Fiction

Smoke and Lights

“The Light Dance” by Cillian Storm is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Stomach in, Cass. Curtain’s about to drop. Straighten those knobby knees. Smile.

Cass tumbled off pointe after the curtain closed, swinging her arms to circulate blood back into her fingers. Arms overhead, the final tableau of Act One was the most uncomfortable twenty seconds of the entire ballet. She sank to the floor to untie her satin ribbons, ballooning her tulle skirt into a white puddle on the black marley. She hurried her tingling fingers over the knot, then scrambled out of the way as the crew swept up the fake snowflakes and changed out the Winter Forest for the Land of Sweets. Pointe shoes off, Cass joined the trickle of dancers shuffling back to the dressing rooms, panting.

Jack’s broad shoulders swayed ahead of her, rising tall above the rest of the company. He’d avoided eye contact the whole first act. She’d caught him staring at her during the party scene, his green eyes uncertain above a stern jaw, but as soon as their eyes met, he’d snapped his gaze away, swallowing.

In the dressing room Cass hung up her costumes, then took a sip of water. Setting down the bottle, she caught her reflection in the mirror. Seductive eyes onstage, Cass. Act brave. She’d let the stream of criticism flow through her mind during ensemble dances in Act One, but now she must try to stop it to impress her boss in this featured role. To dance with presence.

The stage manager called ten-minutes-to-places over the intercom. She dug into her makeup kit for intermission essentials. Spritz down chestnut wisps escaping her bun, dab her pale forehead with a tissue, freshen her high cheekbones with blush, and pat powder over the remnants of sweat. Then she took her next costume off the rack and changed for Arabian.

Five minutes to places. Should she stay longer in the dressing room? Let Jack avoid her until the last possible second? The stage was too far away to risk being late. So then what would she say to him? Cass chewed her lip, admitting her side of their impasse—she’d been avoiding him too. If only they’d stayed on the same page until later in the tour. After they’d danced together a few times. Or a different cast where she would have Act Two to decide how she felt before interacting with him.

The word “decide” echoed in her head. Cass had an idea and ran with it, plucking her next pair of tanned pointe shoes from her duffel bag, then returning to the stage.

***

Cass drained the last of her iced coffee. She didn’t want this unseasonable October heat to get her sweating again before afternoon rehearsals. She pulled open the heavy doors to the ballet building and trotted upstairs to the locker room. Jack and Dominic were waiting for her at the top, each with enormous hoagies. Dominic covered his mouth and mumbled between bites, “Nutcracker casting is up. You’ve got a new role.”

Cass mumbled thanks, then padded down the hallway to the company bulletin board, curious. Could she have landed a solo? A chance to break out of the ensemble and prove herself for promotion?

Cass arrived as the crowd of other dancers was thinning. She scanned the list over Amy’s petite shoulders. Her name appeared in all the usual places for Act One. But, in Act Two, her name was written just below Jack’s for Cast C of Arabian.

“Congrats!” Amy launched up into a friendly hug, making Cass stumble. “That’s so crazy that you’ll be alternating a role with the principal dancers. Arabian is a big part!”

“Thanks.” Cass never pictured herself dancing the sultry pas-de-deux and was too stunned to smile. “I better go put on a dry leotard.”

Jack leaned against the opposite wall, having followed her after finishing his lunch. “So?” he asked her.

“So…we’re dancing together,” replied Cass, trying to sound professional. She couldn’t let Jack think they’d flirt through rehearsal in front of the boss.

Jack scratched the back of his head, smiling. “Yeah, we’re always great as partners. But have you made up your mind about Saturday? Just the two of us?”

Cass darted her eyes past Jack down the hall, then checked over her shoulder. Nobody seemed close enough to hear.

Jack stood taller to walk away, picking up on Cass’s cagey reaction. “Sorry,” he grunted, “I didn’t realize I embarrassed you. Forget I asked.”

Cass caught his arm as he turned to go. “No, it’s not that. We…Saturday sounds great, count me in. But here in the studio, I need to focus on my next promotion before it’s too late. I want Madam to see that when I’m at work, I’m here to dance, undistracted.”

Jack beamed back at her. “So it’s a date?”

“See you in rehearsal.”

Ten minutes later the three couples cast in Arabian had returned to the main studio and were loosening back up after the lunch break. Madam poked her head in at the top of the hour. She extended a sinewy arm into the room, offering a CD.

“Amelia, I need you to please teach the new Cast C dancers. I’ll come watch a final run-through.” Amelia, a principal dancer, retrieved the CD. Before leaving, Madam leaned further into the room, arching an eyebrow at Cass. “Cassandra, I’ll be watching for stage presence, as we’ve discussed. The audience can tell when it’s only gears turning behind your eyes. You must clear your mind and be fully present onstage. Be brave. Explore each phrase and enter each step like you just decided to dance it.”

Cass nodded, eager eyebrows lifted. She blinked rapidly after Madam left, readying her mind to soak up the choreography quickly. Focus, Cass. This is your shot.

Amelia cued up the Arabian track on the sound system and waved for her partner to join her at the front. They demonstrated in eight-count phrases, checking in the mirror to see if the others were catching on. The sequences felt familiar to Cass as she copied in the back with Jack. She’d been watching this dance for five years now. Only the intricate partnering felt new. Holding still and letting Jack steer a turn. Resting onto his arm instead of holding her own weight. But all her dream roles included pas-de-deux, so Cass tried her best not to shy away.

“Then he lifts you like this,” Amelia instructed, nodding to her partner to do the lift full‑out. He hoisted her to a seat on his right shoulder, then spun underneath her, paddling his feet. From her regal perch Amelia rolled her spine across his neck like a wave until she was lying flat over his shoulders. Then somehow her partner levitated her out of nowhere. He hoisted her overhead, slowing his spin to arrive at the final pose with his arms extended straight.

Cass loved watching this lift from the wings but jumped when she felt Jack’s hands on her waist. She looked back to him, scanning his eyes for the same nervousness swirling behind hers. Jack, all smiles, mouthed “sorry” to her, then waved her back to give it a try.

The other two men gathered to spot her. Cass steeled herself with a breath, then assumed the prep position up on pointe. Stomach in, Cass. No, clear your mind. Be brave. At least the first shoulder-sit would feel familiar. Jack’s broad hands found her waist again and hoisted her up as she launched into the air. Then he paused, letting Amelia’s partner instruct him how to slide his hand along Cass’s ribs as she lay back. When he started spinning, Cass squeezed her abdominals, curling down from the seat and thrusting toward contact with his left shoulder.

Instead his right shoulder slipped out from below her, sending her tumbling down his back headfirst. Her eyes shut on reflex as she flung her arms out to brace the fall. She opened her eyes, still suspended off the floor, her knees hung over Jack’s shoulder in his strong grip, and her waist held by one of the other men. They lowered her gently onto her hands, and she cartwheeled to a stand. “Thanks,” she offered the room, sucking in cooling air to slow her heartbeat. “Did I do something wrong?”

Amelia wheeled out an old office chair from the corner of the studio. “You can’t force it with your muscles. The layout feels more like you’re giving in to the spin. You have to wait, then relax. Here, try with the chair.” Amelia sat to demonstrate, paddling up some inertia before lifting her feet and lying back with the momentum of the spin. From the beautiful, elongated pose, she then awkwardly twisted an arm down to brake against the floor. She bear-crawled off the chair and offered it to Cass.

It took Cass three tries on the chair to feel when to give in. She had to remind herself to do it. Relax, Cass. Maybe Madam’s advice to clear away thoughts didn’t work for everybody. Trying the lift again with Jack, the smooth paddle underneath her felt familiar. Relax, Cass. She let the momentum carry her down. As soon as she made contact on his other shoulder, she felt his hands firm up below her thigh and upper ribs. She squeezed her body rigid and forced herself to keep her eyes open, watching the ceiling spin closer. But her weight felt stable in Jack’s hands through the whole lift until their spin slowed to a stop.

“Um,” she squeaked at the top, “how do I get down?”

“Hold still just another second,” instructed Jack. He lowered her back onto his shoulders, then slid her around and directed her feet toward the floor. “Just like that,” he replied, smiling proudly and raising his hand for a high-five.

“Almost like that,” corrected Amelia after Cass clapped hands with Jack. “The whole descent needs to be more seductive and less…sack-of-potatoes. Really the whole piece needs to be seductive.”

“The whole thing’s ready to show?” interrupted Madam, striding into the room with her sharp bob jostling around her thin neck. “Amelia’s spot on—Arabian is all about allure.” She took a seat front and center.

“We didn’t get to the entrance yet,” replied Amelia.

“Oh, the torch lift,” Cass muttered to herself, remembering the opening visual of Amelia raised overhead, serene, sitting atop her partner’s lofted arm, her bottom foot held at his chest as he walked in from the wings.

“Not to worry. We’ll just pick up after that. Let’s see what you’ve learned.”

Madam gestured for Cass and Jack to take the center of the room. Jack asked if they could mark it first for memory, to Cass’s relief. As they walked through the steps to the music, the sequence flowed from memory easily enough.

“All right, all right.” Madam stopped the music before the final lift. “I know you weren’t dancing full-out, but I can already see there needs to be more expression. These dances in Act Two show different sides of the human experience. What’s your motivation in Arabian?” Madam blinked at Cass with her eyebrows raised, stance narrow with her arms relaxed at her sides. Cass searched for another synonym for the mystery she associated with seduction, but a sigh from Madam let her know she’d hesitated too long. Madam cocked a hip.

“Well, naturally, it’s about sex!” she sang with an enthusiastic nod. “The partner dance is all about working up that appetite for spreading the seed! It’s our deepest nature as humans, as organisms, so Arabian needs a palpable lather of desire. Like this movement with the man kneeling, here!” Madam scurried up to Jack, grabbed him by the wrist, and led him to the center of the room. His eyes widened, pleading back over his shoulder for an impossible rescue. Jack assumed the kneeling position for the section Madam was about to explain.

“Ladies can luxuriate the hips through this pivot behind them,” Madam began as she demonstrated around Jack. “And men need to take notice! Then when you arrive in front of him, this stance is all about shoving your breasts in his face.” Her breasts were much closer to Jack than any of the couples had been practicing before. She continued, “And then, even though you do this next step to his side, think of it like you’re doing it over here, right on top of his crotch.” Madam stepped in closer to Jack and demonstrated the next step. Jack looked grateful she couldn’t dip her mature body as low as she wanted the dancers to. She lingered for a moment, staring past Jack’s face at the mirror. Then she broke, strode over to the sound system, and chirped, “Now let’s try it again from the top, this time with more sex!”

Cass’s hamstrings were starting to complain from fatigue, but she couldn’t waste this opportunity to demonstrate her technique and work ethic. She asked Jack if he was up to doing the partnering full-out. Jack nodded, flicking beads of sweat from his bangs onto the floor. They forced their bodies through the unnatural feeling of the new choreography and struggled to smooth the transitions with an infusion of desire. Cass’s mind rattled with unhelpful echoes of more sex and the usual chatter of criticism. Stomach in, Cass. She’s watching you.

***

Jack’s bronze costume traced an arc against black wings. Cass paused at a distance, her eyes taking in his muscled limbs, each curve familiar after months of hooking up. Time to decide what that amounted to. Jack stood upright from his stretch and Cass approached.

Merde,” he offered, extending his palms forward as a token of peace.

“You got that right.” Cass took his hands, testing how they’d feel. “Look, Jack, you caught me off guard last night. I shouldn’t have run off, but I couldn’t answer questions about our ‘relationship’ when I thought this thing between us was just a little fun. We can talk more later, but—”

“I get it, let’s get through the show first.” Jack squeezed her hands with a resigned grin.

“No, Jack.” He recoiled his hands but Cass caught them. She continued, “I don’t want to just get through. This big role feels like my chance to take control of my career. I want to give it my all. And…” Cass looked down at their grip, gathering some courage. “And all of me includes this confusion about us. This hitch. So I want to talk more about it later, but first I want to explore what I’m feeling. Onstage. With you.”

Cass stepped in closer, wrapping Jack’s arms around her waist and closing her hands around his neck. She looked up into his eyes. “Can we try it? Dance as you and me, unsure where we stand?”

Jack scanned her determination, then nodded. The entr’acte waltzed onto the speakers behind him, and they broke the embrace to prepare in earnest. Cass sat to put her pointe shoes back on and stayed on the floor to stretch her splits. Jack widened his stance, stretching deep lunges. He helped her off the floor to practice the tricky layout from the shoulder-sit. He gripped the top of her hips and hoisted her onto his shoulder. Cass waited to feel the centrifuge of his paddle-turn underneath her, relaxing onto his shoulder like a rolling wave.

“And then we press up!” Jack squeezed under her thigh and ribcage but didn’t lift, saving his energy for the stage. He stopped spinning and flipped her down to the floor. “Nice, Cass. Smooth and silky.”

The Spanish dance ended with a smattering of applause. Jack squeezed her shoulder and she lifted her knee, pressing her ankle down into his hand as he hoisted her up into the torch lift. The lights dimmed to seductive blue, the music started, and Jack carried her onstage.

Point your back toes, Cass. She clenched her jaw against the criticism. Seeking presence through her senses, she heard her heart thumping over the rhythmic strumming of the violins. She anchored her mind on those nerves. Stripping away the theater and the performance and a character, she had every reason to be nervous. Eleven feet in the air, the only thing propping her up was Jack’s hand against her taint. The intimacy quickened her pulse even more. She’d found pleasure in this earnest man amid the stresses of the company. Was that all Jack meant to her? A soothing hand?

Jack lowered her and she extended a leg, arching a strong foot to land on pointe. The pleading melody of the violins seemed reluctant. “Please go back,” they sang. Lift us back up and carry us back to a simpler time when we were just friends. When we could laugh and flirt now and then. Jack’s hands stroked down her arms, and Cass unfurled her leg, lifting knee to ear for the grand rond-de-jambe promenade, pleading her foot up and away. Circling it behind her, into the past.

The mournful woodwinds replaced the violin melody and Jack released her wrists. Her toe traced sweeping curves on the floor, traveling in adagio contre-temps to her own corner of the stage as Jack retreated to his. The clarinets were right; she would be miserable if they rewound the clock. If they smothered the flames and pretended their flirtation never sparked.

The violins emerged into their second refrain, and Cass pivoted to face Jack. Seeing his face for the first time, she heard a yearning in the melody. They glided in soft steps toward each other, closing the distance until Cass plunged over the tip of her pointe shoe into a low dip. Jack caught her hips from a lunge below, stopping her just as they arrived nose-to-nose. His vulnerable green eyes burned into hers, roiling with his own emotions. Jack pushed her back onto balance, and they parted again to the corners, only to repeat the run and plunge. Jack cradled her closer, surprising her at the bottom of the dip with a firm kiss, his lips pleading along with the violins for more.

The woodwind countermelody interrupted as the voice of reason. Knowing “oh” tones repeated warnings in Cass’s ear. Focus, focus. She backed away from Jack to dance side by side with him, swirling their arms through exotic spells. Focus, focus. An insistent buzz in Cass’s ear to not be foolish. But this wasn’t her own voice. Some outside conductor was whispering at her and manipulating her limbs through these foreign spirals, trying to enchant her.

The high, sustained oboe was her chance to break free. She adopted it as her own voice as she stepped into Jack, arching her leg into high arabesque behind her. Instead of balancing upright, she reached down and wrapped her arms around his torso. She sung out to him through her grip and the wavering oboe, testing her desire to be romantic and carefree, eyes closed.

Jack hoisted her back on her feet with the firm chords in the flute section. Instead of letting go and turning downstage to repeat, he threaded his fingers into hers, holding their grip for her next arabesque. His English horn echo confronted her with the flaw in her own misgivings. I will not distract you, his determined demeanor seemed to say. Because our love is not a distraction. We could make a life together.

Jack and Cass descended to the floor, lying back in a sumptuous heap. The bass clarinet ushered in a sunrise theme across the whole orchestra, lifting them back up by the sternum. They stood to face one another for the final lift. It dawned on Cass that her focus on the future was short-sighted. Her dance career would end one day, but this relationship could last forever. And these musical phrases didn’t conflict or compete. They complemented each other in harmony. She energized her legs, squeezing up to a tall silhouette on pointe, preparing to shift priorities and make this emotional commitment.

With the last ray of light strummed by the violins, Jack gripped her waist and she leapt onto his shoulder. His paddle-turn momentum spun her out across his shoulders, and she committed to their bond—his grip on her thigh and ribs, her strength as a rigid sculpture. The tapping cymbal encouraged them higher and commanded Jack’s final thrust, raising Cass overhead to the pinnacle of the final pose.

The audience burst into applause. Jack flipped Cass down onto her feet, and they stepped forward for a bow. She couldn’t contain a huge, dopey smile. She’d done it—performed in the moment all the way through. Triumphed over the critic in her ear.

She jumped when she felt Jack’s hand on her waist. She looked back to him, scanning his eyes for the same nervousness emerging behind hers. They exchanged a fragile smile as he escorted her into the wing, neither of them certain what should come next.