Back Flips Off of the Sofa, Daredevil Stunts, and Childhood Dance Shows: The Story of Ella, the Gang, and the Merits of Free-Range Parenting

Somewhere in my family’s deep video archive, there is quite a bit of video footage from the “dance shows” I used to direct as a young child. We staged around two or three a year, but I’m going to focus on what was probably our most ridiculous performance.

From left to right: Lee (age 6), Pippa (my sister, age 7), Zach (Lee’s brother, age 10), me (age 9), and Joseph (age 7)

(Don’t worry, Lee’s arm isn’t broken or deformed. She’s just double-jointed in her elbows and wrists.)

As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, Mary Queen of Scots’ Beheading, The Commodores’ “Brick House,” and Other Odd Things My Parents Exposed Me To, Pippa and I did not live in a house that celebrated pop music, specifically of the Disney Channel stars variety. So we made up for this deficit by listening to the Now That’s What I Call Music! compilations at Joseph’s house where his sister had them all.

Joseph’s sister was also a nationally ranked gymnast, and they had a huge playroom filled with balance beams, tumbling mats, exercise machines, and mini trampolines. We LOVED that room. Mostly, it was because it had two high-speed computers (well 2003 high-speed) that we could play on in one-hour long intervals and because we were allowed to roughhouse and climb on everything. (One of these days I’ll write about a game we called “Gladiators” and our very odd way of playing computer games that involved much more imagination and make-believe than actual gaming.)

When we first began working on our shows, they’d be performed in the living room while we hopped about in a very uncoordinated manner for close to an hour while all of the onlookers we had managed to coerce pretended to be impressed. But this time, this time, we had decided that our performance was going to be epic. We were going to pull out all of the stops, and it was going to require the playroom and its wealth of gymnastics equipment.

After much discussion and argument, many declarations of “I hate you, and I’m never going to talk to you in a million years,” and a very surprising amount of quitting only to return fifteen minutes and beg for reentry to the group, we chose four (I think) songs. I’ve put the links to their music videos below.

We clearly had “excellent” taste.

Then, the “choreography” began. And I’ve put choreography in quotes for a reason, because the extent of planning that went into the dance pretty much only extended to the opening and closing poses and first and last twenty seconds of the song. Also, we weren’t doing too much actual dancing. You see, we wanted the basement playroom and all of its gymnastics glory because we had recently discovered how to do flips and flying leaps from an eight-inch wide window ledge about two and half feet down from the ceiling onto the couch and from there onto the mats or one of the trampolines. For a while, the sit-up machine and the stationary bike were weirdly involved, but once we discovered that we could also pile up the cushions from all of the other furniture in the house and use it as an even cushier landing pit, we ditched them for even more daredevil stunts.

(I’m very proud and relieved to report that in all of our years of dangerous activities, the only bad injuries that were sustained were Lee’s broken collar bone when she stood too close to the swingset while we were swinging, cuts on Joseph’s leg when he kicked his foot through a glass door, Pippa’s badly cut eyebrow when I accidentally bucked her off of my back while we were playing “horsie,” and Beth’s sprained ankle when she got pushed down the stairs headfirst while completely trapped in a sleeping bag. Zach also badly broke his arm while riding on a defective scooter, but that doesn’t really count because he was wearing pads and the scooter broke, causing the fall.)

But because I had recently been Annie in my class’ abridged production of the musical, I had decided that we also needed to perform a song we were going to sing entirely by ourselves. I held a long audition process, only to cast myself as Annie. Pippa was Molly, Lee was Kate, and Joseph was Pepper, who I managed to convince him was a boy (Note: Joseph had seen the movie before, so this “convincing” must have either involved very carefully crafted persuasion, threats, or brain-washing. I suspect a mélange of the three.). While we did sing it a cappella and pretend to clean, and there was actually a set in stone series of moves we did, there were also a copious amount of flying leaps and flips from the ledge, trampoline, and sofa, which, you know, is totally in the spirit of a musical set in the Great Depression.

Additionally, we would frequently get into arguments in the middle of our routines when we would crash into each other or want to do moves that someone else didn’t like or want to do them at the same time. I’m pretty sure that the whole point of our “dancing” was to one up each other and get as close to breaking our necks as possible without becoming paraplegics or requiring trips to the hospital. Joseph was by far the biggest ham.

While we did know the lyrics and would sing along, the music would always end up being too loud and drowning us out. Besides, by the end of the song, we would be so out of breath that the actual singing would have been atrocious, anyway.

On the day of our performance, we created some “awesome” costumes. I wore—and I kid you not—teal and puce horizontal striped bellbottoms with flower appliqués and a matching teal and puce horizontal striped shirt with a purple bow at the neck. And—get this—I thought I looked incredibly “cool.” (Oh, Ella of yesteryear, how you’ve since changed.) Joseph’s sister also did our makeup, Joseph was included in this, amusingly, and we were plastered with sparkly powders. For the final touch, we also stuck smiley-face stickers on our ears and cheeks. There are pictures of this somewhere, but I suspect that Joseph’s parents have them back in D.C. Otherwise, I would have a full slideshow of the shots.

From the get-go, Zach had refused to have anything to do with our dancing and had instead been relegated to the roll of D.J. where he terrified many by testing how loud the speakers would go and got fired numerous times by us for not being able to play the right song. He was always hired back the next day with a, “you can’t do it again or it’s going to be for real this time, okay? And we won’t talk to you for two million years.”

On the night of the performance, we invited everyone in the neighborhood to come and then sold the contents of Joseph’s parent’s pantry at our “bake sale” at intermission. I believed we also signed autographs and charged admission.

The next day we spent at Lee’s house singing the Battle Hymn of the Republic while marching around the house with musical instruments and practiced our skating routine (also known as shoving all of the furniture to the edge of the room, rolling up the rug, and sliding around in leotards and tights or socks and shorts) to Paul Simon’s album, Graceland.

A few years later, when I was twelve, I began writing plays, using the songs from various musicals, for us to perform. Beth’s parents built a huge wooden stage/playhouse in their backyard, and we would perform them there. Unsurprisingly, the increased quality of our performances drew more audience members and the Southhampton Players (I gave us the name by pointing my finger at a map of England after having read a book about Shakespeare and The Globe Theatre. My understanding of how theatre companies were actually named was more than a little off the mark.) had a healthy two year long run.

The best part about all of these mostly goofy and bad productions of ours was that we were given free reign and a copious amount of encouragement to do them. If we wanted to make a backdrop, some adult would supply us with the paper and paint and let us cover the porch with newspaper while we painted. If we needed assistance assembling mats, someone would help us move them. And we were only rarely stopped from doing risky stunts. I can recall leaping off of the back deck onto the trampoline was vetoed, as it would have been a drop of about twenty feet, and playing with spears was also off limits, but that was almost the extent of our restrictions. As long as no one got hurt—emotionally or physically—and you were home for supper, you were in the all clear.

And I think that this is the way that childhood should be lived. You have so long to act in almost reckless abandon without societal conventions holding you back. Now, as much as I would sometimes like to, I can’t spend large portions of my time practicing my bannister sliding abilities (They are very superior, let me assure you.). I’m eighteen, an honest to goodness legal adult, who is expected to be calm and composed and not to wear crazy outfits and do flips off of ledges, sofas, and trampolines while listening to pop from the early 2000s.

There is also a great deal to be said about “free-range” parenting, which is what all the parents on our street practiced long before it became a thing. We kids had a lot of of confidence to do new things, solve our own problems, and to entertain ourselves without adult intervention, organized activities, or tvs or computers. In fact, I didn’t regularly use a computer until I was thirteen. But starting when Zach and I were eight, we were allowed to walk over a mile, across three busy avenues, to eat lunch and ice cream by ourselves, as long as we came back before dark and didn’t talk to strangers. We didn’t even have cell phones, and we lived in a city. We went for bike rides in Rock Creek Park and played in creeks and in huge piles of mulch, and no one batted an eye. We would even go grocery shopping for our mothers by dragging a red metal Radio Flyer Wagon along that one-mile route. And unless we were going some place in public or it was freezing, we could wear whatever we wanted (I once wore a very fancy velvet dress to a playdate, and another party dress when running around the block.) and didn’t even have to put on shoes (though as I later learned, just because you could leave the house without them, didn’t mean that you should, especially when going exploring in construction sites. But that’s another story for another day.).

We were allowed to be ourselves and didn’t have our parents’ anxieties projected on us, as they tried to mold us into what they viewed as the perfect child, the way so many kids are today. And you know what? The whole lot of us has turned out pretty well. Lee is in a private school and riding competitively, Joseph is very passionate about music, Pippa is at a prestigious prep school, Zach and Soccer Boy are off at excellent universities, and I’m doing an extraordinary amount of writing during my gap-year. We’re very well adjusted and (I’d like to think) interesting individuals.

If there’s anything that you should get out of this story, besides some entertainment (which I hope I’ve provided), it’s that you should let your kids have freedom and independence, and encourage all of their crazy ideas, as long as they are, of course, non-life threatening. Have a little faith. They’ll still live if you aren’t always within hearing or seeing distance. Falling down teaches you not to do what you just did or to do it more carefully. Kids have a surprising ability to work things out for themselves and invent their own, happy worlds. You just have to let them have the opportunity to do it.

I’d love to know if you are finding these story-telling post interesting, and if there is anything you’re interested in reading about.

Tomorrow, I plan on live blogging my day, because, guys, what could seriously be more fascinating than knowing what I’m doing every single second. I mean, you’ll finally get to know how much time I spend staring at the wall daydreaming when I’m supposed to be focussed on working. Also, I’ll have to be truly accountable for all of my actions, like I’m probably going to have to cut back on non-essential research. But don’t worry, it won’t read like a schedule, I’m going to offer you all sorts of stunning INSIGHT and tell ENGROSSING stories. It’ll be like me yammering away all day into your right ear. I’ll be that kid you had to sit next to in third grade who just wouldn’t shut up, only I’ll be a gazillion times better and more interesting.

For the month, you can find me updating my word count on NaNoWriMo here. (I need to do it more regularly so that it doesn’t become flat for a few days, only to receive an enormous spike, indicating that I somehow magically wrote about twelve thousand words in one day.)

And as always, you can also find me on tumblr at, if, you know, you’re into that kind of thing.