Sunday, November 16, 2008

Dance With Me, Daddy

Admittedly, when news first came home of a father-daughter dance at Natalie’s school, I was a little apprehensive about going. Last time I checked, I wasn’t big on dancing, at least not without a couple of drinks in me already, and I doubt there’d be a bar at an elementary school. And as much as I don’t enjoy the company of strangers, I was a little nervous about what would happen. Would they call all of the first-time dads to the stage and make us try to hula-hoop, or would we all just get pointed and laughed at?

But boy oh boy was Natalie excited about it, so I became excited for her and readily signed up to go. I chalked it up to just one of those things you do for your daughter, and the closer the date came, the more I was looking forward to going. After all, it isn’t ever day that a daddy and his daughter get to spend some good quality time together, especially when we’re all so dressed up.

As it turns out, I learned something on the night of the dance. I thought I knew Natalie pretty well, but apparently I didn’t.

About a week before the dance, Natalie had to find the perfect dress, which she did, and she needed the perfect shoes to go with the perfect dress, which we found…and her hair had to be done up just perfect, which it was… and she needed flowers in her hair, which there were.

And I needed to wear a tie, of course, Natalie told me. I don’t wear a suit all too often anymore. Well, make that: I’ve never had to wear a suit too often in my life. I’ve always had casual jobs, which keeps my suit collection at a minimum. I have a couple of them, but my suit of choice is my black, all-purpose single-breasted one. I can laugh at a wedding, reminisce at a reunion, be confident at an interview and cry at a funeral, all in one outfit that will never go out of fashion. It’s perfect, a man’s equivalent to the little black dress; just change your tie, and since I was getting tired of my tie selection, I decided that a new shirt-tie combo added to my wardrobe would only expand the possibilities.

It took me a considerable amount of time to find a tie and a shirt that I liked and that matched. I had a fool-proof system for buying a new shirt and tie, but I was foiled by the disorganization of Kohl’s, those bums. They have a pretty decent array of shirts and ties and their prices are reasonable, but the thing that really draws me there is that some thoughtful employee always arranges the shirts with ties that match that particular shirt. So, if I need a green shirt—which I did—on top of it would invariably be a greenish tie that would match. Whoever’s job that was, I was always quite pleased with their selections, making the shirt/tie buying experience that much easier and quicker for me.

This time, not so much. For starters, I like a certain brand of shirts. I know they fit well, hold up in the washer and keep their original color, but they had all of the sizes mixed together…and what the hell would I want with a fitted dress shirt? If my clothes are remotely tight or even mildly snug, it feels like someone’s strangling me to death. I found the color I wanted, the brand I liked, but it had button-down collars. The fitted version of the same size/color/brand didn’t. And I didn’t like anything else, so I had to settle with, in my opinion, not very fashionable button-down collars…so don’t laugh.

When Natalie came home from school on Friday afternoon, she immediately wanted to get ready, even though we wouldn’t be leaving for six hours. She spent the afternoon on pins and needles waiting until it was time to get ready, and when Kara came home, the house was all a flurry with activity, like we were going to the prom… and I guess to a five-year-old, we were.

Of course, she looked beautiful (nobody commented on how I looked!), and when we got to the dance, she held my hand all the way into the auditorium. We talked about some of her friends that would be there and how we were going to dance to the music. Natalie said, “This is going to be the best night ever!” and I couldn’t agree more.

Once inside, we got something to eat (a local taco place catered), sat down and watched the room slowly fill up while I ate (Gnat didn’t want anything). Natalie was impatient for me to hurry up and finish my tacos, so I wolfed them down as quickly as I could so we could get out on the dance floor and get started. We spotted one of Natalie’s friends, and since I knew her dad causally from picking up the kids after school, I had someone to talk with while the girls chased each other around the dance floor with big red and silver balloons they had found. Natalie was having a great time.

Natalie lost the flowers in her hair, but it was okay as I carried with me spares to put in before the pictures. The lights in the room were partially on still, and the music wasn’t that loud. Most of the other daughters/dads milled around, eating, talking with each other, and some of the girls were running around the floor too.

The evening began to ramp up. The lights dimmed more and the room filled with people, a lot more than I expected. Our time came to take pictures so we got in the long line. Natalie leaned against me and had a sad look on her face. I asked her what was wrong, and she replied that she was tired. Tired? We had only been there for 40 minutes! Meanwhile, she still had the two balloons she found, the red one and the silver one, and she seemed very attached to them.

While we were in line, they played the first slow song of the night, and I was wishing that we weren’t in line, that we were out there dancing…because that was the purpose, and I figured the slow songs to Natalie would be more meaningful to her, as it would have been to me.

After pictures, she wanted to get a bottle of water and sit down for a while, take a rest and enjoy a cool refreshment. She didn’t seem to enthused to be at the dance any longer, as if it was over to her. She kept asking me what time it was, saying that it was a “sleepover” night, the one night a week when the kids gets to sleep in our room on the pull-out couch. I was rather disappointed, and my feelings felt a little trampled, as if she wasn’t having fun and it was somehow my fault.

We sat at a tables while she drank her water, and then “The Chicken Dance” came on. Now, let’s get something straight right from the beginning: I hate “The Chicken Dance.” I hate it with a passion, so much so that I forbid the DJ at our wedding to play that song no matter how much money he was offered. It’s just plain stupid, and it makes everyone doing it look like a complete idiot… but Natalie likes it (Matthew too). The song is on a mixed CD I made for the kids when we went to Yellowstone last year, and so I’m forced to hear that song probably two or three times a week—more than any one person should have to. But I knew I could get Natalie out on the dance floor and dance with me, if I started doing “The Chicken Dance.”

So I did. And she was surprised, because she knows that I won’t do “The Chicken Dance.” I’ve been asked countless times while the CD is playing. No chicken dance for me. But on Friday I did, partly to get Natalie out what I thought was a little shell of shyness and partly because I knew she’d get a kick out of me looking like a complete idiot.

But there, that night, I looked like everyone else. Picture 300 dads mostly all dressed in suits, standing around, doing “The Chicken Dance,” and since all of the daughters were overshadowed by their taller dads, it looked like a room full of dressed up dudes clapping their fingers together, wagging their arms and wiggling their tails. Utter stupidity, but it worked. Natalie was tickled pink.

After that song ended, another one came on that neither of us knew (some High School Musical song no doubt), so Natalie said she wanted to finish her water and take a rest. We returned to the table, sat down and looked like a few other forlorn dads/daughters who don’t like to dance and who aren’t really having a good time.

I was getting slightly tired of carrying the balloons around all night. Why did we need them? Why can’t we get rid of them? Tears came to Natalie’s eyes when I suggested that we leave them somewhere and go dance. No, we were keeping the balloons, but I did suggest that we get rid of one and keep her favorite, the red one. She agreed, but I couldn’t get her back out on the dance floor, and she told me she was ready to go home. It was 7:15. I didn’t understand. Wasn’t she having fun? Yes, she was having fun, she said, but she was tired.

The DJ made a call to have all of the fathers and daughters come out to the middle of the dance floor for an air guitar contest, and that most certainly isn’t my cup of tea, but I convinced Natalie to go out there with me. At that point, I could have given a crap what anyone thought. I knew exactly two people in the whole room, and Natalie was one of them, so if there was an air guitar contest, I was going to win it.

They played “Don't Stop Believing,” by Journey, which is on my Top 100 songs of all time (again, don’t laugh), so I sang along with it while I danced with Natalie. All of the fathers sang the song to their daughters, per orders from the DJ, and when the guitar parts came, we rocked! Natalie thought it was hilarious, but I could see that little spark of “Daddy, you’re embarrassing me” in the corner of her eye.

After that, all of the daughters were called to the front of the dance floor while the dads were “given a break.” Natalie wouldn’t leave my side, and I didn’t want her to. There were only two other girls from her class at the dance, and although a dozen older girls came up to her to say hello (no doubt girls from Kara’s class), I wouldn’t feel comfortable with Natalie lost in a mosh pit of satin and lace. They played a song from “Camp Rock,” arguably Natalie’s favorite music right now, and we danced to it. Natalie was all smiles, but when it was over, she wanted to leave. That was it, she was done. I was hoping for a slow song. I actually wanted to dance more—which is rare for me—but she wanted to go home.

I knelt down and asked her if she wanted to go get some ice cream. Her eyes lit up and we turned to leave.

We were the first people out the door. One of the PTA ladies asked us, “You’re not leaving yet, are you?” I said yes, and she ran back inside to get our party favor, a nicely themed frame to hold our picture that we took. The parking lot was full of cars, and there was only one other couple leaving after us, so I didn’t feel too bad.

At the time, I didn’t understand why Natalie wanted to leave. I couldn’t possibly imagine that she had fun. We went to Golden Spoon and she was cheery and happy, which didn’t make any sense; we could have saved all the time and trouble and just gone out to get ice cream in a suit and nice dress.

But then the more I thought of it and the more Kara and I discussed it later that night, the more it occurred to me. She’s only five years old, something I tend to often forget, especially since she is so talkative and mature in her conversations. She’s not interested in dances and loud music and the commotion of 600 people packed into a school gymnasium. Like her father, she’s rather introverted, happy to stay out of the limelight and on the fringes of the pandemonium, and I thought the whole evening was a wash, a waste of time and money because there was no way she had a good time.

When we made it home, she had nothing but good times to share with Kara. How we danced and ate food and played with balloons and saw her friends… It took me longer to find the tie than the length of time I wore it (truth be told, I couldn’t tie it right so I just wore another one), but she said on the way in the house, “It was wonderful!”

I just didn’t get it. We danced to two and half songs, stood in line for 20 minutes to take pictures, sat and watched the limbo contest for 10 minutes while she drank her water, and were home 90 minutes after we left…and that included the stop for ice cream! How could she have had fun?

And that’s what I didn’t understand. The fun part was dressing up, getting ready, and the anticipation of going to the dance. It was the journey, not the destination. Fun to her was running around the dance floor with the balloons, chasing her friends, and when I looked back on the evening, that was when she had the most fun. That was the dance to her, that was what made it special to a five-year-old, dressing up and feeling special, holding your father’s hand and going out to a special event for just the two of us…and I guess that’s what made it special to me.

The fact that I learned about another facet of Natalie’s personality is just icing on the cake…which I was hoping they would have had at the dance.

I only have five more father-daughter dances to go while she’s in elementary school, and after that, I probably won’t be cool enough to dance with until her wedding day.

Maybe we’ll stay longer next year.

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