wobble, but it won't fall over. That is the theory, anyway. I had imagined that we would be such great parents that our success would be our children wanting to leave, but not at five and eleven. I had imagined this process developing to its natural conclusion at ... twenty-nine and thirty-five! That is when I had anticipated we would all be ready for some healthy, well-balanced separation. A conscious uncoupling.
The week improved. After a couple of days we once again had a smiling child beaming through: fulfilled, excited and full of joy. The ground we had gained last term not rescinded entirely; it was just a high-tide for the beginning of term obscuring the territory we had found. Despite distance, the invisible strand connecting our family's hearts once again feels robust.
In Monday's blog, I'll be talking about a 'game-changer' this term, and also pondering some very important matters ... classical ballet.
It was good to have him home. We were back together as a family again, and for three weeks we didn't have to worry about daily Skyping, plans for picking-up, or arrangements for dropping-off. We didn't have to brace ourselves for the weekly severance, or anticipate the pixilated tears. Brother and sister could once again enjoy the luxury of time spent together. I have often wondered what Christmas is good for - it used to seem like a load of unnecessary stress. But now I know. It just gets us all in the room together.
Apart from presents, food and television specials, the joy of Christmas this year was watching our eleven-year-old son slowly come back to us. His physical return was immediate, but the 'other' - whatever that might be - came back to us more slowly. To begin with, he seemed reluctant to settle. His immediate relief at being home changed into a kind of incredulity. He needed to tell us stories over and over - a replaying of memory experienced after a shock. We took all pressure away. If he wanted to sit on the sofa playing Sonic Racing, or read crappy children's stories, or less crappy graphic novels, he did. When he asked for some 'time out', we all left him alone. He was happy to be home, but the joy seemed somewhat misplaced; sitting next to him rather than inside him. He often paced the room - a new habit; a tiger caged in his own disbelief.
After a couple of days, these symptoms eased. Once again we had an eleven-year-old child around the house. There were the customary fights between siblings. Sometimes trivial: 'don't touch that it's mine'. Some times more grave. The five-year-old maintained in all seriousness that her brother had attempted to murder her in the bath. This serious allegation was repeated over several days. (Owing to a compelling lack of evidence, the investigation sadly stalled.)
Lego was built, trumpet was practised, movies were watched, and discussions about superpowers were held - Batman vs. Spider-Man, nothing to do with America, Russia or China. Best of all was the time siblings spent between murder allegations. Jointly they defeated Skelly Butts on Minecraft, had pillow fights, re-enacted the X-factor final, and discussed the minutiae of Father Christmas' time management: how was he able to deliver to so many, and how does he spend Boxing Day? We went to a panto. They met Santa at a grotto set up in a Cotswold deer park. There was practically no mention of ballet. We tried to pretend that it had never existed.
I again had use for my almost dormant talent for interpreting the laughter coming from upstairs:
-The amused giggling of sibling complicity
-The thrilling howls of fear - an imaginary monster unleashed
-Cackles of outrage when a taboo is broken - someone probably farted
-Forceful shrieks of someone overstepping that proverbial line in the sand
Apart from the last one, which eventually requires some parental input, these are among my favourite sounds in all the world. Never mind waves lapping, trees rusting or coins descending endlessly from a slot machine in a casino; I just want to hear my children laughing, all the time.
Even though there was no mention of ballet, it was still somehow present. Our son did his Pilates most days in order to lessen the strain when the regime begins again. But more treacherously, thoughts of ballet still skulked in our minds. We knew that this precious time together would be over soon.
This is the gift that the ballet school has given me. Only one of my children is unexpectedly away at boarding school, but I have a new appreciation of time spent with both of them; together or apart. We try - even if we don't always succeed - to switch our television off, and put our iPads down. Time spent chatting, or playing Ludo, or telling stories about elves in woods, has a new urgency. I now realise its value, because, just like the Christmas holiday, it is going to end.
In the last blog I wrote about how we have a new awareness of timetables, routine and their observance. Here is some more:
The thing about such a specialist school is that they have got such a lot of ground to cover. I imagine this is similar for any school which is delivering a full academic programme in addition to whichever specialism: drama, football, music, or ballet. The consequence is that our son's routine is rigid. There is no time for breaks, or free time, or deviation from the pre-ordained timetable. This is difficult for us; for eleven years we adopted the most liberal of parenting styles. Some might say that we have not only taught our children to question, but perhaps encouraged them to rebel. Now, one of our children finds himself in the most strict of regimes. I imagine that he would find more room to manoeuvre as a military cadet than he does at a specialist ballet school. The only flexibility he experiences is literal rather than figurative. We have firmly believed that our children must learn to manage their own time: knowing how to react to boredom is one of life's most essential skills. As I mentioned in the first blog, he has found his own way of dealing with this lack of free time. I know little about physics; but I think that it is 'Hook's Law' which describes reshaping a spring by seeing how far it will stretch out of shape. In terms of shaping his day to maximise his free time, our son has found the maximum point to which the spring will stretch - it is not very far. He points out to us at every available opportunity that for a full twelve hours a day his time is allotted. This stretches to thirteen hours if you include getting dressed and breakfast.
We have found a counter-intuitive way of combatting the rigidity of his school day. We are fighting routine with routine - an almost homeopathic approach. We skype everyday at precisely the same time. He gets picked up at the weekend at exactly the same time, and we leave on a Monday to return him to the regiment at exactly the same time in order to beat the traffic. We spend the same amount of time sitting in the cafe on a Monday morning waiting for the time for the start of the school day, and we always order the same drinks.
Last term, in the final week of school, there were alterations to this routine. Christmas events seem be the only thing robust enough to make the ballet routine yield. Our son found this unsettling. He was clearly stressed by having to text us his skype time in advance, or being allowed to sleep in following a late night, or a Christmas Party making the evening meal take place forty minutes later than usual. Our beautiful free spirited iconoclastic child has undergone a transformation. He has become a creature of habit.
My own life has adopted an immutable routine. I wait at the same place at the same time at the beginning of the weekend with the same sandwiches packed in my bag; I get up at the same time every Monday in order to secure our 6.15am departure; I get the same number of stamps on my loyalty card in the cafe; I drive home listening to the same podcast each week - This American Life; and in three months I have only missed one skype session - even managing to keep the appointment when working overseas. I always pop a card in the post on a Tuesday. My life has never been so regulated or structured. It runs like clockwork.
Our family life finally has a routine which must be adhered to at all costs. This parallel structure to the ballet day provides our son with security - a comfort blanket. We have become a different type of parent, and he knows that parental love and primal nurture also fit into a schedule.
"Are We Doing the Right Thing?"
It has been an exhausting three months. This time has been characterized by the refrain, 'Are we doing the right thing?' Sending one of our children to a boarding school had not been part of the plan. I had imagined him coming home every day from secondary school, throwing his tie and blazer on the sofa and then moping around like any other adolescent while waiting to be nagged about his homework. I hadn't imagined that we would wait every evening for the most precious fifteen minutes of Skype. This daily ritual has one purpose: just to see that he is all right. There is no real need to catch up on the minutiae of the day; that can be done at the weekend. We simply require ocular proof that he is still alive, and perhaps to know that people - both pupils and staff - are treating him well. No other details are really necessary at this stage.
Nothing in life has prepared me for seeing the pixilated image of my son load up only for it to reveal that he is upset. Equally hard is hearing the crack in his voice as he tries to stop himself from crying. The reason is usually one of two things: tiredness; or a lack of time alone. We have brought our children up to handle boredom; to know what to do when life's emptier moments occur. There are times when we are responsible for initiating our own activity: sitting and drawing; finding a game to play; choosing a film to watch; writing a blog. They know that time can be filled in lots of different ways: productive, creative, indulgent, wasteful, helpful. Time is ours - to fill as be wish. So, a child who finds himself with no free time at all might just go mad. He might experience an uncontainable frustration at the lack of autonomy and freedom. In fact, it has taken him a couple of months to work out how to manufacture time in this regime that allows for none. He has two strategies. I can share one; but the other is an illicit method, and may not be shared for fear of him being discovered. However, I admire his tenacity. He breaks the law on a daily basis - such is his need for head-space. Legally he has decided to skip bedtime snacks. All the pupils go for a communal late night treat. He doesn't. It makes me laugh to think of him; a solitary figure clad in a dressing-gown reclining on a chaise, alone in the dormitory, perusing his book of choice. A young Oscar Wilde, or Sebastian Flyte, or Arthur Dent. The chaise is a figment of my imagination. The dressing-gown is not.
At the beginning, we hit a bump. After about four weeks we had nightly tears. The exact issue was hard to pin down. It took us a couple of weeks. But when we discovered what was really going on, we contacted the school. They handled the matter expertly and efficiently. And it was dealt with.
This second half term we have watched him settle down. He is actually beginning to thrive. He seems to be loving being part of the community. Now, we skype every day and we see our child beaming back at us full of enthusiasm for the richness of his school-life. The pixilated image appears and it seems that he is still alive - very much so - and people are being good to him. The answer, for now is that we did the right thing.
Ballet was never really for me. I could appreciate the discipline and the skill, but it left me mostly unmoved. This was true of most dance, to be honest. If there was a strong narrative accompanying the dance, then I might enjoy it. And I tried. I went to see Adventures in Motion Pictures or DV8 or Ballet Boyz. I preferred something with a bit of dialogue; well film really - there is nothing I like more than going to the cinema. Ballet always struck me as being somewhat rarefied, perhaps even austere. It was definitely not for me.
A transformation has occurred. I can now sew ballet shoes. I regularly book tickets to the Coliseum or Royal Opera House, paying close attention to who is dancing the leads. I know which members of each company I would prefer to see dance, and which ones are not to my taste. There was a time when I thought Ballet was something only for an elite with a massive disposable income. Now, I would pay a small fortune to watch a particular (Australian) dancer leap. Yes. Now I am a fan.
This transformation has been slow, and at times difficult. It certainly didn't happen over night. It all began with an invitation. My son was invited to audition for an outreach programme called 'Chance to Dance'. It is run by the education department at the Royal Opera House. My children have benefitted considerably from attending state schools in central London. They have been the beneficiaries of countless events, schemes and performances. We were aware that 'Chance to Dance' had visited the school every week for the last six or seven weeks and given the children in year 3 a ballet class. This had been taught in an accessible and enticing way. The boys had become quite competitive with each other. So we signed the form for the audition and off he went. We were unaware at this time that the 'Chance to Dance' scheme and ballet in general were about to engulf our entire family. The question is: had we known, would we have committed to begin with? Had we known that every Saturday afternoon would be booked up for ballet, some half-term holidays would have a rehearsal every day, every Wednesday afternoon would involve sitting in rush-hour traffic, we would spend an disproportionate amount of time waiting at the Royal Opera House stage door, would we have been so keen to sign that form allowing him to audition? Yes, probably. Yes.