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It takes over the neighbourhood girls every spring, once the ground is thawed and the grass is greening up. At my daughter's school, I see Grade 3 girls consumed by it on the baseball outfield, ignoring their phys ed teacher's cries of, "Come on! Focus!" There's my neighbour's daughter in its grip on her front lawn, her friends cheering her on.

It's a compulsion that pops up each year with the sunny reliability of daffodils, a primitive need that starts deep inside these girls and shoots straight out their limbs until they can't contain it another moment: the Cartwheel Imperative.

I can't do cartwheels. Never could. Believe me, I've tried. This isn't an issue most of the year, but come spring I am surrounded by the rotating reminders of this particular inadequacy. And it's not just young girls reminding me.

Chatting with a friend as we waited for our kids to get out of school one glorious day, I mentioned this annual outburst of cartwheels. Because my friend is also in her 40s and also a mother, with all the attendant effects of gravity that motherhood and age impose on a body, and because the newly warm weather made me feel all open and ready to share, I admitted, "You know, I still can't do cartwheels."


Without a word, she flung her hands in the air, lifted one foot off the ground in that classic, pre-launch pose, and - ally-ally-oop - over-and-upped herself through a slightly jiggly but still decent cartwheel.

"I can," she said. Redundantly.

"Wow. That's super," I muttered.

That's the thing about cartwheeling girls, no matter what the age: Because they can do it, they can't not do it, given the chance. The Cartwheel Imperative never dies. Meanwhile, we non-cartwheelers are stuck on the sidelines, capable only of thinking about cartwheels.

Why is it some of us can do them and some of us can't? Arm strength? The location of our centre of gravity? Persistence? Probably all three. More importantly, what is it about doing cartwheels that is so compelling? Is it the sense of freedom? The sense of fun? The sense of superiority?

My daughter discovered this less-than-sunny aspect of girls and cartwheels when she was in Grade 1 and found herself in the non-cartwheeling category at recess. Categories are important to girls. There are the skipping girls or the girls who play tag, the girls who make homes for caterpillars or the girls who stand around talking about High School Musical. (And, years later, the fortysomething girls who make conversation about cartwheels or the fortysomething girls who feel compelled to do cartwheels in front of them.)

Category status can change from one day to the next, but my daughter had quickly learned one eternal truth: Cartwheeling-girl status is always coveted. It didn't matter to her that she could talk circles around her friends; come recess, cartwheels were the circles that counted.

So, with a six-year-old's steely determination, she worked at becoming a cartwheeling girl. On stretches of lawn, in a friend's large living room, down a quiet grocery store aisle, she honed her technique. The hands go down here, push off right now, suck in that tummy, land one foot, then the other, not both feet at once, hands up in the air … ta-da!

My daughter literally turned herself into a girl who could cartwheel. And every spring since then, the Imperative takes over her body. I'm happy for her, I really am. I just hope she won't be lording it over some poor, cartwheel-challenged friend decades from now.

I'm probably over-thinking this. I should just make my peace with never having achieved cartwheeling status. Maybe I need to grow up and realize that it's not about feeling superior, not even to the Grade 1 girls. Maybe a cartwheel is just what a happy, healthy girl has to do when presented with the perfect triad of energy, a flat surface and a patch of unstructured time. Maybe.

If I could just do the damn things, I could test this out. I could stop thinking about them, and feel for myself what it's like to briefly go through the world with my hands and feet describing a perfect, imaginary circle in the air - like that Leonardo da Vinci drawing of the proportions of man.

I wonder - did Leonardo ever do a cartwheel? Does it matter if he didn't? Would he have spent time dwelling on his failure? I doubt it. He dwelled on the wonders and subtleties of the human body, how we fit into the world around us, even as we strive to transcend our all-too-human limitations.

Looking at things this way, I can see that every human body can describe a circle, every spring has the promise of a new beginning and every attempted cartwheel has the potential to be the perfect cartwheel. That's why cartwheeling girls have to cartwheel: They feel, deep inside themselves, the possibility of perfection. Maybe it's why any of us do anything over and over again.

Patricia McCowan lives in Toronto.

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