I keep thinking that as the years go by, my skin will get thicker and thicker and this job of rejecting some and accepting others will get easier. But it doesn’t. I love my students, with all my heart. They may not know it, but I lose sleep at night thinking about them, worrying about them. I lose sleep at night knowing that some will be overjoyed and some will feel that their dreams have been dashed. The fact that this cycle repeats over and over and over for me, never gets any easier. Breaking hearts gets tougher as the years go by.
For those of you not sure what I’m talking about, I’m talking about that annual right of passage in the ballet world called “The Nutcracker.” I would bet every ballet school in America either puts on their own or participates in one. Some are student productions where the kids get to dance all the parts. Some, like ours, are professional productions where professional company dancers do the majority of the dancing and the students are limited to a few coveted roles.
The role every little girl dreams of from the time she starts ballet is the role of Clara. Clara is the star of the show and in our version it is usually played by a young woman age 12-15 who is pretending to be 12-13. This means on any given year, I have 25 young women who can do the part, and I can cast 2, at the most. Our directors and I have a preference to have 1 veteran Clara and one new Clara. This means that hopefully one of our Clara’s from last year didn’t get too tall to play the part and she can do it again this year. The role is complicated and there is a lot to remember. The rehearsal period is short and it really helps to have at least one of the leads already know what she is doing. That dancer then becomes a mentor to the newest Clara. This, of course, is beneficial to the production, but creates drama within the ranks of girls who want to be Clara. “Why does she get to do it AGAIN when so many of us have the dream?”
How do you explain to a teenager about balancing what is right for the production with what is right for the students? All they can see is that their friends dream came true, AGAIN, and theirs didn’t, AGAIN. I try, every year, to have THE TALK with my students and their parents about this very subject. Yet, no matter how I spell it out, I know the hearts will be broken. I even explain that it’s OK to feel sad and to grieve for not getting the part. I tell them that how we handle NOT getting the part we want is as much of our education as dancers as getting the part we want. I talk to students and parents about this.
But regardless, every year, I get a few nasty emails from parents criticizing the school, the process and the outcome. Every year these emails are even more hurtful than the pain I cause myself, worrying about my students. I’ve been accused of unfair practices, favoritism, destroying a child’s self esteem, shattering dreams, etc. I’m sure you’ve all been there. In this age of technology, it’s oh-so-easy to fire off that angry email, or to leave that angry voice mail when your child is weeping in her room about how unfair life is. The problem is, once it’s sent, once it’s recorded you can’t take it back. And usually, after a few hours, when the passion and the frustration and the sadness has had a chance to work itself out, most parents wish they could take it back.
So this year, I decided to follow the example of our local school sports teams. It seems, a couple of friends who have children who aren’t in the ballet school told me, that the coaches all got together and created a rule. If you have an issue with the coach’s decisions during a practice or a game, students and parents have to wait 24 hours to contact the coach. And if the student or parent has a strong emotional response, the coaches recommend the parents avoid using technology (i.e. email or voicemail) and either calls or sets up a meeting to talk. The moms all told me that the new rules had already helped them not make those angry calls or emails and they were grateful for that cooling off period.
Before I posted the casting, I sent out an email to all of our families, outlining the new rules. Then I waited with baited breath to see what would happen. It worked! I had one father tell me he waited the required 24 hours to contact me, and we had a civil conversation about why his daughter was cast in the part she was given. What otherwise would have probably been any angry confrontation was de-escalated by that cooling off period.
So, teachers, coaches, ballet teachers, directors, how do YOU handle the annual tradition of choosing some and not choosing others? Is your skin so much thicker than mine (quite possibly) or do you have tools in place to help diffuse those unsettling situations? And parents, what tools have programs put in place that have helped you help your children through these difficult life challenges? I would love to know and will take any advice where I can get it.