Taking steps to fortify the father-daughter bond

Dance: Events like the one in Westminster give fathers and their daughters a chance to be together and strengthen their relationships.

June 05, 1999|By Brenda J. Buote | Brenda J. Buote,SUN STAFF

Christy Smith planned every detail weeks in advance, dreaming of her first formal dance.

She carefully selected her lavender and lace dress, the one she saves for special occasions, and chose to wear her hair in a French braid like Scarlett O'Hara's in "Gone with the Wind."

On the big day, there was only one thing left for her to do: take a nap.

She's only 7.

"I get to stay up past my bedtime," Christy said as she looked adoringly at her date -- her first sweetheart, her daddy.

Dressing up and going to Westminster's 10th annual Daddy-Daughter Dance Thursday was a treat for Christy, who usually has to share her father's affections with 3-year-old sister, Bridget. For Brad Smith, the gala was an early Father's Day present. He drove an hour from Parkton to attend one of the few such events in the Baltimore area.

"We're doing something special tonight, just the two of us," said Smith, 35. "I want her to remember this as she grows older, so my wife took photos of us at the house. We posed in the same place she'll have her prom pictures taken. I know that's a little cheesy, but an event like this doesn't come along often."

Dressed in their best suits, the men tried dance moves they had never quite perfected as youths. Their daughters didn't seem to notice or care.

"It's an opportunity that most guys just don't get because they don't know how to manufacture these opportunities for themselves," said author Will Glennon, who has written two books on fatherhood, "Two Hundred Ways to Raise a Girl's Self-Esteem" and "Fathering: Strengthening Connection With Your Children No Matter Where You Are."

The Westminster dance tradition began a decade ago with fewer than 60 couples. Over the years, it has grown to include 150, mostly by word of mouth.

The event has evolved as times have changed.

"A generation ago, fathers were more likely to retreat from their daughters. But nowadays, men are valuing their relationship with their daughters," said Cathie Gray, a psychologist who teaches at Catholic University in Washington and has been focusing on family relationships for 30 years.

Glennon said, "Guys don't usually talk about their kids. They talk cars, sports, politics. They don't touch on these feelings, which are so incredibly strong.

"That's why father-daughter dances are so precious. Most fathers don't know how to be with their daughters. This shows them a way. And though they look like big geeks -- they don't know the songs; they don't know the dances -- you'll never see a group of men who are more in love, more enjoying themselves, more happy than the men at these dances."

The rules of the dance are simple. Only godfathers, grandfathers, uncles and neighbors may escort girls, who must be in grades kindergarten through eight. Mothers are not allowed, but every year at least one tries to sneak a peek.

"I lost my mother when I was 16. I wasn't able to share my prom or first date with her. That's why I think it's so important for our daughter to do special things like this," said Jackie Case as she searched the dance floor for her husband and daughter.

She found them in a tight embrace. Tom Case was holding 7-year-old Courtney in his arms, swaying to Bette Midler's "Wind Beneath My Wings." More than a few girls were making their dancing debut this way.

The couples try to make the evening last. After the dance, one father took his daughter out for a hot fudge sundae. He's a state police sergeant who doesn't see his daughter as often as he'd like. He lives in Cumberland, she lives in Westminster.

"Before the divorce, when I saw her on a daily basis, I didn't realize how much I took for granted," said Robert Smith. "Now I try to make our time together special."

Smith has been taking his 11-year-old daughter, Samantha, to the dance since she was in kindergarten. This year, he is savoring what he knows will fade all too fast, the chance to be No. 1 in his daughter's life.

"I want to create magical moments with her that will last long after I'm gone. I want to set the standard for all her future dates," Smith said.

For a handful of the 150 girls who attended the dance at Martin's Westminster, the gala marked the last time they'll waltz with their fathers.

"Before you know it, she'll be going to her high school prom and getting married," said Russ Coldren, who escorted his 13-year-old daughter, Lindsay, to the dance. "I won't be the only man in her life anymore."

"I had to beg my daughter to let me pick her up," said Paul Dukehart, the proud father of 8-year-old Taylor. "I'm afraid that next year, she'll be too big."

Harry Sirinakis, a doting dance partner to his 8-year-old daughter Alexandra, said, "Group dancing is not my thing. I can't keep track of which way my feet are supposed to go after all the turns. But I'll do anything for one of my daughter's smiles, even make a fool of myself."

Pub Date: 6/05/99

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