64: A Knockout Performance

64: A Knockout Performance

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Best Mom Ever!

A Knockout Performance

Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection we can catch excellence.

~Vince Lombardi

I’ve been taking adult tap dance lessons for close to four years. As a textbook overachiever, I expected to be shuffling off to Buffalo like Ginger Rogers by now. In reality, my rhythm is pretty spotty, and I still haven’t mastered basic steps like cramp rolls or drawbacks.

My tap teacher Howard calls me a “perfectionist,” but that’s just something he says to make me feel better. I don’t need to be perfect but I do prefer to succeed rather than fail. It’s not my fault. It’s my mom’s.

Ma is just under five feet tall and weighs less than 100 pounds. She grew up in Manhattan in the 1950s and she’s a fighter. And what I mean is, she loves to fight with people. It might be because she was an only child and never got the chance to beat up a younger sibling. In fact, she claims that the reason she had me, even though, allegedly, my father never wanted a second child (she loves to remind me of that all the time), was so that my older brother, Chris, would be spared the pain of a lonely childhood like the one she endured at the hands of her cold mother. And of course, my brother was so grateful, he beat the living daylights out of me every chance he got.

Ma doesn’t use physical force against her opponents. She’s a master of verbal intimidation. Every time I talk to her on the phone she’s at war with someone. “You wouldn’t believe the gross malfeasance going on with our homeowners association, Hilary! They’re so scared of me, I’ve been banned from the meetings!” Or, “The cable company tried to raise our bill. I called and said, ‘Do you want my business? I only want to hear one word, yes or no.’ They lowered my bill twenty dollars a month.” And don’t even get her started on politics. Needless to say, as a small child, I did everything in my power to stay on her good side. My strategy was to do well in school, and everything else, to avoid disappointing her.

When I was six years old, Ma signed me up for ballet lessons. After a month of classes, a recital was scheduled. The teacher kept it simple. We weren’t expected to memorize the routine. Life was easier back then. There was no Dance Moms TV show or YouTube. Our parents had no illusions that we kids were on the road to stardom. They just wanted us out of their hair for an hour or two. So all we had to do was form a line behind the teacher like little ducklings following the mama duck. The teacher would start the dance and, if we got lost, we’d mimic her movements, or rather, shadow the student standing right in front of us.

The day of the recital, dressed in cotton candy pink leotards, tutus, and matching ballet flats, we got into a line on stage. Standing directly in front of me was my frenemy, Lisa Kaplan. Lisa, with thick black glasses and dirty blond hair, had an annoying habit of singing my name on the school bus over and over again, “Hil-a-ree Hatt-en-bach” “Hil-a-ree Hatt-en-bach,” until I snapped and screamed “SHUT UP, LISA!” Let’s just say, we had history.

At show time, the music began and everyone’s tiny arms flew up into fifth position. Well, everyone’s except Lisa Kaplan’s. She stood staring into the abyss, twirling her hair, paralyzed with fear. I glared at her in disbelief. As an overachieving six-year-old, I didn’t recognize what was clearly stage fright. All I saw was my arch nemesis ruining my chance to shine. I gave her a shove.

She snapped out of her daze and shoved me back. Fists and ballet slippers started to fly. I grabbed her bun and yanked. She pulled on my leotard. A scratching and shrieking fight ensued while dainty Chopin music plinked out of the speakers. The music came to a screeching halt and soon our very upset moms pulled us apart. Ma dragged me off stage and said, “That’s it. I’m enrolling you in karate with your brother.” The subtext being that my fighting skills could use some improvement.

Cut to a few years ago. My tap teacher organized a tap recital and I decided it was time to redeem myself and invite Ma. Two shows were planned and I’d be dancing in three numbers. The matinee went off without a hitch but Ma wasn’t in attendance at that show. She came to the evening show and sat in a row of chairs directly on the stage. When the lights dimmed, the jazz horns and piano blared from the speakers. I flapped and shuffle-ball changed my way across the stage with ease. I looked over at Ma beaming. She was finally getting the recital she’d hoped for all those years ago. I felt giddy and elated to be the source of her pride and for a brief moment, a big smile spread across my face as I thought, YES! I’m totally killing it!

But the sheer joy must have caused a system overload. My brain turned into a black hole of nothingness and white noise. I lost my place in the routine and froze. I couldn’t remember the steps that I’d done flawlessly just hours before at the matinee. With what I can only imagine was an Edvard Munch-ian look of horror on my face, I fumbled and bumbled on my feet. It was too late. Devastation had already enveloped my entire being. I morphed into Lisa Kaplan, terrified and paralyzed, desperate for someone to knock me out and end my misery.

After the show I skulked out from backstage and avoided eye contact. Ma, to her credit, went on and on about how I was the best one up there and said she didn’t notice my mistakes. That should have been exactly what I wanted to hear. Even if I wasn’t perfect, she was still proud of me. But it wasn’t. I wanted to be exceptional for Ma.

Shortly after, I fell into a long period of PTTD — Post-Traumatic Tap Disorder. I barely attended class and refused to perform in the following year’s recital. It’s been a couple of years since that fateful night. I’m back in tap class and building up my confidence to perform in front of an audience again. I’m also back in therapy. My therapist tells me to let go of the expectation, which I can’t help but think of as “quitting.” And you know, Ma didn’t sneak me into this world to become a quitter. So I’ll keep on pushing myself to be the best I can be and blame Ma for it because the truth is, she makes me try harder.

~Hilary Hattenbach

More stories from our partners