Personally I’ve never enjoyed dancing. I’ve always felt stupid doing it, either because I have no rhythm (a point my mom would disagree with–she loves to dance) or because I was taught from a young age how to feel embarrassed. As a child, I was picked on for the smallest things: being short, not eating enough, even my last name. Many of the comments were benign, but as kids we take things to heart.
When I was in grade school I did go to the occasional dance, but there too I felt vulnerable. I was the wallflower who never participated. To this day I feel anxious when I think about dancing—even when I’m completely alone and nobody is watching. A few months ago my wife asked me if we could enroll my 3-year-old son in a ballet class. “Sure!” I replied without hesitation. But little did I know that a “mommy and me” ballet class would push me past my comfort zone in familiar but unexpected ways. My son is too young to share my anxiety. He doesn’t hesitate to play, or sing, or dance. He is entirely and fully himself all of the time. He has no problem being vulnerable. He cries when he’s frustrated or sad. He shows and receives affection without pause.
He says whatever is on his mind.
Recently, my wife got sick and asked me to take our son to his ballet class. “Okay,” I casually replied, but I could feel my heart rate increasing as I spoke. My thoughts began to race. I careened through all kinds of ‘what-if’ scenarios in my mind. On the one hand, I wanted to be nonchalant: “Sure, I’ll go! We’ll have a blast! I’ll get to dance around with my little man, get some exercise, and show these moms that we don’t care about gender stereotypes—that we’re free of shame!” But my other hand was juggling a ball of anxiety: “I don’t like to dance. I don’t want to go. What if I embarrass myself? What if this? What if that?”
Nick goes to dance class
It didn’t matter. My wife didn’t miraculously recover from her illness. I probably could have come up with some excuse, but I knew that if I did, I’d be teaching my son that my own hangups were more important than his individuality, his freedom. I’d be teaching him that it’s not okay to be vulnerable. I’d be a damn coward. So I put on my chucks, packed up some snacks, and did the pre-car potty ritual. We said our goodbyes to mom and the boys went to dance class.
Beginners ballet is not complicated—it’s not pop-n-lock or swing or salsa. The class is broken up into two parts. The first half is “Mommy and Me” where the parent participates. The second half is solo with the instructor. During the first half, Mommy (or in this case, Daddy) and the child stretch, mimic animal movements, sing songs, use props, jump, get up on tippy toes, etc. Nothing too complicated or potentially embarrassing. There are some ballet pliés thrown in there, but nothing that significantly tested my manhood.
All joking aside, dancing with my son helped me realize how enriching it is for him. It’s structured, repetitive, physically and mentally stimulating. It’s fun, challenging, and it’s teaching him respect, cooperation, and patience. My wife had told me about the benefits of the class numerous times (she had even sent me videos of his progress), but sharing in that experience was altogether different. I understood why she had been encouraging me to go, but I didn’t expect that it would be equally as valuable for me.
I’m so grateful I didn’t cave in to my anxiety and make up some excuse. I would have missed my son looking up and giving me the hugest smiles. I would have missed seeing him hop like a frog across the studio. I would have missed holding him and congratulating him at the end of class. I was so proud of him that I forgot about my own issues.
Strength isn’t always about killing an animal to put food on the table, or leading an army into battle, or surviving in the wild.
Then vs now
When I was young, I remember disliking anything I deemed feminine or nerdy. I didn’t play with any dolls. I didn’t get into boy scouts (too dorky, I thought). I certainly didn’t sign up for “girly” dance classes. I wasn’t always like that though. I remember when I was carefree enough to make stupid faces and belt out the weirdest noises. I remember running around at parks trying cartwheels, somersaults, and jumping around just being free—not unlike my son at his dance class.
When did life get so serious? When do we unlearn how to be vulnerable?
Being a parent has taught me many things, mostly patience and love. That day at dance class taught me an important lesson about vulnerability and I’m thankful for the reminder. Opportunities like these—reading a children’s book in a funny voice, pretending to be my son’s favourite cartoon character, or telling him that he’s my favourite person—help connect me with him. But they also connect me to other men, to other husbands and fathers, to strangers.
Men who let their guard down — the ones who can cry in public, the ones who are willing to go to therapy, the ones who cultivate compassion, the ones who are free to be themselves—are in high demand these days. Masculinity isn’t what it used to be. Strength isn’t always about killing an animal to put food on the table, or leading an army into battle, or surviving in the wild. For me, strength is attending my son’s ballet class.
This whole experience has reminded me that being vulnerable is something many of us need to relearn. It’s something we need to practice by exposing ourselves to new things and finding opportunities to lower our defenses. Me, I’m going to do this by writing. I’m going to do it by dancing with my son. I’m going to find more things that make me uncomfortable and I’m going to do them for my son and for myself. Will it be tough? Yes. But it will make me stronger.