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Last week was a crazy week in our house. Not only was it Thanksgivukkah, but it was Nutcracker week–for me, the first Nutcracker week in almost thirty years.

I grew up with The Nutcracker. From the time I danced my first role as one of Mother Ginger’s clown children at the age of nine or ten until I left the world of professional ballet at the age of eighteen, October through December each year was dominated by my rehearsal and performance schedule. Long before my final performance, I knew the ballet so well I could hum the entire score, bar for bar, without missing a note.

That was a long time ago.

On Friday, eight-year-old “Emmie” performed in her first Nutcracker. She was a polichinelle, another name for the same role as my first. Weeks of rehearsals culminated in a grueling, long-weekend schedule: a stage rehearsal and opening-night performance on Friday, three performances on Saturday and two performances on Sunday.

Emmie had been anticipating this Nutcracker since the summer. It was the first year she was old enough to audition, and if I say she was excited, I’m making a considerable understatement. But I wondered how an eight-year-old who still needs at least ten hours of sleep each night would cope with the demands of the weekend.

Adrenaline and enthusiasm won. Fatigue hit Emmie as soon as opening night was over, but she kept going. For three days, she didn’t argue with anything anyone asked of her, made it to the theater on time, ate only healthy food, rested when she could, followed all the rules, danced her role on stage, let me scrub off her makeup and did it all again.

The Nutcracker allowed Emmie to grow in ways nothing else has. Her dance studio appears to be blessed with a kind, thoughtful group of older girls, who reached out to the younger ones during rehearsals and backstage at the theater and made them feel included throughout the production. Emmie had the opportunity both to see and to participate in the production of a ballet from audition to performance, and it opened her eyes to the diversity and quality of work involved, giving her something concrete to think about for the coming years. Her polichinelle had a specific, individual role in the ballet, for just a few seconds, but that tiny role helped her see how every small piece of a larger work is critical to the whole and made her feel integral to something bigger than herself.

Emmie closed out her first Nutcracker with only one regret: that she has to wait a year to repeat the experience.

I, too, discovered a new role to play in the world of ballet: the mom-chaperone. I did what all parents do in terms of making sure Emmie had everything she needed, getting her where she needed to be, etc. As a chaperone, I and the other “mandatory volunteers” escorted kids from their dressing room to the backstage area, applied make-up to young faces, and tried to keep the kids fed and the chaos in their dressing room under control.

Several times when my chaperone responsibilities were temporarily complete, I asked Emmie if she wanted me to stay or if it would be okay with her if I left for a while.

Each time, she nodded. “Yes, I’m okay. You can go.” A few times, she waved the back of her hand away from her. Once, backstage, she actually turned me around–while smiling–and gently pushed me in the direction of the door.

At dinner one night with a few other moms and kids–the kids seated at one end of the table, the moms at the other–I mentioned Emmie’s new independent streak. I told them how I was used to this sort of behavior from my older child, but not from Emmie.

“Oh,” said one of the moms, “does it make you sad?”

I thought for a moment before answering her, because her question made me feel like I should feel sad. But then I told her the truth. “No. I’m not sad. I’m proud of her. She’s finding her place. She’s ready for this.”

But now I’ll tell you another truth. On Saturday, I finally got to sit in the audience and watch my little girl dance on stage the first role I’d ever danced in a real ballet. I smiled a classic, proud-parent smile on my face the entire time she was on stage. But though I was not sad, I also cried.

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