What Was Inside “The Dancer”?

Short Stories for the SoulI will soon release a book of short stories that I think you’ll love. In this next ten week series, I’ll introduce the openings of each one. I’m curious to know what you think of them.

2. “The Dancer”


Are my body parts being robbed, or am I just living too long? Grace let the door shut behind her. She laid the mail on the kitchen table and sat down, then pulled off her shoes and massaged her feet in circular motions, one at a time, the way her doctor had shown her. The walk through the apartment halls to the mailbox and back had grown more painful since last spring. Her heart sank just a little every time she looked at the stairs, which she hadn’t climbed since summer. She was reduced to thinking, Thank God for elevators. Or thank the guy who invented them.

As she rubbed, she stared at the numbers of the calendar hanging on the refrigerator door. They seemed alternately friends and enemies, depending on what she was enduring or anticipating. Thanksgiving was circled in red. The kids would have her over, but this year was different. Ralph couldn’t go. And she didn’t want to go without him. Everyone would argue about it and then feel bad because they all loved each other too much to exclude anyone or to skimp on a holiday together. But they couldn’t very well do a full turkey dinner in a nursing home. And what would be the point, someone would finally say. Ralph could barely feed himself.

She’d think about it later.

Three pieces of mail this time: A phone bill. Okay. A letter from a credit card company: “0% for six months!” My lucky day—trash. And an oversize post card advertisement for The Nutcracker on December 7–22. Hmmm . . . Next to “A holiday tradition your family will treasure!” the Nutcracker himself wore a big paper-mache head with his right leg tucked and left leg extended in a pas de chat leap. Grace turned the card over, sure of what she’d see on the back. Yes, the requisite Mouse King threatened from the side, and the Sugar Plum Fairy smiled in a pas de deux with the Prince.

“Should I really go back again?” she whispered to herself and looked blankly at the linoleum floor tiles. The refrigerator hummed, and the air from the bottom vent warmed her feet.

She nodded, hobbled to the couch, sat, and pulled an old album from under the end table. There, a third of the way through and frozen in time, shined the old promotion photo. Her own position, all the way up to her fingertips, was the same as that of the young woman in the advertisement. Grace smiled and traced her finger across her photograph then over several other shots of her performances.

She closed her eyes with a long breath and saw the stage, the other dancers, the audience, the orchestra. . . . She imagined herself surrounded by the blur of whirling bodies in the rush of crescendos. She could feel her toes pressing into the box tips of her slippers as she spun a pirouette. Then she leaped, legs spread, in a grand jeté beside the prince.

She opened her eyes and felt almost breathless.

After years that lost count, and despite her body’s being ready for the recycle bin, the dance was still inside her. It wasn’t merely her imagination. She could feel it.

She closed her eyes again, and the sensation held her, as if suspended above the couch. Maybe she shouldn’t have been so surprised because she had always felt the dance more than seen it. It came from inside.

She sensed her feet sweep in a glissade, lifting swift and light. The stage was air to her.

As if lifting a shroud from her own body, she found the memories still engraved into every muscle, though the years had obscured them. She felt herself float in midair, moving fluid and free. Even the music came back the way it had once flowed through her like her own blood. Her movements and the melodies each became an expression of the other.

So. She smiled. We really are fearfully and wonderfully made.

After gliding and twirling a while longer, she sighed and opened her eyes. The next leaf of the album displayed her as Odette in Swan Lake. After that The Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, and Peter Pan. She pulled out a second album. The productions and years continued until they came to her own studio and little ballerinas in training. Page after page of smiling protégés posed with her standing behind them like a proud and prodigious mother. She sighed.

The progressing dates saw her hair graying and her body growing thicker. But they did not reveal the stiffness that set in, though the declining numbers of students offered a clue. When the arthritis got too painful to demonstrate positions and moves, she did the hardest thing she’d ever done in her life and sold the studio. She wasn’t a businesswoman who could hire others. She was an artist who shared herself, and she’d lost her ability to share.

It took a year before she completely stopped crying.

The worst feeling was that she no longer had the dance in her—as if age and arthritis had grown on her like a cast, like a tomb. The sense of loss wasn’t just that of vocation, it was an emptiness of self.

But now she wondered if the dance had been in her all along, and she’d never thought to adapt it to an aging body. . . .