Brad: Why don’t you get a job Spicoli?
Spicoli: What for?
Brad: You need money.
Spicoli: All I need are some tasty waves, a cool buzz, and I’m fine.
– Fast Times at Ridgemont High
This post is dedicated to my daughter. I thought it was apropos, because at 19 she got her first REAL job ever last week — and not at the local QFC bagging groceries, or bussing tables at Olive Garden, but a real life professional contract union dancer job with the Pacific Northwest Ballet starting this fall.
At 19, I was on my third job, waiting tables at the family restaurant chain, as well as working in the dining room at an old folk’s home. I saw jobs as a way to get paid, be social, and talk to people. Working was fun part of the time but not all of the time. Like most teenagers, I didn’t love it. I was a good worker but it was really just an opportunity to look cute, get free food, and flirt with boys. Those were my main employment objectives.
Ryan was a hard worker, doing store inventory and hotel bellman jobs. He was a hustler, and his work ethic started at a young age. So from the beginning, we had this dichotomy: two parents with very different work ethics, raising a child to be a functioning and productive member of society.
I was raised with chores being a part of life. We had a chore list, and in our formative years, my siblings and I worked like dogs. You did the job and if it wasn’t done right, you were made to go back and do it again. You missed a spot in the bathtub, the entire bathroom had to be cleaned again. Here, iron all of your dad’s shirts for the week. Here is every stray sock our family’s had in a decade, find their matches. Your allergies bothering you? Tough, go mow the lawn, or pull all the weeds in the garden. It gave me such a distain for cleaning and work that I’m sure that’s what contributed to my desire to find cake work in my teens. I thought I had already paid my dues; I didn’t want to do it again in the real world. Even when working for family, there were no free rides; they were harder on me than anyone else on staff.
The common thread in all of these posts is: I grew to be a parent that would do things differently. Chores were healthy, important, necessary – but not at the expense of kid stuff or your child’s self-respect. Thankfully, our child is a Virgo. We were blessed from the beginning.
Virgo: Perfectionist. Whether it is balancing a check book to the penny or measuring something five times until they are sure it is precise, Virgos are perfectionists.
We had an 80/20 success with this Virgoism. Plus side: clean, tidy, reasonable, hard-working. Down side: It took her 20 minutes to unload the dishwasher because “Ew, I got something on my fingers,” or an hour to vacuum – because she had to get EVERY spot.
Then came the controversial topic of allowance. Madison came home one day and said a friend was getting $10 a week to do “chores” and got $5 for every A on their report card. This is where old school Italian Mariangela comes in. I think rewarding children for expected behavior is asinine. You want to bribe them to be functioning members of society? What kind of expectations does that set them up for as adults — that they can be assholes unless you pay them? They don’t have to be good people for free? You want an allowance? How about I make sure you don’t WANT for anything. You have clothing, food, neccessities, fun things you want within reason. You have my TRUST (until you break it), you have my undivided attention when you ask for it, and you have every bit of my love. That is your allowance.
“I wanna be an airborne ranger
I wanna lead a life of danger
Before the day I die
There’s five things I wanna ride
Bicycle, tricycle, automobile
Virgin’s mother and a ferris wheel…”
In the summer of 2004, we made the decision that would light Maddi’s fire for dance, plus change our lives and her worth ethic for the better. That decision was to take her from her once-a-week, small town dance class to Cornish College in Seattle, three days a week. Her dance teacher said, “She has talent — if you have the means, she should really try to go to my alma mater, Cornish, just to see if she likes more structure.”
One day a week turned to three days and then four. The world of the infamous Dance Mom was a weird fit for me. But as I stood and watched her dance in class from the window, that made it all worth it. Close to that feeling was also watching other people watch her dance. A beloved Cornish teacher, Ms. Dishy, coined the phrase “Maddi Magic.” Ms. Dishy said Maddi had an air about her when she danced, a presence and a work ethic every teacher loved. To this day, that phrase is still used. The Cornish College program will always be the place that nurtured her love for dance. They showed her how to navigate the dance world with a firm but gentle hand, which was a loving approach to molding young dancers.
After five years with Cornish Prep Dance, she was thirsty for more. She asked her teachers for more classes, and was told that their curriculum was structured to give the dancers the
workload best for them at every age. Up until this point, Pacific Northwest Ballet was the school we had only heard crazy rumors about. The place that would “burn her out as a dancer” and “break her spirit” — we heard they injured dancers and created bad body image. We were told the Pilates room was a “TORTURE ROOM” that they used to stretch young dancers feet and legs into what they wanted them to be.
Despite these scary stories, Madison still wanted to try. I clearly remember her, at almost 13 years old, saying, “If that’s the best ballet school in the city, I want to go there, I have to.” So we told her there were open auditions for the school in August. We notified the artistic director of Cornish Prep Dance and had a meeting with her to explain the decision. At the meeting, Madison was humble and grateful for all they had done for her, but expressed her need for more and that she would be auditioning for Pacific Northwest Ballet. What happened next would become one of those pivotal moments in life – one of those moments where you can clearly see things going one of two ways, depending on the will of the child and the support they had. The director responded to Madison with this: “You have flat feet and bad extension. You will never be a Balanchine ballerina at Pacific Northwest Ballet.”
My heart dropped. I wanted to crawl across the desk and strangle this woman. What on God’s great Earth gives you the right or authority to tell my child what they can or can’t do, especially in regards to ART? And what in your mind leads you to believe that you are the leading authority in all things ballet?! I was livid. I will never forget Madison’s response – she sighed, met the teacher’s gaze with her head held high, and said, “Well, I can try my best — and if I don’t get in, at least I tried.” My heart swelled with pride and we walked out of the office.
For three months, she trained. She took open classes on the side, sat and watched TV with her toes turned under the couch, used her theraband ‘til it broke, and did sit-ups for days. She was our little warrior, so determined. But she had her doubts, as we all do. Many nights she would tearfully want to give up, saying that she didn’t think she could do it, that she was born with flat feet and inflexible hips and that maybe she was wasting her time. Did I think that was true? I didn’t know anything about the dance world or if there was a place for my daughter. What I did know is that we raised her to not be afraid to try. And as unhealthy as this may sound, I personally showed her – through my own life experiences – that SPITE can be a powerful tool, if used to motivate or improve yourself, or just prove some people wrong. So we kept giving her fuel. We kept reiterating, do all you can and TRY, and let’s just see what happens. You never know.
She did a small competition the summer before auditioning that was at the PNB Bellevue location called PAFE (Performing Arts Festival of the Eastside) and won first place. She was told by the adjudicator, retired PNB Dancer Kabby Mitchell, “Honey, you are a beautiful dancer, why aren’t you dancing at the PNB School?” to which Maddi said, “My teacher said I had bad feet and bad lines and that I could never do it.” He could see the tiny crack in her determination and said, “Girl, listen, I was the first BLACK dancer at PNB. If I can do it, anyone can!” And with that, he spent 30 minutes showing her the way to give the illusion of good feet. Working through the ankles and learning to work that part of your foot, in order to shape it. He gave her so much more than a lesson that day, he gave her something she needed much more: HOPE.
Three months later, she went to the open audition for the PNB School in Seattle… and got into their program. The first thing she did after finding out? She emailed her teacher from Cornish who told her she would never be able to do it. Did I prompt that email a little? ABSOLUTELY, and I would do it again. She was kind and humble but also proud. The fuel was finally lit. I saw it in her eyes, the realization that she could prevail against the haters if she put her mind to it.
Unsurprisingly, the next seven years were blood, sweat, and tears — she wanted the work and PNB delivered. But it was not without reward. She was given amazing opportunities, then a partial scholarship that turned into a full ride and a generous donor. The scary rumors around the Pacific Northwest Ballet School? False, every one of them. The administration was always supportive and dealt with things immediately, whether it was in response to bullying or eating disorders or interpersonal issues.
Every moment as a dancer with the PNB School has molded her into the dancer and employee she is today. They guided her but didn’t force anything. The incentive of seeing the professional dancers in the same building, day in and day out, was her motivation. She would come home and say, “Mom, I didn’t get much homework done in the halls before class because they were rehearsing Romeo and Juliette and I couldn’t take my eyes away from it!” Watching her passion for this artform unfold in front of our eyes was better than any homework to me. Seeing her set goals and priorities for herself that were way above what I would have done at her age was inspiring. Remember, I was waiting tables and dancing at raves until dawn at her age, not training non-stop for my career. PNB showed her the mile markers for achievement, and gave her the tools to reach them.
Seven years she’s been with the PNB School. Countless classes later, numerous Nutcrackers, several wonderful opportunities performing with the company, and hours of work later…she has reached the finish line. Not just any finish line, THE finish line. She was hired as a professional dancer at the ballet that helped mold her as a young adult. I was honestly in shock for days. Never in my life have I achieved something of that magnitude. Never in my life have I aimed for something that I loved with all my heart, had the support team behind me that she has had, set my eyes on the prize, and achieved my ultimate goal. It’s astounding to me, and I admire every inch of her.
Going back to my drab job after her big news, where I was unhappy, anxiety-ridden, and horribly stressed – I had a revelation. What inspires me? What would I do, if I could do ANYTHING? Is it what I’m doing daily? Not even close. While the reality of things like rent, bills, and adulting make your dreams seem far away, I realized that I was a hypocrite. I had spent the last 15 years being the ultimate cheerleader to my daughter, but wasn’t doing it for myself. What kind of example does that set? She’s reached her goal, the first of many, and I was a major part of that journey. Now it’s time for my own journey and search for fulfillment to begin, to be my own cheerleader and set my own happiness goals. Once again, my child – now young adult – has inspired ME to be a better person.
Cornish photos by Colleen Dishy Wes
PNB photos by Angela Sterling