“Mommy, mommy, can I be a ballerina today?” I asked at all hours of the day at age 7. “Can I be a ballerina tomorrow?”
After months of (sometimes aggressive) pleading, we compromised: I would attend a one-week ballet summer camp a couple weeks before I started second grade. I was elated, but I also knew I was already years behind other aspiring ballerinas. I had to make up for lost time.
The first morning of camp, I walked with nervous excitement into the ballet studio. I was clad in black leggings and a t-shirt, a stiff blue headband holding my hair up. But much to my chagrin, I realized that the other girls had arrived in pink tights, pale pink leotards, and hair wound tightly into beautiful buns. I was both mesmerized and dismayed. My career as a star ballerina felt like it had gotten off on the wrong foot already.
Leslie Baird — or Miss Leslie, as we called her — the director of Oregon Ballet School, looked at my ill-suited outfit and quickly remedied the situation. She grabbed tights, a leotard, and shoes from the lost-and-found bin and sat me down on a cold blue metal stool. Using sharp hairpins, she perfectly put my hair up into a ballerina bun, tossing aside my pedestrian headband.
That night when I came home, I refused to take my hair out of the bun; it was too perfect, and even though my head ached from the metal pins holding it all together, I couldn’t let it go. I knew my hair would never look this good again. I was distraught: All the other little girls had their mothers put up their hair, and my mother simply didn’t have the expertise or patience to do mine.
I performed terribly during that first week of ballet camp. My arms were awkward branches, I could not get my feet on pointe, and, worst of all, I could not make my hair into a bun. I sat in front of the mirror for hours trying to perfectly twist my hair, but my 7-year-old arms were simply too short, and my motor skills weren’t fine enough to masterfully guide sharp hairpins into my hair without scratching the top of my head. I told myself that if I could have the perfect ballerina bun, I could achieve my dreams of being a professional fairy princess.
My father watched as I cried over my ballerina-bun failure and came to the rescue. Despite having never done ballet or lived with long hair, he rose to the challenge and offered me his bun-making services.
Growing up, my father had worked in Tokyo while I lived an ocean away in Portland, Oregon, and I very rarely had any contact with him. In my early years, when I saw him after a long while apart, I often mistook him for our mailman. When he was home, he was usually exhausted and hungry, and I thought of him as more of a houseguest.
But when I was 5, he moved back to Portland. When I started ballet, I was still getting to know him. I hadn’t quite figured out our relationship and certainly had misgivings about him doing my hair. We hit some bumps the first few tries, but my father never gave up. We soon fell into a routine: Every Saturday morning, we would sit down — him in a chair, me on the floor — and he would equip himself with a paddle brush, sharp hairpins, and strong hair elastics. His hands would gather all of my hair into the perfect ponytail and magically turn it into a bun that never fell out. And when he put in the hairpins, he never once jammed them into my head or scratched my scalp.
Learning to dance the rest of that year was like pulling teeth. I was terrible. But over years of practice, I eventually trained my body to be elegant, graceful, and controlled. My technique improved as did my self-confidence.
While my father eventually stopped doing my hair for normal rehearsals, he continued to do it for every single show in which I performed — from The Nutcracker to the spring recital. By doing my hair every Saturday, and for every show, my father gave me the gift of being able to confidently perform ballet, and all the other life skills ballet has taught me. My father has always called himself my biggest cheerleader, and he has proven he is. Whether watching from backstage or in the audience, or being there with me in spirit if not in person, he has always showed up for me.
For many years, I looked on with envy as the other “ballet moms” in the lobby reminisced about their days dancing. My father, having nothing to contribute to the conversation, sat in near silence for the hour of class and the 10 minutes before and after during which the ballerinas changed. While I was embarrassed at my father’s silence, I also pitied him for never having done ballet; I often wondered if I should teach him ballet so he would “get it” and wouldn’t feel so left out. But as I got older, I came to realize that my father had the power and ability to make his own choices — whether in terms of learning ballet from his 7-year-old daughter, making nice with the ballet mommies, or just appreciating the moment in his own way.
Nowadays I dance less and work more. Most days I sit hunched over a computer screen writing blog posts and articles about my generation, global politics, and the issues that women and girls face around the world. But while my dreams of becoming a star ballerina may have gone, the lifelong lessons remain. Whenever I am asked to speak publicly about my work or on behalf of the many causes I have been able to champion, I stand with the poise and posture I acquired thanks to years of rigorous dance rehearsals. The unglamorous side of ballet, like drilling techniques and building strength, taught me to be tenacious and unrelenting. But the more glamorous tricks — like my favorite, the triple pirouette — take 10 percent technique and 90 percent faith. The moments before a perfect pirouette have taught me to trust myself, my capabilities, and my strengths.
My ability to learn these lessons would have been impossible without my dad, who not only made it logistically possible to dance, but who, in doing so, also taught me my first lesson in gender equality: Gender roles don’t matter. What does matter is doing what you love for the people you love. And that lesson remains ingrained in me. My motto — “equality, empathy, and kindness” — comes not from the buzzwordy sphere of personal branding, but rather from the floor of the living room, where I found my dad waiting for me with a hairbrush.
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