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The Unexpected Ballerina

June 17, 2024

Glynn Young

The auditorium lights dimmed. The stage curtains opened. The eight ballerinas stood poised.

Sitting in the audience, 21-year-old Robb Bennett smiled in anticipation. His niece Maddie, the seven-year-old he’d been rearing since the deaths of his sister and brother-in-law two years before, looked every bit the prima ballerina.

Robb had been a college sophomore when the phone call came from Los Angeles. His sister Michelle and her husband Manny were dead, two of the twelve killed when an elderly woman had a heart attack while driving. Fifty more injured. Maddie’s father has seen the speeding car coming and literally pitched Maddie out of the way. They’d named Robb guardian in their wills.

Two years later, 2,000 miles away from Los Angeles, Maddie was preparing to dance in her first big recital. Robb, who’d left college and become a carpenter, knew nothing about ballet when she’d started her dance classes. He knew a lot more now. He’d sat with the moms during practices. He’d driven Maddie to more classes and lessons than he could count. He’d managed the music when she practiced and exercised in the small garage apartment. More recently, he’d gotten the local YMCA to agree to let Maddie use the aerobics studio with its mirrored walls so Maddie could watch herself practice.

The fear he himself would feel performing in public was, Robb thought, second only to the idea of speaking in public. He admired Maddie’s determination and commitment; he himself would never be able to do what his seven-year-old niece was doing.

She’d poured herself into the rehearsals for the recital. The instructor, a former dancer for the Chicago Ballet named Beryl Wilson, was a borderline tyrant. Robb didn’t know if he would have stuck it out with the often-brutal comments during practices, but a determined Maddie had—despite some tears during the ride home. 

The eight girls would be dancing a version of the “Dance of the Cygnets” from Swan Lake, simplified for children. Several other groups were performing as well; Maddie’s group was the grand finale, a mark of the dance school’s regard for their individual and collective ability.

Robb sat in the second row with his parents. He knew how difficult this was for both of them. His mother had been in failing health for years; a lifelong habit of smoking had caught up with her early. For the last four years, his father had been unable to work; a serious back injury had resulted from a fall from a telephone pole that “shouldn’t have happened.” His father was increasingly his mother’s caregiver and had his hands full with managing her and their house. But Maddie was their only grandchild, and they were determined to attend the recital.

The recital had included a wide array of age groups performing jazz, modern, contemporary, and mixed dance routines. The performers were mostly girls, but a few boys were mixed in. The only classical selection was Maddie’s group.

Robb felt what he knew Maddie was feeling. Excitement. Nervousness. Tension. Eager anticipation. They’d practiced the dance for several weeks now, with Robb and the moms watching and applauding. He knew that her effort and work, and the group’s, was getting ready to pay off.  

Seeing the eight girls in their white cygnet dresses was riveting. In his mind, of course, Maddie stood out, her dark hair wound tightly in a bun, accentuating her beautiful face and slender form. Robb had learned how to do ballet hair, too.

He looked down at his calloused hands. He worked hard at his job with the homebuilder; his official title was “specialty carpenter.” Even at 20, he already had a reputation for mantelpieces, wainscoting, woodwork, trim, crown molding, and other carpentry projects that helped put Baxter Construction in a class above its competitors. He loved his job, even if many of his former college friends considered it blue-collar work. 

Maddie loved to dance; Robb liked to dance, too, but his idea of a great dance was line dancing at a country-and-western nightclub. But she’d wanted ballet so badly that he’d gone all-in behind her. He’d surprised himself. He had never listened to classical music except when he had to, and the idea of ballet had been something completely foreign. He still thought of it as a little strange, but if ballet had captured Maddie’s heart, well, then, so be it.

The music started. The eight cygnets straightened.

And Maddie froze.

Robb saw it before anyone else in the audience, including his parents. When the other seven girls linked their hands, Maddie stood there, her left arm arched over her head. The girls began the dance.

Stage fright, Robb thought.

He moved on reflex, without thinking. Within seconds, he was up the stage’s side steps and behind the curtain. He could see the seven girls dancing and his Maddie standing there, still frozen in place. He could hear the murmurs in the audience, wondering if this was planned.

He walked on stage and stood next to her, arching his left arm over his head. At six feet tall, Robb towered over his niece. He lowered his arm, and Maddie followed his move. They stood side by side, Robb not quite artfully managing the steps he’d seen dozens of times. Maddie followed him, but with the perfection of practice. 

He moved forward, Maddie following every move, until they were aligned with the seven others. When the girls joined hands, Maddie linked hers with those of the girl next to her and continued to dance. Robb tiptoed-danced off stage.

Out of sight from the audience, the reality of what he’d done hit. Breathing hard, he found a chair and sat. He had turned himself into a total idiot in front of 200 people, a few of whom, he knew, were customers building new homes or remodeling old ones. His boss would hear about it. His crew members would hear about it. And he would never hear the end of it. Worst of all would be the inevitable tongue-lashing from the dance instructor, with the moms of the other dancers giggling in the background.

But to see Maddie move into the expected precise steps of the dance with the other girls and keep going, he knew he would do it all over again.

The dance ended; applause and cheers erupted from the audience and continued for some time. Beryl Wilson, holding a portable microphone, walked onstage.

“That was marvelous,” she said. “Simply marvelous. An inspiration, even to my tired old eyes. But I would like to ask our ninth ballerina to join us onstage.”

It was Robb’s turn to freeze. Only when he saw Maddie beckoning did he stand and move onstage.

The cheers became even louder. The eight girls were applauding, along with their instructor.

Robb nodded to the audience and Beryl, executed what might be considered the clumsiest pirouette in ballet history, and then bowed.

The roars increased, but it was only when Maddie took his hand and squeezed that he felt relieved.

The featured image, “Rose on Brathay Church Wall,” is courtesy of Lancia E. Smith and is used with her glad permission for Cultivating.


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  1. Absolutely enchanting and endearing story! Heroes are found in the most unlikely places, that’s for sure.

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