Look At Me

In one video of Nora, she is 14 months old, wearing gray cotton pants that I had picked up on sale at Target, white onesies with small flowers on the chest, and a pink knitted hat. Even though this is a home outfit, it is along the style that I have intentionally designed for her: clean, simple, and understated. In the background of the video, her grandmother is singing an upbeat Khmer song, and I am clapping to the beat: 1-2-1-2. At first Nora flaps her arms as though they are wings she can’t control, and jiggles from side to side, and then she rapidly claps her hands as she rocks on her feet. While she wildly shakes her head like she is in protest, she smiles so wide that it seems her entire body is laughing. When the song is nearing the end, she screeches in delight and reveals her teeth, fully satisfied with herself.

About five months after I took that video, I enrolled Nora in a Mommy and Me dance class. Following instructions from the dance studio, I ordered Nora leotards, tights, ballet slippers, and tap shoes. On the morning of the first class, I pulled on myself black yoga pants and running shoes and donned Nora in white tights and plain bubblegum-pink leotards. Her father waited to leave for work so that he could see her first. Wrapped in her dance attire, she reminded me of a plump rosebud.

At 19 months old, Nora was the youngest in class. She was also the newest, the other toddlers having had started about two months earlier. In the early weeks, Nora leaned stiffly against my leg while the other kiddos attempted to mimic the instructor, and I was beginning to wonder if I had registered her for the wrong reason. Had I done it for myself — because I had never had the chance to join a ballet class as a child? But after a couple of weeks into the class, Nora’s confidence emerged, and she began to dance as well as any new toddler could. She sometimes tapped her shoes along with me. She sometimes hopped like a bunny as she attempted to chasse. She sometimes stomped as she attempted to tiptoe. At home, she was eager to show off what she had learned from that morning, like her high kicks, and eventually she began to instruct her father, grandmother, and me to watch her. “Look at me. Look at me,” she would order as she lowered her bum to the floor, folded her legs into butterfly wings, and touched her nose to her toes. And we would clap for her each time, truly amazed with her ability.

Nora lived for her dance class that was on Saturday mornings. Throughout the week, she would ask about her classmates, particularly about the oldest little girl who wore a new leotard or tutu each week. She wanted to wear her tap shoes and ballet shoes around the house. She was eager to slip into her tights and leotards on the morning of class. I lived for Nora’s dance class, too. Watching Nora in that studio with mirrored walls and barres was like watching her dip her toes in the ocean for the first time. Her fascination. Her deliberation. Watching her assessing her world and then permitting herself to delve into that world helped me to better understand my world.

Back around December I had begun to hear talks about the dance recital that would take place later in June. Our class of kiddos from 18-month-olds to three-year-olds would dance (with their moms beside them) on stage for their families’ and friends’ enjoyment. I was not sure about signing Nora up for the recital, but I did not balk at the idea, either. Actually, I thought it would be funny, and maybe fun. Parents who wanted their child to participate would need to order a dance costume. After the holidays, I inquired about the cost. The price tag of $85 appalled me, and I jumped on my soapbox. I cannot, cannot in good conscience, pay $85 for a dress that my daughter will dance in for less than two minutes on just one day. Yes, I want to give her what I myself didn’t have, but I can’t do it. I just can’t! We are not those kind of people! No one — not Danith, his mom, or my friends — said that I was unreasonable, and after three months of agonizing over whether to purchase the costume or not, I chose not. Later, as ordered costumes were beginning to trickle in, I learned that it had a sequined bodice with peach and teal straps and a puffy tutu skirt of purple, blue, orange, and pink. Nora’s dance costume sounded like a cotton candy milkshake, so I was even more satisfied that I hadn’t spent money on such a frilly little dress.

Beginning in January, Nora’s class practiced the recital dance. Except for the two older girls, none of the other toddlers could keep up with the steps. None of us moms cared. In class, I began to let go of Nora’s hand. I stood against the wall during the warm-up routine, while the kiddos, in the center of the room, listened to the music for cues on how to move, like galloping like a horse or gliding like an ice skater. Nora managed her surrounding with both fumbles and ease, and I watched her with admiration. My barely two-year-old understanding that she had a place in the world. Nora’s confidence continued to blossom outside the dance studio, as well. Look at me, Momma. Look at me. I would drop what I was doing to watch her blow soap bubbles, to watch her teeter across a balance beam, to watch her fold her hands into a hive for imaginary bees to hide. While I watched her, I would sometimes wonder what was occurring in her head at that moment. I wondered because I was perplexed by this understanding and confidence that she possessed. As a child, I never asked my parents to look at me. Actually, I preferred that they didn’t. Their comments, although never outright mean, were often prickly. If I brought home a second prize, they reminded me that another girl had brought home a first prize. If I felt proud of a painting, they asserted that I should have been embarrassed for having cared so much about it. What did Nora see differently?

In March the dance studio emailed with instructions for group photographs. Everyone in a group photo must wear her recital costume. This was the first time I had learned that Nora and her class would have a group photo taken. Participation was, of course, voluntary. But how could I not let her be a part of it? This would be her first official class photo. She was well liked in that class, and she equally liked everyone. But she did not have a costume, and more urgently, the deadline for ordering one had already passed. The following Saturday, she and I left the house early so that we could stop by the office at the studio before class. I had prepared a long paragraph for why I now needed a costume for my daughter. Fortunately, the studio director did not need my speech. Pleasantly, she promised to try her very best to place my order. If she was able to make it happen, she said, I would need to pay an extra charge for the late order. Of course, I replied.

A week after I ordered the dance costume, the pandemic hit, most businesses shut down, and Nora and I no longer attended dance class on Saturday mornings. It wasn’t until five days ago — four months after the special order — that Nora and I drove back to the studio, to pick up the costume for which I had ended up paying $105. In the end I purchased a costume that my daughter will never wear for a recital, not even for two minutes on just one day. However, she does twirl in it in front of our windows, cook in it at her play kitchen, and run around in it on the playground. When we first pulled the costume out of the white tissue paper, Nora dragged it on the floor, exclaiming that it was so beautiful. After her grandmother helped her into it, she cried out to me, “Look at me, Momma. Look at me!” And I looked at her, the center of my world.

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