Emma Hawes, a bubbly 16-year-old girl from Delaware County, is a talented ballerina with high ambitions. So her parents had a choice: Keep her home and hamper her dreams, or send her out of the country to achieve them. Here, Jane Hawes tells why, at an age when most parents can't keep their kids too close, she let her daughter go.
When Emma was 2, I started taking her to a Mommy and Me (or sometimes Daddy and Me) creative movement class at the Delaware Arts Castle. Her teacher, Jill Garlock, was a well-trained dancer, instructor and absolute genius with kids. One snowy winter day, when Emma was 3, we were the only people to show up for class, so she got her first private lesson.
I sat on the side and watched as Jill, for the first time, taught Emma real ballet steps. Emma mimicked Jill beautifully. Then Jill turned on classical music. "Dance any way you want," she instructed, "and just see what the music makes you do."
Emma listened for a moment, and then suddenly sprang to life, her arms and legs sweeping through the air in time to the music. It was like watching a teeny tiny professional dancer-that's how beautifully she moved. Jill and I immediately turned to each other, and we both had tears in our eyes. When we left, Jill spoke quietly: "You have a dancer, Mom." I didn't know then what that would mean, how that would change and shape our lives. But I knew it was true.
Emma eventually graduated from the Arts Castle to a handful of Columbus dance schools that focused on ballet, the style she clearly loved most. By the time she was 11, though, we had heard enough predictions of future greatness that we decided we needed to get an honest, objective assessment.
After a bit of research, we discovered that the closest world-class ballet training program was in Toronto. We took Emma to Canada's National Ballet School to audition for their summer program.
They had no reason to tell us anything but the truth. The audition for about 30 rising seventh graders was conducted in front of a panel of seven NBS faculty members.
Parents were allowed, even encouraged, to sit in the rear of the dance studio during the hour-long class. At the end, invitations to the summer program would be extended to those selected.
My sister Mary, who lives in Toronto with her Canadianborn husband, Eric, came with me. I remember distinctly a point in the class when all seven of the faculty members seemed to notice Emma at once.
Their eyes locked on her-and suddenly, almost in unison, they relaxed and smiled. Mary grabbed my arm. "They saw her," she whispered. Emma was one of the three students selected for admission.
The inevitable, I knew, was on the horizon. Dancers who perform at the highest levels train like professional athletes to get there-and starting at a young age. I could give her up for a summer. But I needed longer to put the finishing touches on the wings all parents try building for their child.
Emma spent the summer before seventh grade at NBS and was offered a spot in their year-round program. But we decided to keep her home for another year.
Though Emma really wanted to go to NBS, she had another goal that could only be fulfilled in Columbus: She wanted to play Clara in BalletMet's production of the Christmas-season classic "The Nutcracker."
She scored the part-and during the process convinced me she had the personality to deal with a life onstage. Most people probably think of performers as being an excitable and mood-swingy bunch, but the reality is that those who have happy and healthy careers are pretty even-tempered. After Emma's first performance as Clara, we fetched her from the stage door.
"Did you see what happened?" she grinned. "With what?" I asked. My husband, Dick, chimed in: "You were holding the doll differently." After the critical plot point where Clara's feisty brother Fritz breaks the nutcracker doll, her godfather reassembles it, wrapping its jaw with his kerchief and handing it back to Clara before she dances with it.
On this night, however, the adult dancer playing her godfather handed the doll to Emma with worry. "It's still broken," he whispered. "Good luck." In other words, she had to hold it together while dancing with it. And she did. Since then, we've seen her keep her wits about her in other performances, but that was the first time it happened in such a big way.
Between shuttling Emma to and from classes-and tending to our younger son as well- we spent the year training Emma for a more independent life, unbeknownst to her. We forced her to take better care of her bedroom, to make her own food on weekends, to fight her own battles at school and ballet.
We prepared her. And we prepared ourselves.
Emma enrolled at NBS as a full-time student the next fall, to begin eighth grade. Trust me when I say it was never our dream to send our daughter to a boarding school at age 13. This, however, is her life, and her dream. It's a school where about 160 students from around the world live, study dance and take all their academic classes on one gorgeous campus in the heart of Toronto.
They encourage critical thinking and global perspectives, and we're pleased with all the reading and writing Emma's had to do (she may beg to differ, but I think she knows she's getting a topnotch education). Their curriculum also includes nutrition and cooking classes, as well as classes to explore what their post-dance careers might be. Students are reassessed each spring to see whether they will be invited back for the following year.
When people discover our situation, some are critical. People seem to be OK with extreme measures to train world-class athletes, but they feel differently about artists. I choose to focus on the people who say things like, "I know it must be hard, but what a wonderful opportunity you're giving her!"
It's never been easy for any of us to be separated. Plenty of tears still get shed, even four years later. But the only time I almost pulled the plug on this adventure was after her first Christmas break.
I drove her the seven hours back to Toronto and, just as I was about to leave her at the student residence, she began sobbing. We have always told her that all she ever has to do is tell us she's done and we'll bring her home, no questions asked.
"Do you want to come home?" I asked, trying to hold back my own tears. She shook her head, still sobbing. Just like the Inuit Indians have 27 different words for "snow," Emma has about 27 different types of crying. This was a type I had never seen, and I waited her out, not sure what to do. Slowly, she calmed down and assured me she'd be fine and that yes, she really did want to be there.
Less than an hour later, I got a call from her sounding as perky and cheerful as ever. The next day, I relayed the story via e-mail to a veteran NBS mom. "The first return from Christmas break is always the worst," she wrote.
"They were home long enough to get back into the rhythm of their old ways, so it's always jarring to go back to school. It'll never be as bad as this one."
I wished someone had told me that before. Thankfully, the veteran mom was right, but what a heart-wrenching mommy moment that was. Also thankfully, I have family support for Emma in Toronto. My sister and her husband serve as (young, hip) surrogate parents to Emma.
They take her to church every weekend and have taught her everything she knows about Thai food, sketch comedy and ice hockey. Without them there, I could not have sent her so far.
We've also kept good on our promise to see Emma at least once a month, which makes long-distance family life somewhat bearable. Her classes are in six-week blocks with one-week breaks between, and summer break is six weeks.
If she visits home, she often takes the train to Windsor, and we drive her home from there. Or, we visit her. Plus, we talk every day. Sometimes twice. We also harass her via Facebook until she tells us to stop.
During Emma's Grade 10 year, things started to gel in a truly humbling way. She was cast as the lead in two big pieces for the National Ballet School's annual Spring Showcase, including "Swan Lake." It was an incredibly demanding experience for her, both physically and emotionally.
At one point, the school put her in a single room so she could get as much sleep as possible. And we had to increase the minutes on our cell-phone plan because she was calling home for moral support so often.
But it all paid off. The shows went very well. I remember sitting in the theater on the closing night, watching but also hearing the audience's enthusiasm for her performance grow with each section of the ballet. You can hear some of this on the video excerpt that NBS has put up on its YouTube channel. When Emma takes a bow during one break in action, you hear a few people shout, "Brava!" or "Yes!"
It struck me that I had no idea who these people were. And it further struck me that suddenly, our daughter didn't belong to just us anymore. This realization was scary.
But it also felt like bittersweet proof that we had made the right decision to let her pursue this dream.
Still, it never will be easy. While Emma is good about sleeping well, eating right, bathing herself in Epsom salt and soaking her feet in ice water, it takes a lot of Mom and-Dad nagging to get her to the residence manager's office for sometimes-needed cold medicine. They're strict about staff issuing medicine so they can keep track of who's taking what and how much. I agree with the policy, but I know that if Emma were at home, she would get medicine as soon as she needed it. That's hard.
It's also difficult to parent your child from a distance when you can't be there to coach her through dealing with a teacher who rants about American politics or a dance partner who bruises ribs with his hoisting technique.
Problems always get resolved, but you often have to wait until the next day to find out how. There are more than a few nights when I get off the phone with Emma and go straight upstairs for a hot bath and a cold beer.
Dancing is not my ambition; it is Emma's. There is only one picture in the house of her dancing (when she was 9), and you will never see a pair of pointe shoes used as art in my home. One of the reasons we let Emma head to NBS is we believe it's healthiest to let ballet be her thing, not ours. As much as I miss seeing Emma every day, this dream never has been nor ever will be about me. It's about her.
And that's exactly why I'm letting her pursue it.
- Jane Hawes is the new editor of Columbus Parent magazine, which will be redesigned and re-launched in August. For information, visit www.ColumbusParent.com.