Silently, she got in my car after her Nutcracker rehearsal. For a child who was never silent, hardly ever even quiet, this was an obvious sign of distress.
"How was practice, sweetie?"
Dance was her refuge and her release. Most nights when she left the studio, she was so full of joy it emanated off her body in waves. A normal teenage girl, who had normal teenage worries about her body, her place in this world, dance made her feel strong and powerful and beautiful and I loved to be there afterwards to share in something so empowering for her.
Not so tonight. I turned around to look at her in the November dark backseat and realized she was sobbing.
"What? What's wrong? Are you okay? Are you hurt?" There had been other nights, other tears, for bruises or strains, but this felt more like heartache than a pulled muscle.
Gasping for breath, she cried "They're going to...cut me..from the dance," she gasped out.
"Cut you? Did they tell you that? What did Ms. Danielle say?"
Haltingly, she told me that while they were rehearsing, she overheard Ms. Danielle telling one of the other instructors to look at some of the other students for costume sizing because if my little dancer couldn't get her act together, they were going to cut her from the Flowers Dance, the one she had been looking forward to most of all.
"So, at the end of rehearsal did they say you were out?"
"I don't know," she said, sniffling. "I just came out here as soon as it was over. I didn't want to know."
"Did you not know the dance?"
"No, I knew the dance. But...I was scared."
If you have ever seen The Nutcracker, you know the Flowers Dance is an acrobatic feast for the eyes. My daughter has never been a gymnast, or a cheerleader, never taken an acro class at the dance school, but after auditions, when she proved she could do the kicks, they had put her in the number.
Now, it seemed, she was having trouble with the flips.
As a mother, this is one of those moments where you don't know if it's better to push forward or pull back.
The flips looked scary, even to me. She had to trust another dancer to hold her while she did cartwheels with no hands and they tossed her over their backs. She could break her neck if one of the other petite dancers were to fall themselves or drop her on her head.
What I did know was that I wasn't going to allow my child to wait a week until the holiday break was over to find out if she had been picked off the cast. That was just cruel. I was surprised the dance school would have left her with such uncertainty. We were going to get some answers.
I am not a helicopter parent. I'm not a dance mom, not my kid's stage manager, hell, I have never even joined the PTA, but there are moments when life is bigger than our children and we have to advocate for them.
In the South, sugarcoating a message tends to be the best way to say something uncomfortable.
I was beyond spoonful of anything at this point.
I found the studio owner and asked him what was up. Was she cut from the dance or not? I told him that if she was cut, I was fine with that choice, I just didn't want her overhearing a conversation and getting the wrong idea.
He looked taken aback at my forthrightness. I think he was used to other mothers with softer voices and less crazy eyes.
He was stuttering as he told me that a final decision had not been made, but that if she hadn't worked out the flips by the time she came back from vacation then she would be cut.
"Okay. Show me how to do them."
He raised his eyebrows.
"How else am I going to help her learn these tricks if you don't teach me now? She's only going to be with me for the holiday, so I need to know how to coach her."
He walked me back to the studio and called another young lady over. Katie was an older dancer than my daughter, but not much older, and someone my daughter idolized.
He had her demonstrate the flips with my child. I could see the fear in her eyes as she was tossed over the young woman's back. She released her knees too early, fell hard, and crumpled to the floor, holding her ankle.
The studio owner looked away as her eyes filled with tears.
I didn't know what to do. I know as an athlete there are moments of struggle and physical pain. Moments that make you stronger for living through them and overcoming. But as the mother of this beautiful girl, the last thing I wanted to see was her be afraid, or hurt, even in pursuit of a dream.
As I stood, frozen, unsure of my role in what was unfolding, Katie sat down beside my daughter and whispered something in her ear.
She told her she was ok, but that she needed to get up, keep going. My daughter's eyes went wide, and then something changed in her face.
She set her quivering chin and stood up.
"Let's try it again," she said.
She and Katie worked on the flips and cartwheels. And then I took her home and she and I worked on the flips and cartwheels as well.
She wasn't cut from the dance. When the show opened, she was a shining beautiful star in the Nutcracker and I couldn't have been prouder.
Proud because she'd been afraid and fought through it. Proud because she persevered, and accomplished something she didn't think she could do.
Proud because she'd showed that witch that wanted to give her part to someone else that she needed to shut her mouth and not underestimate my girl!
It was a valuable lesson for me. That her mother doesn't always have the answers. And that my daughter is getting old enough to fight her own battles - that she is tough enough to fight her own battles - and win.