Dancing Outside the Comfort Zone
July 9, 2015 § 1 Comment
Somewhere along the way, in our frenzy to make sure our children are anything but ordinary, we’ve stopped letting them be bad at things. So fervently do we want them to feel the taste of success from an early age (as if this guarantees them achievement later in life), that we steer them almost immediately in the direction of things at which we believe they’ll excel.
With so many of today’s children starting instructive activities at younger and younger ages, joining in a few years down the road can feel to a child like everyone else is light years ahead of him or her—a daunting prospect at best. And we parents get squirmy around daunting. We fear the fallout of failure, despite contemporary psychologists berating us, Failure is good! Failure is critical! It’s through failure that children learn how to stand firmer on their own two feet!
What’s stopping us from all holding hands and letting our children outside their comfort zone?
Cue the power of summer camp. For ten summers, I attended the same sleep-away camp in the Green Mountains of Vermont. The camp was the opposite of fancy (“It’s homey,” my New York City mother announced dubiously the first time we pulled in.). But I adored how laid back and accepting it was. As a camper, you could wander into any activity. As a counselor, you could teach virtually any activity (skill secondary to enthusiasm). Fortunately, my parents weren’t sending me there to master tennis or horseback riding or to emerge at the end of the summer with perfectly glazed pots that might justify the hundreds of dollars they were spending.
That camp became a haven for me. A place to experiment. To discover and be embraced for who I was. And I failed constantly. I failed to advance to the next swimming level. I failed at fighting off homesickness. I failed at having the right frayed jean shorts. I failed at friendships. There were no parents around to lecture or moralize or pick me back up or interfere on my behalf. And, boy, did I love it.
There are still moments in my life where I would give anything to run out my problems in bare feet across that giant archery field, flanked by the beauty of the mountains.
In addition to its nostalgic camp setting, Tallulah’s Tap Shoes, the newest in the charming picture book series by Marilyn Singer and Alexandra Boiger—and my personal favorite to date—does a magnificent job of exploring a girl’s growing pains at starting (and not necessarily succeeding at) something new.
Last summer, I sung the praises of Deer Dancer, Mary Lyn Ray’s picture book aimed at creative, free-form movement, the kind of dance that my then three year old was loving in her weekly class. At almost five now, my Emily can no longer resist the tutu, and she is begging for me to enroll her in “real” ballet classes this fall. Which puts her in deep infatuation with the Tallulah books (not to mention their glittery book covers).
Don’t let the shimmer fool you: these stories are rich with substance. If Deer Dancer was about exploration, the Tallulah books (Ages 5-9) are about the discipline of dance. They follow young Tallulah from her days in a beginning ballet class (Tallulah’s Tutu); to her ambition to perform (Tallulah’s Solo and Tallulah’s Nutcracker); to her struggle on pointe (Tallulah’s Toe Shoes); to, finally, her broadening her repertoire at dance camp (Tallulah’s Tap Shoes).
The best thing about these five books is that they NEVER SHY AWAY FROM RAW, HUMAN EMOTION. On view is the full spectrum: the lovely and the not-so-lovely sides of Tallulah’s personality, which grows more complex with each year. We get her determination, her passion, her focus, and her compassion. As well as her jealousy, her disappointment, her impatience, and her haughtiness.
She is a perfectly imperfect role model for our children.
By the time Tallulah’s Tap Shoes comes in the sequence, Tallulah is sitting confidently in the saddle. That is, she has established herself as a skilled and accomplished ballerina. She can’t wait to board the yellow school bus to dance camp, where, between swimming in the lake and making friendship bracelets, she can excel in ballet lessons to her heart’s content.
But there’s a catch. She also has to take tap lessons. And she knows nothing about tap.
Tallulah runs the predictable gamut of reactions. She begins by dismissing tap as “baby stuff” that will be easy to pick up. But then she watches green-eyed with jealousy as a girl with “shiny black hair,” who has been taking tap for as long as Tallulah has been taking ballet, can make seemingly effortless music with her feet.
Feeling like she alone is constantly on the receiving end of the teacher’s criticism, Tallulah becomes convinced that she has turned from being the “best student” in ballet to the “worst student” in tap (the dramatic flair is strong in this one). In one final defense mechanism, she decides tap is not worth doing if she can’t do it well, and she begins to skip her lessons, hiding out in the Arts and Crafts cabin and pretending that she doesn’t care a smidgen about any of it.
All the while, there is a parallel dynamic at work. The black-haired girl is having the exact same reaction to her struggles with ballet, similarly convincing herself that it’s not worth her time, while secretly feeling disheartened and embarrassed. The two girls strike up a competitive but ultimately redemptive friendship, as both begin to see themselves reflected in the other. “You’re not the worst,” Tallulah assures Kacie. “Not at all…Teachers always correct everybody.”
“Well, you aren’t the worst in tap,” Kacie told her. “If you keep practicing, you’ll get better. Then you might love it. And we could even take lessons together.”
Tallulah returns to tap, practicing her flap steps (which, like the ballet steps in Singer’s other books, are detailed on the endpapers of the book to the absolute fascination of my daughter) until they begin to sound louder and clearer. And Kacie gives ballet another shot, demonstrating more control over her glissades. Neither girl is the best at her new sport, but neither is the worst. In fact, what they discover is a broad and beautiful middle ground, previously invisible to both of them.
Maybe I’m right where I’m supposed to be, Tallulah thought. For now.
What if we free our children to explore, even embrace, this middle ground? Will they try more things? Will they learn more about themselves? Will they enjoy life more?
It’s perhaps no coincidence that there is little to no parental presence in Tallulah’s Tap Shoes. The girls work things out on their own and with one another. Together, they create an existence acceptable to both of them. A place where they can excel, fail, hang out in the middle, or—even better—do all of the above.
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Review copy provided by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!
Tagged: Alexandra Boiger, children's books about ballet, children's books about dance, children's books about summer camp, children's books about tap dance, determination, friendship in children's stories, girl main character, Marilyn Singer, picture book, summer, themes of failure in children's books, trying new things