I went to a dance recital the other day in which 165 girls, age 10-13, including my granddaughter, performed in groups of 5-20 for maybe five minutes. There were 28 different dances, each group performing twice. Each dance had its own distinctive professional-looking costume.
It was pleasant, mostly mediocre. Lots of parents and friends clapping and shouting for their kids and grandkids. An audience of 750, all of us very supportive. I usually look for one or two girls in a group who have real energy and talent and focus on them. But I couldn’t find more than a couple in the whole two hours.
However there was one girl who was sensational. She stood out so magnificently that I couldn’t take my eyes off of her in both of her performances. What made her so exceptional is that she is afflicted with Marfan Syndrome. She does not have a normal body shape, she couldn’t move as effortlessly and gracefully as others around her, and when the girls in her group would kneel or lie on the ground, she would be the only one standing and twirling as best she could.
People around me were passing out tissues and crying uninhibitedly. I learned that this girl has had around 50 operations to allow her to even stand up, and it was one of the bravest, most courageous accomplishments I have ever witnessed. I picture so many of the “normal” girls fretting that a hair was out of place or that their lipstick was a tiny bit smudged. And then I picture this special girl knowing that people will stare at her, maybe laugh at her, risking embarrassment and humiliation. Not every kid who is a teenager or younger appreciates what an astonishing achievement it is for this girl to chance being jeered at.
I remember giving speeches in front of 200 people, performing in front of 500 as part of a group that had completed a juggling course. I was nervous. I’ve known experienced actors who admit they are scared, maybe even nauseous, before every performance. Yet here was a girl of just 12 or 13 who was wearing her ballerina tutu and moving as best she could, while knowing that it was awkward and noticeably “inferior” compared to all the other girls in the recital. But it wasn’t inferior…it was far far better, because we used different standards in making our assessments.
All of us in the audience accepted that these girls were building self esteem, having fun, learning to be part of a team, enjoying moving to music, discovering the rewards of weekly discipline and dozens of rehearsals. All part of growing up to live in adult society. This special girl, this apparently disabled girl, was no exception. She and her parents were no different than the others in choosing to be involved in this program. It was a blessing, an inspiration and a joy to watch her accomplishment in motion. It was one of the most poignant performances of my life. I feel privileged to have been there and will never forget her.
BTW I learned that Michael Phelps has Marfan Syndrome. Who’d have guessed? He has certainly used his unusual body shape, longer fingers and arms to set Olympic records in swimming competitions. Maybe the girl I saw dancing will be as fortunate to discover some milieu in which her distinctive qualities can transport her to unimaginable successes. A lesson for all of us normals.