It’s early Saturday morning, and the sun is streaking through the window of her upstairs bedroom. We only have about an hour before we need to head out the door. I hold open the leg of her pale yellow dance costume and tap the top of her right foot, a knowing signal we’ve learned over the years. She obediently lifts her foot to slide it into the open hole, pressing her dimpled hand into my shoulder for balance as she does. It’s a perfect moment to snag some eye contact, and I resist the urge to scoop her up into an overly zealous hug. I smile instead, and her eyes glimmer as she smiles back, just before she glances down to make sure she’s putting her foot in the right place.
She turned five so fast. Wasn’t she just born? And just like that, she’s getting ready for her very first dance recital, bravely preparing to march out on stage and offer her art to the world. I feel a familiar ache of sadness and joy. I begin to wonder for the umpteenth time how to freeze time.
She shifts her weight and plunges her foot into the other leg, and we pull the costume up so the bountiful layers of pastel tulle land exactly where they should. The leotard is slightly loose on her tall, thin torso – certainly not snug enough for her body to stretch it to its fullness. I tell her it looks perfect. Because it does. Gathering her caramel-colored hair into my hands, I attempt to make a real bun, the donut-shaped kind with every hair tightly pulled into place. We are helped by an egregious amount of aerosol hairspray. I want to sparkle, she had said. So, I add a hint of glittery white shadow to her eyelids and a dab of sparkly blush to her cheeks.
When she sees herself in the mirror, she gives a wide smile that is both bashful and contented. She’s a marvel. And, at least for this moment, she knows it. (There go those thoughts about freezing time again.) I tuck her tiny dance shoes into her bag, and we head out, full of excitement and nerves.
I used to be a dancer myself, and I look back on my own recital days with warmth. The anticipation was always such a rush – the entire year culminating into this one moment. Each week, adding one new step to the routine. Each year, adding a new skill. Learning to dance is a painfully gradual process; I danced for years before I ever really got good at it. Actually, I’m not sure I ever got very good at it.
I remember the first award I ever won. There was the always-coveted Best Dancer award, but that’s not the one I got. I got Most Improved. Little me was thrilled to receive an award; big me cringes because now I know that “most improved” has an unflattering backside. Yes, you’ve come along way, but perhaps that’s only because you had so far to go.
What is that whisper of shame that rises when I think about having so far to go? When I ponder the gap between who I am now and who I most want to be? There are plenty of things I give myself permission to be bad at. I’m still learning, I say, without hesitation. Yet with others, usually those most personal to me, I feel pressed to be immediately amazing. And embarrassed when I’m not. I should know this already. The words aren’t so much an observation as they are a chastisement. A slap to the soul.
When it comes to art, I find the learning process to be unnervingly slow and painfully public. I’d rather hide in a dark corner, secretly tinkering, showcasing my art only after I have it all figured out. I hear this from many artists; we never really feel like it’s good enough. Sometimes it isn’t. But if Seth Godin is right, art isn’t really art until it ships. We absolutely must send it out into the world. Can we really be good artists if we aren’t willing to share our creations?
Generosity and vulnerability are qualities of every good artist. And we learn vulnerability by being vulnerable.
As I sit in the audience, waiting for my daughter’s turn on stage, my stomach is all flutters and flip-flops. I haven’t had these feelings since I left dance at the age of 14. The smell of the school theater, the dance moms putting last minute touches on elaborate hair-dos, the assortment of costumed kids finding their places last minute, an occasional panicked cry of “where are my tap shoes? It’s all so familiar.
The show begins, and we are soon presented with an array of songs and themes and dance styles. There are definitely some stand-out performances. The Above the Barre Dance Company, reserved for the most skilled students, performs a breath-taking lyrical dance. It is stunning. My mind wanders to thoughts about how hard they must have worked to get to that place. The bleeding toes, the sore muscles, the tears. The self-doubt. And yet, here they are, shipping their art to the world.
Finally, it is her turn. The curtains open, and my daughter does her best tiptoe out onto the stage with about fifteen other kids all bumping into each other along the way. They work to find their places, marked by a bright red X in electrical tape. Some kids are extra intent on getting the placement exactly perfect, shuffling a little to one side or the other until it feels just right. Others are more focused on handing out exuberant smiles and waves to Mom and Dad. For the most part, none of them take their eyes off the teacher, who is hiding behind a screen just to the side of the stage.
And then, as the first delicate notes of Hedwig’s Theme play, they begin.
Point, together. Point, together. Twirl.
Left leg, kick. Right leg, kick.
Arms up, arms down. Plie.
At first, I am just a proud mama watching her little one perform. Yet as I watch, I am soon swept up into something bigger, something far more transcendent. What is happening on stage feels really, really important.
I sit up and lean in, struck by the stunning beauty and sheer bravery of it all. What is it that is capturing me? It hits me with an intensity that fills my eyes with tears: I am catching a glimpse of what we artists are meant to be.
They had all only just begun their dance journey. No elaborate leaps, no intricate maneuvers. Tap, together. Tap, together. Ground zero of the learning process. And yet, with generosity and vulnerability, there they are, offering up their art while still in process.
The simple innocence of it is almost too much to bear. They hadn’t yet learned to compare. To chastise themselves for what they could not yet know. To allow the full-grown movements of the Above the Barre dancers to shame them out of their first baby steps. For three and a half minutes, I sit in stunned silence, bearing witness to sixteen precious little ones who believed they were worthy of the show, worthy of the costume, worthy of celebration, worthy of all of it, even though they still had so far to go. They were free to begin exactly where they were. No pretense. My heart feels like it might burst.
After the recital ends, my tiny dancer quickly dashes over to greet us. She is immediately welcomed by that overly zealous hug I had been holding back since the morning and a torrent of praise and affection and flowers from her siblings and family. Well done, we all say exuberantly. She has no idea the spell she just cast on me. I watch her skip to the car and wonder if it’s possible to love her any more than I do right now.
What would happen if we really believed – down to our marrow – that this was Father’s heart for us, too? What if, as poet Malcolm Guite says, we understood that “God looks us into love and looks upon His whole creation with a merciful and loving eye”? We all have a long way to go. And yet, because of Christ, it is finished. I am free to begin, and I am free to live as though I have already arrived. Maybe I don’t have to understand it as much as I need to practice walking in it.
Do not despise these small beginnings, our Scriptures tell us. Yes, we are still being formed; but this means we are held in the safety of the Potter’s hands. Whether it’s learning a new skill, starting over after a divorce, fighting an addiction, or reaching for the courage to ship our art, do not despise those parts of you that are still wobbly and small. It is because we are held that we have the courage to start at the beginning, to bleed and sweat and struggle on, knowing that “He who began a good work in you will perfect it.”
Even now, as I look around, summer is showing off her months of hard work. Tulips are parading their vibrant hues of fire orange and flamingo pink. The trees, sparse only weeks ago, are now lush and abounding. Even the grass, much to my husband’s dismay, cannot be tamed. Everywhere is wild and full and saturated with vibrancy and life. Yet, how easy it is to forget where they began. Tiny seeds pushing up through the dirt, brave enough to be saplings before they were oaks.
If you are still a sapling, take courage. And be generous. You never know who may need to hear your words, gaze at your painting, or draw strength from your bravery. Right now.
“Mom, I think I want to take dance lessons.” My oldest daughter had whispered these words while watching her little sister perform. She’d tried dance once before when she was three, but separation anxiety got the best of her and she wasn’t able to fully participate in the class. She never tried again. Now, her little sister’s dancing had awakened something in her.
“I’m 14, though. Is it too late to start?” she asks, unsure and a little embarrassed, testing my response.
“It’s never too late,” I smile back at her. “Begin exactly where you are.”
 Zechariah 4:10 NLT
 Philippians 1:6 NASB
The featured image is (c) Lancia E. Smith and used with her permission for Cultivating and The Cultivating Project. This image is part of a series of images of the magnificent Houston based dance company Ad Deum, lead by Director Randall Flinn.
A companion piece to read with “These Small Beginnings”, is Malcolm Guite’s poem “The Singing Bowl” for a sense of where the song in us each of us must begin.
Nicole Howe is a writer, speaker, Bible study teacher, wife, and homeschooling mama to four kiddos. She serves as editor and regular contributor for the quarterly publication, An Unexpected Journal and holds a Masters Degree in Cultural Apologetics from Houston Baptist University, where she discovered the power of the imagination to restore awe and wonder to her floundering faith. Drawing deep insights from her ordinary experiences, Nicole is passionate about helping others discover the Truth, Goodness, and Beauty of Christ in broken and unlikely places. When she’s not devouring books, Nicole loves singing, pretending to be a chef, and performing Improv at her local theater.