The Wild Card I Didn’t Count On
When I bribed my toddler with cheese to make him point his feet, I knew it was unorthodox, but I also knew that it’s never too early to start your ballet training. As a former professional ballet dancer myself, I knew what many stage mothers did not know: it’s not enough to be pushy. You have to be proactive. It would be my edge over the other stage moms.
“Can you say ‘Bar-ysh-ni-kov?’” I’d prompt.
“Again cheese?” my two-year-old son would counter.
I’d hold up a cube of mild cheddar, and Wagner would point his feet. While he was distracted by his snack, I’d cup his little doughy toddler feet in my hands, and gently push on the meta-tarsals to stretch his arches.
“Again cheese?” he’d ask, grinning. Clearly, I had picked the right incentive.
“Point your feet,” I’d banter back, a little softer when Matt was around. Strangely, he did not approve of me bribing our son with dairy products in order to nurture the love of dance. He thought it was weird. Even though he himself had danced in the Nutcracker every year since discovering ballet in college. And he never thought it was weird when I stretched his feet.
A good stage mother knows: the passion has to come from within, and if it’s not already in your child’s heart, it’s your job to put it there. When Wagner turned four, I decided it was time to give him a taste of the stage, his moment in the spotlight.
We auditioned for the Nutcracker, and Wagner was cast as a little angel, in spite of a shocking inability to remember choreography and an astounding lack of musicality. I had my work cut out for me in our home rehearsals.
A good stage mother has the MacGyver-like ability to turn any room into a ballet studio. Our makeshift stage was the living room, and it didn’t occur to me that it might be a problem that there was a baseball game on TV. After I’d retired from ballet but before I had children, I had season tickets and I altered my schedule to watch as many games as possible. These days I only watched the Giants when they were in the playoffs. I kept tabs on them in an offhanded way— with a muted television in the background.
My bigger concern was getting Wagner to rehearse without the promise of cheese, which he would eventually have to give up if he were to turn professional.
“Arms on up on the count of four,” I reminded him for the 17th time in 16 counts, only to find him frozen in mid-plié.
“What’s that?” he asked, nodding toward the television.
“It’s a baseball game,” I replied in monotone. “Those are the San Francisco Giants. But they aren’t really giants. They’re just called that. Those guys are called the Kansas City Royals.”
I thought that if I answered in a boring voice, we’d get back to the rehearsal in progress. “Who’s that?” Wagner walked slowly toward the TV like a zombie.
“That’s the pitcher. Madison Baumgartner.”
I waited for him to lose interest, but instead he swayed a bit from side to side, eyes wide.
“Who’s . . . who’s that?”
“That guy is the catcher. Buster Poser. The pitcher is going to throw him the ball, and that guy in blue is going to try to hit it.”
Madison Baumgartner took the mound and as he turned his head toward home plate, Wagner copied him and turned his chin over his shoulder. Madison wound up and threw a clean strike, and Wagner’s body twitched, as if something inside his bones recognized those moves.
Over the next forty-five minutes I explained balls and strikes, slides into home. What it meant when the ball went over the wall. That Pablo Sandoval, the slugger they called “Kung Fu Panda” wasn’t a real panda. That the outfielder’s name was “Hunter Pence” not “Underpants.”
In those years between ballet and motherhood I’d turned to baseball to vicariously live out what I was no longer able to do with my own body. I suppose I could have gone to the ballet, but I couldn’t stand to watch those other dancers onstage—some better than I had been, other not as good, but all of them younger and healthier.
Baseball was all men and didn’t compete with my memory of successes and failures but it still mirrored many of its aspects. It was a team sport that relied on independent performance. Every time a player went up to the plate I imagined they were under the same pressure we felt when we stepped onstage in a demanding role. They expected to win the way we were expected to be perfect.
By the seventh-inning stretch, Wagner was completely absorbed in the game. He found an empty paper towel roll to be his bat, a fleece mitten to use as his baseball glove. He was even scratching his crotch. He was still wearing his ballet slippers, but only because they were useful for sliding into second base, which just an hour earlier was a humble fichus plant near the fireplace.
It dawned on me that whole time Wagner pointed his feet for cubes of cheese—he just did it for the cheese.
A good stage mother might never know this—but a good ballet dancer does: you force it, you break it. And when life offers you a graceful exit, you always take it. If you don’t, you’ll regret it.
One month after the Giants won the World Series, on dress rehearsal night for the Nutcracker, the Kung Fu Panda was traded to the Red Sox. I didn’t tell Wagner—not right away—I didn’t want anything to interfere with his concentration. Although I knew that if he hadn’t learned by now that the Little Angels have to raise their arms on the count of four, he’d never learn.
Eventually mother-guilt got the best of me and I broke the news to him.
He cried into his pillow, “Why, Panda, why?” My heart shattered alongside his. I remembered when my favorite second baseman was traded to the Dodgers, but I also remember the excitement when I was in the corps de ballet and that famous dancer from Cuba joined as a guest artist. Sometimes change is good.
As I comforted my son, it occurred to me: I still had an edge.
How many baseball moms know that you have to stretch your quadriceps before stretch your hamstrings? Or have a list of chiropractors who make house calls? Or a stash of Italian clay that reduces swelling in sprained ankles?
I didn’t know, but T-ball started in ten weeks. I was about to find out.
Janine Kovac is a writer living in the San Francisco Bay Area where she teaches writing workshops and curates literary events. Her memoir Spinning: Choreography for Coming Home was a semifinalist for Publishers Weekly’s BookLife Prize and the memoir winner of the 2019 National Indie Excellence Awards. An alumna of Hedgebrook and the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley, Janine was the 2016 recipient of the Elizabeth George Foundation Fellowship. Her current project is a collection of essays about a family of five that dances in the Nutcracker.