So normally at this time of year, my wife and daughter spend a long, excruciating Saturday at the dance studio for Picture Day. Typically — and gratefully — I orbit beyond the gravity of this black hole. From a distance I appreciate it to be a 10-hour, concentrated amalgam of hair, make-up, costume changes, drama, yelling, teen angst, pasted smiles, and despair.
Saturday morning, my wife made a vague reference to “Picture Day,” and “Dad helping,” which I took in stride as my wife, the kidder, exercising her playful side.
Had I thought deeply in the moment, I would’ve remembered that my wife (a.) is not a kidder, and (b.) has no appreciable playful side.
Since the studio is shut down due to the pandemic, all photos have to be DIY.
So around noon, Karry informs me of the executional guardrails: all white background, no visible wall outlets, good lighting.
Our house is old, tiny, and meets NONE of the aforementioned criteria. As such, it offers few places for me to hide. So, before I know it, I’m push-pinning a sheet to the wall, moving the dining room table, and gazing through my son’s I-phone (best camera in the house) to see if we can frame a scene that approximates the guardrails while excluding the ‘tender clutter’ of our dining room.
Full disclosure: I am in no way qualified for the task. The only reason I’m holding the camera is that (a.) Karry has to iron and steam 12 costumes, (b.) it’s the early afternoon, therefore my son is still in bed, and (c.) Emma has to be in the pictures.
My daughter has been dancing for 11 years, during which I’ve watched from afar, apart. I’m a seat in a theater, participating only in a support role, loading bags and luggage, occasionally dropping off, picking up. I’ve watched every single one of her dances with a lump in my throat and a pit in my stomach … wanting her to kill it, recognizing I have no bearing on the outcome. It is she, alone, on stage, buoyed only by her genuine love for the craft, her discipline, countless hours of practice, a full heart, and her desire to simply do her very best. While I would love to believe that she’s My Girl on that stage, she is not. It’s hard for me to admit that, when I see the game face, the make-up, the costumes. She is herself. Strong. Confident. Prepared. And while I’m sure fear is somewhere in the equation, she’s never afraid. With hundreds of hours of practice under her belt, it’s merely a question of execution.
Awes me every time.
So, with the camera in my hand I establish three goals for myself, two obvious, one surreptitious.
- Try not to displease my wife (the goal I roll out of bed every day with, and usually blow before exiting the breakfast table).
- Keep a steady hand.
My third goal is humble, and, admittedly, purely selfish. I just want to crack her game face. I want to see through the make-up, the costumes, the stage smile and catch a glimpse of … My Girl, the one I never get to see from my seat in the theater.
As with most things I am not good at, I compensate with enthusiasm. I ask myself, ‘How would a professional photographer, with no studio, shitty lighting, and a postage stamp for a scene, approach the challenge?’
I have no idea, but am confident it wasn’t the path I chose.
“Show me the feisty kitty cat.”
Within minutes, I had her nearly peeing her pants, while I fell completely afoul of Goal #1.
But I got my shot.
From there I operated for the next six hours more or less within acceptable tolerances. I waited patiently between costume changes, and, where possible, tried to coax a smile beyond the practiced, painted on variety. Emma was a trooper. We both were working from a severely limited repertoire – she, restricted by the parameters of our dining room; me, restricted by my meager skills.
And while it was still an all-day, concentrated amalgam of hair, make-up, and costume changes … the circumstances left little room (figuratively and literally) for the drama, yelling, teen angst and despair that normally mark the proceedings. Aside from the quality of the pictures, I didn’t make things worse. And I got to participate in a ritual that, for 11 years, has been exclusively a mother-daughter affair.
I have no idea if what we were able to capture will meet the studio’s executional guardrails. The brown paneled floor peeked through the white runner, casting it a different shade than the sheet hanging on the wall. Our lighting was slipshod, casting shadows. We could only take so many poses, given the cozy confines.
But there were a few shots, that, even if they don’t make it into the program, I will treasure. A few that maybe didn’t show off the costume or the make-up, but did justice to the beautiful smile that I’ve watched from the best seat — not in the theater, but in our house — for 15 years and counting… watching it grow from gracing the most adorable chubby cheeks in the universe to gracing the most beautiful soul this side of her mother.
That’s My Girl.