Once upon a bunhead

Our youngest daughter Lizabeth, now a college sophomore in NYC, trained for many years in the Vaganova method at a dance studio that’s fastidious about proper dance attire and hair buns. Lizabeth was too young to style her own hair when she started, so James and I were quickly schooled in the ways of making a “just right” ballet bun. Neither too high nor too low on the back of the head. Perfectly smooth with no loose hairs or “whispies.” And perfectly secured to survive all those leaps and turns.

We learned all about hair nets, supersized bobby pins and the best “goop” for keeping stray hairs at bay. And for a time, Lizabeth loved it. Ballet was a perfect compliment to her inborn affinity for order and following the rules. But over time the rituals that once soothed began to feel oppressive. There’s little joy in racing to the studio after school, struggling to build the perfect bun in the backseat your car when it’s 100 degrees outside. She’s happy to be done with all that now.

Lizabeth in bunhead mode

Last night, while chatting over grilled cheese sandwiches at our favorite little neigborhood eatery, Lizabeth mentioned getting an e-mail with a passcode for watching the first episode of the new ABC Family series called “Bunheads.” Knowing it’s headlined by Tony Award®-winning actor Sutton Foster (also one of our favorite guests on “Sesame Street“), Lizabeth decided to give it a go, and her report was glowing.

Like “Gilmore Girls,” created by “Bunheads” executive producer Amy Sherman-Palladino, it’s got fast-paced dialogue full of one-liners that are funny in an elegant sort of way. And a refreshing diversity of body types not found in studios that weed out all but the slimmest sorts through benign neglect or downright cruelty. Ballet performance can be beautiful, but sometimes getting there isn’t all that pretty.

I watched the first episode late last night after Lizabeth sent me the link, and enjoyed it enough to tune in when the series premieres on June 11. “Bunheads” has an implausible backstory that’s central to setting up the show, so I’m hoping for a bit more realism in future episodes. Still, I was amused watching the Vegas showgirl at the heart of the story leave everything but the clothes on her back in the rear view mirror. How she’ll fare without all those ostrich feathers remains to be seen.

After trading “Sin City” for the sleepy coastal town of Paradise, Foster explores her new digs — backing into a Buddhist shrine and eliciting this line: “Mother’s a Buddhist.” Soon she’s getting a good dose of local fashion sense from a store called Sparkles, and meeting a town full of strangers convinced she’s a pole dancer likely to jump atop a table for a good booty shake at any moment. Instead, she stumbled onto the local dance studio — filled with teens battling for “best of show” in a competition that’s all in their heads.

Seems Michelle trained at American Ballet Theatre, while her new mother-in-law Fanny — who owns the dance studio — danced with Ballet Russes. How they traveled from prestigous to podunk, and the ways they live with their decisions, may prove the most intriguing element of the show for those of us old enough to have long ago left certain dreams behind us.

Coupling that story arc with the adventues of wanna-be dancers too young to appreciate the full measure of sacrifice dance demands, will make for compelling drama. And earn the show a loyal audience of both younger and older women. Whether and how the show will appeal to male viewers remains to be seen. But its clearly one of those rare pieces of television that mothers and daughters can enjoy together.

Unlike other dance shows, “Bunheads” may offer a genuine glimpse into the world of professional dance. My favorite scene in the first episode has Michelle, still reeling from an audition gone horribly wrong in Vegas, schooling girls at the Paradise dance studio in the ways of trying out for summer dance programs. While taking them through a mock audition, Michelle teaches them that attitude can be every bit as important as technique.

The audition scene reveals much about each girl’s personality. One feels insecure. Another is apathetic. And the worst attitude belongs to the girl who’s convinced she’s got the most talent. Time will tell, as it does in the real world, whether any of the dancers truly have what it takes — physically, mentally and emotionally — to leave the comfort of their small town studio for the bigger world of bunheads.

— Lynn

Note: Click here to learn more about this year’s Tony Awards show on June 1o.

Coming up: Metal meets mischief, An “Annie” tale

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