She's the belle of ballet and belly dance

She is at that innocent age when the line between ballet dancing and belly dancing has not yet been decisively drawn. But when her grandmother asked her what she wanted for her birthday, she was absolutely decided: She wanted a belly-dancing outfit.

Leah is 6, or thereabouts - although when you are 6, "thereabouts" is not at all the right word. What matters crucially is that now you are 6 and no longer 5. It is only people like uncles and aunts and their visiting friends - nice enough people but, frankly, with their corners rather rubbed off - who don't always appreciate how critical the question of sixness is.

Accompanied by her mother, father, and baby brother, Leah is staying in Scotland a while. There is about her family the air of not being quite on ground level, not really rooted, which is often observable in young, particularly American, families on their travels. It is a kind of happy limbo of opportunity. The children still fly free or cheaply, and formal education hasn't made itself a pressing necessity yet.

It could be argued, of course, that for Leah this trip has greater value educationally than endless days slotting pink or yellow triangular plastic blocks into similarly colorful triangular plastic holes. And, after all, there's nothing about traveling that prevents you learning to read or tie your shoelaces.

Leah, I observed, is into reading. (I don't know about shoelaces.) Calvin and Hobbes, the cartoon characters, is her favorite literature. She likes to have the bubble-thoughts and captions read to her. Then she pretends that she, too, can read them.

Suddenly: "Would you like to see me in my belly-dancer costume?" The question is rhetorical. I even wonder whether, had we not automatically chimed "Yes!" with appropriate eagerness, she would have hesitated for a second. What is the point of having a belly-dancing costume if you don't show it off?

So a major rummaging ensues among the baggage deposited ad hoc on the carpet behind the large sofa. This is followed by Leah and her mother vanishing conspiratorially behind the sofa. From this backstage seclusion issue the sounds of flurried activity.

And then - The Entrance.

While Leah was in her dressing room, her father was readying the music. He didn't have to be told what the music was to be. It is understood.

Our dancer for the evening nods. He hits "play."

"I just love this song!" says little Leah, a shining star. She wears - apart from her colorful, silken costume - a dreamy, intense look indicating a long familiarity with the song. I suspect she sings it to herself in her deepest sleep. When you are touring far from home, there's nothing quite like a cheerful song played over and over to give you a sense of continuity and predictability. Leah is already a singalong devotee.

The song begins. Leah starts to dance. But it isn't what we expected. Round and round she goes, spun by the tune from "The Sound of Music":

You are 16, going on 17

Baby, it's time to think

Better beware, be canny and careful

Baby, you're on the brink ...

Round, round, revolving, revolving, partly on tiptoe, arms gracefully akimbo. As she turns, she progresses down the room and then up again, across the room and then back again.

But it is ballet, not belly.

Her aunt whispers with secretive amusement, "Well, she was belly dancing earlier, before you came, and before she put her costume on!"

I am 16 going on 17

I know that I'm naive

Fellows I meet may tell me I'm sweet

And willingly I believe ...

Round and round. She's Pavlova. Fonteyn. Bussell. But there's no hint of a Perizada, a Yasmine, or a Ghazalla.

Some years ago, we attended a public performance organized by a local dancing teacher in a town not far from Glasgow, where we live. Among her pupils was a niece of ours. She was about, well, maybe 6. "Petite" was the perfect word to describe her. Dancing was her thing. She took it very seriously, being clearly far ahead of the other pupils in her age group.

She had an adept, lighthearted, deft-footed way with her and looked knowingly at ease onstage. I marveled that perhaps she was one of those characters who knows exactly what they want to do as a career virtually from the cradle.

She wasn't. A few years later I heard she had stopped taking dancing lessons. How could we feel sorry? We didn't; she'd simply made a choice she was at liberty to make. Now, going on 16, what career has she ahead of her? I have no idea. Neither has she.

So, watching Leah trip the light fantastic the other evening with the energy and zest of a tiny gazelle, I wondered if she will even remember, in 10 years' time - when she is poised to take up a life in the military or as a computer programmer - her brief 6-year-old enthusiasm for Middle Eastern dancing. Or will she be unable to forget? Will she be absolutely focused on an inevitably dazzling career as one of America's greatest exponents of dance, be it belly, ballet, break, or the entire range of the gyrational arts?

You wait, little girl, on an empty stage,

for fate to turn the light on

Your life, little girl, is an empty page....

Meanwhile, on the magic carpet, you continue round and round, immersed unstoppably in the whirling motion of the moment.

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