Last week I was at a ballet studio watching my daughter dance. It was a fun show, similar to ones that I have seen countless times before. Since my oldest daughter was three, I have attended ballet recitals, shows, and the annual Nutcracker. Over the years, ballet has become an important part of our lives.
It was not always this way. My mother was not a dancer and she had two boys. Our nearest cousins were boys and so were all of our friends. Boys dance, but finding a boy in a typical ballet school can be as hard as finding a Republican in New York City. We played football, joined Boy Scouts, and attended church, but never danced, or knew anyone who did. This all changed when our oldest girl was born.
In the early years, I went to ballet performances to see my daughter, the cutest person in the world to me. From Coppelia to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I didn’t want to miss seeing her dance or giving her flowers after a performance.
When my little ones started ballet, they began asking me questions after their performances. “Daddy”, one would ask, “What did you think about the Russian dancer?” or “How did you like the Sugar Plum Fairy?” The first time my oldest asked a question like this, the blood drained from my face and I stammered a helpless “They were great, sweetheart, what did you think?” In truth, I didn’t remember the Russian and I couldn’t tell the Sugar Plum Fairy from the Snow Queen. I wasn’t attending dance performances to enjoy dance; I was going there to see my daughters. I thought that this was enough.
It wasn’t. My puerile answers sent the girls an unmistakable message – I didn’t enjoy ballet for the sake of ballet, as they did; I only went because I got to see them. They challenged me “Daddy, you wouldn’t even go to a ballet if we weren’t in it, would you?” I replied, “No, I wouldn’t. I go to the ballet because my daughters love it.” My answer seemed quite satisfactory to me, but not to them. I was baffled.
As Nicholas Wolterstoff explains in Art in Action, there are two ways to experience any art, whether dance, music, visual arts, or something else. The first is instrumentally, in which we experience the art to accomplish some other purpose. If I go to a ballet to watch my daughters dance, I am trying achieve the goal of enjoying and supporting my daughters. Ballet is merely an instrument to accomplish this end. In fact, ballet is not necessary at all; I could attain this goal equally by watching them at a soccer game or listening to them at a music recital.
If I go to a ballet performance because I enjoy ballet, whether or not my daughters are dancing in it, I am experiencing the ballet for its own sake. Disinterested aesthetic contemplation occurs when we experience an art for its own sake, irrespective of any other gain. My girls enjoy ballet, and other children enjoy other arts, for the sake of enjoying the arts. There is nothing wrong with using art instrumentally, and all humans probably have many motivations for everything that they do. But until fathers learn to enjoy ballet, and other things that our wives and children love, for their own sake, we will not be everything we can be for those we love.
I don’t claim to score high on the sensitivity meter, but my wife helped me get it. The girls loved ballet. They loved to move, they loved the music, they loved the stage, and they loved how strong, flexible and graceful they had become. The girls loved ballet for its own sake, whether they were in it or not. They wanted to share this love with me. I made a change.
In addition to my daughters, my closest link to ballet was through medicine; I often care for dancers and gymnasts in my sports medicine practice. So I learned more about common dance injuries, and remembered to marvel at the magnificence of human motion. I noticed how the dancers’ movements complemented each other in the flow of the music. Slowly I began to enjoy ballet because of ballet, not only because my girls do it. We have begun to share this affection.
I am still not a ballet connoisseur, and cannot tell third position from fifth position. Occasionally I watch ballet segments on video just because I want to. My daughters have many more years of dance ahead, and I will be there for them. I will also be there for the art itself, and someday will treat my wife and daughters to an evening of ballet at the Kennedy Center. Maybe I will even be in the Nutcracker myself as a party guest, or in my dream role…Drosselmeyer.