Beauty that's hers alone

I was enjoying my weekly 45 minutes of giddiness, waiting at the neighborhood dance studio while my seven-year-old granddaughter, Aumy, tap-tapped her little heart out in sync with 15 other little girls in the next room.

A recording of "Casino Royale" played over and over, sometimes coming to an abrupt stop midway. Then the instructor's soft but insistent voice would say: "No, it's shuffle, shuffle,m step, step, shuffle, shuffle,m step, step." Then the music and the clickity- clicks would resume while I sat there, smiling.

Aumy allows me on these Saturday mornings to relive my own childhood tap- dancing memories. A friend and I had formed a duo. We were invited to dance at mother-and-daughter banquets and patriotic programs. Our mothers sewed costumes -- black velvet and yellow silk for the banquets; red, white, and blue sateen for the patriots. It was grand. And my daughter -- Aumy's mother -- studied ballet, so we are coming full circle for the third time.

I usually try to read while I wait for Aumy, but my attention is apt to wander to the trophies to be awarded in the next dance competition and the wall of color photos from last year's recital -- tap-dancers in spangled tuxedos, ballerinas in pink tulle, clowns, couples doing the jitterbug or the tango.

I feel the warmth of the footlights again: hear enthusiastic applause from parents and friends who are loyal despite the inevitable lapses and missteps onstage.

And so I am in a mellow mood, always, which is why I was caught so completely off guard on this particular Saturday morning by a pink poster on the bulletin board.

It was an appeal to little girls to enter a beauty contest for children.

A photo showed a cherubic tot in a velvet cape with a glittering crown on her blond curls. She hugged a scepter in one arm, roses in the other. Her smile said she owned the world -- that she had met the test for physical beauty and had been elevated to Queendom.

Victories are nice. I'm sure the child was happy. I'm sure her parents were proud. And I know that in small-town America, being the queen of the festival, whatever the festival may be, is a lot like being president of the Chamber of Commerce -- it's a community service.

But I see beauty contests for little girls as the wrong emphasis at the wrong time. The very process of growing up means having a square body, a toothless grin, being skinny or chubby, awkward sometimes and graceful at others. It's not the time to say: "You don't measure up to the standard of beauty. And beauty is the measure of your worth."

It's a parody of all that's wrong with the commercialization of the American female.

Here she comes -- conforming to an ideal of swingy hair, peachy skin, flawless makeup, standard measurements, even teeth, and nothing but smiles, smiles, smiles. Woman as person -- as a whole thinking, caring, working, playing creative, compassionate achiever in all fields -- is submerged in favor of woman as perfect body. We see the tantalizing walk, the practiced naivete, the struggle to break through a stereotype and be real.

They've been brave, these beauties, and for years they have not had much choice. The beauty contest has been the only female sport in the big arena. The American and National Leagues and the Big Ten have been for men. Only now are we seeing the emergence of woman as skilled tennis players, skiers, swimmers , basketball players, gymnasts. Only now can schoolgirl expect to enjoy the same sports competition as schoolboys.

It's a new era. Aumy may be a lawyer when she grows up. Or a rancher. Or a baseball player -- her passion.

I looked at the little girls' contest poster again. I worried. Would the dancing dilute Aumy's goals? It didn't mine, or her mother's. Still . . .?

"Casino Royale" came to a smashing close. Aumy changed into her scruffy tennis shoes, overalls, and yellow baseball cap. We went for our usual ice cream treat. We bought kites. We went to the park to fly them. Her blue-winged kite soared and fluttered in the wind. We ran in spring mud. Our hands grew red from the cold. Our noses dripped.

My fear dorpped away.

Oh, no, lamb, I thought, you are too much soul (and dancing is soul) to ever allow yourself to be body only.

The next week, while she clickety- clicked, I noticed the poster was gone. Someo ne had taken it down.

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