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  • Notes on a Dancing Daughter
  • Nancy McCabe (bio)

The first time my daughter was in a dance recital, she just stood under bright lights in a fluffy pink tutu, sucking her finger.

Fast forward two years. The music strikes up: “Man, I Feel Like a Woman.” Six-year-olds in peach leggings and fancy updos flounce out, swaying their hips self-consciously, glancing at others for cues about what to do next, each movement a confused afterthought. They cut their eyes toward their neighbors, then lift their hands and feet with careful puzzlement, as if these body parts are breakable souvenirs from distant lands. All but the girl in the middle, whose arms and hips swing, whose feet are quick and sure. She stares into bright lights and flicks her leg back, confident and sassy—turns sideways and casts a glance over her shoulder, defiant and self-possessed. This is my daughter? I drop my magazine. I sit bolt upright in my seat. This is my daughter.

I’ve been taking tap classes for years, dragging my daughter along to color or do homework in the hall. I’m addicted to the moments my revved heartbeat matches the music’s rhythm and individual steps blur into a sequence the way individual words form a poem. All at once everything is of a piece—heartbeat, rhythm, steps. I dance for the stretched feeling of worked muscles, the splash of cold water on my sweaty face, the earned, refreshed laziness afterward. I have thought of dancing as my interest, one I hope to pass on. And now, here my daughter is, so beyond me, so fully her own person, dancing. [End Page 71]

My daughter collects compliments all over town for months following a recital. “Where does she train?” others ask. “I couldn’t take my eyes off her,” they say. But my half-Korean friend Ruth tells me that my daughter’s dance performances most likely attract attention because she looks different. It’s not her exceptional talent, Ruth says with such assurance. Like she understands my child better than I do, even from far away, in Colorado.

How do you know? I want to demand. You haven’t seen her dance.

At ten, my Chinese-born daughter has started sneaking eyeliner and polishing her nails black. She hides under skater caps and hoodies with grinning rows of toothless skulls. Strangers flinch at this child who labels herself like a box of poison, and I wish they would look closer at the skulls—some with hearts for eyes, some with bunny ears. I wish they would look closer, period.

Even when I defend her, my daughter peers at me through smoky eyes, cap pulled low, looking defiantly, prematurely adolescent. She prickles if I root for Americans in the Beijing Olympics. She glares, finding me patronizing, if I cheer for Chinese athletes. At ten, my daughter is unpredictable, slipping in moments from argument to hug, cuddle to bristle.

I am white, American-born. My Chinese American daughter is one of a few nonwhite children in our northwestern Pennsylvania small-town school. Studies warn that this is not good for a child’s developing self-image. My daughter is proud to be Chinese. But she’s more ambivalent about belonging to a white community and being American. She’s uneasy with patriotic rhetoric that assumes American superiority. When teachers say, “In America, anyone can grow up to be president,” she thinks, “Not me.”

In 1970, a church children’s choir in Wichita sang “Jesus Loves the Little Children.” I imagine them lined up in a straggling row before the congregation, the director marching up and down, adjusting them. Soon their line was as straight as birds perched on a wire, the too-big sleeves of their flowing white gowns drooping like tired wings. The children clasped their hands. “Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight,” they sang, and on yellow, the choir director nodded at Ruth. Ruth took a step forward. Even at seven, she felt foolish and embarrassed, standing there alone for the heartbeat [End Page 72] it took for the choir to reach the word white...


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pp. 71-83
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