The Dance Team

“Let’s sit next to Stephanie”, Jae says as we enter the gym, “Paige has a good chance and it will be easier “.  She doesn’t have to explain; we’ve been here before.

“How is Paige feeling?” Jae asks Steph as she sits down beside her.  Steph just shrugs helplessly, “I guess I’ve forgotten how it is to want something so much that nothing else seems to matter.”  Jae nods her agreement.  “I thought you weren’t coming.  I saw Robyn come in but no sign of you.” Steph says.

Robyn left the car with speed befitting a young girl too sophisticated to be seen outside the house with her parents.  They are not so sophisticated but have adjusted to their diminished status.  In middle school, she and her friends realized all the world was looking at them.  So they go everywhere in groups, wearing the same hair and clothes; protective coloration to allow them to escape into their surroundings.

The girls have been in this gym for three hours every school night for two weeks practicing for the tryouts.  There will be only twelve of the forty-seven girls chosen.  The handicapping, both on the floor and in the bleachers, is never-ending.

“Hey Sally,” we hear from a mother in the first row turning and gazing upward, “I don’t see Sandy.  Is she goin’ ta be here?”  Sally doesn’t know but she is willing to opine.  “Unless she broke her leg” she replies “her mother I mean.”

“She’s doing better than Bob and me,” says Steph.  “He couldn’t even come.  There’s some mysterious business thing he can’t miss but he says he’ll get here as soon as he can.  I didn’t think of it in time and one of us has to be here.”

“Did you hear that Sara Marshall isn’t trying out?” Jae asks.  “No, but I haven’t seen her,” says Steph, “what happened?”

“No one seems to know the details.  Robyn claims she only heard her mom is punishing her for something by not letting her try out.”  Jae replies.

Now, this is pretty much mom business, so I don’t comment, but it seems to me this is extreme even for the Marshalls.  I don’t know Sara well but I think the whole family is going to pay for this.

Groping for a more neutral topic I  fail miserably, “Not that many people here tonight, I would have thought with so many girls trying out there would be more”.  Jae pats me on the knee and tells me gently, “Only parents are invited to attend, dear”.   Steph turns her head away but I see the smile forming.  That’s it for me.  I’m a stranger here myself.

We are not an objective audience, but we will try to be polite and applaud them all, though we will allow a little more enthusiasm to show when our own appears.  We will root for the girls we know, but most of these performances, three girls at a time doing a routine much too long for any purpose we can see, will be something to be endured.  The four hours we spend on these wooden benches will be counted in our favor at the final judgment and serve as expiation for some of the lesser sins we have committed against our children.

Each of us knows some of the others, and there is a buzz of conversation. Nearly all is devoted to the event at hand, the effort, the desire and the disappointment to come.

“What are you gonna do if Jessie isn’t chosen?”  This comes from a woman settling in two rows up on the right to a friend just behind her.  We know a Jessie but not the mother or her friend.  “I don’t know” she replies.  “When my kids are hurtin’ I open my mouth and my mother’s voice comes out.”

“Tell me about it.  My mom used to say; ‘the sun’ll still come up in the morning’.  I never listened to anything after that.”

Some fortunate few feel confident their child will succeed and are either nonchalant or more capable of seeing the pain that will come to others this night.  Some know the daughter they have been reluctantly encouraging in this effort will need to be comforted, but even these now dare to hope they are wrong and their awkward daughter will somehow find grace for the fleeting moments she is on the floor.

From behind us I hear a voice I don’t recognize:  “Father O’Neil told me it’s wrong to pray for Andy to win, so I asked him could I pray she won’t drop the baton or fall down during the routine?  He said God would be ok with that.”  I think there’s a homily there.

The girls are all on the floor practicing in a single group.  They have been here stressing out for more than an hour, and we are nearly thirty minutes past the appointed beginning time when I hear another voice, probably meant to be softer, rising above the buzz.

“God! What is taking so long; why don’t they get started already?”  I take this as another prayer and silently join in.

Finally, the music mercifully stops, the girls leave the floor and the judges, all outsiders and, we are assured, purely objective, enter and are introduced.  The process is explained, and three seniors demonstrate the routine.  Points for this and points for that and let’s get on with it!

Finally, the first three girls march solemnly in.  This year’s head commands, clapping them into position for the routine.  The teen music, made even less agreeable to adult ears by classic gym acoustics, blares out and three nervous girls smile bravely and begin.  Smiling is extremely important.  Girls are instructed to smile brightly at all times.

The second trio has just begun when Jae points out a senior holding up a helpful sign that says “Smile.”  “How do those girls know whose smile isn’t big enough?” she whispers, “It must be stressful to see signs stay up while you’re killing yourself to show how much you enjoy doing this”.

And so it goes.  In threes, and occasionally twos, where one has dropped out, they perform until all forty-seven have had their chance and more than two hours have passed.  Their scores are picked up and taken to the ubiquitous computer after each group.  But this is not the Olympics.  We will have to wait well past the end for the results.

The seniors bring out the flowers to be awarded and the placards they have made to be hung around the necks of the chosen.  By now the girls’ desire to be part of this magic has overwhelmed any rational considerations.  Girls who could not be passed over are now uncertain; girls who have no chance believe in miracles.

Now a senior, one of the only purely happy people in the place, jumps up;  “Do Y’all want to come down and do the routine together?” she asks brightly.

Of course they do and they flood the floor.  After they finish they mill around forming familiar clumps rather than leaving the floor, nearly all fearing they won’t be back.

Finally, the adults break their huddle around the scoring table and the faculty adviser takes the microphone.

“I know you’re all anxious and we’re gonna get started now.  Here’s our principal, Eva Kellam, to announce the results.”  She starts to hand the mike to a tall woman beside her then abruptly turns back and continues, “Oh, the numbers of the girls selected for this year’s team will be announced randomly.”

So there is to be no diminution of suspense.  Those girls left in the stands, bodies leaning forward, heads in their hands, eyes on the hallowed floor, will have hope until the last number is called. The principal now steps to the microphone to announce the anointed and declaims:

“Aren’t they wonderful?  Let’s give them all a big hand.”  We do and she continues: “We can only choose twelve girls tonight but all of these girls have shown impressive commitment and worked extremely hard for two weeks.   There are no losers here.”

We dutifully applaud again but we know how it will feel to the non-loser who has not achieved her heart’s desire.

With each number, there is a shriek and a happy girl dives out of the stands and races to join the others.  There are tears and hugs and then the next number.  As the numbers yet to be announced dwindle, the emotion in the stands reaches levels mercifully rare in human experience.

Steph leans over and whispers “my God, could they make this any worse?”  We’re pretty sure they couldn’t.

The last number is called, the last happy shriek rings out and the last happy tears are shed.  On the floor is the joy that comes with working hard and achieving a cherished goal.  In the stands now flow the tears of desire unfulfilled.

We are pleased to see Robyn and Paige leave the glow in the center of the floor and move to the stands to comfort friends.  This is not the last pain to be experienced and the joy on the floor will also fade.  Neither joy nor despair is permanent, and we cannot shield our children from either.

This is my second year and I had no doubt Robyn would again be selected.  But I remember the pain of those who were not last year.  So I look only briefly to the floor where the tears of happiness flow, glad my daughter, Paige and even Jennifer have been successful, but haunted by the pain so evident in the bleachers.

Many of these girls lacked the skills necessary and had no realistic chance.  Some may even have known that but were swept up in the wanting, desperately hoping to hear their number and feeling a great loss when they did not.

Finally, Robyn and Paige run over and accept brief hugs and congratulations.  “Can we go with Jennifer?  Her parents want to take us to CDB’s since nobody could eat tonight.  They’ll drop us off after.”   We nod and they’re off.

Steph says goodnight and joins up with Bob who did finally come but didn’t make it all the way to the bleachers.  Jae and I head for the door, dropping congratulations and condolences in our wake.

Outside there are happy groups heading off to celebrations and, many smaller, quieter groups hurrying to put this evening behind them.  Our child is happy but we have no desire to linger in this place of pain where we suddenly feel even winners lose something.  We say nothing until we leave the parking lot.

“You do realize we’ve got to do this again next year,” says Jae.  “It only seems to get worse.”

I agree.  “The more you are sure your daughter will be selected, the more you can be aware of the fact that there is much more pain than joy in this process.”

“Surely there is a better way to do this.  This is like a Roman circus without bloodshed.”

“So how do you do it?  There were what, forty-seven girls who wanted to do this and only twelve could be chosen.  You can’t just have a lottery,” I respond.

“I’m not saying that but tonight we have twelve excited, happy girls and thirty-five girls who feel they have lost something ineffable, something that would have elevated them among their peers and, more importantly, in their own eyes.  Now they have been cast down. Is that a fair trade, a small group who are happy and a much larger group who are devastated?” she asks

“But life is like that, for every winner, there are countless losers.  Children must be ready for that if they are to achieve their desires.”

Still, I wonder.  Childhood as preparation for life implies it is not part of life, that there is some sort of discontinuity.  Is childhood something we get over, like measles or outgrow and discard, like a pair of shoes?  Is the child we were gone, leaving only the memories and the scars?  Is there a time when the child is born again into adulthood?  When he is strong and need no longer look under the bed or over his shoulder?  When she can win with nobility, take her losses with grace and try again?  Perhaps such a glorious future is worth the pain and perhaps the loss of the children we were is not to be mourned.

I once believed something like this and felt I had not been successful in my preparation, for my child has not gone away.  It is through his eyes I see splashes of color amidst even the darkest of days.  I wonder still with his curiosity.  When I am most human, most aware of the beauty and pain of this life, he is with me.

But I’m not a complete failure.  I offer images of myself to the world that obscure my child. I have learned to hide my fear and weakness, to value the spoils that accrue to the winner and give myself to be judged by the standards of my very adult world.  I compete even when there is nothing of value to be gained.

Nonetheless, tonight it occurs to me that winning and losing are such an essential part of our adult lives because they were made an essential part of our childhood when we, all unknowing, agreed to measure ourselves against the standards of the powers in our lives.

Perhaps if the children we were had been as well instructed in the value of our own and others’ ideas and in cooperation as we were in competition, we adults could more comfortably live with ourselves and with each other.

But how then would we choose our dance teams?  And how would we keep score?