Lessons from a Small Town: Dance
My crinoline petticoat scratched the back of my skinny thighs. All ten of my tiny fingers reacted and dug into the plush velvet seat in order to carefully readjusted my skirt. I did not want to accidentally expose my new fancy pink underpants to the hundreds of theater goers of New York City.
The thick curtains on the Radio City Music Hall stage slowly parted. At the bottom of the crimson fabric, golden fringe tassels swept the floorboards like a giant broom. In anticipation, I settled into my seat and tilted my blonde curls against the middle of its high back.
Nana sat next to me on the aisle side. That afternoon she gave off an unfamiliar odor. My nose caught a whiff of lilacs instead of freshly baked cookies. She looked different too. She was not wearing her usual full bib apron. Instead she wore a fancy dress with a real mink piece perched on her shoulders. I loved to stroke the long animal noses and stare into the dark glass beady eyes while I snapped the clasps of the mammal mouths open and shut. Her black lace-up clunky shoes anchored her thick ankles to the carpet below. Under the bodice of her floral dress, a set of ample breasts stood out at attention. Nana’s fur outlined bust provided me with a sense of security in the unfamiliar city.
With gloved hands she secured the hat pin on her fancy head-piece. Then she took off her crisp white gloves exposing two flesh masses smothered by age spots and striped by ropy blue veins. She stowed her gloves in her alligator skin pocketbook. Ready for the show, she clasped her worn fingers and rested them on the top of the scaly purse in her lap.
The theater went dark. A wide screen lowered from the top of the stage. From high in the balcony behind me, I heard the whine of a motor and plastic film rolling from reel to reel. The featured 1957 movie, Silk Stockings, splashed on the backdrop in Radio City Music Hall with a burst of light.
A bigger than life handsome Fred Astaire and his leggy partner Cyd Charisse filled the screen. They laughed. They kissed. They danced as one to the music composed by Cole Porter. Spinning and twirling, the duo filled the stage.
Oh, I want to do that.
The diva’s chiffon ball gown billowed with each graceful turn. My skinny legs twitched with glee.
I think I could do that too.
Vigorous claps left my palms red as ripe raspberries when the film ended. It was the only approval I could offer. I didn’t know how to do that loud whistle with my fingers in my mouth like our gym teacher did on the playground when recess was over.
Then a wave of beautiful ladies tapped out on stage. They danced in unison to the music coming from the submerged orchestra pit. The theater flood lights illuminated the ocean of sequins on their identical outfits. I was almost blinded by the glare. The precise movement of the famed Rockette’s bodies mesmerized me.
Oh my goodness! So many legs moving together. If I only had tap shoes I know I could do that too.
It ended too soon.
My hometown of Ames did not have a dance studio. Our sleepy village was surrounded by fields and livestock. Critters out numbered people. Regular activity could be observed in the pastures from black and white Holstein cows waltzing to the hum of big red tractors on their way to be milked. Gray squirrels did acrobatics on high branches. Lanky emerald alfalfa stalks swayed back and forth in rows from the stiff winds coming over the flats as butterflies flitted from stem to stem.
Back at home in The Barn, my playhouse, I sat alone on the dusty concrete floor. I pulled white filaments apart like wads of cotton candy loosening from their paper cone. I wrapped the dismembered cotton balls around the carpet tack tips on the inside of my red Keds. A few minutes before, I had secured four Orange Crush bottle caps to the bottom toes and heels of my sneakers with the precision of a master cobbler. The small nails were longer than the depth of my shoes and the sharp ends poked through the soft insoles.
My imaginary audience awaited me. Its respectful whisper prompted my entrance. Once my shoes were prepared and in place, I tiptoed to the center of the first quadrant of The Barn. I saw my faint profile in the dusty double-pained window to my left. Directly in front of me a gilded full-sized mirror rested on the dimpled concrete floor. Its chipped frame outlined my petite reflection in the scratched, glazed surface.
A dusty crank-style Victrola waited on the other side of the interior of The Barn. I crossed over and attempted to dislodge the mildewed leather album from the slot in its attached cabinet. I struggled. The case was almost half my size. Finally out, I hugged it and moved the collection to a nearby table. There I slipped out a thick plastic 78 long-playing disc from one of the tattered, faded Kraft paper sleeves. I reverently placed the record on the mangy olive-green felt turntable.
I gave a tug on the rusty metal handle with both hands.
Wake-up musical dinosaur!
I flipped the metal arm downward and rested the needle in a groove. Suddenly a loud, raspy baritone voice shouted out from the 5×7 front door speaker. The melody struggled to keep beat. The garbled lyrics startled me.
Back in front of the mirror I frantically tapped away to my first selection, Sink the Bismarck. Unaware of the historical significance of the 1941 battle involving a famous German warship, I cheerfully scraped my toes and heels back and forth on the rough cement floor to the World War II tune.
Click. Click. Tap, Tap.
I was dancing!
Hop, hop. Twirl, twirl.
I was a star.
When the song stopped, I ran back over and yanked out another selection. Glad Rag Doll, Garbage Man Blues, Haven’t Seen No Whiskey. They all sounded good to me.
The Victrola music inspired me just like the Rockette’s professional orchestra accompaniment at Radio City Music Hall. The pulsating rhythm transcended my busy feet into sore and slightly bloodied dancing machines.
Just a few more steps.
A risky high kick nearly sent me flying into a nearby sawhorse and into a pile of empty paint cans. My smile doggedly remained on my face until the final bow. Curtsying not once, but twice in front of the mirror I bade farewell to my polite audience.
Good-bye Mr. Astaire. Good night Miss Charisse.
From the direction of our house’s side porch at the opposite end of the driveway, the sound of the dinner bell clanked in my mother’s hand.
I sat down on a paint can and unlaced my red sneakers. Tiny dots of fresh blood decorated the insoles like the polka dots on my church dress.
The scuffed bottle caps on the bottom of my Keds now read _range _rush.
I hid my special shoes under the wooden stairs in the back corner of The Barn. They would come alive another day.
Now it was time to return to my other life.
I scampered down the blacktop in my bare feet and climbed up the worn wooden stairs. With a familiar yank, I pulled open the screen door and hopped up on the porch. The side kitchen door was still open.
The familiar smell of Mom’s meatloaf greeted me.
I glanced one more time over my shoulder back towards The Barn. The Victrola was silent. My stage was empty. Tomorrow would bring another show.