Dancing with Horses

Image courtesy http://www.sylvia-zerbini.com/

Image courtesy http://www.sylvia-zerbini.com/

Aside from a ginormous collection of plastic Breyer horses–thanks to a grandpa and an uncle in the toy business–I’ve never been much of a horse girl. Not that I don’t find them beautiful, but I was never one of those girls who begged their daddies for a pony. The horse phase that many of my friends went through pretty much clip clopped right by me.

But after seeing Sylvia Zerbini in action last week, I think I finally get it!

I watched in amazement as Sylvia–a lithe blonde who could easily rock a mermaid costume–single-handedly controlled nine Arabian horses, her whispers and gestures conducting them in an amazingly synchronized dance. They would gallop in circles, then divide into smaller groups, then come together once again like the a drill team. They did incredibly complex routines of trotting, cantering, turns and pivots that would be difficult on two legs, let alone four. At one point they actually did a marching line formation that could rival the Rockettes. It was truly one of the most astounding things I’ve ever seen.

I have no idea how she does it, but this one act alone, called “Grande Liberte,” is more than enough for me to recommend that all of those horse-crazed girls (and their moms and their dads and their brothers) make it a point to go down and catch “Cavalia” if they can.

The show, developed by Cirque du Soleil creator Normand Latourelle, is under a big top in Burbank till mid-February. And when I say big top I mean big: it’s reputed to be the largest in North America at 110 feet tall, with more than 71,000 square feet of canvas and seating for 2,300.

But even more impressive are the 49 horses in the show, representing 13 different breeds. Like I said, I’m not a horse girl, but these beautiful animals are artists, and Latourelle has said he built the show around their personalities, so each show is different.

Of course, the human performers are impressive as well, 37 of them, mostly acrobats and equestrians, leaping and dancing and strutting around in the same kind of dazzling, dreamlike and just plain weird display of showmanship that I’ve come to expect from a Cirque show.

“Cavalia” begins simply with two foals (rescue horses) frolicking across the 160 foot long stage, but it quickly becomes big and eventually becomes huge, with epic themes ranging from ancient Rome to the Arab souk to the American wild west. All the while, the rider-acrobats make it look like it’s easy to do a flip on horseback or a sideways handstand on an animal running at full speed.

I don’t quite know how they do it, but this unbridled display of horseplay is definitely a whole lot of fun.

Cavalia runs through February 15 in Burbank. For tickets and information visit www.cavalia.net.

When Leslie’s not out horsing around she’s usually at work on her computer and can be reached at Leslie@LeslieDinaberg.com. For more columns visit www.LeslieDinaberg.com. Originally published in the Santa Barbara Daily Sound on January 28, 2011.

How I Lost My Virgo

Virgo by Salvatore Vuono, FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Virgo by Salvatore Vuono, FreeDigitalPhotos.net

I have never really put much faith in astrology and haven’t read my horoscope on a regular basis in years. Still, I’ve always taken a certain pride in being a Virgo. With the beautiful symbol of virginal purity, “Virgos are intellectuals who were born to help others. They are humane and loyal in their jobs and personal lives, preferring calmness and order in life.”

Sounds just like me, right?

Not that I believe that being born under a certain star configuration has influenced my personality in any way. But I’ve always liked the description of Virgo character traits–loyalty, devotion, and feminine charms–figuring if the shoe fits, I may as well squeeze my toes in, alongside fellow Virgos Greta Garbo, Sophia Lauren, Ingrid Bergman and Lauren Bacall.

And now a guy named Parke Kunkle from the Minnesota Planetarium Society has taken my Virgo-ness away from me. He didn’t even buy me dinner first! And now to further insult my virtue, they’re bringing this Ophiuchus character into the mix. That is way too wild for my Virgo sensibilities.

Yet somehow I went to bed a Virgo on Sunday night and woke up a Leo on Monday morning. If I actually believed in horoscopes and all of that stuff, then I’d sure have a lot of rethinking to do.

Not that there’s anything wrong with Leo’s, DiCaprio or otherwise. These “overly creative and energetic lions command everyone’s attention. Brimming with self-confidence, their zeal for life is unmistakable. Leos enjoy taking center stage with a warm, inviting attitude.” My son is a Leo, or at least he used to be. He’s definitely more lion-like than I am, though. I’d love to be brimming with self-confidence and zeal for life.

In fact this whole go-to-bed-a-Virgo-wake-up-a-Leo thing has thrown my self-confidence for a loop. Now that I’ve been deVirgo-ized, I know how Pluto must have felt when it got de-planet-ized.

If I chose a career based on my Zodiac sign, does that mean I’d have to find something Leo-like to do now? And what if all of those “lucky lottery numbers” had actually been lucky for me-but I played the wrong Zodiac sign? I would have to rethink my whole investment strategy.

Wow. What if believing we were astrologically compatible I had married the wrong guy? And what if I had a Virgo tattoo, would I have to have it removed or somehow redrawn into a lion? Are sapphires no longer my birthstone, and do I have to give up my favorite blue earrings?

There must be something we can do to fight this. The Koreans are in my corner. The Korea Astronomy and Space Science Institute released a statement that “the International Astronomical Union, an internationally recognized body regarding astronomical matters, hasn’t made an official announcement on the change of zodiac signs,” with their representative Sul Ah-chim adding that if such a change were to happen, “the decision should be made by the official body.”

Apparently Kunkle fumbled this one.

So, at least for now, Ophiuchus can suck it. I’ll remain a Virgo, even if it’s just in my own mind. Plus I just read another news report that said the new astrology chart is only applicable for people who were born after 2009. I guess that means I’m a Virgo for life!

When Leslie’s not choosing which horoscope to read or ignore, she can be reached at Leslie@LeslieDinaberg.com. Her columns run every Friday in the Santa Barbara Daily Sound. For more columns visit www.LeslieDinaberg.com. Originally published in the Santa Barbara Daily Sound on January 21, 2011.

The Race to Less Homework

RaceToNowhere_27x40_0711Like many people I spoke to in the audience, I was both dreading and looking forward to seeing Race to Nowhere, a documentary about the impact of undue academic pressures, which was presented by the Orfalea Foundation and UCSB Arts & Lectures last weekend.

Mostly I was worried that watching the movie would become–ironically enough–a homework project for ME in that I feared that its depiction of the negative effects of too much homework and too much pressure to do well in school might motivate ME to want to take on the Sisyphean task of trying to change our educational system.

It’s not exactly a feel good movie, but it certainly is an effective one.

The movie did make me want to do something.

Directed by concerned mother Vicki Abeles, “Race to Nowhere” paints a scary story where cheating has become commonplace, students are disengaged from what they are supposed to be learning, stress-related illness and depression are rampant, and many young people arrive at college and the workplace unprepared and uninspired.

Plus, as one high school girl points out in the movie, “we live in a society today where you have to be smart, but also pretty, and also you have to do sports, and you have to be involved in art, and you have to find something unique about yourself. And you have to know yourself, because if you don’t know yourself then you’re going to lose yourself.”

Aurgh! Is it any wonder that, as Dr. Madeline Levine, a psychologist and expert on student stress who was in the movie and participated on the panel afterward, says, “20% of high school kids have major stress diagnosis or an anxiety disorder of some kind.”

They’ve spent their entire childhoods building their resumes.

It seems so overwhelming.

A lot of the challenges pointed out in the film–the federally mandated No Child Left Behind requirements; the emphasis on testing; too many students “qualified” for top universities and not enough spots available; global economic competition–are just too huge to even think about trying to overcome as a lone parent, but there is one issue that actually seems surmountable, even by little ol’ me.


Despite the fact that, as friends with older kids taking AP classes remind me, our sixth grade son is “just getting started” on the homework treadmill, our entire household spends a ridiculous amount of time talking about homework, negotiating about homework, whining about homework and even crying about homework.

Yes, I am the one who usually cries about homework and does a little happy dance on the rare nights when he doesn’t have any. It’s painful and quite frankly we’d all be a lot happier if there were less of it.

Our son’s homework, with the exception of reading and studying for tests, is overwhelmingly full of busywork. Coloring endless pages of a “keepsake” book from a field trip is not a good use of the wee hours of the night, in my opinion. Coloring is supposed to be fun, right? Even the so-called “fun” projects like creating dioramas, board games or giant posters usually involve multiple trips to the crafts store searching for expensive supplies to create projects that require way too much parent participation and take way too much time.

Plus, when you look into the academic research about homework, there’s very little to support it, especially for younger children. According to the movie, there’s no correlation between homework and academic achievement in elementary school, and the correlation flatlines after two hours of high school homework.

“Kids are developing more school-related stomachaches, headaches, sleep problems, and depression than ever before,” writes William Crain, a professor of psychology and author of “Reclaiming Childhood: Letting Children Be Children in Our Achievement-Oriented Society.” “We’re seeing kids who are burned out by fourth grade. Soon, it will be by second grade.”

The other thing too much homework does is cut into kids’ time for physical activity (even though we’re worried about childhood obesity), as well as family time and even household chores. How can we teach our son to be a responsible member of our household (let alone society) when he doesn’t have time to do the friggin dishes?

Among the suggestions for parents at the end of the movie are to “reduce performance pressure” and “allow time for play, family, friends, downtime, reflection and sleep.” Those sound like do-able ideas to me. But can you help us out here, teachers? How about a little less homework.

When Leslie’s not clenching her teeth over her son’s homework, she’s usually home doing work of her own. She can be reached at Leslie@LeslieDinaberg.com. For more columns visit www.LeslieDinaberg.com. Originally published in the Santa Barbara Daily Sound on January 14, 2011.

Ode to the Wii

Boy Playing Videogame by imagerymajestic, freedigitalphotos.net

Boy Playing Videogame by imagerymajestic, freedigitalphotos.net

Thank you Nintendo. Wow–those are three words I never thought I’d say in a million years.

Until rather recently we were a family of Luddites when it came to gaming devices. No DS, no Playstations, no Game Boys, no Xbox 360’s at our house, as our son frequently reminded us. It got so bad that he would introduce himself to strangers by saying, “Hi, my name Koss. I don’t have any brothers and sisters, I don’t have any pets and I don’t have any electronic toys.”

Yes, for a long time our child was pitifully deprived of all that stuff.

When he dared to complain of boredom, we’d mock him mercilessly, then tell him to go read a book, play basketball, ride a bike, bounce on a pogo stick. Video games were a no-no at our house. We just didn’t go there.

I’ve got to admit, I felt a little teensy bit of parental superiority about it. Maybe not quite the same level of superiority that people who never give their kids fast food feel, and definitely not reaching the level of parental purity that those people with “Kill Your TV” bumper stickers feel, but still, I was kind of proud that we hadn’t given in on this particular issue.

My husband, a longtime fan of computer games, was also happy not to have a gaming machine in the house. Although, his thinking went more along the lines of, “Don’t give me a gun, I don’t want to have to kill again.”

Then came the summer of his tenth birthday when the boy had saved up enough money to buy a Wii.


He had prepared a 23-slide Power Point presentation on why he should be able to purchase the toy. (Yes, we let him use the computer. I said we were Gaming Device Luddites, not Amish!) He argued that it had lots of non-violent game options, that playing the Wii involved getting off the couch and actively moving, that he would strictly follow whatever time restrictions we gave him for the game, and that he had his own money saved up and this was what he “pretty please with sugar on top” wanted to buy with it.

So we caved. And it was a lot cheaper than getting him a baby sister or an iguana.

Koss was completely addicted to the Wii for about five minutes. Then he got into a new series of fantasy books and forgot all about it for couple of months.

Then one day, it rained. And rather than jump on the furniture or play “vaseball” with the last of my wedding crystal, we brought out the Wii. Whee! Now we have a Wii, the perfect toy for a rainy day.

And whee, let me tell you, every single time it rains I do a little happy dance for the Wii.

Since it’s mostly sunny, Santa Barbara just isn’t very well equipped for rainy days. When you coop 75 pounds of pre-teen energy into a very small house for too long eventually something’s got to give–usually it’s my sanity. Let’s face it; no matter how hard you work to civilize them, boys are wired for action. Thank goodness, now they’re also wired for Wii. While it rains outside, kids can still work up a sweat without catching pneumonia.

And I know this isn’t the case with every kid, but thankfully, as much as we have come to love the Wii, Koss would still rather play outside when he can. Whee, I love that Wii.

Share your thoughts on video gaming with Leslie@LeslieDinaberg.com. For more columns visit www.LeslieDinaberg.com. Originally published in the Santa Barbara Daily Sound on January 7, 2011.