I’m ready to confess.
When they placed my baby girl on my stomach after 25 excruciating hours of labor, I looked down and uttered, “Why’d you hurt me?”
Then those magnificent endorphins engulfed me and at once the memory of the pain dissipated long enough for me to cradle my Fiona and do what all mothers do. I counted ten tiny fingers, ten tiny toes, a button nose, big brown almond-shaped eyes, and two of the longest legs I’d ever seen on something so small. The narrow feet and arches were also striking.
Here’s the real confession: In that first snuggle, I put a silent prayer into the universe.
“Please, oh please, let my baby girl be a dancer.”
I mean, it would be a waste not to give those legs and arches a shot.
To date, the prayer has been answered with only slightly above average brainwashing on my part. I chose the dance studio and I foster the behind the scenes suggestions, but long before Fiona first stepped up to the barre, I found her captivated by a taping of "Carousel, Live from Lincoln Center." Tiler Peck and Robert Fairchild were dancing the dream ballet. Not even a Disney princess had entranced her to the degree that she was transcended in that moment. She was positively motionless until she began to imitate. In the weeks that followed all she wanted was to watch the ballerina in the pink dress. She wasn’t even two.
Each year her studio performs a full run of an original ballet with the youngest classes weaving in and out of a grande pas de deux and artistic variations by the pre-professionals. This year’s ballet was “Elementa.” Fire, wind, earth, rocks, water, and foliage journeyed the audience through the elements of our world’s composition. Fiona danced in the Ventus variation in a whirlwind across the stage. My heart swelled to see how she had grown.
Her instructor is a no-nonsense ballerina, as many are, but genuine is her approach. Watching her work with her dancers, one believes that she’s working for their benefit. She hopes for them like anyone who spots a gift would. She’s a true mentor – Fiona’s very first mentor – and a necessary element to my daughter’s composition.
Like elements, mentors are essential to anything abstract. Pure in purpose and selfless in choice, they are the extra degree that springs change into something stagnant. I’ve had countless mentors in my life: a Spanish teacher who inspired, directors who pushed me to push myself, and older women whose wisdom encouraged. Not only did they fuse possibility with what I didn’t know to be possible, but they also all had something undeniable in common. I was free to be frank, uninhibited and candid because a mentor is different than family. It’s a relationship that eventually has expectations, but starts from a place of complete nuance. Common interest ignites the mentorship, but the comfort of being who you are without reservation or explanation sparks the relationship.
I’ve also been the mentor countless times. Hours of practice, planning, and watching another grow has grown my own heart enough to feel like I have lots of little sisters or daughters out there from my years of teaching, directing, or advising in various ways. A handful of mentorships have surpassed the basic and advanced to dear friendships. Age is relative after you’ve held the hand of someone as they discovered their true grit. Mentors dissolve barriers when they show their human side – their elements. It’s why being relatable is always in style.
This time of year we say goodbye to teachers who did the unrequired extra and mentors who saw something worth a second look. We part with those who cheered at breakthroughs. We give one last hug to those who said, “I knew you could.” As a mother, I know that I must prepare my children for life without me one day. So, too, does a mentor, who strengthens someone to be too accomplished, too smart, and too talented to continue on with them. Just as children leave the nest, so too do prodigies – off to bigger and brighter places. The one mentored is eternally grateful.
Still, I know enough to know that it’s the mentor who is actually the most thankful. They are continuously inspired by those they guide. It’s like a reinvigoration that the world isn’t done yet. Mentors are given hope every day that we just might figure things out after all. I know because I’m inspired by the girls I’ve guided – the ones now conquering dreams and the ones just starting out. How can there not be hope with so much ambition out there?
I confess that I don’t want Fiona to ever stop dancing. When I peek into the studio, I see her in her element. But as her mother, I know my influence only goes so far. My tiny dancer will have other mentors. Some will challenge her. Others might simply listen. Warm memories or eventual friends, they will be part of her composition – the necessary elements that only another can inspire.
Originally published in New Orleans Magazine online.