Why I Gave Up Dancing After My Mom Passed Away

by Jessica Barraco

This is my story about why your passion should stay your own, no matter who inspires you.

I can remember driving up to Irvine Dance Academy, where I took dance lessons from ages 3 to 12, with my mom in the car.

I lived for the days when she would let me wander into the dance apparel shop, touch all of the costume fabrics, check out the ballet shoes and play with all of the ribbons and the bows by the register.

I would watch from the viewing area, a lookout window into an advanced dance class, wishing I wasn’t so afraid to do combinations “across the floor” and praying my left leg would allow me to get into the left-side version of the splits today.

My right side was fine, but my left and center splits were seemingly never going to happen.

I was shorter than most of the other girls, couldn’t jump as high and felt less skilled than them.

When I was dancing and not dealing with standing in line to learn choreography (only to forget it later), I felt at home. I felt at peace. I felt camaraderie with my mom, as she was a dancer growing up, who then studied ballroom dance in her young adulthood.

Arguably, the reason I had less tolerance for the “drama” of dance class (bitchy stares from girls with whom I would never be friends) was because there was so much drama in my home life. My mom was sick and dying. When you deal with something like this every day, it becomes a part of your routine.

It was my other routine; the one that did not consist of learning steps to choreography and landing my pique turn by the count of eight; the routine where my mom was slowly dying, before my very eyes.

My mom was driving me to dance class one day and then in the emergency room the next, getting IVs in her hands because the veins in other parts of her body were so worn out.

Continuing along in my dance journey could have very well been a large part of my life.

Even now, at 26, I have vivid memories of her giving me pep talks before my classes, recitals and of course, doing my hair and makeup before I hit the stage. I got to wear her Clinique red lipstick.

She would tell me not to let the other moms use their brushes on me because I could get lice that way and not to let them spray Aquanette on my bun because that was “crap” and we should only put Redken spray in my hair.

Just as vividly as I remember these moments, I remember the feeling of when she died and having my first recital after her passing, without the pep talks before classes or flowers backstage before the show with a love note.

My dad was busy grieving over his wife and maybe never even knew that you could send flowers backstage or didn’t know she had done this for me.

My sadness about having quit dance returns every June when “So You Think You Can Dance” starts up again. A few seasons back, my sister said, “You could have been on this show.”

I probably could have if I kept the art up, but when my mom died, I developed my new, motherless daughter routine, hoping that I would just be okay. I wasn’t convinced that I would be.

As it turns out, as much as I disliked some elements of dance life, it gave me structure, exercise and determination to be better at something — all of which are important things for a child... especially a child who has an irregular home life.

At dance class, I could learn choreography. At home, I was uncomfortably free styling.

After a few years passed, I got my nerve back in high school. I tried out for cheerleading and became the captain of my JV squad, which did include some dancing.

At home, I would study Britney Spears videos, like “Baby One More Time” and “I’m A Slave For You,” and learn the choreography. I can still do some of the moves.

After college, my yearning for dance became more intense and I took classes at the famed Edge Performing Arts Studio in Hollywood, where a lot of the "SYTYCD" choreographers actually teach. I didn’t totally suck, but some moves were hard for me. I didn’t have the full technique.

When I quit dance, I was just starting to get the hang of spotting during turns (so you don’t get dizzy) and now even in my 20s, it is hard to replicate what I learned. I didn’t learn it fast enough.

I gave up on dance when life gave up on my mom.

It’s so clear to me now, but it wasn’t then. I was just removing something from my life that I mostly loved, but that reminded me of her. It was too painful to continue and no one was there to tell me the pain would eventually go away.

When I first started dating my boyfriend, I took him to see Travis Wall’s dance company, Shaping Sound, perform in NYC. It was amazing. After the show, he said he had never seen someone so happy.

It was true. I was leaping and waltzing through the subway (I hate the subway ordinarily).

While maybe holding onto my love of dance wasn’t the most significant obstacle to overcome when my mom died, I am writing this in the hopes that whoever reads it, keeps dancing.

Keep your passion close to your own heart, even if someone else's inspires you.

You are the only one who knows the steps to your life. Believe me, you won’t want anyone else choreographing them for you. It will always be a beautiful day to practice your passion.

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