Why are you here?

Primary Level Improvisation

A while back there was a meme floating around social media, a clever photograph of a (presumably) professional ballerina’s feet on pointe in parallel, one fully shod in a pink satin pointe shoe and the other naked, besmeared with bloody padding and various daubs of gauze and other patching. The caption read something like, “Everyone wants to be successful until they see what it actually takes.” I don’t live by clever memes and quotes, but it was a nice study in contrasts (if a bit over dramatic): the pretty shoe on the one foot—the ones every ballerina wannabe can’t wait to wear—and the bare ugly ballerina foot, the “reality,” next to it. You could extend that metaphor to all kinds of other disciplines, I am sure. (For the record: dancers do tend to have ugly, beaten-up naked feet, but not all of them. Some ballerinas are lucky enough not to require all that padding and junk inside their shoes, and their feet can lead a mainly normal civilian life when they are not hard at work dancing—some of this is determined by genes, sometimes the style of training is a factor, and sometimes it’s just dumb luck.)

I submit that the parents of most young children are not thinking about the ugly ballerina foot when they enroll their kids in ballet classes for the first time, but some are thinking about the pretty pink satin shoe, to be sure. Some may assuage a young child’s earnest supplication after a nice experience at the theatre (a surprising number of professionals had their start this way—”bitten by the bug,” as the saying goes). Or maybe a best friend was the catalyst. Occasionally a physician recommends ballet for a child to address some problem; my mom once had a student with a mild case of scoliosis who stayed loyal to ballet for a couple of years until her spine improved. But there is surprising ignorance in the medical community about what it means to study classical ballet, to wit: I once had a student whose lower leg was in a cast for an injury she sustained outside of ballet class, and her doctor believed she could still come to class and just do some of the work (no, no, no, and no: I would love an audience with that doctor if it were not such an obvious waste of time). Others are just curious, testing the waters. I won’t go so far as to say it’s all good, but it is mostly.

An important question for the parents of young dancers is, what were you thinking? And by extension, why are you here? Once you articulate honest answers to those questions, then we can engage in a meaningful discussion about fantasies and realities—the satin shoe and the ugly foot, to borrow the earlier metaphor. And I would go so far as to propose that this exercise might even head off some potential problems at the pass. There are very many good reasons to undertake the study of classical ballet; there are probably at least as many not to.

Whatever got you to the threshold of ballet school to begin with, you probably had some ideas about what ballet is. Preconceptions are the common denominator. I remember taking my young son to his first horseback riding lessons (and my own); I had ideas about all things equestrian, mainly inspired by television and movies. The reality of coming to the barn every day, going out to the paddock to collect the horses, bringing them in and brushing them, and cleaning their hooves, and correctly using the tack—only a tiny piece of that experience as a whole resembled my own preconceived notions of what it meant to ride. I recall an early February morning, plodding through frozen horse poop in a huge paddock to collect my horse, my fingers already numb from the cold. Are we having fun yet? I asked myself aloud. That day was an epiphany for me: this is what it takes to learn to ride hunt seat. Some are impassioned about it, I am not one of them. Thus ended my brief horsey tenure.

Here is a little dose of reality for uninitiated ballet moms and dads.

  • Very few children who undertake the study of classical ballet will ever dance on the professional stage—there have been some statistics thrown around, but it’s not an exact science. Suffice it to say, it is a very small number. Nobody who enrolls a very young child should have their head there. If you’re just there for lessons and exploration, good for you: you’re already ahead of the game.
  • The fact that a toddler or young child “runs around the house on her tippee toes” is meaningless—lots of young children do that, and it is not reason enough alone to start classes. In more than ten years as a classical ballet instructor, most of them at the helm of my own school, I can’t count the number of phone calls I took from excited parents citing this as the reason they were enrolling a young child.
  • Toddlers are too young for ballet class. Period. Be suspicious of anybody who claims they’ve taken ballet since the age of two. It is a lie. Maybe they were in a classroom setting at a dance school somewhere, engaged in some kind of movement set to music. It was not formal classical ballet instruction, nor should it be: a toddler’s proportions and developmental aptitudes are incapable of meeting the rigorous standards of the form, plain and simple. Most kids are ready for a (somewhat abridged) formal ballet class by age seven or eight; before then, a class that lays the groundwork for ballet is appropriate. And note that I said most kids: some need another year in a pre-ballet class before they can fully focus on instructions and execute what is asked of them in ballet class.

Level 2B

  • “I want her to be graceful,” said the enthusiastic ballet parent. Please don’t put that on her ballet teacher. (And honestly, I am not sure exactly what it means to be graceful.) Ballet will not automatically make your daughter “graceful”—she is or she is not, but this is not a gift ballet can superimpose on her, unless we are talking about the stage, and she had better look graceful and a whole lot of other things when she arrives there (we will hopefully imbue her with good posture, if nothing else). The opposite is more likely: if she sticks with her training for a period of years she is more likely to walk like a duck outside of class because we ask her legs and feet to work in external rotation. (And for the record, I try to encourage young students not to do this, to instead walk in parallel like a normal human outside of ballet class, but it is a ballerina’s unmistakable “signature,” and some wear it proudly, silly ninnies.)
  • Ballet is repetitve, good training moves slowly. It is not about pyrotechnics, nor should it be for a long, long time, well beyond the pre-professional training horizon. If you (and your child) want something fast-paced and flashy, formal classical ballet training is probably not your thing. Don’t expect a teacher with good chops to entertain your kid in class. We crawl before we walk, and when we gloss over important early instruction the result is sloppiness and the potential for injuries. Excellent training for very little people is short and sweet. The class should move along at a good clip, but the same movements and language will be repeated week to week. It’s the nature of the beast: a plié is a plié—she’ll do it when she is five, and she’ll still be doing it as a professional, if she lands there.
  • Finally, ballet is emphatically not for the parent living vicariously through her kid. Sending that child to ballet school—especially if she does not want to go—makes life miserable for everybody, including (and probably most of all), her teacher. Look for an adult beginner ballet class to satisfy your unrequited desire to dance.

Most ballet teachers are met with the parent of the (presumed) wunderkind at least weekly, sometimes more. It is great that your child appears interested in ballet classes, even better that you seem willing to go down that road with her. We’ll see how that pans out for everybody concerned. Here is your first exercise (listen very carefully, please):  go home and question your motives. Why are you here?

Gwynn in class

Photos are property of the author and of Knoxville Ballet School; please don’t steal—it’s not nice.


Life in Vermont, Writ Mini


Today was gorgeous, but we spent it mostly inside, organizing and spring cleaning, and weaving into an impossibly-small-and-growing-smaller-by-the-moment house another vanload of stuff we carted down from my oldish place to the newish one. It’s not fun, it’s a process, and that’s about all you can say.

As of exactly a week ago we officially have two teenagers in the house. We celebrated a certain newly-teened girl’s birthday last Sunday, an equally gorgeous day. An afternoon of miniature golf at this familiar local landmark was an impromtu decision, although Handsome Chef Boyfriend is wont to decide things in advance and not let on this was the plan all along. Fun was had, along with liberal doses of cheating, score card altering, and fuzzy math. The Bennington Monument was my favorite hole. And I’ll also submit that the backdrop of the Green Mountains’ jaw-dropping beauty against which this miniature golf course insinuates itself is a journey from the sublime to the ridiculous. In a good way, of course: everybody needs a little kitsch now and then. (I’ll save the story of our close encounter with a pair of unfiltered miscreant boys, who also possessed exactly no respect for boundaries, for another post. Happily, HCB did not spend the night in jail, although I briefly worried he might.)

You only turn thirteen once. Oh, and by the way: the miniature golf place is for sale, should you be in the market. The obvious appeal of owning a putt-putt range is hollering at random children, Hey you little miscreants! Or just hollering at random children—mini people—in general.

But I digress. Happy Memorial Day.










Friday was one of those intoxicating Vermont spring days where you think there must be some mistake in the landscape: nature’s greens can’t possibly be that, well, green. But there they are. More than once in recent days I have wanted to press pause and hang on to the neons betraying new foliage for just a little longer. And the vistas in the southwestern corner of the state where I live and work sometimes take away my breath, catching in my throat. But time waits for no one. My own taproot is taking hold, I can feel it. Friday afternoon I had the great pleasure of a nice romp in a huge field with my friend and her beautiful English setter, a variety known as a Llewellin: she is a dappled girl with a winsome smile and a shameless penchant for mud. She is also a love sponge, as she demonstrated after our walk. I have only a small handful of images to show for the romp, notably the view from a couple of spots (there were so many), and the plaque affixed to a historic bridge that was remarkably rescued from a dump and reassembled on this beautiful piece of land as a footbridge. A tiny souvenir of the afternoon, a gift from my friend, sits in a crystal bud vase in my kitchen windowsill. This is the prize after a big, bad winter. How reassuring to know so many things continue to take root against all odds.




Wisdom of Generations


Last time I observed this vista it was late fall and Handsome Chef Boyfriend and I were headed to Brattleboro for a visit with his mum. Yesterday it was further afield for a celebratory sendoff in Massachusetts at the home of a sibling, whose daughter and her husband and young family will soon leave for a new life overseas. Big changes for everybody concerned. I tried to document the day as unobtrusively as possible, but I can’t pass up a chance for more storytelling.


I’ve landed smack-dab in the middle of a very big family of very good people, traversing many generations. This is not the first time HCB and I have joined this extended group to celebrate with them, nor will it be the last. And it has never been precisely the same combination of people twice; people have busy lives and come from far afield. But where this particular multi-generational family is concerned, everybody tries their best to get there.


There are lots of babies and toddlers right now. Which means lots of young parents. And some middle-ish ones. And grandparents, and even some great-grandparents. Big brothers, young sisters, nieces and nephews. Husbands and wives, widows and friends. Many generations in the same place, at the same time. For my part, I am still somewhat of an observer in this setting.

Yesterday I was thinking about a Ralph Waldo Emerson quote above the chalkboard in my tenth grade English classroom: The years teach much which the days never know. It occurred to me that this same bit of wisdom could hold true with a multi-generational family: there is love and enrichment to be found in every unit of a family, more still in the family as a whole. Young, sharp minds hold no sway over a lifetime of experience. Nor can that lifetime be complete without the tincture of youth to keep it alive. At least, that is what I would like to think.


Seeing my own child from infancy through his adolescence—in spite of the time I spent chiding him about various things throughout his rough-and-tumble teen years—pushed me outside my comfort zone and gave me an edge I would not otherwise have possessed. (And as he steps into grownup shoes there are signs he was actually listening to me on occasion.) In short, he made me a better teacher and thinker than I’d have been without him. I could not have foreseen that when I signed on to parenthood.



There was talking and listening yesterday, some of it loud and boisterous, some whispered. And envelope-pushing and discovery. And good food and company. And chiding. And wisdom flowing in many directions. The thumbprint of the past was there, and celebrated. And hope for the future was everywhere, unmistakable.



The only thing missing today was actual face time with my boy, but we had a nice check-in with each other, as we do most every day. And this, from HCB and his going-on-thirteen-year-old:


Surprise Mother’s Day geraniums, to keep me from stealing the ones outside a certain Vermont welcome center. It’s the kind of thing that is the domain of the older generations: if age bestows upon you the capacity to pick flowers out of other people’s gardens, as I have been told it does, then why not liberate entire pots of geraniums?

And anyway, there’s an attorney in this great, big ‘ol family, plus one in my own Tennessee family. So the way I see it, I’m covered.

Someday my grandchild will beseech me once again to tell about the time I was arrested for stealing the flowers. And I shall be happy to comply.

Coconut Shrimp in Green Curry Sauce: What Could Possibly Go Wrong?


Yesterday Handsome Chef Boyfriend and I trekked back over to central Vermont for another load of stuff in the neverending process of combining our two households. This has been a logistically painful move, a bit like pulling off a bandaid verrrrrry slowly. I remain eternally grateful to my erstwhile landlady for allowing me to do things this way. Soon it will be time to yank off the rest of it, and get the heck out of her beautiful loft in earnest.

We spent an afternoon doing some gritty work: HCB painted the loft’s bathroom, which we had started some time ago but never finished, and I cleaned the wood stove to a fare-thee-well and did some other organizing and tidying up. Wish like heck things would go as they did for Jane and Michael Banks with the help of one Mary Poppins; there is still so much work to do.

Then we packed some stuff and schlepped some stuff. As we were buttoning up we thought about dinner and decided on a fantastic place we love over in Woodstock called Angkor Wat: Asian fusion, with an authentically Cambodian thumbprint. I had the great pleasure of a long chat with chef-owner Chy Tuckerman in his kitchen back in December, related to work I was doing at the time for Upper Valley Life Magazine. His story is worth reading.

Anywho. We thought we’d take advantage of our proximity and treat ourselves to dinner after a day’s work. Spring rolls for appetizers, to start. Beautiful, crispy, flaky, not greasy. Perfect, in fact, as you might surmise from the photo above.

HCB does not miss a chance for duck, ergo:


I had a hankerin’ for coconut encrusted shrimp, where there was a choice between red or green curry sauce. Curry is one of those things that is not at the top of my to-die-for list in the world of cuisine. I like it okay, but it does not make me sing and dance, nor have I ever found it particularly hot. Our waiter told us that green is the hottest of the three Chy uses (the other two being red and yellow). Without batting an eye I chose green; I am an adventuresome eater, and spicy is always okay by me.


This was possibly a mistake, not unlike another one I made several weeks ago involving a mix-up between cayenne and cinammon. Suffice it to say that I had a visceral reaction to the first bite I took. That is actually a euphemism for what I was feeling. But there is no turning back from a decision like this. I resolved to continue, much to the amusement of the person sitting across the table from me.


The burn was instantaneous, and continued and continued. And continued, until it reached a crescendo where I teetered on the edge of asking for milk. Or for medical attention. A tiny reprieve came in the bites of beautifully prepared shrimp; there was also a bit of mercy in the veggies, as the fleshy inside of each piece was untouched by the devil in the sauce. The waiter checked on me a couple of times. I really could not speak. I could not see well, either, through waves of tears.

The person across the table was also tearing up. From laughter. And he felt inclined to point out to me again and again that my cheeks were growing redder. (Thanks for that, Captain Obvious.) I could feel the heat radiating off my face, and my lips were burning the way they do when they’re suffering a bout of mid-winter chapping. I concluded that there must be some health benefit to this much pain associated with a meal. There’s gotta be. Right?

There were jokes upon jokes, gentle readers, to do with farting around open flames, among other things. And riddles involving the words “swollen” and “red.” So dang funny I forgot to laugh.

I finished about two-thirds of my dinner and boxed the rest. The burn lingered even as we left the restaurant; by the time we reached Ludlow I was almost able to speak again.

Today has been decidedly less spicy. It was too beautiful to stay indoors, and we had planned a fun project with a particular almost-thirteen-year-old:




HCB is the consummate Boy Scout (really), and spent some time engineering spots to hang our pine cone birdfeeders where the squirrels could not reach them:




One parting thought for this delicious weekend, a friendly message to our neighborhood squirrels: mess with our pretty bird feeders, and I have a leetle something for you, courtesy of my friend Chy: