City Sprawl: Gender Bender

Having the only boy in ballet lessons means … nothing much, past my son learning how to do the splits.

Illustration by Matt Mignanelli

I’ve been cutting back on my kids’ activities these past few months, largely because they’re 4 and 2 years old and, I’ve found, are happiest picking up rocks and showing me the rocks. We’ve nixed soccer, gymnastics, swimming and KinderJam. We’re saving buckets of money, not to mention the rocks. We’re shoring up rocks like conspiracy theorists do bitcoins. One day when the banks collapse we’ll be really happy we did, since we’ll have the dry laid-stone foundation for a new bank.

There was one activity, though, that my son still wanted to keep up with, and that was his ballet. Ballet, too, had been the only thing he initially asked me for, as opposed to everything else, which I introduced in the hopes something would spark. Something did. It was the rocks. And we don’t actively dislike ballet!

Unless in attendance at a ballet, everyone notices a boy in ballet class. Everyone has something to say about it, and most people are supportive. Really supportive. Too supportive? I’ve wondered. It’s worth noting that no one in swim class ever complimented my son’s body type—and no parent ever excitedly gripped my arm with little nail digs when it was his turn to do a drill. They’re happy we’re there, I think, if for no other reason than to balance the aesthetics a bit. That room is fairly saturated in tulle and light pink.

And yet. And yet somebody out there is reading this, inwardly smirking. I know he is because I’ve been on the receiving end of a few outward smirks, and I have no words for you, sir, because science hasn’t yet unlocked the Neanderthal grammar codes.

I took ballet as a kid, and remember three things: two of the positions, and being scared of my teacher. Ballet dancers are intimidating—even the nice ones—because they’re so much more elegant, composed and simply able than the rest of us slobs. In my son’s class, there are 5-year-olds who stand taller than I do. They look like they’ve stepped out of a music box. And the teacher’s exactly how I remember my old teacher, to a tee: tight-lipped, pale, vaguely European-seeming for some reason. Hard to place on the age spectrum. Do ballet dancers age? Suspiciously, both of them have red hair.

My son’s teacher has a handle on that class. She has a handle on us parents, too, who wait perched on a line of black chairs set out for us along the back wall. There’s not to be any talking from us. We’re not supposed to talk to each other, or our kids. These rules weren’t spoken to us so much as conveyed via atmosphere and, one time, a single stern, lifted eyebrow. Some parents get out their phones during the class, but not me. The lady can do the splits, for Pete’s sake. She has the bone strength of a jungle cat. She may or may not be a witch unfettered from the shackles of time. Show some respect.

My husband and I take turns sitting through ballet lessons. He’s told me he thinks the teacher has ringers recruited from Russia so that after everyone’s failed to properly execute the chassé, she can turn to little 6-year-old Svetlana and ask her to demonstrate. I know what he means: The skill levels in the class are—to put it delicately—disparate. Some of them have been dancing ballet for four years. Some of them fall over standing in second position.

My son is the only boy in ballet, which is a huge bonus for him. For the time being, he likes girls, which I understand completely. The other 4-year-old boys at his preschool are adorable little psychos. They slap the skin of each other’s forearms by way of greeting each morning. Beyond that, their collective primary goal is to chuck monster trucks at each other’s heads. I’m not suggesting the girls are without their own cruelties, but at least most of them can sit for a full minute and play with finger paints in a way that doesn’t involve cramming the tube up their nose.

And it’s not lost on my son that most 4-year-old boys slump around in cargo pants and shirts that maybe, on a fancy day, have stripes—whereas the girls his age largely dress like Shakespearean fairies. If he went in to ballet for the fashion, though, he’s going to be disappointed. The girls still get to dress like the fairies. Do you know what the boys wear? Leggings and shirts that maybe, on a fancy day, switch from plain white to gray. The teacher wears a flowered blouse and black slacks, which made me wonder the first time I saw her, and then never again. We do not question Madame.

Not that we’ve sprung for the official uniform for my son. Not yet. Since we’re not sure how long his interest will last, we take him in tighter-fitting Batman pajama pants and refer to them as his “tights” so that he’ll do that, too, rather than announcing that they’re his pajama pants, which he does anyway. He’s also still wearing socks in place of ballet slippers, because no one’s told us we can’t do that yet.

In private moments, my husband and I have admitted to each other that we’re the tiniest bit jealous of our son: If he sticks with these lessons for the next couple years, his physical dexterity’s on pace to outmatch ours for the rest of our lives. Has taking an adult ballet lesson crossed my mind? Once or twice. As for my husband, he claims the best he can do is fall dramatically onto an overstuffed chair with minimal bodily damage, though he admits it’s happening with less and less damage prevention. And isn’t that what ballet really is? He asked me. A continuous act of dramatically falling well?

Years ago, I used to work as a reporter in Warrenton, and the block my office sat on had nothing but two-hour parking spots. There was free, unlimited parking about a half mile away, so obviously, I never used it. The town meter maid and I became well acquainted that year. More accurately, the meter maid became acquainted with my Honda Civic—her bread and butter for the better part of 2007. It wasn’t her fault—I should have just moved my car—but I really hated that lady, and used to think nasty things about her as I peeled the tickets off my windshield each evening. I comforted myself with the dark thought that she couldn’t be happy working a job where so many people must have felt toward her the same way I did.

You know what, though? Looking back on it, that lady was happy. She always had a smile on her face. She seemed to have lots of friends, and I passed her once, sans Civic, on a walk to get something to eat. She was dancing ballet in one of those huge, street-facing windows some studios have. She made direct eye contact and gave me a big wave and smile through the glass.

It made me feel about 2 feet tall—not small enough for a music box, but a respectable eye level for getting back to the hunt for those rocks.

(January 2018)