The Dancer Still

The following is by Writers in the Grove member, Lorelle VanFossen, and is based upon the Prompt-a-Month: Dance.

Texturized art effect of ballet dancer on pointe in arabesque.Toe pointed. Leg elongated. Feel the burn through the calf muscles as they push the reach even further. Thigh muscles combine to lift and stretch the leg beyond the normal range, a straight arrow pointed toward the floor away from the body, toe not touching, every line straight and arched in all the right places as if coaxing the toe longer a little more. Just a little more. Reach, strain, stretch, push, tighten, balance, yet relax. Don’t let them see the pain. Head tilted down at an angle, shoulders pulled back, arms thrust forward reaching but hesitating, palms up, thumbs wide, fingers closed, curled, begging. The other leg bent, knee aligned in the direction of the other, heel down, glued to the floor, a stable foundation. An illusion of stability. A brush of wind would knock her over. A forward step paused in mid motion. Make it look effortless. Make it look like it is a gentle yearning, a pleading with the body to take just one tiny step in that direction, ahead but holding back, cautious. It is a dangerous step. One that leads to another, and another, and another step forward into the unknown.

Elaina kept this position for as long as she could, keeping the tension in her body in a tug of war between relaxed and tight, straining with the effort. She didn’t hear the clock ticking in the hall, the purring of the cat wandering nearby, nor the roar of cars outside the door on the street. She heard pain, a sweet familiar pain, ringing through her body, buzzing in her ears, knocking against her heart begging her for release. She felt the warmth of a spotlight against her closed eyes, the moment frozen, ready to burst out onto the stage with the unheard embrace of the music’s thrust.

She ignored the fact that it was only the morning sun through the front window peaking through the pale blue curtains. Through the rushing noise of the passing cars, she heard the gasp of an audience at her entrance, one step, then frozen in this pose, waiting for the music to queue that next step, but held, anticipating the moment she would take that next move, ablaze in feathers, sequins, and chiffon, disguised as a worn-out house dress.

When her body could no longer hold the moment, the audience straining with her now, feeling the tension, breathing with her, on the edge of their seats, she took that step forward, placing her right foot on the carpeted floor, pushing herself forward over the toe, leaning down and up into the move, her body straightened, head up, arms lifted higher, her other leg straight out behind her at a point. She held this for thirty seconds, allowing the clanging to quiet in her head, the body now in a more stable, relaxed state.

Her cat wandered by and wound around her standing ankle. Elaina opened her eyes and looked down into those wide golden eyes framed with soft gray hair. The cat meowed, the open mouth turning into a yawn with a whining sound as she completed another rotation then headed off toward the kitchen where she knew food would soon appear.

Elaina dropped all pretense, hands flopped to her side, brushing them down the old housecoat speckled with bleach stains and dried food bits that defied her laundry efforts. On days when no one would visit, she didn’t care what she looked like. She knew what she looked like. And she didn’t care much any more. Her stage days were done. Done and gone.

She wandered into the kitchen, feet shuffling the ground, her moment of exercise and memory left behind in the dust motes sparkling in the morning streak of sunlight. The cat fed and satisfied, she wandered down the hall lined with black and white and color photographs of herself at various stages in her life, all nudes. She’d done her last one ten years ago and declared it the last time. No one wanted to see her naked body any more. There wasn’t much left to even see. She barely looked at herself in the mirror these days.

The two bedroom home had passed through many young families’ lives until she bought it for a pittance during the last recession when housing properties fell to their lowest point in thirty years. It was a sad little cottage home, ideal for a first home and a last home, yet sturdy, built back in the days when home building meant building to last, not like the disposable homes of today. Some elbow grease, scrubbing, sanding, patching, and painting, and it was good enough for her needs. She’d fanatically saved through her work years, living a down-sized life on the move long before the concept of the minimalist lifestyle. By the time she moved in, she had little left to pare-down save her scrapbooks. Her mother used to say she lived like a nun. Her many lovers would protest that description, but she always collected people over things and clothes. After wearing the most exquisite and delicate gowns and costumes hand-stitched by the greatest seamstresses in the dance world for the stage, what she put on before or after a show was immaterial. It didn’t matter. It never mattered. Leotards, tights, socks, and t-shifts were her world of comfort. All that mattered was what happened on the stage. From auditions to rehearsals, to opening and closing nights, that was when she lived. The rest was just the in between.

She’d moved in with four suitcases, mostly filled with photographs, recordings, and show program scrapbooks. As nature abhors a vacuum, furniture soon followed. Her niece gave her a twin bed, the mattress still decent. Her two nephews chipped in to buy a stereo and television set. Told she couldn’t live without them, she loved listening but rarely watched, having never developed the habit. Her laptop and phone brought enough of the world to her door, she didn’t need another access point. Another chair, an end table, and a small dresser seemed to magically appear from other acquaintances and family members. A fellow dancer living in the area had given her a small table and chairs for her kitchen, and a soft upholstered chair for the living room. She paid him back with monthly lunches at a small Italian diner a few blocks away. They would drool over the delicious ingredients of the various menu items, steaming cheeses melted over zita, creamy fettuccine with long noodles and steamed asparagus, colorful pasta primavera, eggplant parmesana smothered with tomato sauce, basil, mozzarella, ricotta, and Parmesan. They’d hum and hah over the daily specials, then nibble from the antipasto plate and order the house soup and salad and talk over old days, new days, and how to get through another day chomping on lettuce and cucumbers as they had always done.

Converting the old nursery into her office had taken a week of peeling and scrapping off layers of ducks, birds, butterflies, puppies, and rainbow wallpaper. A few dollars of paint from the local paint recycling center was enough to paint the room a sparkling white, a clean canvas for her many photographs. A neighbor threw out an old computer desk, the kind with a narrow shelf over the empty space a monitor would fill. She’d dragged it off the sidewalk and set it up in front of the window overlooking the street and the few surviving flowering bushes along the front of the house. The room filled with portraits of herself as Cinderella, Giselle, Nikiya, Carmen, Sylphide, Kitri, Tosca, Juliet, Odette, the Lilac Fairy, Tatyana, and Titania. These joined photographs of her posed next to Mikhail Baryshnikov, Martha Graham, Evelyn Cisneros, Jose Manuel Carreno, John Lowe, Kaori Nakamura, Aesha Ash, Rudolph Nureyev, Edward Watson, Eileen Kramer, Wendy Whelan, Sylvie Guillem, and a precious snapshot of her standing next to Josphine Baker as a young dancer, smiling so hard the older woman joked her face would break. What joy to be standing next to one of her first heroines. Other than a few pictures with nieces and nephews, these were her family. These were the people she grew up with, who raised her, trained her, tested her, and shared with her the ups and downs of a dancer’s life.

Elaina slid open the narrow top drawer and pulled out a piece of fine linen note paper. Under a wrinkled hand, she smoothed the paper, barely feeling the tiny lines of texture. Neuropathy had arrived a few years ago bringing with it burning, tingling, and a loss of touch in her hands and feet. She ignored it all. Pain was a part of a dancer’s life. You either made it your best friend or you gave up dance. She would never give up dance, so she claimed. She picked up the fountain pen carved from precious bubinga, purchased in Italy during the staging of a then new version of Romeo and Juliet. She wondered how many “new” versions of the show had been staged since then, and waved the thought away. It was someone else’s dance now.

Whom should she write to today, she wondered, closing her eyes and letting her mind flit through the faces of her past. Every morning, she’d compose a single letter to one of those faces, thanking them for the gifts they’d brought into her life through dance, music, costumes, makeup, choreography, composing, accompaniment, directing, even to those who drove her around before she learned to drive as a self-birthday presenta to celebrate turning forty, taking her first steps to leave the dance world, an exit that took twenty-five more years even though she swore to all her friends that she would retire at forty, dead or alive. She’d finally exited at sixty-five, attempting to make a clean break of it, but was brought back to play the witch in Sleeping Beauty at age seventy-two, breaking records for curtain calls. Today, now eighty, her moment in the living room morning sun was the most stage she’d seen since Sleeping Beauty.

She hadn’t heard from her dresser, Angelina Schmidt, in a few months, she realized. She pictured the obese woman who’d sweat through the costume changes more than Elaina, huffing and puffing as she held out one hand full of fake flowers to pin into her hair and the next costume gown in the other hand. She’d chastised Angelina for being out of shape only to learn after a year of hot backstage costume changes that the poor woman was an asthmatic. The dust of the costumes triggered attacks daily, but the woman loved dance so much, she powered through desperate gasps for air to keep Elaina dressed perfectly, fixing the smallest costume detail with a flurry of chubby fingers before releasing her for her next entrance, not a word spoken between them. This was their duet, a dance of habit, well-practiced. In the last letter from the dresser, Angelina had written of her grandchildren coming to stay with her for the summer. While Elaina thought that would be a fate worse than death, she held her long-time friend’s face in her mind, fiery red cheeks under deep blue eyes and a mop of tangled red and blonde hair that seemed impossible to control, a pen stuck into it to hold it at bay and be read to jot down a director’s note or reminder at any time on the inside of her wrist. Elaina had noticed all the pen scratching early on in their relationship. Angelina murmured something about the difference in putting something where you wouldn’t forget it and the better choice to jot something down where you’d take it with you and never forget. Wise words, she recalled, and wrote down that memory after the words, “My dear sweet Angelina. It has been too long since we last corresponded and I think of you often.”

The letter finished, she folded it carefully and slid it into an envelope. From within the frail pages of her huge leather address book, she found Angelina’s address under A, not S, which would make more sense, but she’d always filed by first names, rarely learning some people’s last names as she moved from ballet company to company. The stamp in place, a picture of a flower on a white background, and the letter was ready to be mailed.

She rose from the desk with not a creak or crack of body, the grace of years of dance and controlling every physical move she made. She waddled a little down the hall, toes pointed outward rather than forward, a left-over from minor hip dysplasia from years of forcing her legs into distorted positions required by many choreographers. Though classical ballet was her world, she’d often wondered how her body would be today if she’d headed into modern dance, following the likes of Graham and Fosse. Probably not as strong. Maybe stronger. More flexible, undoubtedly.

Slipping into tiny pink bedroom slippers made to look like fuzzy pointe ballet shoes, a gift from her sister many years ago. They’d lost her a year later to breast cancer. Most of her family was gone. An odd niece and nephew here and there, a stray cousin, were all that seemed left. She unlocked the front door and shuffled to the mailbox at the end of the walkway along the sidewalk. Cars moved by on the busy road, shaded by a few trees left along the street. To the north at the end of the block, an old man walked toward her led by a tan, nondescript dog on a leash. To the south was an intersection at the end of the block where Madrona and Oak streets met, two trees that would rarely be found next to each other in nature, yet were neighbors in this California town. Letter in the mailbox, she turned back.

The sun warmed the pavement under her slippers. For June, the temperatures were still on the cooler side. A slight morning gust rattled the leaves and tickled the tips of the grass. Her housecoat lifted and twisted slightly around her hips. She lifted her arms and her body rose onto one slippered toe, held for a moment. A push with the back foot, she spun a pirouette in the morning breeze, arms forming a circle in front of her, her other foot tucked in a point against her calf, housecoat flaring around her, snapping her head around with the spin, then dropped down into a wide fourth position, one arm in front, the other out stretched to the side. She took a deep breath of joy.

The man with the dog stopped and applauded. The dog barked approval. She turned and bowed low, waved, then waddled back into the house.

She still had it. The moves, the stage, the costume, it was still there. Best of all, she still had the audience.

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