ThatMomentSOUTH PORTLAND — Nia Corbett knew she wanted curls.

Sitting in her booster seat in the chair at Belissimo salon, draped in a cape with cartoon monsters, she said it was her dad’s idea, and he was her date. The stylist asked if she’d had curls done before.

“Never in my whole entire life,” the 6-year-old said.

The occasion called for something special. That night was South Portland’s 14th annual Father-Daughter Dance – and Scott and Nia Corbett’s first.

“Every day it’s a countdown. ‘Five more days, two more days, guess what I’m doing tomorrow,'” said her mother, Sasha Anastasoff.

Nia had spent the night before with her mother and 8-year-old brother, Kaiden, at their cousin’s house for a sleepover. After pancakes that morning, they went to Get Air, the indoor trampoline park in Portland, then to Kaiden’s soccer game in Redbank, where they met up with their dad.

In two cars, they all drove to the hair salon, where the others looked on as the stylist, Jamie Doucette, wrapped Nia’s dark-blond strands around a curling iron.

Slouched in an empty hairdresser’s chair in a baseball cap and jeans, Corbett shrugged at the suggestion that the hairdo was his idea, but once he saw the ringlets, he didn’t mind taking credit.

“Looks pretty darn cute,” he said, popping up to take pictures with his phone.

As Doucette set the curls with hairspray, Nia waved her hand in front of her face.

“It smells like mustard,” she said, scrunching her nose.

She’d probably need another spray before the dance, Doucette said, and asked Corbett if he had anything at home. He laughed and said they’d stop at CVS.

It was Anastasoff’s turn to have the kids that night, but for the next few hours, Nia would have her father to herself. In the parking lot of the hair salon, her mother gave her a tube of lip gloss and a kiss goodbye before taking off with her brother.

From there, the father and daughter headed straight to the pharmacy in Mill Creek for hairspray and a new barrette.

As Corbett searched the shelves, Nia bounced up and down the aisles with a lollipop from the salon in her cheek, stopping to untwist tubes of lipstick and sniff bottles of perfume.

“I swear I’ve got a 6-year-old in a 16-year-old’s mind frame,” he said with a sigh.

Surveying the hair accessories, Corbett picked up and put down a pack of colorful clips, then spotted a pair of sparkly silver barrettes.

“Check these out,” he said to Nia. “Those’ll look pretty.”

He slipped one out of the package and held it up to her hair for a second before she took off down another aisle.

ooo

Around South Portland, he’s Officer Corbett, but Nia prefers pet names, like “bozo” and “my dear.”

Corbett had been a K-9 handler working nights, but as his dog got older and a day shift opened up, he took it so he could spend more time with his kids. Harley, his furry colleague, retired into household pethood.

“He’s my buddy,” Nia said, stroking the back of the all-black shepherd who’s twice her size.

Harley is one of the reasons Nia likes being at her dad’s house. That and playing video games and soccer with their neighbors up the street. She doesn’t like how early her bedtime is.

“7:39,” she said. Her father rolled his eyes and shook his head. Smiling, she admitted adding the “nine.”

Nia doesn’t have a favorite color – she loves pink and purple equally. Same goes for her feelings about her brother, whom she likes “half yes, half no.”

They spend the same number of nights with their father and their mother in Westbrook, but because they go to Brown Elementary School in South Portland, the bus comes to his house.

When they get on the bus in the morning, Corbett is already patrolling the city, so his mother – their Mimi – comes over to help. But that means he’s almost always back when they get home in the afternoon.

“I get to see them every day,” he said.

Rarely, however, does he get one-on-one time with his daughter.

He let Nia pick a place to get dinner before the dance. Her first suggestion was McDonald’s, but they compromised on Sebago Brewing Company near the mall.

In order to get through the meal and to the dance on time, they started getting ready around 4 p.m. – leaving leeway for her to have a meltdown when her barrette came out and for him to watch YouTube videos on how to tie a tie.

“I obviously just wear a uniform,” he said as Nia – already dressed in her pleated pink skirt with a white cardigan and matching tights – searched for videos on his tablet and even tried tying the tie around her own neck.

Corbett gave it one last shot in front of the mirror. It wasn’t long enough.

“I can’t win, can I, Nia?” he said and decided it would have to do.

He put on his suit coat, buttoned it up and turned toward his date, who was belly-down on his bedroom floor.

“How’s this?” he said, spreading his arms to show off his suit. “Does this work?”

She hopped up, slipped her lip gloss into the inside pocket of his jacket and smoothed over the lapel.

“You look perfect,” she said, then darted off toward the stairs. “Let’s go!”

ooo

At dinner before the dance, Nia barely ate any of her hamburger and fries, and as soon as Corbett said it was about time to leave, she was standing next to the table with her coat on.

It was still light out when the fathers and daughters – some with one on each arm – started arriving at the South Portland Recreation Center.

This year’s theme was “Paris in Spring.” In a room to the right of the entrance, along with tables of cupcakes and candy, chest-high cardboard cutouts of gemstone-studded letters spelled out the French capital.

A line formed by the food long before the gym started filling up with dads in ties and the girls, who quickly lost their dress shoes. A photographer snapped pictures of fathers and daughters, ages 2 to preteen, and groups of friends. There was only one rule: No moms allowed.

As soon as Nia got out of her father’s SUV, she sprinted to the door.

“I’m not waiting for him,” she said.

Corbett had caught up in time to take her coat as she shimmied out of it and took off for the dance floor.

“She’s ready to go,” said a woman at a fold-out table checking off names.

“You think?” Corbett said.

That started Nia’s nightlong mad dash between the gym, the candy bar, her two best friends from Mrs. Dixon’s class and her father.

At first, Corbett tried to keep up with her, marching steadily behind her sprint, but eventually realized he was better off standing with a group of dads under a basketball hoop and letting her come to him.

Every few songs, between playing tag and getting candy, Nia would find her father and dance for a few verses. They’d swing their arms together or he’d hold her up by the hand as she spun, slid and flopped along the floor.

The deejay played a mix of pop and classics, from “Gangnam Style” to “My Girl,” almost all of them upbeat – fitting for the sugar-fueled crowd.

Nia was nursing a bellyache on the bleachers when she heard her favorite Taylor Swift song and ran to her dad on the dance floor. But her two classmates quickly showed up by her side and the three of them took off together, disappearing into the crowd.

He found her on the other side of the gym when the “Chicken Dance” came on, and, facing each other, they flapped their arms, shook their rear ends and clapped to the beat. The two girls showed up again, but this time Nia didn’t seem to notice.

With her classmates dancing nearby, Nia and her dad giggled as the music got faster and slower and they wiggled closer to the ground. During the bridge, he twirled her around.

When a slow song, “Butterfly Kisses,” started next, Corbett picked Nia up before she could run off. There were only a few songs left before he’d have to get her coat and drop her off with her mother.

He swayed to the music as Nia wrapped her arms around her father’s neck, her blue eyes looking into his. She got down and stepped on his shoes in the heels she insisted on wearing, letting his feet lift hers in time. They danced longer than they had all night, almost all the way through the song, until the last stanza, when she dropped his hands and slipped away.