In our Christmas-loving house, the days following Dec. 25 can be a sugar-coated letdown. But one member of the family is clearly relieved that the holiday is over. Sophie never really did embrace the Christmas spirit this year — which is weird, considering she’s always been my Santa-believing, carol-singing, present-obsessed kid. But this year she refused to watch Elf and begged me to take down the tree as soon as the last gift was opened on Christmas morning.
It could be that her belief in Santa has morphed into a healthy fear of Santa, or, more likely, that — seeing how much I love Christmas — Sophie decided this year to push back. Maybe it’s just 12-and-a-half-year-old hormones.
In any case, there’s one thing I know she’ll miss about the holiday season: Snow Queen.
We are a ballet family, but my girls don’t dream of sugarplum fairies, or long to be Clara. No Nutcracker for us. Instead, each September Annabelle and Sophie cram into a classroom at their dance studio with kids from all over town to audition for Snow Queen. This original Phoenix production doesn’t involve Swarovski crystal-studded costumes or perfect rows of soldiers. But my kids and their classmates adore it, and others do, too — performances sold out this year, Snow Queen’s 25th season.
Every year, dozens of little girls dream of being the rose princess (a grown-up role played gorgeously by one of my mom’s former students), or at least of being a rosebud, one of four tiny dancers poised behind the princess as she casts a spell over a pile of rose petals that will eventually help Gerda, the heroine, rescue her hero Kai from the evil Snow Queen.
This was Sophie’s fourth year in Snow Queen. By the time Annabelle was her age, she’d been a rosebud several times, and had already moved onto other parts. But Sophie is still the size of a 6-year-old, and was cast in less-demanding roles. The rosebud role is not easy — it requires real ballet skill and, perhaps more important, the ability to stay still for hunks of time. That’s not easy for my nose-picking, crotch-tugging, wave-sneaking Sophie.
The rosebud is my favorite role in the show. My mom always rehearses the rosebuds and for years, before I had my own kids, I watched her ballet students hit that releve at the end of the dance in unison with the rose princess, arms in synch, waving gracefully as the lights dimmed. My eyes always teared up, and when I finally had my own little girl, I sobbed, watching Annabelle point her toes and wave her arms.
I braced myself, positive Sophie would never be a rosebud. She started late and took on smaller roles — a goofy sprite, a sweet village lass. I think she and I were both prepared for her to be a sprite again this year when I heard that Sophie was going to be considered for rosebud.
I know we were both nervous, the day of auditions. Sophie nailed it — no fidgeting, she got all the moves right. From the beginning it was clear that this role was a stretch, and Sophie worked hard; my mom burned the music on a CD and Annabelle ran the dance with her sister in our kitchen, calling out the moves, snapping her fingers to keep time.
Some days, Sophie didn’t want to rehearse. She snuck into the room where the sprites were practicing. She was teetering on the edge of her comfort zone and I wondered, was this a good idea? Who are we doing this for? But just when I thought she’d give up, each time Sophie pulled it together, asking me to turn on the music. Sometimes she’d make me leave the room; other times she’d ask me to videotape.
The morning of the first day of the show (the girls perform four times in a weekend, twice on Saturday and twice Sunday) my mom called to remind me to have Annabelle do a run-through with Sophie. She did — several times — and we headed downtown for costumes and make up. Annabelle was a grown-up lady in waiting, dancing with the big girls. Sophie took her place with the other tiny ballerinas.
I sat in the audience for the first performance, holding my breath as the too-familiar music began. There was Sophie, dancing the role that so many of my mom’s little girls — including Annabelle — had danced before her. As far as I know, she’s the only kid with special needs who has ever taken the stage during Snow Queen, certainly the only one with Down syndrome, and watching her go through her paces onstage that afternoon, I wondered how obvious it was. Like many people with Down syndrome, Sophie sticks out her tongue when she concentrates, and she was concentrating hard. She knew every move, but her technique was choppy, as though she doesn’t always have complete control over her motor skills — which she does not.
But she had moments of real grace, too, instances where it was clear that Sophie comes from a ballet family, just like Annabelle, a line that most definitely skipped my sister and me but that extends back to my mother, their teacher. Watching her rehearse the rosebud role this fall, noticing the position of her fingers or the way she stretched her leg, and how much she truly loves to dance, I realized that for the first time in her 12-plus years, I wondered what Sophie would be like if she didn’t have Down syndrome. For all my struggles to accept the fact she had it, I’d never tried to separate her from it, never wondered if she’d dance like her sister if she had 46 chromosomes instead of 47.
She did it, that Saturday afternoon. Sophie danced the role of the rosebud beautifully, gracefully, with her own flourishes for sure, but she did it. I could breathe again.
Saturday night, the whole thing fell apart. At 12, Sophie was much older than her fellow rosebuds, and I’m not sure exactly what happened — a late night, some understandable confusion, I was backstage and didn’t see the performance — all four of the little girls were off. The director, Frances Cohen, my mom’s business partner, swooped in, grabbed Annabelle and sent her to the costumer.
On Sunday, Frances announced, there would be five rosebuds. She was double-casting Annabelle.
“Oh shit,” I thought, knowing better than to say a word. Annabelle, who had been called in plenty of times to fill in for a sick or missing rosebud, but never to be a fifth, also kept quiet, but I knew she was not happy. She didn’t want to upstage anyone, least of all her sister.
But the director’s word is final, and, as it turns out, Frances was right.
The next afternoon, Annabelle took the stage with the others girls, standing in front so they could follow along. All five danced beautifully. No one seemed upset, least of all Sophie, who was clearly thrilled to be onstage with her sister.
That night, during the final performance, there was a moment during the dance where all five rosebuds spread their arms, leaning in to watch Gerda and the rose princess, and — clearly unable to help herself — Sophie slowly reached out her fingers to touch her sister’s hand.
I cried. I cried because, come on, that was the sweetest fucking thing I’ve ever seen. I cried because both my girls danced beautifully. I cried because I know this is not the last time Annabelle will need to take the stage — in some form — to help her sister.
Two weeks later, we’re all still covered with glitter from the stage make up, but my mom and Annabelle have moved on to talking about the spring ballet recital.
Sophie, however, isn’t quite done with Snow Queen. On Christmas morning, after the presents had been ripped open and the stockings emptied, Sophie snuck out of the living room. Through the kitchen door, I caught a glimpse of a leap, then swooping arms. It took me a moment to realize what she was doing.
The rosebud dance.