Those Dancing Feet
~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp ~
(This short story is a re-post. It has been published in The Literary Hatchet.)
Nine-year-old Edith Mullinex couldn’t keep her legs still and when her legs moved her arms moved and then her whole body moved. When this ceaseless movement turned to dancing, she believed herself to be one of the all-time great dancers of the world. She didn’t know anything about the all-time great dancers of the world but, whoever they were, she was sure she was better than any of them.
She danced her way to school in the morning and she danced her way home in the afternoon and she danced every chance she got between morning and afternoon. She danced her way to the bathroom and she danced her way to the lunchroom and after she had eaten her lump of meatloaf and her cold mashed potatoes and her two canned plums in a puddle of mauve-colored juice, she danced her way back to the fourth-grade classroom, where all of her classmates and her teacher, Miss Divine, watched in open-mouthed wonder as she danced her way to her desk at the back of the room. Stop dancing, people would say, but she just ignored them. She knew they would never be able to understand.
“We have a real dancing problem with little Edith,” Miss Divine told Edith’s mother.
“It’s a phase she’s going through,” Edith’s mother said. “She has somehow got it into her head that she’s one of the all-time great dancers of the world.”
“It’s not normal,” Miss Divine said. “I think it calls for psychiatric evaluation.”
Thirteen-year-old Fairfax taunted Edith mercilessly when she was dancing at home, but she ignored him, as she did all the naysayers. When he tripped her while she was dancing on her way to the kitchen to eat dinner, she made the fall part of her dance and in this way annoyed him even further. When friends of Fairfax’s visited to watch a football game with him on TV, she danced all around them and in front of them, obstructing their view, until suddenly they remembered they had leaves to rake or grass to cut and left to go home.
“Boy, Fairfax sure does have a screwy sister!” they said when they were out the door.
Edith was always improvising new dance steps. When the phone rang, she danced her way to answer it and when it was time to go to bed, she danced her way into her bedroom, making closing the door part of the dance. Her mother sent her to the store with a list of things to buy. She danced her way there and she danced her way up and down the aisles of the store until she had everything on the list. People looked at her curiously, sure she was either filming a television special or was an escapee from the mental hospital.
Edith had a cousin named Pansy Mullinex. Like Edith, Pansy was very thin with lank blond hair to her shoulders and stick-like arms and legs. Edith and Pansy were the exact same age, born five days apart, and could have passed for twins. Pansy should have been in the same fourth-grade class as Edith, but she still read at a first-grade level and was in special education.
On the playground at recess, Edith showed Pansy some of her latest dance steps and soon they were dancing together. They worked up a dance routine to the song “When the Saints Go Marching In.” Edith taught Pansy the words. They sang and danced every day at morning recess and, on a good day, attracted an appreciative crowd of forty of fifty. That’s when Edith knew she loved having an audience.
The school talent contest was coming up. The whole school would be watching. First prize was ten dollars. Edith proposed to Pansy that they enter, and, if they won, they could split the ten dollars. There wasn’t much you could do with half of ten dollars, but it was more money than they were used to having at one time.
Edith chose the songs they would dance to, a combination of classics and bouncy contemporary hits that anybody who listened to the radio would know. There was some Roy Orbison (“Oobie Doobie”), Elvis Presley (“Jailhouse Rock”), Connie Francis (“Lipstick on Your Collar”), Bobby Vee (“Rubber Ball”), Tommy Dorsey (“Sunny Side of the Street”), and even some Perez Prado (“Mambo No. 49”) to add a cute Latin flavor at the end. It was a range of music to show their range and versatility.
For what to wear they chose matching black poodle skirts with white trim; white, short-sleeved sweaters with pompom ties; red ribbons in their hair, saddle oxfords and bobby socks. To add some pizzazz, Edith bought some taps and tiny nails from a shoe repair store on Main Street and turned both pairs of shoes into tap shoes.
They rehearsed every day for two weeks on a sheet of plywood in an old wasp-infested shed behind Pansy’s house and, when it was time for the talent contest, they were both ready. Neither of them had worn makeup before, but Edith confiscated from her mother’s dressing table some face powder, lipstick and rouge to slather on their faces to keep them from looking ghostly in the spotlights.
Edith knew about the other acts and she considered them stupid. There was a girl twirling two hula-hoops, a boy playing “Yankee Doodle Dandy” on his banjo, a boy acting like Curly from the Three Stooges, a girl moving her lips to the Connie Francis song “Who’s Sorry Now,” another boy playing spoons to the tune of “Swanee River” and other assorted acts. She knew that she and Pansy had more class and more pizzazz in their little fingers than all the others put together and were almost certain to win first prize, unless something bad happened, like freezing up in front of an audience of two hundred people and not being able to dance at all. She was sure nothing like that was going to happen.
They didn’t go on until about an hour into the show. While they waited, they stood just behind the curtain watching the contestants go on and come off. The audience applauded after each act—and there were always a few cheers—but Edith knew they were just being polite. People didn’t go to a show to just sit on their hands; they wanted to participate.
Finally, it was Edith and Pansy’s turn. They started out behind a screen with a big light shining on it from behind so that, to the audience, they were only silhouettes. They danced behind the screen and after a few seconds they came out, Edith on the left and Pansy on the right. After that they owned the talent contest. They tapped and jiggled and turned and swooped. They propelled each other into the air and did some ballet steps. Edith twirled Pansy and then Pansy twirled Edith. They joined hands and jitter-bugged, they waltzed and did some tango steps. They were a two-person conga line and then they drew some laughs when they acted like chickens pecking and scratching at the ground. They jumped, jittered and jived, drawing oohs from the audience when they both did the “splits” at the same time. Pansy remembered all the steps Edith taught her and even improvised some of her own.
When the music stopped and Edith and Pansy finished with a flourish in which they both went down on one knee with their arms extended, the crowd went wild. The clapping, cheering and whistling were deafening. They had to do several curtain calls before the show could go on.
There were more acts waiting to go on, but Edith knew it was all but over.
The show finally ended and then all that was left was for the judges to make their decision. The judges were all teachers and as Edith looked out at them from backstage, she saw they had their heads together to arrive at their decision.
The deliberations among the judges took about five minutes. When they were ready, Miss Mish, the music teacher who was also one of the judges, took to the stage to announce the winners.
Miss Mish wheezed into the microphone, “No matter who wins, there’s one thing on which we can all agree. Everybody on this stage tonight is a winner!”
The audience clapped and cheered and Miss Mish held up her hands to get them to shut up. “Our third-place winner,” she said, “is none other than Marvin Hittler and his banjo!”
Cheers and huzzahs for Marvin Hittler.
“Our second-place winner is Leeman LaFarge for his remarkable impression of Curly Howard of the Three Stooges. Come on out, Leeman, and take a bow.”
Leeman came out from backstage and, to anybody familiar with the Three Stooges, he was a perfect pint-sized version of Curly. He gave the audience a few Curley mannerisms and then he pretended to be shy and had to retreat behind the curtain.
Miss Mish clapped and wheezed into the microphone like a donkey. When the laughter and cheering died down, she brayed: “And now the moment for which we have all been waiting! The first-place winner of this year’s school talent contest is…may I have a drumroll, please!…Edith Mullinex and Pansy Mullinex! For their sparkling and innovative dance routine!”
Edith wasn’t surprised. She knew, unless the show was rigged, that she and Pansy would win first prize. She took Pansy’s hand and they both bowed graciously again and again before the audience. After they left the stage, the audience was still applauding, so they gave a curtain call and then another and another. After a few minutes, Miss Mish took to the microphone again and told everybody to shut up and go home. The show was over.
As the crowd dispersed, everybody wanted to congratulate Edith and Pansy, but especially Edith because the whole thing had been her idea. She was the star of the show.
Edith’s mother, who had been sitting in the audience, was going to give Edith and Pansy a ride home, but Edith wanted to walk home by herself. She was too excited to sit still and ride in the car, she said. She needed to dance her way home.
She said her goodbyes and danced her way down the street away from the school. It felt good to be away from the crowd and to breathe in the cool night air. Her head was still in the clouds. She still heard the music and the applause, the cheering, as her name was announced as the first-place winner and the crowd went wild! It was the happiest moment of her life!
As she danced off the sidewalk into an intersection, she wasn’t thinking about watching for oncoming cars, wasn’t thinking about anything other than how good she felt. She didn’t see the red sportscar speeding toward her.
There was a squeal of brakes, a skidding of tires and impact. A woman standing on the sidewalk screamed. Traffic came to a standstill. Somebody called an ambulance. Within minutes, they came and picked Edith up off the street and took her to the emergency room at the hospital. The hospital people were trying to call Edith’s mother, but she wasn’t home yet.
Edith died two hours later in the hospital. She never regained consciousness and never knew what happened. Everybody who knew Edith and who heard the story afterwards said the same thing: She died happy.
School closed at noon the day of the funeral so everybody could attend. Her entire fourth-grade class was there and all the teachers. She was buried in a white casket with a spray of red roses that her classmates had taken up a collection to buy for her. And, on her headstone, beneath her name, was etched one word: DANCER.
After Pansy got over the shock of Edith’s death, she assumed the dancing mantle for herself. She danced her way to school in the morning and she danced her way home in the afternoon. She danced before, during and after school. She danced her way to the bathroom and she danced her way to the lunchroom to eat lunch.
The special education teacher, Miss Cornapple, called Pansy’s mother and said, “I’m afraid we have a dancing problem with Pansy.”
“It’s a phase she’s going through,” Pansy’s mother said. “She has somehow got it into her head that she’s one of the all-time great dancers of the world.”
“It’s not normal,” Miss Cornapple said. “I think it calls for psychiatric evaluation.”
“Maybe you just can’t stand to see anybody happy,” Pansy’s mother said.
As Pansy’s dancing skills improved, so did her reading skills. Soon she was allowed to move out of special education and take her place in the fourth-grade class. She danced and danced and danced, and she looked so much like Edith, and acted so much like her, that soon people began calling her Edith instead of Pansy and whenever it happened she never bothered to correct them. Edith was back, or maybe she had never left at all.
Copyright © 2022 by Allen Kopp