Who would have thought that one of the many surprising experiences I would have as the father of two daughters would be a career as a giant cross-dressing ballet “dancer”?
For the last 20 years I have played Mother Ginger, a 10-foot-tall woman with a dress the size of a small car in Jose Mateo Ballet Theatre’s presentation of “The Nutcracker.” One dozen little ballerinas (ages 7-10) hide inside my huge skirt as I ferry them to center stage, where they burst forth to dance.
It all started innocently enough.
In 1996, after my daughter was accepted into the cast of “The Nutcracker,” I decided not to be just another “taxicab dad” shuttling my daughter to and from rehearsals and shows. I wanted to be part of my daughter’s experience with her.
So I volunteered to be a “Stage Door Dad,” checking girls in and out of the theater. One day, another volunteer dad — a big, strapping former ballplayer — asked if I had ever walked on stilts. “Uh, no,” I replied. “The thought never occurred to me.”
He said that wasn’t a problem. Neither had he, until recently.
“Why?” I asked.
“I’m Mother Ginger,” he said. “And we need another one.” Mother Ginger is the oversize character who shuffles onstage with 12 little dancers dressed as clowns or “Polichinelles.”
Despite having absolutely no innate sense of balance, I unfathomably said “OK.”
After months of practicing on the stilts in my high-ceilinged living room, I was still a wobbly stilt-walker. Opening night arrived much too quickly. Nonetheless, I had no choice but to “suit up” and make my debut as a gigantic cross-dresser.
It was a sweaty, unstable performance.
But no one died. I did not fall. I did not step on any of the teeny dancers’ toes. We got on and off the stage without incident, though I was soaked in sweat and had rubber for leg muscles.
All in all, I thought, a victory, and I was pretty proud of myself.
Not for long.
Waiting outside the stage door was a committee of the mothers of my 12 young ballerinas. They all seemed to snarl in unison: “Have you ever walked on stilts before?!” (It was probably just one mother asking the question, but the others clearly shared her disbelief and concern.)
I was stunned. I told them I had been practicing for months, but, yes, this had been my first show. “Looked like it,” came the answer. “You need a lot more practice.” They then hustled their precious daughters away from this dangerous person.
It’s gotten a lot better since then.
And it’s become about a lot more than the performance; now it’s about the performance and building the self-esteem and confidence of my little ballerinas (and having a lot of fun in the process).
I approach rehearsals and performances like a coach. Twenty years ago, I created a program to build girls’ soccer skills and self-esteem (Hot Shots Soccer in Marshfield), and I bring that drive for individual excellence and teamwork to the ballet.
Before performances, I gather the young dancers together to get them pumped up and assure them that if they try their hardest and do their best, they’ll be great! Afterward, we exchange high fives and celebrate another great show.
Most importantly, I make my ballerinas feel like they are part of something special, something that they’ve earned, something that they can be proud of. Every night.
In the end, it is, for them and for me, about sharing an exciting, exacting, difficult, funny, joyous experience with an audience and with one another.
Along the way, my daughters and I were blessed with years of memory-making — watching one another perform, sharing critiques (“Daddy, your powder puff looks fake!”), sharing adventures exploring nighttime Boston, and sharing the joys, disappointments, and camaraderie that come with being part of an artistic team.
On Dec. 18, I am hanging up my stilts after more than 200 shows shepherding a total of more than 240 young ballerinas onstage to delight our Christmastime audiences.
My annual transformation into a 10-foot-tall woman has been something I will treasure. But now I’ll have more time to be with my two grown (former “Nutcracker” dancer) daughters.
Nonetheless, when next December rolls around, I’ll really miss dressing in drag again.
Presented by José Mateo Ballet Theatre. At the Strand Theatre, through Dec. 18. 617-354-7467, www.ballettheatre.org
John Wilpers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.