Confessions of a recovering dance mom slash pediatric orthopedist

I have 2 daughters.  They love to dance, they love everything about dance, they love to watch dance, they love to practice dancing…  Lila is 11. Colette (Coco) is 8. When Lila was 5, the girls from her preschool class began dancing together. It was the usual…  tutus and colorful glittery stickers and props, beautiful young shiny teachers, fun music. Before we knew it there was a team. And my kindergartener was a competitive dancer.  The first year was adorable. There was a multi aged “production” including dancers age 17 down to 5. The theme was “NYC.” LIla and her crew dressed in 3 dimensional taxi costumes.  Their hair and makeup was no joke. There were videos. And mandatory brands and colors and products. There was glue and glitter. There was a special curling iron to shape their 2 ponytails into tight curls.  Instructions were strict about symmetry and location of these ponytails, they had to line up with the ears. And if the part was not perfectly centered, it was all over. There was hair spray so thick with glitter that it had to be applied outside.  Somehow there was a line drawn, though, no false eyelashes… YET. We had “call times” and “dress rehearsals.” At times I had to wake her up pre 6am to doll her up. Once the little girls danced so late that not 1 but 2 of them peed in their costumes.  But they were hooked. The big girls carried them around and fawned over their cuteness. They learned acro tricks and flexibility poses that made me check my knowledge of anatomy and safe zone for hips. Coco was in diapers, learning to crawl and then cruise while watching her sister and her friends in the sparkly pink dance studio.  

The owners of the studio were grounded, loving, and role models for my girls.  They were warm and encouraging, yet strict with expectations. As I watched Lila grow out of her baby body she became graceful and talented.  She was good. But not the best one. She learned that to keep up with the uber talented group she needed to work harder. Choreography did not come easily to her.  (Who would have thought that ease of choreography would even be a phrase applied to a kindergartener?) But she kept up. As she grew older with her team, over the years she would remain on the most competitive “company” team, but never in the front and never in the center of the dances.  Her very best friends were front and center and it became clear that they were innately talented dancers. All of this translated into teachable moments for Lila. Success mixed with failure, honor mixed with disappointment. She was graceful in her dance, but more importantly, she became graceful in her demeanor.  

Then came Coco.  Firecracker red hair.  Magnetic face and infectious personality and charm.  Determination. She got to join her own team. The tutus.  Instead of 3 dimensional taxi costumes, she was a yellow ducky.  There were bath props complete with yellow feathered fringe. Hair and makeup.  But no false eyelashes. That would have been too much. They started with the “rubber ducky song.”  Just when you thought the piece was over, they popped back up in sunglasses and did a hip hop number. The crowd went wild.  Another little girl hooked.

The following year LIla went to a mature bun.  There was a mandatory item called a “hot bun” with video instructions to be sure each girl looked the same.  Once, when a 6 year old dancer left her hair bag at home, an unfortunate dance mom had to phone around to pharmacies close to a dance competition asking for “hot buns.”  The stress of the situation rivaled a night on call for me. This was the year that also brought earrings. Clip on for Lila, as her ears were not yet pierced. Large garish crystals.  The agony of losing one early in the season prompted me to purchase 4 pairs of backups. Oh, and this was the year of false eyelashes for LIla. Yes, I was an orthopedic surgeon applying false eyelashes to the face of my 6 year old daughter.  And the process was as taxing as fixing a broken hip. When combined with centering and perfecting the bun, there was so much tension between mother and daughter that friends and family had to leave us alone. Also, we bought something called a “dreambag.”  This was a suitcase that popped up into a hanging rack. Ours was actually an imitation one. The real ones were bedazzled with names of dancers, their teams, and studios. The bag was too big to fit into a regular trunk. But I had to bring the SUV regardless, as I also volunteered that year to be in charge of some props.  My daughter was dancing on a box (table?) and I was in charge of this item.

The mothers were actually amazing.  There were some smart, accomplished women.  I spent my days with surgeons and doctors, and spent my weekends with dance moms.  The first competition of the year was at Disneyland Hotel. In the coffee line, I ran into some pediatric anesthesiologists I had known for years.  

Anesthesiologists:  Jen, we didn’t know you were speaking at our meeting?

Me:  I’m not at your meeting!  I’m with the dance competition in the next building.  Of course. The following weekend I was an invited lecturer at a pediatric meeting, teaching about pediatric sports injuries.  In the ladies room, I ran into some dancers I knew.

Dancers:  Aren’t you Lila’s mom?  I didn’t know her studio was at this competition?

Me:  I’m not with the dance competition.  I’m at the doctor meeting nextdoor.

My father was also an orthopedic surgeon.  When I was a little girl, he took care of the New York City Ballet Company.  I had a long time interest in dance medicine. Dancers are tough as nails, with higher pain tolerance than football players and wrestlers.  They do not always make easy or compliant patients. Now that I was part of the dance culture, the dancers started to make their way to my office, too.  The overuse injuries. The drama of missing a competition due to injury. The anxiety and the stress leading to hip, knee and shoulder pain. The complexity of the relationships, was it the dancer or the parent leading the charge?  I wish I could say that as the reality of all of this set in, that it led me to pull my daughters from the dance competitions.

But we remained.  For 4 more years. Girls wearing too little clothing moving in inappropriate ways to music far too mature for their ears.  The beauty pagent vibe. Young girls obsessed with social media and followers on instagram. My husband became too uncomfortable to watch.  The stress of preparing the THINGS, finding the earrings and the eyelashes, applying the rhinestones to the costumes, perfecting the hair, actually was greater than the stress of being a surgeon.  The tension between my daughters and me as we prepared for their dance weekends was palpable. But I still would have persevered.

Until the straw that broke the camel’s back.  The mean dance girl and her mom. The girl was Coco’s age.  They sparred most of the year. One day their sparring came to a head when the girl moved a mat while Coco was doing an acrobatic trick.  Coco fell and was not hurt but scared. Instead of apologizing, the girl told Coco that Lila was the worst dancer on the company team. There was a meeting.  The owners of the studio had zero tolerance for this. I was supported, as were Coco and Lila. Another teachable moment. But that was it for me. And I thank that girl and her mom.  Because we left. And there is life after competitive dance.

The girls dance 4 days a week 2 blocks from that studio.  They do not compete. There are no false eyelashes. They are learning that dance is a craft and an art.  We have our weekends back. And as it should be, the stress in my life again originates from my surgical career.

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