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Dancing with My Daughters

By Elizabeth McPherson
Photo by Joel Cadman
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My mother was a very accomplished pianist who taught piano for many years and even sometimes accompanied ballet classes. In the evenings, she would often play piano in our living room, and I would dance in completely free abandonment—leaping and pirouetting. I had formal instruction in dance as well, but I consider these moments with my mother to have been most influential in my deciding to pursue dance as a career. I connected with the physical freedom of expression, that “in the moment” body/mind/soul experience that dancing can provide.

I have two daughters: Delia, age 7 and Cora, age 2. Since Delia was a baby we have enjoyed dancing together. Because I am a dancer, dancing was a natural way for me to soothe her and have fun with her. We even performed together with The Omega Dance Company when she was 2 months old. A friend of mine, Kara Esposito, had choreographed a piece for which she wanted a mother and a baby. It was an incredible experience. I held her as we danced -- bending, swaying, and pivoting. During one of the performances, Delia looked up at the lights and let out the sweetest baby “Aruuggghh!” We followed that performance up with another as Mary and baby Jesus on Christmas Eve at St. John the Divine in New York City.

Our dancing in the last few years has developed to a different level. At least once a week, Delia gets into a costume from her dress-up box, and we turn on some music. Delia also likes to dress-up her little sister, Cora, and get her in on the action. I know we’re in for a night of fun whenever I see the girls take out their ballet slippers. Our dances range from free improvisation to practicing dance movements to mirroring activities in which one child copies the other or me. Their faces glow with delight or become quite serious depending on the mood of the music or the difficulty of the steps. I particularly enjoy a movement of Delia’s in which she twirls herself to the floor with controlled speed in a modern dance style. Cora likes to do dances with just her arms, waving them up and down and all around.

At the airport, when waiting to board, I often start a rousing game of “Simon Says” since I know the girls will need to sit still for several hours on the plane. I lead them through hopping, waving, turning, bending, stretching, twisting, and whatever else I can think of to expend some energy and at the same time get that brain-body connection going. The game usually ends in giggling exhaustion.

I have also begun teaching Delia in a more formal setting in the after school program at her elementary school. Although it is a ballet class, I add in a creative element —dancing out the stories of the great ballets such as TheNutcracker, Sleeping Beauty, and La Bayadere. The instruction is more direct than in our living room, but it adds another dimension to our dancing relationship. I enjoy teaching her schoolmates, and seeing Delia in her school setting.

This past summer, Delia decided to put on her own dance performance with three of her friends. She came up with a title for the performance: “Together in the Dance” as well as titles for each individual dance. We picked short musical selections, and she and I devised motifs or themes to go with each one. One dance was with scarves and focused on up and down movements; another dance was rolling like logs; yet another was circling and moving in and out of the circle. We cleared our living room and added a single bright work light/stage light. Costuming was simple: black leotards and tights or pants, with accessories for each dance. We invited parents of the performers as well as a few friends. It was quite a success from both a performers’ perspective and an audience perspective. Delia is planning for a second production in 2007!

Cora and I had the opportunity this March to dance together in a site-specific work by choreographer H.T. Chen that was performed at The World Financial Center. This dance required Cora to sit in a stroller. It was challenging, but we had a lot of fun.

Dancing with my daughters has continued a tradition, in a way, from my experiences as a child dancing to my mother’s music. I hope one day my daughters will share dancing experiences with their children.

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Elizabeth is on the faculties of Long Island University-Brooklyn and Fieldston Lower of The Ethical Culture Fieldston School. Her articles have been published in The Journal of Dance Education, Dance Teacher Magazine, and The Nashville Tennessean.

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