Last Friday, I took my daughter to our first Daddy-Daughter Dance. I was nervous. She was hyper. We had to go buy toothpaste before we went.
As I mentioned in a previous blog, I was nervous because I wanted to make the evening memorable. I wanted to make sure that I set high standards for her, to ensure that future suitors would have a tough act to follow. To that end, I shaved. I wore a tie. I opened the doors for her. I bought her a corsage. We got our picture taken together thanks to Andrew Watson photography. And then we entered into the actual dance.
(Quick aside: while waiting to get our picture taken, I told Ella that Andrew Watson was the photographer that Rachel and I used for our wedding. Ella made a funny face and said, "He's not dead yet?" I now know how old my daughter perceives me to be.)
But I was also nervous because my past history with dances is not good. I think I mentioned that at two of my high school homecoming dances I got ditched by my dates, and I never even made it to either prom. So there was a strange sense of deja vu escorting my daughter to a school-sanctioned dance. The only real ace that I had in my pocket was that no matter what happened, Ella had to come back to me at the end of the night. But even that was cold comfort.
I was really hoping that Ella would want to hold my hand, dance goofily with me, and just in general spend the whole evening at my side. I dreaded the idea that she might ditch me.
That's exactly what she did.
We weren't even five minutes in the door before the pulsing music called to her and she ran off to find some of her friends. My heart broke. Actually, my heart disintegrated in my chest and the ashes fell to my feet. My worst fear was realized as I watched a silky pink bundle bounce off to "Party Rock Anthem". With nothing left to do, I naturally started looking around the room to see if everyone else was laughing at my shame. I shouldn't have worried.
If you've never been to a Daddy-Daughter Dance then you won't understand what I'm about to describe. If you have been, then you know it all too well: slumped dad syndrome. The walls of the gym were lined with chairs, and almost 90% of them were occupied by fathers who had been likewise ditched, their heads hanging low, their faces lit by the screen of their smart phones, their shoulders slumped as they lean awkwardly against the wall in chairs too small for their butts. There is no more solemn glow than the backlight of an iPhone; it highlights the true despondency of modern fatherhood in all of its ugly glory. The men sat there like victims of Medussa--silent, stoned faces hiding the internal scream at a clock that will not move fast enough.
And seeing all of this, taking in the fact that I wasn't alone in my apparent ineptitude as a father, I felt better. In fact, I gained enough confidence to move farther out onto the dance floor in search of Ella.
The general rule is that good daddies are goofy, the kind of person who lets you dance like mad while joining in the insanity himself. And truly great daddies are goofy even in public. I think that goofiness is fueled by a love that we can barely comprehend, let alone harness; when it comes to our daughters and their happiness, there's just not much we goofy daddies won't do. So it was that I pressed into the mad throng of pre-teen girls, bobbing my head like one of the Butabi brothers and embracing my inner goofy. I was joined by other dads who had similarly decided to brave the Floor of Death (i.e., the dance floor) in an attempt to find their little girl and vie for her attention. Collectively we looked like drunk chickens pecking for food, but when an action is performed en masse, it takes some of the sting out of the humiliation.
When I finally found Ella, she was parked directly in front of the DJ, hands raised firmly in the air, eyes shut, her little body rocking with the rhythm of the music (C&C Music Factory, I believe). She was surrounded by her Kindergarten friends, and for a moment the scene reminded me of some of Rachel's old sorority photos. When the music changed, the girls gathered together in a group just as a photographer happened by, and they instinctively linked arms, cocked their heads to one side, and smiled for the camera. At first I thought it was just a fluke in the moment, but every time a photographer walked by the girls would stop dancing and strike the exact same pose. And again, all I could think of were the countless pictures I'd seen from Rachel's days as an Alpha Chi Omega and my own memories of sorority parties at UGA. Here, fourteen years before it could happen, I saw my daughter's future written out.
I texted Rachel: "Ella is going to end up in a sorority."
Though it took me a while, I finally convinced Ella to let me take her to the snack table for a piece of cake and some lemonade. It took her thirteen whole seconds to dump her cake on my shoes, and another fifteen seconds to eat the replacement piece I brought her. She gunned back some of her lemonade and then said something that really took me back to my past:
"Here, would you mind holding my drink while I dance?"
Ditched again. Only this time, instead of feeling sorry for myself, I felt a strange nostalgia come over me, as if somehow I were Marty McFly caught in the wrong time. Watching Ella navigate the dance floor, bouncing and laughing from friend to friend, finding her own space within the crowd and spinning herself silly to the music, I realized I was getting a preview of her young adult life. I was getting to see how she might be as a woman. And as a father, it brought tears to my eyes. It was beautiful. She was confident; she was friendly; she was at home in a group or by herself. But what I was most proud of was the fact that she possessed not one hint of mean girl; she danced with friends who were popular, friends who were hiding behind their daddy's legs, friends who had tried to blend into a group only to be shut out by the dominant female.
Or as I texted Rachel: "You can definitely tell which of the girls have the Queen of Mean gene. It just flows out naturally."
Ella seemed immune to that, seemed to only care that she and whichever friend might be in front of her at the time were having a blast. And to see that--to witness first hand just how special my daughter really is--well, it made every other observation pale in comparison. I stood there, alone, holding my daughter's lemonade like a good little dork, my heart bursting with pride. And if the evening had ended right there, it would have been entirely worth it.
But it didn't end there. The DJ announced two back-to-back horrible songs that were meant to be for "daddy-daughter dance time" (horrible in the sense that the slow songs he played weren't exactly intended for daddy-daughter dancing) and Ella came and found me. She grabbed my hand and pulled me towards the floor. I broke from her momentarily (to put down the lemonade), and then joined her.
And there, in the middle of 200 other daddy-daughter couples who were in their own little worlds, Ella and I danced. The fact that she didn't want to dance to the beat of the music, but instead wanted to do West Coast Swing spins, and dips and under-leg sweeps just made it all the more memorable. And when she finally paused long enough to give my poor arms a rest, she nestled her little head next to my hip and wrapped her arms around my waist.
"I love you, daddy. You're fun."
My evening was complete. Ella's was not; I had to drag her away from in front of the speakers, even after the DJ had announced it was time for everyone to go home. My daughter, it seems, loves the night life. She loves to boogie.
She got into the car a little pouty, but we managed to get home without me having to get ugly and ruining the mood. When we walked through the door she went straight to Rachel to give her all of the details and to show her the corsage and to just float around and enjoy the night that much longer. And when I put her to bed, she kissed me on the cheek and said she couldn't wait to go dancing with me again. And I told her I that, despite my history, despite how nervous I was for the evening, I couldn't wait to go with her again too.
That's the magic of your kids: they can take everything old and make it new again. They can take those parts of your past that might still be a bit scarred and somehow smooth them over. They can take your heart and heal it.
If you'll let them.