I bought the book “Dancing in the Wings” by Debbie Allen for my daughter when she was about eight years old. While many parents stop reading books to their kids after age six or seven, I kept reading books at night for as many years as it made sense. I think the reading at night stopped as homework demands increased and after school activities shortened the amount of time we had left for reading before bedtime. Instead of reading books of choice before bed, we were reading textbooks and working on school projects.
My goal at story time was not to just read books that entertained my kids. I also aimed to teach them about self-esteem, staying true to their passions and becoming comfortable in their skin. I encouraged my kids to view their anatomical characteristics and their skill sets as gifts bestowed upon them to enable them to achieve greatness.
I was reminded about this book last week when a friend told me about a challenge his daughter was having with other girls during her practices. Children in competitive activities can be tough on one another especially when the environment has convinced some of the kids that for whatever reason they are better at the activity. I have found that children tend to minimize the abilities of other children in an effort to gain a competitive edge. These types of behaviors are promoted by grown folks who have also promoted the idea that everyone deserves the same prize for less than equal performances in the field of play. These kids never have to consider how to work to improve their areas of challenge. Rarely are they taught to appreciate the strengths of others, the possibility that they have a ceiling or that maybe they are not as gifted in that specific arena as they like to think (And that is a blog post topic for another time). Finally, it doesn’t help when the grown folks in the environment suck at being excellent villagers for ALL of the children and participate in behaviors that encourage the nonsense.
In this book, Debbie Allen presented a story about a beautiful girl who dreamed of being a lead ballerina. The main character was blessed to have a mother who repeatedly found a way to spin every painful joke and mean-spirited comment about her daughter into a positive statement that encouraged and motivated the young girl whose nickname was Sassy. Sassy was teased by her brother, his team mates, and some of the students in her dance class. The jokes focused on the fact that she was tall and gangly with long arms and legs, and “big feet.” She was taller than all of the students in the class and found herself standing “in the wings” watching other students receive solo dances and duet performances.
When Sassy’s dance teacher learned that a master teacher would be visiting their dance school searching for young dancers for a special summer program in Washington, D.C., all of the dance students got excited. Some of the girls in the class discouraged Sassy from auditioning for a position in the dance troop for “the summer dance festival.” I love the fact that Debbie Allen presented a strong girl who did not let the negativity of others stop her from envisioning herself “dancing on the Milky Way” and talking herself into doing what she needed to do in order to achieve her goal of being a featured ballerina. Sassy said, “I’m goin’ to that audition, big feet and all.”
Sassy stepped boldly into the audition. Her nerves and her naysayers were present also. Mr. Debato, the visiting instructor, guided the dancers through a series of rounds until he weeded them down to one. He selected Sassy to represent her studio at the festival and she was thrilled. The illustrations in the book are brilliant! Kadir Nelson, the illustrator, did an excellent job capturing the moment when Sassy ran from the studio to share her special news with her family. The expressions of her mother, Uncle Redd, and her brother, Hughie, and his friends made me smile and rejoice with Sassy. Hughie and the friends who enjoyed teasing her previously all shouted and celebrated her accomplishment as if one of them had scored a touchdown for their football team.
I am so excited about the examples of excellent villagers demonstrated by Sassy’s mother, Uncle Redd, and the dance teacher. The adults individually and collectively built a village of encouragement and support for Sassy that kept her motivated to keep dreaming, courageous enough to keep showing up in spite of the hecklers in the studio, and strong enough to keep standing and believing that her stature was a blessing and not a curse. Each of them gave her space and freedom to make mistakes. She felt safe with them so she talked about her goals, she cried when her feelings were hurt, and she trusted their advice that she should keep being Sassy without making any attempts to be like anyone else. In addition, I loved that each villager uplifted Sassy with humor and quick wit when others attacked her. When the children teased her, the village stood in the gap for her which affirmed her and built a trust relationship between each of them and Sassy. Ultimately, their actions forced others to respect Sassy. The support of her mother, Uncle Redd, and the dance teacher created a village ripened and ready to celebrate with Sassy when she was selected for the program in Washington, D.C. and when she achieved her dream of being a featured ballerina. This is such a wonderful book for parents and supporters of children who are looking for examples and direction on how to be an excellent villager. This book can teach all villagers how to encourage a child to stand boldly in their uniquenesses while working hard to live out their passions and dreams.