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Dancing with Daddy


OH, DADDY, you can't spare your little girl from having her heart broken some day.

But you can make sure it doesn't happen on her first date.

If her first date is you, Daddy.

Calling it a dance wasn't enough for Carol Donovan when she started an annual father-daughter gala five years ago through the Westminster Recreation Department. She called it the Daddy-Daughter Date. An innocent take on a word that conjures anguish as easily as romance.

Under the chandeliers at Martin's Westminster the other day, the date was all romance.

Girls of 5 in patent-leather Mary Janes and young women of 14 in faille pumps danced toe-to-toe with the No. 1 men in their lives -- men they wanted to impress but didn't have to impress, men who have loved them since they first laid eyes on them.

Ask the girls why they wanted to attend, and they say how fun it is to get dressed up. Ask the fathers, and they say the same thing: The girls like to get dressed up.

But ask again and it all comes out: They don't have enough time with their daughters.

In the rain forest, there is no need for a daddy-daughter date. But the layers of our modern life build barriers between parent and child.

In a world gone wrong, it takes a structured event organized by a bureaucrat to get fathers and daughters to steal time for each other, despite the best intentions.

The couples try to make the evening last. After the dance, one father took his daughter out for doughnuts. He's retired, but he doesn't see her enough because she's the one who's busy: with school, with choir, with the distractions of a girl's world.

A man whose daughter just crossed the threshold of 13 said they talked at dinner about her summer plans, her friends, their summer plans. Everything.

He said: "We might not talk this much in a month at home."

He's savoring what he knows will soon fade, the chance to be number one in his daughter's life. Soon she'll have many dates.

"She used to be Daddy's little tomboy, and now she's a little lady," he said, but not too sadly.

The rules of the dance allow godfathers, grandfathers, uncles, even neighbors to escort girls. The rule without exception is that each man can bring only one girl. Sisters may have to share Daddy at home, but this evening is exclusive.

And as they leave each year, the father's gush: "My daughter never looked at me that way before."

It is a loving gaze that says "You and I are the most important people in the world right now." It surfaces from either side, at birth, at a first recital and other occasions both momentous and ordinary.

Mothers are not allowed at the Daddy-Daughter Date. But every year, at least one tries to sneak a look. One mother hid behind a table in the foyer, where a sympathetic woman was scheduling photo sittings.

Of course, Ms. Donovan spotted her. Moms glow neon at a father-daughter dance.

"We ask them nicely to leave," Ms. Donovan said. "We tell them it's not their night."

Well, fellow moms, I'll tell you what I saw. I saw the little girls whose dresses you helped pick out, whose hair you wrapped in a bun, glance at their fathers with the unqualified admiration that only a woman under 14 could muster.

And dads deserve that, don't they?

I saw them treating their little girls like young women. Talking about school instead of nagging them to do their homework.

I saw a little girl, maybe 5, wearing a floor-length white satin dress. A princess for a night, or maybe a little longer.

I saw one father-daughter couple who enjoyed dancing together so much that when the rules of a ballroom game forced them to leave the floor, they just walked a few feet to the sidelines to keep waltzing.

The fathers were all polite to the reporter asking them to analyze why they were there. But they were not in the mood to analyze much.

This was a night to block out all the things that can go wrong in the world, and relish the purity of a date with their little girl. A gala event that required no talk of politics or business.

I left them just as they were lining up to get ice cream at the sundae bar, men and girls both, loading their bowls with chocolate sauce and rainbow sprinkles.

Did I imagine the sigh of relief as I walked away? I must have embodied for them the consummate mom, as I stood there thinking how beautiful they were. How sweet.

Seeing in me their collective wives and moms, their faces said: "Thank you, Dear. Now please leave us alone."

Anne Haddad is a reporter for The Evening Sun.

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