I looked down at my clenched hands, the slam of the door jarring my already fragile emotions. The shouted name I’d just been called seemed to reverberate through the room, striking my soul again and again like a hard rubber ball against cement. Though the afternoon’s cloud-obscured sunlight occasionally fell through the windows, the wooden floor of the studio couldn’t have felt more cold or uninviting.
Biting my lip, I commanded the tears not to fall.
Not now. Not now! Do not cry!
I saw — and heard — the rushing blurry orange dress of Beverly, my high school friend, and felt her warmth slide in beside me on the wooden bench.
Beverly fidgeted, smoothing her dress over tanned, sculpted legs. I heard her start to say something, then stop, then start again. “Amy, did he really just call you that?”
I opened my mouth, starting to look over at her, but only succeeded in freeing two tears which immediately dotted my green formal gown. I looked down, my nose feeling runny, and stared at my feet, my shoes. My dance shoes.
“Yeah,” I managed to choke. “It wasn’t ‘witch’, in case you were wondering.”
Bev looked indignant. “How DARE he! Does Mick have any friggin’ idea how hard you’ve worked on this ballroom dance? You come here every week. Every WEEK! Doesn’t he k–“
“Doesn’t matter!” I said, cutting her off, then instantly feeling sorry. All I wanted right now was to disappear. Crawl away to the side of the college — maybe over by the lake where no one could see — and just cry. Cry until some semblance of meaning returned; some answer to the confusion and hurt inside.
My dull lack of talents gnawed at me. “It…it wasn’t his fault.”
“What are you talking about?”
She stared at me. So I blurted it out: “I’m not cut out for this. I… I practically wrecked his shoes!”
“So? You should see me dance with him… not that I enjoy it…” her face wrinkled in disgust.
“It’s not just once, but like the entire time! It’s always been like this.”
“But that gives him no right to call–“
“I can’t do this dance, Bev. I can’t. I’ve been at this for nine months. You’d think with the ballet classes I had in 8th grade that it would be easier, but it seems like it’s even harder… I’m just…” the tears fell now, I brushed at them with the back of my hand. “What have I got for all this work?”
Beverly looked down.
“It wasn’t just shoes,” I added. “I cut his ankle tonight. tripped him too.”
Bev fought a grin. “You did? You tripped him?”
“Yeah. You should have come earlier. You missed all the action. He hit his head on the mirror over there.” I pointed, indicating a smeary, sweaty smudge. “That’s when he called me a–“
“Doesn’t matter!” Bev said it with finality. “The guy isn’t exactly very gentle. And he’s not a very good dancer either.”
I decided to ignore the ‘either’ part. She was only trying to cheer me up. “I’m obviously not in his league. I’m never going to be able to do this.”
“Its part his fault too. When he’s not jostling us around like monkeys, he sure doesn’t mind letting his freaking hands wander.” Bev shivered.
We fell into silence.
A car honked outside the studio and a truck rumbled by. Someone yelled something, then started laughing.
The studio’s clock ticked.
I found a nearby tissue box and blew my nose.
A fresh ray of sunlight punctuated the room. Dust particles floated around my eyes.
The door opened.
I looked up, anxious if Mick was back to torment me again, but instead saw a crisply dressed man in a dark jacket and white shirt. He entered the studio, nodded once to Beverly, and then walked toward me, his movements exacting, confident. His grayish hair gave him a fatherly look and as he came closer, he smiled. I instantly liked him. Who was this?
He stopped before me, his river-grey eyes bright with pleasure. “May I?” he asked.
“I… uh. What?”
He laughed, the sound infectious. I couldn’t help but smile back. He offered his left hand to me.
“Dance with me, Amy.”
“B… But I can’t dance.”
He angled his head and smirked. “Can’t dance? Who told you that?”
I stood up, realizing then that he was at least six inches higher than I.
It all came out in a rush. “I’ve been trying to dance for a long time and I’ve had a boat load of teachers and they’re always telling me I’m worthless and that I need to try harder and I keep practicing harder and…”
I stopped my ranting and looked at his offered left palm.
He spoke quietly. “All that have come before me… they cannot be compared to what I can teach and show you,” he paused to make sure that he had my full attention. “Do you have ears to hear?”
I didn’t know what to say to that, so I nodded my head, “Yes”.
“You’ve danced with others. Now dance. Dance with me.”
Hope began to rise in me. I wanted to do this. His palm waited, his smile inviting.
“Go on,” Bev whispered from the bench.
What was I so afraid of? It wasn’t like we had an audience. What if I did trip him or mangle this man’s shoes like I had Mick’s?
“Trust me,” the man said.
So I did it. I put my right hand in his left and set my left hand on his shoulder, the fabric felt soft beneath my fingers. He smelled clean, like he’d just bathed, with a subtle hint of cologne that I couldn’t identify. His right hand touched the small of my back. We hadn’t even moved, but I knew that this was no Mick.
Suddenly, we were off. I felt my hair fly back off my neck, my dress swirling on my legs. In the rush, I began to stiffen; the worries of performance began to assail me. I need to maintain my frame, I need to…
Not really knowing how, I began to follow his movements, allowing him to guide me. He seemed to gently whisper instructions as he kept the tempo, but I never saw his lips move. We came to the end of the room and I was looking at ceiling tiles. Ceiling tiles? Then the truth hit — he was dipping me! I laughed and looked back at his face. A genuine pleasure formed his features. I smiled. Then he pulled me back up. I felt a nudge to the left and moved with him, our feet synchronized. An upward motion followed, and now I was twirling, spinning, laughing. Back to the right and then the left. I relaxed more – if that was even possible – an excitement coursing through me. At the windows — now full of light — he dipped me again, and a long ago memory flashed back. I felt like a little girl again, twirling in front of my mother’s bedroom mirror with the carved flowers on the frame, her blurry jars of perfumes along the dresser. Then I saw my Dad coming to my first ballet recital in Jr. High, his red roses droopy in the rain afterward, but the memory of how he laughed and loved me with his tight hugs brought a fresh, new emotion to this wonderful, whirling experience happening around me.
We moved again, and I was back in the studio, feeling the air rush past me. I was spinning again, the room an exciting blur! A dozen lively steps followed, a flourish to one side, then the other, and then we stopped. Directly in front of Beverly. He gave a little bow and winked. I realized I was holding my breath. I laughed again, and tears fought their way up inside of me. What had just happened?
Bev was on her feet, her face scrunched in bewilderment. “I thought you said…”
“I know,” I choked back.
The man nodded briefly to us both then backed briskly toward the door.
I blinked through tears at the gift that had just been shown me. “Who are you?” I called to him. “At least tell me your name.”
He stopped at the door and winked again. “You know who I am.”
And as I watched the door gently close, I hugged my arms to my chest, my spirit soaring with a newness of life, and love, that I hadn’t felt in a very long time.
Yes, I did know him. I did.
I raised my arms above my head, and in the golden light splashing across the wooden floor, I began to twirl.