“Perpetually tardy, I see.”
Trish Mannova stood at the other end of the room, but did not fail to see Amelia slide into the studio. The young dancer dropped her bag and finished tying back her hair just in time to meet Trish’s stare.
“It doesn’t do one good in this business to be late, girl. What if this were a show? Would you let an expectant audience sit and wait while you fumbled around backstage? Would you let your partner hold his leg up in the air for ten minutes before you decided it was time to show up and continue the piece?”
“Well, would you?”
“Then, I expect next time you give me the same respect you appear to have for your colleagues and customers.”
Trish addressed the room. “We’re making art, people. It pains me to think that the people in this sacred studio don’t take it any more seriously than the world outside. We have two weeks until the Lincoln Center show. Let’s get to work.”
Trish wanted to start choreographing the piece for the upcoming show, but nothing she tried with this group would satisfy her. It was like they had never danced together before, despite most of them being in the same company for years.
She closed her eyes, shook her head, and then looked to the accompanist.
“5,6,7,8,” she said, and the pianist started, rocking backward and forward to the 4/4 time of the full-bodied piece.
Trish walked around the room as the ten dancers went through their warm-up, stretching and strengthening their muscles in unison. The Manhattan morning sun filtered through the windows, making the dust sparkle as the dancers created wind with their limbs. Their joints cracked and their bare feet stuck to the pale wood floors as they tried their first turns of the day. Trish’s short hair was dyed a bright red, the only color to break the monochrome black of her daily outfit. Trish roamed through them, wringing her wrinkled hands and stepping carefully, led by the heel of her foot, hips following and long neck lingering to examine the dancer in the back.
Trish Mannova did not like Amelia. Trish had not wanted to accept her into the company.
“She doesn’t get it, Paul,” she had said to the artistic director. “She doesn’t have the spirit.”
“Well, spirit must be lacking here in the big city. She’s the best dancer we’ve seen in a long while. She’s strong. Her lines are impeccable. She picked up the phrase more quickly than anyone else at the audition.”
“Pick any old ballerina and they can do the same things she can. They can all do fouettes for hours, Paul. She’s not that special. She doesn’t know why she moves. She’s empty.”
"You can’t say that. You haven’t ever talked to the poor girl.”
“But I’ve seen her dance. And that’s a language I’m fluent in.”
Now, Trish turned to stand directly in front of Amelia. She looked at the dancer and noticed how she held her breath and never let her fingers move from their porcelain-like position. Like a doll with no life behind her eyes.
“She doesn’t hate you, Amelia. Who could hate someone as beautiful as you?”
The weight of Amelia’s chin bore down on her fist as she glanced up at Joey from the kitchen counter. He turned his head from the stove to give Amelia a goofy grin, waiting for her to smile back.
“Joey, she does. She really does.” Amelia continued, her jaw still clenched. “She yells at me. She makes me do things the other dancers don’t have to. She literally will stand in front of me and just glare while I’m trying to warm-up.”
“Well, maybe she’s just jealous. Because you’re so talented.”
“No. That’s dumb. She used to be beautiful. She’s danced all over the world with the some of the most famous choreographers. She’s not jealous.”
“Well, Amelia. I don’t know what you want me to say. Why don’t you just go put your dance stuff back in our room and relax. Dinner will be ready in ten. I’ll come get you.”
“Joey, this is a real problem. I can’t just take of my shoes and relax. What am I supposed to do? The person who holds the fate of my career, of my whole future, is torturing me every day and has been for the past month.”
“Why don’t you quit then?”
“I can’t quit.”
“Why not? You’re not a modern dancer, anyways. You’re a beautiful ballerina.”
Amelia stood up. She looked at Joey’s back moving beneath his navy cotton shirt as he chopped the red peppers in unequal squares. He scraped the peppers into his hand and dropped them into the pan, resulting in a loud hiss as he stepped quickly back from the splatter of hot oil.
“Whoa,” Joey said. “Almost got me, didn’t it?”
He smiled again at Amelia.
“Yeah,” she said, looking at the ground. “Almost.”
Joey reached out to Amelia and pulled her close to him. “I’m sorry that dance is hard right now,” he said and kissed her on the forehead. “But, it’ll all work out, right?”
She stepped back and looked up at him. A half-smile was still plastered on Joey’s face, but as their eyes met, Amelia wondered if she had ever really seen him before. After a year of living together, he still always looked put-together. His dark hair still somehow stayed in just the right place without any gel and his hands were never too dry or too clammy. But, when she looked into his eyes, she felt herself exerting a great amount of energy to ignore a stomach-turning loneliness. Even though he was there, she still felt alone.
Amelia’s right arm flung to the bedside table to stop the buzzing alarm. Her hand found her phone and brought it to her face. Her eyes adjusted to the screen as she made sure to get rid of all the red notifications that had popped up overnight. Her eyes scanned a few messages from old friends who wanted to catch up. She quickly scrolled through the list of names she didn’t recognize of people liking photos and statuses and tweets.
“I don’t know any of these people.”
Amelia checked the time. 8:17. “Shit.”
Joey had gotten up early for work and left some crumpled sheets and lingering smell of stale coffee.
Amelia pushed herself up and hurried into the kitchen.
She threw a water bottle into her bag, grabbed her shoes and almost forgot to lock the door as she left the apartment. Luckily she could catch the L train just a couple of blocks down. The commute from Bushwick to Manhattan was about 35 minutes with a 15-minute walk to the studio. Amelia went over the math in her head. Nope, no way she would be there by 9.
After securing a seat on the train, Amelia searched for the podcast she had been listening to and put her headphones into her ears. She found it. A reading of Martha Graham’s essay, “An Athlete of God.” Amelia listened. She wanted to believe the words of this woman, who was worshipped by so many of her peers, and especially by Trish. She wanted to be successful in the company she was in now, so different than her dreams of Juilliard and American Ballet Theatre. She wanted to earn the respect of her teachers and peers. She was a hard worker. Amelia remembered how she had stretched every spare moment of the day when she was eight years old, just so she would be the first one in her class able to do a split. And then she had given up public school so she could be at the studio more often. She even moved to New York when she was 17, leaving her family in their small Connecticut town.
But, Graham’s words just sounded like too much. She spoke of spirit and holiness as if dance was some higher form of art than any other. Graham seemed pretentious to Amelia. A crazy old woman with too much hair.
Amelia heard the two-toned ring as the train slowed. “14th Street Station.” She made herself thin, slipped out of the train and fell in step with the crowd climbing the stairs to sunlight. Amelia’s long legs carried her quickly through the Chelsea neighborhoods. Her pin-straight hair caught the late autumn breeze, and her chestnut strands erupted. Gotta tie that back before class.
She checked her phone. 8:59. Well, I’m not late yet. She started darting through crowds on the sidewalk and veered to the far left to bypass other walkers. She was moving remarkably fast. She noticed the brick buildings and tall glass doors blur beside her as she pushed forward, all the while trying to keep her bag from slipping down her arm and messing with her aerodynamics.
She spotted a roadblock ahead. A wide man with large bags was walking right in the middle of the sidewalk. She slowed her pace a little so as not to slam directly into him. She veered to the right — wrought iron gates for the next three blocks. She veered back to the left —a steady stream of traffic and a line of parked cars. She walked directly behind him now, hoping when they crossed the next block, her path would open up. She looked at the back of the head of this man, who stood about a half foot lower than Amelia. He had dark curls that bounced a little as he walked. A black cord with several tangles ran up from his pocket and connected to his massive headphones. His brown sweatshirt had a light stain on the hood and was well-worn around the hem. His jeans didn’t fit right, loose in some places and tight in others. His neck bobbed slightly with every step he took, and Amelia wondered if he was bobbing to the music or the hollow clap of his feet against the sidewalk. She watched his feet and felt her body falling into the rhythm of his steps. Right, left, right, left. The deep sound of his heavy combat boots and the light tap of her sneakers melded into one amidst the chatter of the city. Amelia’s neck started to bob, too. Jutting slightly forward as it went up and down. And then she noticed the man’s shoulders rising slowly and falling quickly. Two steps to breathe in, one step to breathe out, one step, rest. Two steps, in, step, out, step, rest.
Amelia and the man were walking at the same pace, one behind the other. Two specks in sync in the disorder around them. Amelia wondered if their hearts were beating the same, too. Two quick bursts of blood and life to two bodies separated only by distance.
“Amelia! Where are you going?”
Amelia stopped on the sidewalk and looked over to see Dan, another dancer, running toward her.
“You just passed the studio,” he said.
“Oh, right.” Amelia noticed the buildings around her were unfamiliar. “Must’ve not been paying attention.”
She turned around and ran with Dan back one block to the studio.
“Trish is going to kill us, you know. She hates it when people are late.” Dan was breathing heavily. Amelia wondered how long he had been running.
“Amelia, come here,” Trish said, with her head turned away from the dancers.
Amelia walked forward.
“Would you please help me with a demonstration? It seems that we are all having trouble connecting with one another.”
Amelia nodded, trying to smile at Trish even though the woman refused to make eye contact with her.
“Okay,” Trish said, turning to face Amelia, head on. “I’m going to make contact with you, and I want you to react with movement.”
Amelia nodded again, this time not even able to fake a smile. She didn’t know what Trish meant. React with movement? What did that mean? She watched as Trish’s black sock slid along the floor, getting closer to Amelia’s foot, lifting off the floor and tapping the back of Amelia’s calf.
Amelia didn’t move.
“Girl, what are you doing? React, do something.” Trish’s hands were in fists. “Talk to me with your movement.”
This time Trish twisted her arm around and tapped Amelia’s hip with her elbow. Amelia jutted her hip to the other side.
“Good, good. Now what does the rest of your body do? Do your arms move with your hips? What about your legs, your torso, your neck?”
Amelia let her hip carry her backward and her right arm floated upward to tap Trish’s shoulder. Trish spiraled around, looking upward and then shot her knee up to touch the back of Amelia’s, which made Amelia’s left leg soften and her right leg fling forward, her toe nudging Trish’s chin.
They moved along the front of the studio, their bodies carving out space like letters on a page. They lunged and spun, moving more and more quickly, a hesitant conversation morphing into an argument.
Their eyes bore into each other as their bodies sparred. The other dancers in the room had moved back to allow the two free range of the studio. Then, Amelia straightened her back and gently put her hand on Trish’s shoulder. Trish stood, and their gazes softened.
“Very good,” Trish said, the corners of her mouth lifting slightly. She turned to the dancers.
“You see, this thing we’re doing here isn’t just a walk in the park. We aren’t putting on a circus so kids can come and ogle at us. We are communicating with our audience. And we have important things to say. Our work isn’t easy. It’s brutal on the body and it’s even harder on the soul. Our art demands all of us, all that we have to give. So, to start this piece, we must be honest with one another. Not with words. We walk in the realm of words our whole lives. Let’s take it a step further, shall we? Let’s be honest with our movement.”
Amelia was breathing heavily, noticing how something had broken inside of her. It was like she had forgotten she had swallowed a ball of yarn until it completely unraveled inside of her. Her heart was beating too fast and her breath was too hard to catch, but her muscles felt loose, and if she closed her eyes and let her head spin a little, she thought she was light enough to fly.
“Amelia,” Trish turned as Amelia opened her eyes. “Please stand in the center.”
Amelia walked to the middle of the room.
“Let’s begin the piece, shall we?”
The lights broke the black as the curtains lifted. Heavy beams bore down on the stage as the dancers ran on from stage right. The light washed out the complexions of the single line of dancers as it intensified.
Amelia stood in the center of the stage, just as she had rehearsed in the studio. Her head hung down, but she could feel the stillness settle over the dancers beside her. She closed her eyes and waited as her lungs grew until her chest forced her head up. Movement rippled through her body, directed by the ebb and flow of her steady breath. The dancers around her were caught in stillness, but Amelia’s body was liquid. She chased each movement to the end of her fingers, open just wide enough to comb the air around them, until the stomach-punch of an exhale drew her back in to herself, only for her hips to circle and her legs to reach out beneath her, leading to another burst. Though her movement was frantic, Amelia confined herself to an arms-length radius, not touching another dancer, not drawing the audience’s attention to them. Each wave now came quicker. She reached higher and fell lower and threw her body more forcefully, dizzying herself so the bright lights seemed to come from all directions.
Then, she stopped. Her body was extended and frozen, breath held in a moment rigid with tension. Amelia waited here, listening for the breath of those beside her. She drew herself up, faced the audience and began a phrase.
As her right arm swung over her head, the dancer to her right began to follow. As their left arms reached forward, two more dancers joined in. Then four more torsos bent forward and all the dancers were together, one unit floating across the stage, one set of limbs moving up and down, left and right. Their simple movements so undistinguished they became one bright blob of moving muscles, one long exhale of feet sliding and sweat flinging.
Then, the lights faded to black. The sounds slowly ceased. And the audience sat in stillness, listening to the heavy breathing of the dancers, before nodding and clapping and rising to their feet as the curtain closed.
Janna Childers is a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, studying journalism and global studies. She is fascinated by the interaction of art, culture and communication and hopes to work after graduation to amplify the voices of artists and creators.
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