(from The Piranha Dances)
They are the most ferocious fish in the world. Even the most formidable fish, the sharks or the barracudas, usually attack things smaller than themselves. But the piranha habitually attack things much larger than themselves. They will snap a finger off a hand incautiously trailed in the water; they mutilate swimmers – in every river town in Paraguay there are men who have been thus mutilated; they will rend and devour alive any wounded man or beast; for blood in the water excites them to madness.
Roosevelt, Theodore (1914) Through the Brazilian Wilderness. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. pp. 42-43.
“…yeah, and your name, mate?”
“Claude, Claude Hinault.”
The man in the doorway looked up. “Cloud-cloudy-no? What sort of a name’s that?”
Claude (who was regularly forced to remind people that he had lost his accent years ago) recognised his upside-down name on the clipboard list the man was holding, and pointed to it. “That sort,” he said with more tiredness than malice.
“Oh, Claaawed. Righto, then. In you go.”
He made his way up the stairs knowing that the sa tisfaction of telling his wife ‘I told you so’ would still never make up for the evening that was about to be inflicted on him.
At the top of the stairs, there was a small sign, “Danzamão”, with an arrow pointing to the right.
Claude turned left into the bathroom and locked a cubicle door behind him. He held his hands in front of him as he leant against the door. They didn’t look very different from the way they had looked before. Not at a glance. The cuts had healed and the scars had faded a little. But although his fingers were stretched to their bearable maximum, his hands still curled. Like paws. The joints and muscles wouldn’t let them relax into a tidy flatness. He tried the piano exercise, but his fingers seemed stiffer tonight than they had been for weeks.
Somewhere on the ground floor, salsa music was being played and a voice barked over the irregular clatter of feet.
Claude swallowed and blew softly on his palms. He unlocked the door and walked with resignation in the direction of the arrow.
She brushed her hair now for practical reasons, not aesthetic ones. But tonight, as she turned, she caught sight of herself in the mirror. Grey, she thought. No one could be more grey.
She scraped the brown hair from its twisted mat around the bristles and dropped it into the bin, then wiped her hands across her eyes as they closed one at a time. Then, against her better judgement, she looked into the mirror again. Her lips curled. It could have been a smile. It could have been a sneer. Bernadette shrugged and left the room empty and still slightly untidy. As she’d done so many times before.
“Dinner’s in the oven. Just twenty more minutes. And I’ve set the table.”
George Trudovic raised his eyebrows and turned his head slightly but didn’t look up from his computer. “Right,” he said distractedly.
“I’ll be back at the usual time.” His wife’s voice seemed to tug at his attention like the buzz of a persistent fly.
He looked up.
“Did you hear me?”
“Yes,” he said “Twenty more minutes. I heard you.”
His wife stood in the doorway and watched his gaze go immediately back to the screen.
“Rain off the coast,” he muttered. “Might get to us tomorrow.”
“Righto then, won’t need my brolley tonight,” she said, knowing that she was already talking to the air again. She turned and picked up her handbag from the sofa and made her way towards the front door. As she closed it behind her, his “Good luck … you’re due a win” drifted into the same nothingness that had vacuumed up her last words.
* * *
Piranhas have a fierce reputation – but it’s a myth, say researchers who claim that the species shoals to evade predators not to engage in feeding frenzies. “Previously it was thought piranhas shoaled as it enabled them to form a cooperative hunting group,” said biologist Anne Magurran. “However we have found that it is primarily a defensive behaviour, and quite a complex one.” Magurran, from the University of St Andrews in Scotland, and Helder Queiroz of the Mamiraua Institute in Brazil, have found that piranhas seek safety in numbers. … “Contrary to popular belief – and their sharp teeth – piranhas are omnivores,” Magurran says. “They are scavengers more than predators, eating mainly fish, plant material and insects.” … In fact, the little fish are so fearful of human contact that while Magurran and Queiroz were studying wild-caught fish in a tank, they had to erect screens to stop the fish hyperventilating (flapping their gill flaps more rapidly, indicating stress) every time the researchers came too close.
Liz Wiliams, Cosmos Online. (3 July 2007)
The Danzamão studio was dark but certainly not gloomy. There were an assortment of lamps positioned around the room as well as a number of screens covered in a black gauzy material.
The instructor was reciting his introductory speech with something less than passion.
“…it’s ‘my-o’ – that’s ‘my’ as in ‘by’, ‘try’, ‘cry’. It is NOT ‘may-o’ – that’s something Americans spread on a sandwich. Nor is it the former chairman of communist China. And, although you’re only here as remedial students, you must know the correct pronunciation as well as some of the history before you can attempt even the most rudimentary moves.”
Claude shifted a little in his chair and looked ahead. A woman sitting towards the front of the room was as motionless as he wished he could be. After all these months, calm still couldn’t find him. He itched to get out of this place but he knew that he’d run out of options. So here he was in this place where entry was that of some secret club or underground political movement and the décor reminded him of the kind of sad fairy grotto created by a well-meaning collector that his daughter found so compelling.
After this, no one could say he hadn’t done everything possible.
The voice droned on “… believed to be one of the most ancient forms of dance. It combines storytelling with movement of the hands and arms and is believed to have had its origins in South America. …”
A breeze lifted a curtain and suddenly the five or six lamps seemed to have multiplied. The gauze on the screens had wafted up and underneath were mirrors, reflecting the lamplight, reflecting the reflections so that the room had become maze of lights and veils as the floating material drifted gently down again. The woman in front of Claude gasped. For just a few seconds, the room was full of light and people. And then the veils fell and hid the corridors of lamps and arms and flickering strands of shadow behind their quiet reality.
“The name comes from the Portugese, ’mãos’ meaning ‘hands’ and the Spanish ‘danza’, which of course means dance.” The man at the front of the room remained undazzled by the brief intrusion of phantom lights, fixtures and students. “The terms we use to describe movements within the art form are derived from these two languages.” He wasn’t looking around the room at all. He was reciting his piece with the freshness of words that had been said innumerable times. Claude examined the man’s appearance. His hair had been slicked down over his forehead with some cosmetic assistance. Perhaps years ago it had looked like hair but now it looked as if he had a small seal flipper pasted to his forehead. The rest of his hair was so thin – and similarly flattened – that it was nothing more than colour and shine for his skull. And considering the nature of his art, his arms seemed quite short and pudgy. Claude had envisaged the willowy tentacles of a Spanish beauty when his doctor had given him the brief description of the dance style but this man was quite removed from that image. He also seemed more world-weary and jaded than Claude had expected a dancing teacher to be.
The sudden realisation that he had thought about this much more than he had been aware of, startled Claude. He thought he had just told himself – as well as his wife and doctor – that it was a waste of time and then put it aside. But now he felt a sense of déjà vu as images of arms twisting and waving appeared in his mind to accompany the tired recitation from the front of the room.
“Historically the dance form is said to have originated in the Paraneña region of Paraguay where the country borders Brazil and Argentina. There is an area within that region called the Paraná Plateau – yes, Piranha – which extends through the neighbouring South American countries and it’s thought that, in ancient times, the people there would tell their stories through intricate arm movements. Traditionally, dance was used to pass on history and to express emotions and as the plateau changed and thick forest grew and slopes and valleys developed, extreme movement and dance may have become more difficult. It’s thought that this could be the reason that their displays became restricted to upper body movements, often while seated. Over time …”
There was a noise in the hall. Claude glanced over to see a tall woman standing awkwardly in the doorway. At least she seemed tall but her shoulders slouched and her posture made an apologetic plea for invisibility. The instructor had stopped his speech and was looking towards the woman. She shrugged remorsefully and the instructor was able to throw in a brief tut and a disapproving purse of his lips before continuing.
“… Over time, the name and the techniques have probably changed and developed but what you will be instructed in over the next few weeks is the art form as we have come to know it in the contemporary movement. Bernadette here …,” (he gestured towards the woman in the doorway), “will be demonstrating some advanced moves to allow you to see the possibilities of the complex forms of the dance before we begin teaching you some of the basics. Bernadette?” He waved her in in a way that Claude, though clearly not an expert, thought may not be considered particularly elegant by the people of the Paraná Plateau.
“Competition rules state that the dancer must be seated on the floor, either kneeling or cross-legged, but you won’t be competing and I’m sure there are those of you,” (his eyes flickered unkindly towards a largish woman sitting a couple of seats away from Claude), “who would find that a challenge, so we’ll be doing our work on chairs.” He threw another dismissive hand towards an empty chair and frowned at Bernadette. “Bernadette will demonstrate on a chair so that you can all see her performance from your seats”.
The instructor strode out amongst the students and began to switch off lamps around the room. “Please turn out the lamps on either side of you,” he intoned impatiently. The other students cautiously reached out to snap off their neighbouring lamps and Claude followed. The condescending tone was beginning to rankle – it had been a long time since Claude had been at this end of a command and this was just another thing to add to the list of reasons he felt himself compiling to put an end to this whole experience. He could imagine his most junior kitchen staff chuckling to see their chef humiliated like this and he began to resent this pompous little man for adding to the ordeal of his current circumstances.
The instructor made his way back towards the front of the room, snapping off the last couple of lamps to leave only those in the front row illuminating Bernadette’s stooping figure. Then he paced to the side where he pressed a button on some kind of sound system while Bernadette scraped a plastic chair to the middle of the space at the front. Guitars strummed an introduction as she settled herself and, as Claude watched, Bernadette’s body seemed to stretch and grow. Her shoulders almost opened her up like a fan as she raised her arms gently in front of her torso. She sat with a comfortable kind of tension through her body, a strength that seemed natural reaching to her face to flicker softly behind her eyes. Then suddenly, as the tempo changed, her fingers began to snap and flash with such quick darting movements that it was hard to keep up. Except to see that her every move was symmetrical – her left hand mirroring her right, or vice versa. The precision was seamless and the emotion was pure anger. The movements became bigger, progressing through fingers to hands to wrists and then her elbows suddenly appeared. Claude realised that he’d been quite hypnotised by her hands to the point of almost forgetting that they were attached to a person. He had been watching the way her fingers could bend and lace in so many different ways that he was almost surprised when the movement suddenly flowed down her forearms and her hands were raised up, forcing the audience (for that was what they had become) to view the dance of the two arms, writhing in a sharp and eloquent fury as the music blazed around them. And strangely, the antagonism that Claude himself had felt seemed to have dimmed, even though the arms performing before him were clearly telling the story of some considerable rage. But he let these ruminations slip away as he caught sight of Bernadette’s face in the warm light. Her eyes glinted and her tongue carefully traced thoughtful lips. Her chin had tilted upwards and the light bathed her lively face. Claude couldn’t believe this was the face of the woman who had stood so sheepishly in the doorway not long before. A hand flashed across her face, its hyper-extended fingers flaring like a cock’s comb and then curling to the palm with a definite assertion. Its mate had snapped its reflection in Claude’s peripheral vision. The two fists struck each other in time with the harsh beats of a drum, the two forearms crossed and the hands slapped their bold exclamation around opposing elbows. Abruptly the fiery rhythm stopped and the two twisted arms paused. Then as the melody began again – but this time with a slower, more fluid tone – the arms slid gently into light brushing movements. Graceful waves with soft loose fingers, smooth combinations where arms would mimic, then partner each other, then reflect, then find a solitary expression. There was passion in these moves, and some sadness. There was almost a kind of loneliness emanating from the dance.
Claude blinked. Perhaps it was the music. And the fact that he knew there had been times since the accident that he had felt sorry for himself. He shook himself and breathed out. Some things from his own life were just getting the better of him because of the dim lighting and the moody music. It couldn’t be the waving hands of this stranger that had led him to feel these emotions.
When the music stopped and Bernadette’s hands came to rest in her lap, Claude was relieved. This was silly. Dwelling on feelings, bursts of self-pity. Life was about doing, not sitting and wallowing. The dance had been pretty enough but Claude was even more sure that this place was not for him. He had promised to stay for the full class but that would be all. There would be no more after tonight.
Mrs Trudovic was later home than usual. Something had made her remember her kaleidoscope and she had paused at the bus stop at the end of the street to collect her thoughts. And save them carefully away. It could have been the aura of the streetlight or the reflection from a puddle on the pavement but she had suddenly found the shapes of coloured glass mirrored in her mind just the way they had been when she had held her kaleidoscope up to breathe the afternoon sun. Today they (the ‘ladies’ of her generation) would bemoan the loss of such simple toys. They would sigh over the invasion of technology and computers and the lack of imagination and the excess of violence these things brought with them (whatever perpetually repeated lament was currently being bleated around bingo halls or church group lunches). Mrs Trudovic hadn’t seen much of the current toys so she had no opinion. But she remembered her kaleidoscope. She smiled to herself. Had she stared through it for hours, twisting and changing the jangling patterns or had she only used it once or twice for just a few seconds? She would never know. A memory is such a pliable thing. And children from every era have flexible attention spans. Perhaps the kaleidoscope was one of those presents that parents had loved to give and children had adored for a day before the novelty abruptly faded and less innocuous entertainment was again favoured. Like porcelain dolls too precious to be played with and ribbons so beautiful they could only be worn on very special occasions. Or perhaps that kaleidoscope had been her companion for hours and days and longer. Mrs Trudovic tucked it away and hoped it would appear again from her elastic memory to give her a few seconds of quiet joy in another time and place.
At home, she closed the door behind her and listened for the clicking of fingers on a keyboard and the staccato clearing of a familiar throat. The television burbled in the background but the tap-tap-tap and the regular ahems soon drifted above the police drama playing out unnoticed in the corner of the living room.
“Just me,” she called, as she had so many thousands of times before. “Just a giant four-eyed frog,” she thought, silently.
Each time she heard the “Just me,” drift across the stale living room air, she knew it was just a formless sound breaking the silence that registered (if anything did). So she had begun to imagine interesting alternatives, knowing that each – no matter how ridiculous – would get just the same reaction. She had gone through “Just a stranger come to blow the place up”, “Just a maniac on the rampage” and similar unwanted intruders until she had reached the ludicrous but entertainingly creative “Just a purple sunflower”, “Just an éclair with legs” and other nonsense that indicated she had been playing this game for quite some time.
She walked into the study and put her hands on George’s shoulders, kissing him on the back of the head. He lifted his left hand off the keyboard and held it, palm up, over his shoulder.
“Hand over the winnings, then” he said, a customary smile tweaking at the corners of his lips.
“One day I will,” she replied, “and then you’ll be surprised.”
“Or you won’t, and I’ll be sitting here alone with my empty hand out,” he said, glancing up at her. “You’ll be off on some cruise, never to be heard from again.”
She patted his shoulders and walked out of the study, “Oh, you’d hear from me … I’d send you a postcard from Alaska or Hawaii.” She walked into the kitchen and lifted his washed plate from the draining board. “Might even say ‘Wish you were here’,” she smiled as she put the dry dinner dishes away in the cupboards.
As she closed the final cupboard door, she brought her palms together and linked her fingers. Then with a twist of her wrists, she inverted the cupped hands and pushed her palms flat, leaving her index fingers crossed with a triangle of space below them and her thumbs pointing to the ground. “Construa casa,” she muttered under her breath. “Finish up there, love, will you?” she called out, “’t’s getting late.” Then she headed up the stairs while George turned off the lights and did the final lock up.
Bernadette’s night hadn’t started off well but her Intermediate class had cheered her up.
Ralph – she refused to think of him as Raphael no matter how many business cards and competition programs he ensured it was printed on – had been overflowing with his usual condescension towards the Remedials and although Bernadette enjoyed performing, she had felt a little like a child at a school show with an audience of other children’s parents. She knew she shouldn’t assume that all of them were bored or reluctant but she couldn’t imagine that every new remedial student was enthusiastic about the prospect of Danzamão. Her demonstration had certainly been nothing like an official competition where the only people watching were dedicated participants or followers. Bernadette sighed. To have those people as an audience was an experience that was beyond description. She smiled to herself, knowing that that particular challenge was one that certainly didn’t lie ahead – she would never describe a Danzamão performance to anyone.
The only people that could know about the events were the people that attended. There was no discussion beyond classes and performances about the dance form – that was a strictly enforced aspect of involvement. The Remedials were referred by a few carefully chosen practitioners who were aware of the rules and who knew very little detail except the positive outcomes for their patients – unless they were dancers themselves. And other new students usually came from other dance forms taught within studios that held classes in Danzamão, students who were able to demonstrate a clear understanding of the sanctity of the dance form and its principles. Bernadette snorted softly – the secrecy made it sound like some kind of clandestine society, a club of spies or malcontents up to no good. But it was nothing as theatrical as those conclusions. It was simply the traditional approach.
The dance had historically been a significant form of communication for those that had practiced it and to bring it to within human constraints with tools as limited as language had always been in opposition to the basic teachings. The dance was revered as a way to describe the indescribable so, from its earliest origins, participants had chosen to express nothing about the dance outside the performance. Such discussion was seen to have the potential to diminish the story that had been told, the ideas or feelings that had been imparted. Over time, though, the attitude to verbalisation had become a little more flexible with some talking within classes becoming acceptable after the practice had spread beyond its South American origins. But this was still kept to a minimum and there was certainly no discussion of anything related to Danzamão beyond the boundaries of a studio or performance venue. Bernadette always felt uncomfortable listening to Ralph’s introductory speech to Remedials or Beginners as it filled the usually peaceful studios with the harsh clatter of his words and certainly underlined the traditional dancers’ concerns about the restrictions of language. The history would never be conveyed accurately in simple words and the people who began the art were so much more than descriptive speech could try to colour them. There was complexity in each individual who told a story, a uniqueness of mind and the body movement that attempted to interpret that. No verbal explanation could ever paint a true picture of their feelings, their layers, their lives and challenges or the way that they had chosen to convey these through the placement of their hands and arms. So Bernadette always bent her head and gritted her teeth through Ralph’s banal oration and waited for the moment when the talking would stop and the communicating would begin.
She brushed her teeth methodically and leafed through a promotional magazine that had come with a bill. It was a distraction from staring at herself while she dealt with her dental hygiene – she had had enough of mirrors for the day.
She changed, flipped off the lights and slid under the airy quilt that she had treated herself to in the post-Christmas sales. And she waited for sleep to invade the hollow silence.
* * * * *