As a parent, you come to expect that your kids are going to have cultural interests that you might not choose for them.
You may recall Yenta Boy’s interest in downloading the entire German language a couple of years ago, which made me realize just how patient my own parents were when I insisted on driving Volkswagens throughout my 20s. Fortunately, the boy’s fascination with German has been replaced with an obsession with Portuguese — though I can’t resist throwing in a little Spanish Inquisition history whenever he’ll listen.
So now it’s Little Yenta Girl’s turn. Ever since we moved to Savannah, a city of proud Irish heritage that has a St. Patrick’s Day parade four hours long filled with legions of girls clogging away with straight arms and curly, curly wigs, the child has been asking to be schooled in the art of Irish dance.
For years, she’s been putting on a skirt and kicking her little feet around and crying “Look, Mommy, I’m doing it!” I’d ask her how her ballet lesson were, and she’d say “Fine,” and then wistfully add, “But what I really want is to do Irish dancing.”
I’d managed to blow off her requests thus far; she was already in ballet, we didn’t know anyone else we could carpool with, blahblahblah. It wasn’t that I have anything against Irish dance, but personally, I just don’t see the point. I mean, no matter how you slice it, it’s tradition that doesn’t have a thing to do with us — why should I pay for lessons and costumes and shlep her to study a heritage that’s not ours? Better she should stick to ballet and tap; at least those are general enough that she can get her ya-yas out and not complicate things, for heep’s sake.
Then I started thinking about my own enthusiasm for African dance and how patently ridiculous it is to be a suburban Jewish girl who knows the choreography of the circumcision celebration of the Susu people of Guinea. Although I’m sure it mystified her, my own mother always encouraged me — though I started dancing long after I was of the age that someone else paid for my extracurricular activities — and proudly introduced me as her “Jewish African Cowgirl.”
(The “cowgirl” in there is the part of my that grew up in Arizona and identifies with outlaw desert culture – another element I decided to embrace that probably confounded my parents since we lived next to a golf course, thirty miles from the nearest horse stable.)
So when my daughter’s best friend’s mom told me she’d found a beginning Irish dance class for the girls, I relented. The first class was this past Monday, and I can’t tell you how much my little Jewish darling stuck out amongst all the Irish Catholic girls there to follow in the clickety footsteps of their ancestors — almost as much as I did, crowding around the two-way mirror in the tiny lobby with fifteen Irish Catholic mothers.
I had already made up my mind that this wasn’t going to work: The lessons are expensive and require new shoes and a sparkly new costume and yes, one of those crazy curly wigs. The women in the stuffy lobby were already on my nerves with their talk of competitions and so-and-so’s older sister who went to nationals. And did I mention how EXPENSIVE it is?
But then I saw my girl in there, snapping her feet and skipping to the rhythm, her cheeks pink, eyes shining with joy. She obviously loved it, more so than some of the little girls who were brought there because this is the expected activity for them to join. She hung on every word the teacher spoke and mimicked the teenage assistant like she had the Emerald Isle running through her veins.
Just like I felt like I was channeling Senegal the first time I stumbled into an African dance class – it was like those rhythms were already in me, and I was simply waking up to them.
Heritage is a funny thing. If you feel an affinity for a culture and its traditions that you have no genetic right to feel, does it make those feelings any less valid? Depends on who you’re trying to dance with, I guess. Trying to keep up my African dance chops has been hard here in Savannah, where the “you ain’t African” vibe is much more tangible than it was in California. Maybe when my my daughter realizes that she doesn’t share the familial connection with the dance that the Irish-descended kids do, she’ll begin to feel that “otherness,” and she’ll be less inspired.
For now, though, I’m guess I’m gonna eat the hundreds of dollars it’s going to take to make little Jewish Celtic Sweetheart happy.