Dance Macabre

by Aysel Atamdede

Pointe shoes with silk ribbon

A single spotlight pans across the empty stage, a pale circle of light in an otherwise blackened room. Beyond, the auditorium sits silent, the seats waiting to be filled.

On the stage, a solitary dancer stands at the ready. Clad in a dress of midnight blue, she sparkles in the light from the dozens of sequins and rhinestones embroidered into her outfit like a sea of stars in the midnight sky. The halter dress hugs her slender frame and falls just below her knees, showing off her pale shoulders and legs that look sallow under the unforgiving glare. The skirt is made of a light chiffon that flutters even without a breeze, silver thread along the seams and hem creating spirals and waves. Around her wrists are two simple silver bangles; two more encircle her ankles to complete the look.

The silence is broken by the light tapping of a baton on a podium. She lifts her head, awaiting the first strains of music to fill the auditorium and begin her routine. And she’s off. When she twirls, the tiara perched on her forehead twinkles merrily, the diamonds complimenting the dress. Heavy eye shadow and dark lipstick match her raven hair done up in a bun. For this dance, she wears the regal black laced slippers instead of white or pink. She is beautiful in her appearance and her movements, flowing from one pose to the next.

The unseen orchestra plays a haunting melody; at times, the song slows, becoming melancholic and emotional. Then it sweeps into a majestic overture, full of energy, the reverberations thrumming throughout the auditorium. If an audience were present for this rehearsal, they would feel the music in their chests, in their minds, in their souls. It was the perfect accompaniment for her routine as she tells her story through movement and expression.

But what story could it be? She spins around and around again, one pirouette after another, skirt billowing around her before she halts and strikes a pose. One arms is raised to the ceiling, the other curved in front of her as if hugging an invisible body. Chest heaving already, she savors the pause before one foot shifts, then the other, sending her into motion again.

This whole time, her eyes are closed. On first glance, it would seem she was lost in the moment, blissful, letting the music carry her through each twirl, each leap, each roll. But to the keen eye, it was not quite so. For such an incredible feat of grace and agility, her face did not match. Her lipstick may have painted a perpetual smile onto her lips, but the corners are pulled tight like they are fighting to stay in position. When her eyes do open for but a second to gauge her place on the stage, there is a sadness in them – a wetness around the edges, the slightest furrow in her brow. What could be troubling her so, when the dance was going so perfectly?

The music picks up, the intensity growing. Each of her steps is more complex than the last as her routine reached its climax. Her eyes shut again, the movement causing a single tear to slip free and down her cheek, marring her face with a black streak of makeup. With a gasp of air and a surge of strength, she executes the final leap, pulling her hands in close for a rapid twirl, then shooting them back out for the landing. Stick the landing, and she would have the perfect performance. It’s all that’s left.

Her feet touch down, and the unthinkable happens. Unable to take any more, her legs buckle beneath her meager weight, sending her tumbling to the stage where she then lay unmoving. Her chest heaved, sucking in exhausted breaths. Limbs trembled from exertion, and another tear escapes. All she can do is stare upwards into the blinding spotlight, catching but a glimpse of a strand of silk no wider than a spider’s web.

The dance was ruined.

“How… disappointing,” comes the creaky, hoarse voice from somewhere in the rafters. It dripped with disdain, with judgement, with anger. “Those are difficult to replace, and even harder to fix. We’ve discussed this before, my sweet. You must be more careful.”

Heavy footsteps mark the path of someone descending, moving around the back of the stage, coming towards her. The stage lights dim one by one, a gloom settling over her so she cannot see much at all. All she could see was a figure draped in shadow, their features obscured by a heavy coat and a tall, dark hat.

Unable to move her limbs, so tired she had not even the strength to turn her head, she could only lie there as cool fingers brushed her ankles, light like a spider crawling across her skin. The shivers that now wracked her body had nothing to do with her exhaustion. There was a sensation around her foot, the figure doing something with the silver bangle that encircled her leg as it crouched over her. In seconds, it was done. The figure straightened, impossibly tall and spindly-limbed. A dry crackle escaped its chest, sounding more like a cough than a laugh.

“All better, now. But what is this? There cannot be tears for such a performance! It ruins the mood, the atmosphere, the exquisite taste of success!” One limb stretched towards her face, a dirty lace handkerchief produced from somewhere clutched in its grasp. Biting back a whimper, she squeezed her eyes shut and felt it dab at her cheek. Hot, sickly sweet air filled her nose as it loomed mere inches from her, inspecting the handiwork. “Once more, from the top, I do think. This one must be flawless, or we shall have to go back to the drawing board with you. Do try your best, won’t you, my little doll?”

She kept her eyes shut as the footsteps receded. Slowly, they moved back behind the stage, up the metal steps that groaned from years of neglected maintenance, then up above the rafters once more until they stopped above her.

The delicate, invisible threads that were attached to the bangles on her wrists and legs pulled at her limbs, and she was standing once more. They guided her back to her starting position, where she waited once more for the music to begin.

Beneath the stage, hidden from the audience’s view, the many-armed machine tugged and contorted the strings of the instruments, beginning the performance once more. In the dressing room, other dancers waited for her to finish. Some were perched on the couches and chairs, leaning awkwardly to one side or another. Others lay motionless on the carpet. Each one of them wore those silver bangles, broken threads tangling with one another. Discarded for better talent, they lay there waiting for their chance to try again.

An old and faded poster clings with the last of its glue to the wall above the door. An advertisement, proudly announcing auditions for the Merry Marionettes Dance Troupe were open and ongoing, promised perfection after just a few months of rehearsing no matter the level of experience.

Step into my parlor, the tagline read. A lifetime commitment.

Category: Featured, Fiction