I called my sister last week from a writing workshop.
“What are you writing about?,” she asked, making conversation.
I replied, “Oh….dancing. And, the beauty pageant from high school.” There was a heavy sigh in my voice.
With a touch of exasperation in her voice, she responded “It’s time for you to let that go you know…”
“Yah, I know.”
And I do. But, whenever I think about it, it still stings.
Even though there wasn’t a pageant that year, my small town was asked to send a representative to the state Junior Miss competition. Somehow, through the uncertain network of small town decision-making, the ladies called me. I was the chosen one to represent our community.
Maybe it was a fulfillment of a childhood fantasy or the insistence of my mother or the honor of being chosen by the local powers, whatever the reason, I agreed.
As is possible in a smaller community, I was deeply involved in high school. I had leadership positions in school clubs and was a dance assistant as a part-time job. I was active in church and drama and even had a brief stint as a cheerleader for the wrestling team. My country upbringing—where I was a big fish in a small pond—had not prepared me for what lay ahead.
During our meet and greet luncheon, one of the girls turned to me and asked, “What’s your talent?” She was modestly dressed in a fashionable skirt that showed off her long legs without revealing too much.
“I’ll be dancing.” What I meant was that I had borrowed a park bench and long overcoat and I had taken a piece of poster board that I made into a giant “book” entitled, “How to Dance.” My loosely choreographed number would hit its peak when I ripped off the overcoat to reveal new-found dancing skills. I had a basic plan, but it was ameteur at best. “And you?” I responded.
“I’ve recorded myself singing an aria and I’ll be dancing ballet on-pointe,” she smiled kindly, her perfectly smooth hair framing her lightly freckled face. “A piece that I’ve choreographed myself.” She was outrageously perfect.
The week of activities, rehearsals, and interviews was filled with similar interactions. With every conversation, my sense of inadequacy grew. I didn’t have the right clothes or an outgoing temperament. I wasn’t up on current events or for that matter, pop culture. I had only been to one foreign country. I was hippy and full among a gaggle of skinny girls.
“At least I will have the grades,” I told myself. “I must be in the running with that.” But no, somewhere along the line I realized that even my above-and-beyond GPA wasn’t going to be in the running.
The night of the pageant came. I did my awkward dance. I stood on stage in my on-sale dress, the same one I wore to prom. I did my best to hold my ground. I tried to blend in with the perfect girls. But, by the end of the show, I was done.
“You did SUCH a good job, Mary. We are so proud of you,” my parents gathered around me as I gathered up my things.
In the silence of my teenage mind, I retorted “Then you are a fool.” But, I smiled and responded, “Thanks. Can we just go home?”
“Absolutely. Let’s go home!” We made our way out to the parking lot and crawled into the minivan, covered with the dust of our dirt road.
A few weeks ago, my niece was in her first dance recital. At three years old, it is evident that she is following her inner drummer—a strong-willed kid who doesn’t like to be told what to do. She didn’t want to wear the costume, didn’t want to let go of her tattered Bear, and didn’t want to dance on cue. As her family, we already knew that.
As the number started, it become evident to the entire audience.
She stood with her feet planted. Not one single tap sounded off her feet. Instead, she looked around and began to fiddle with the strap of her fish costume.
She didn’t shoulder shimmy or shuffle or shake. The girls beside her were moving around the stage but she stayed put. Slowly, she slide her little arm from under the strap, letting one arm free from the itchy sequins.
“Oh, sweet baby, no….” my mom whispered under her breath, trying to mentally will her granddaughter into staying clothed. “Please keep it on.”
The audience giggled a bit as she began to fiddle with the other side.
Before she committed to disrobing, the number ended and the girls lined up to form a choo-choo train and push my darling niece off the stage.
“I hope I didn’t scar her, “ my sister whispered across the line of family.
“Nah,” I whispered back, thinking of my strong niece, “she’ll be okay.”