(from The Piranha Dances)


The lights were warm, and brighter than the sun. Even from behind the screens. There was a rustling and a murmuring hum that could have been from twenty or thirty people. Or two hundred – she had never been good at estimations.

She smoothed her skirt, wiping her palms down her covered thighs, and tried to lose the tension that was holding her hands like the wooden paws of a dormant marionette. She piped her breath through her rounded lips and closed her eyes.

The music was soothing, almost too soothing. She was glad of it but the dancer performing wasn’t likely to be showing too much energy if she was accompanying the mood accurately. Abruptly the music became jarringly bold. Bouncy. The rhythm didn’t sit well. It seemed too harsh, too superficial.

But other dancers couldn’t be part of her mind now – focussing on herself, on her character and the story was all she had room for. Other distractions would only edge out the things she needed to consider. The dance. The technical elements. The changes. The mood and tone. The journey. Those were her focus.

She swallowed, trying to lubricate her dry mouth and then took a deep breath.

Behind her, dancers were involved in their pre-performance rituals. Neck rolls, knuckle cracking. There were some that chanted to accompany ridiculous facial contortions. Perhaps these were preparation but perhaps, too, there could be some intent to intimidate the competition. A tentative entrant could be overawed by an expert performance of theatrical exercises and baffling limbering. Or perhaps it was just that she had become more cynical, more negative over time.

She loosened her shoulders, taking care not to be overtly showy. She had found a shadowy spot anyway and no one seemed to be examining her the way she had seen them scrutinise some.

Suddenly she thought that she might have given them the wrong music. Perhaps she hadn’t labelled it. Perhaps they would play someone else’s by mistake. Something in her said that it was too late anyway and that she should leave the things she couldn’t change and find some peace to lull the frenzy in her brain.

There was a strange silence.

The music had stopped.

And then there was applause. There were more than twenty. Maybe more than fifty.

She shivered but she wasn’t cold. She wasn’t hot. She was almost numb on the outside because everything was whirring on the inside.

She heard her name and then she was out. Into the hot white, surrounded by the humming black.

And every dancer that night had her waiting. And for each one who felt different from all the rest, it was almost exactly the same.

The solitude.

The anxiety.

The comparisons.

Each one in perfect isolation. But in sequential unison.

One after the other, they waited, they warmed up and rehearsed, they concentrated and they danced.

And the good ones were lost in the dance. And the distracted were lost in the judges and the audience.

The white lights shone and the music played. And it all passed in the same time as a quiet night at home watching television.

Bernadette heard her own footsteps as she walked into the light. The soft soles scuffed lightly over the floorboards and the audience allowed a ripple of settling noise to ease them into their next silence.

She took her position. She lifted her chin and let her eyes open towards the wall of invisible people. She willed them to read the story in her mind as she told it with her arms.

A woman was lost in the shadows.

Bernadette pulsed her hands with intensity as the shadows (‘las sombras’) became overwhelming.

Her hunger flooded her. Her loneliness was everything.

She allowed the ‘soledad’ movement to overcome her, to spread through her body. The white spotlight soaked her where she sat and it wasn’t hard to feel a sense of detachment from everything, to feel alone. She reached out into the dark and let the ‘berço’ linger for a moment in the distance, as far away from her body as she could stretch. And then her hands slowly reduced the movement until they were finally still. Until no cradle existed.

The woman had nothing. Nothing that she wanted. Because all she wanted was another. And there are things that cannot be made. Because life is a waiting life.

Bernadette held the ‘vida de espera’ (‘waiting life’) through the music. Until the melody faded to silence. And then slowly, through the stillness, she began to repeat the movement. Again and again. Each time, her face became more drawn, the wait became more painful. Each time, she appeared weaker as her arms moved with increasing heaviness and the movements were thin and desperate.

But through the pain of years, there came a rain, a cleansing rain.

She combined ‘lluvia’ with the ‘limpio’ movement – rippling her fingers and then joining them to sweep her hands gently to the side. Her face opened and eased. There was relief and light.

And the woman’s tears came to bring her a new day. New eyes to look through the waiting life and see its treasures.

Bernadette performed the ‘rasgos de mulher’ (‘woman’s tears’) very differently to the way she had in class in the past. There was no despair, no loss in her swaying arms and tilted head. There was only a kind of shedding of the skin, a process that was bringing something to a close and emptying her of things she didn’t need. Her arms showed the change – the ‘novo’ (‘new’) move entwined with the ‘rasgos’ – her face lifted itself from the sadness, and finally the ‘tesouros’ (‘treasures’) shape flickered between the other arcs and reaches, its presence fleeting within the longer arm and hand gestures but clearly evident and plainly something precious. Then gradually she changed the interspersed movements that fitted around the ‘treasures’. She showed ‘the river’s whisper’ (‘sussurro do rio’), the rainbow – combining the ‘arco’ with ‘colorido’ (‘colour’) as she had seen Carinna Dante Migro perform for the class, the ‘sienta la tierra’ (‘feel the earth’) movement.

The woman saw the treasures of her world and knew that with her sorrow, there was also possibility and beauty and the quiet energy of forever.

The final ‘energia de para sempre’ was a careful balance of intensity and peace. Bernadette linked and unlinked her fingers with strength and certainty, she reached her arms and brought them back with a simple dignity – she hoped with the grace that was needed to indicate a human resolution. Not perfection, but understanding.

The music, which had been welling and softening around her, faded, and the spotlight lost its heat.

For a moment she was sitting in the dark. In an empty silence.

And then there was applause.

She stood and nodded in the traditional way and made her way from the pairs of eyes to her own shadows so that she could shed the woman’s story and find her way back to her own.


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