My Brief and Marvelous Stint as an Italian Ballet Mom


Last January, I enrolled my 4 1/2-year-old in ballet. She had been begging me for nearly a year and the begging only intensified after she watched the movie Leap.

I didn’t think she’d like ballet. I didn’t like it as a kid, so I’m certainly guilty of projection, but also, my kid doesn’t like to sit still. She’s rough and tumble and “spirited,” as the well-meaning like to say. On some days, I imagine her more as a future soccer player; on others, the Artful Dodger, but certainly not a ballerina.

However, I finally gave in and signed her up.

We live in Northern Italy with the Air Force, so I found an Italian dance school in our little town. Through my limited Italian, I learned that the school had a beginner class for her age group, and classes were only 40 minutes long, twice a week. We could walk there after Italian PreK and still be home at a reasonable time to play and eat dinner. Perfect, I thought.

Unsurprisingly, it didn’t take long for my kid to be over ballet.

I figured the class would last about six to eight weeks like most little kid intro sports in the U.S. It’s pretty easy to implement the tough-love-no-quitting policy when you’re only dealing with six weeks.

But soon I realized that in Italian ballet, the season is six months long.

Our decision to encourage our kid to stick out her ballet season in Italy is a story for another day, but in short, I had kinda expected it. At some point, everyone will join something and end up not liking it.

My kid’s face about sums up my feelings toward ballet.

The thing I hadn’t expected was how much I would hate being a ballet mom.

The 40 minute class was too short for me to walk or drive home and come back. I always had my 1-year-old with me, but the winter was too cold and dark for me to take him to the park. So instead, we would bop around the tiny hot waiting area with the other moms. My baby would scream if he was mad or squeal if he was happy, but either way, he was usually too loud. There also was an inexplicably giant pile of umbrellas in the waiting room with which he would swing around and try and hit everyone. None of the other moms ever had extra kids with them.

For the first two months, I spent my time anxiously trying to keep my baby quiet. I sang nursery rhymes, played on the floor, and pulled out thousands of bags of snacks to keep him quiet while the other moms watched me from the chairs.

I smiled at the other moms, and while they would smile back, they were mostly on their phones. They didn’t even speak much to each other. Since our kids were in the youngest class, we were all new, and no one knew each other. And when they did chat to each other, their Italian was much too fast for me to follow.

I didn’t blame them for not wanting to engage, I was the foreigner, not them.

On one particularly cold and rainy day, the ballet teacher came out in the middle of class and told me I needed to take my son and leave. He was too loud. I nodded, understanding her Italian enough to know I was being kicked out. It wasn’t raining when we had arrived. I hadn’t brought a car, only a stroller. I gathered my stuff while trying to bite back tears as the other moms watched me.

I am a bad mom, I thought to myself. I am a bad mom for signing my kid up for something she now doesn’t like. I am a bad mom for making her stay in. I am a bad mom for not being able to keep my 1-year-old quiet. I am a bad mom for not expecting the rain to start. I am a bad mom for not becoming fluent in Italian faster.

It was in the middle of this spiral that one of the moms led me outside. “We will get coffee,” she told me in Italian. She held her umbrella over my head as I hugged my son to my chest, and we walked to a coffee shop. With the ballet class being so short, we shot our coffees and walked back. But that coffee was the most important one I’ve had since moving here one year ago. And let me tell you, I drink a lot of coffee!

After that, when my kids and I would show up to ballet, always flailing around and in a rush (ballet is very strict about being late), my new friend would greet me warmly. Soon, all the other moms were greeting me, too. And strangely, they also were talking to each other more.

In no time, the other moms became my pit crew in the closet-sized locker room where we were all supposed to wait before class started. I was the only one who ever had an extra kid with me, so if my son was fussy and didn’t want me to put him down while I helped my daughter get her tights on, the other moms would jump in, quickly getting her dressed and doing her hair.

One day, one of the ballet moms pulled me aside and told me in Italian that she was from Sicily.

“Great!” I said, assuming she was then going to give me some vacation spot recommendations.

“I know how it feels to not have family close to help,” she said. She lowered her voice. “I know how it feels to be an outsider.”

I had never considered this could even be a thing. She spoke Italian. She WAS Italian.

Soon, the other moms and I were secretly rolling our eyes at each other when the ballet teacher told us we had to buy yet another costume item for the recital. We were exchanging looks of empathy when one of our kids decided today was the day she didn’t want to walk into ballet class. When one of us was running late, we all jumped up the help because, turns out, it wasn’t just me who was terrified of the ballet teacher.

I learned that their kids had all wanted to start ballet after they watched Leap, too. It’s called Ballerina, in Italian.

“Ballerina!” we would curse, shaking our fists as the weather heated up and the teeny tiny waiting room became a sauna.

When the ballet practices started to get longer as the recital drew near, the other moms and I, plus my little guy, would grab a coffee or a spritz with our extra time.

When the ballet teacher called us together to explain how the girls’ hair needed to be styled for the recital and then handed us a four-page handout, the other moms, without missing a beat, told me not to worry. They would take care of my daughter’s hair. They’d seen my sad attempts over the months.

Because of our limited communication, the women didn’t know much about me. And what I knew about them was probably half wrong, like when I thought for three months that one woman’s husband was a waiter instead of a police officer (to be fair, the words are similar! OK, fine, they really aren’t that similar).

By the end of ballet, we were all on a group text. We’ve gone to dinners. I’ve been invited to parties.

Through language classes and hard work, my Italian is improving, but honestly, I still speak like Borat with a 3-year-old vocabulary. The ballet moms obviously don’t include me for my great conversational skills, they include me because they are kind.

There’s a lot of talk about finding your mom tribe these days. Because of our military lifestyle, I haven’t lived near my family and best friends in quite a while. The idea of finding a new group of besties every couple of years feels so overwhelming, if not impossible.

My experience with the ballet moms has changed my preconceptions of what a mom tribe has to look and feel like.

In Italy, for a season, my tribe became a group of ballet moms with whom I can barely communicate, for I’ve learned that we don’t really need to “understand” each other to support each other.

My daughter and I both agree that she is not doing ballet next year.

“Basta cosí,” she’ll tell you if you ask, which literally translates to, stop, enough.

But I’d like to think with the ballet moms, this is just the beginning.

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Julie Cohen
Julie is a co-founder and contributor of Military Moms Blog. She also is a freelance writer and editor living in northern Italy where her husband is stationed in the Air Force. They have a little girl who spends most of her time (successfully) convincing her parents to buy more gelato, and a baby boy who they suspect already speaks better Italian than they do. Julie is the former food and wine editor of the San Antonio Express-News and former managing editor of Sauce Magazine in St. Louis, Missouri. which is where she calls home — but her dad was in the Army, so nowhere is technically home! She also has taught high school composition and British Literature, adult creative writing and college writing. Julie completed an MFA in nonfiction writing from Columbia University. In her free time, Julie enjoys running, reading and “studying” the varietals of Italy.