She turns thirteen today. She dances at San Francisco Ballet School’s Summer Intensive programs this summer. It was just two years ago that she had auditioned for the Swedish Royal Ballet’s dance school, only to be rejected at the last stage of the week-long audition. It was just two years ago that I remember waking up at 2 am that night, and hearing her quietly crying in the bathroom. Last week, when she received the letter from the San Francisco Ballet, inviting her to come and train in the Summer Intensive Program, Sofia completed a journey that began in painful disappointment. This summer is no ordinary summer. For this 13-year old, this invitation letter was not just to another Summer Intensive program, but a confirmation that hard work, a refusal to accept the judgement of others, and a determination to become what she dreamed about, was the only way to face the dance world.
Two years ago she came up to me, her iPad in her hand, and quietly asked if she could audition for the Swedish Royal Ballet. I remember that evening well – it was a typically warm December night in Kigali, Rwanda where we had lived, and where Sofia had started to take ballet seriously. Her love of classical ballet was recent – she had signed up at a local dance school run by an American woman living in Kigali. It was to keep her entertained for a couple of hours after school, but it soon turned into something far more than mere entertainment. Caroline Joan Peixoto, a young ballet dancer from New Jersey, had arrived in Kigali some years earlier and opened a dance school for young kids. When I dropped off Sofia at the school for the first time, I remember noticing Caroline – petite, beautiful, a lithe dancer’s figure, a typically American self-confidence, and an air of invincibility that I thought would be great influence on Sofia. Within weeks, she and Sofia had found a bond that went beyond that of a dance instructor and student – Caroline discovered and inspired something in Sofia during the two years they worked on ballet together. If Sofia is fighting her way into classical ballet, it is really only because of the passion for dance, and the love of movement, that Caroline was able to imbue in her. It was Caroline who also convinced her to sum up the courage to consider auditioning for the best ballet school in Sweden.
It was a six-day audition, with students put through the paces in the afternoon, and the families receiving a call later the same day to tell them to either bring their child back the following morning for the next stage, or offering an apology and wishing them good luck with other schools. We had expected Sofia to perhaps make it through the first couple of days, but did not expect her to do more. After all, she studied at an amateur ballet school in Rwanda, but was now competing for a place against young girls from pre-professional schools in Sweden and elsewhere in Europe. We had made plans to keep us busy for the week should Sofia not make it past the first few stages. But to our excitement and surprise, she kept making it through the stages. So much so that she fought her way to the final stage, held on a Sunday afternoon, and stood proudly with 15 other girls for the 12 places available at the school.
She did not make it through the last stage.
That moment was the start of yet another new journey. As I listened to Sofia crying in the bathroom that night, I knew that something had changed. I also knew that I was the father of a talented child, and that I had mostly missed this fact. I realised that what had to happen now was that she had to spend more time at more serious programs, and see if her talent was something more than just that. To see if she had the discipline and the ability to move from talent to technique. I remember opening the door to the bathroom, and gently taking this 10-year old into my arms and promising her that the following summer we would be in New York, and that she would dance with serious ballet companies there. I think she was surprised to hear my plan, but it gave her courage and encouragement. I remember her nodding her head, as if telling me that she was ready, that she just needed to work harder, and that she needed our help in doing that. I remember telling her how she had opened my eyes, about how proud I was of her, about how amazed and impressed I was at what she had single-handed achieved, and how she had made me see what I had till then not seen. I told her that she was a ballerina, a dancer of beautiful grace, and that I from that day onwards, we would be in this together.
We went to New York that summer. It was 2014. She danced at the Joffrey Ballet’s summer program, and later with the amazing teachers at the Ballet Academy East. I spent my days reading, and waiting for her to return home. She emerged as a better, stronger, more disciplined and more inspired dancer. I did not get much work done that summer, but perhaps for the first time in my life, it didn’t matter.
Sofia has a long way to go. But she has come a long way from those afternoons in Kigali.
Even as she arrives in San Francisco this summer, she is only just starting. But once again, this summer will see a new dancer emerge. Once again, it will be a summer that transforms her, and redefines her as an individual, and as a dancer. She turns thirteen this month, and everything about her is changing, and at a rate that I cannot keep pace with. Each day she can surprise me – a night I see her reading Assata Shakur’s autobiography in bed, or another day when she tells me about how she challenged her teacher at school because of a flippant and derogatory comment he made about Africans, or her views on the problems with a meat diet, or the need to disband all zoos. Or the incredible focus that drives her to practice each day, and then do her stretching exercises late into the night. All this while handling high school. I never had this stamina, this focus, this clarity of passion.
I am watching the arrival of a remarkable young woman – artistic, creative, intelligent, independent, and politically aware. And a ballerina. Mahshahallah.
There are things we do in life that we never expected. I was a reluctant father. I got off to an uncertain start. There are still days when I do not know what I ought to do. Should do. But Sofia guides me well – helping me not be a patriarch, find the balance between being a friend and a father. She will speak back to me when she feels I have been unjust, and offer arguments that compel me to listen. It isn’t always smooth sailing, and I have gotten much wrong. We do fight and argue at times with tremendous stubbornness. But never without respect and love. The angry silences and brush-offs never last more than a day. There are too many exciting things to share and talk about.
And so to San Francisco. A small step for most, but I know how much it means to her. And to me. I have watched her grow, struggle, fail and overcome. I have sat with her through her doubts and fears, and days when she has wanted to just give it all up. We have gone through all of this together. And we will be together in San Francisco – father and daughter, on the next stage in this adventure. It’s just a Summer Intensive program. But it’s a transformative step for a girl who just became a woman this month.