It was a town centre like any other. The same shops, the same sort of people, doing the same sort of things. Children shouted, parents scolded, couples walked arm in arm, teenagers laughed; life went on. A soft breeze blew in the noise and pollution of the traffic from the main road behind the buildings to mingle with the smells of sugar, meats, and chemicals from the various shops. An unremarkable scene for an unremarkable day full of seemingly unremarkable people. They shot past each other with barely a second glance at anyone else. There were only the most casual of exchanges. The short conversation between a cashier and customer, the awkward dance of two strangers trying to both walk in the same lane. Nobody really considered anyone who was not part of their story, who was not their family or friend. Everyone else was at best a background extra in a forgettable episode, no more than that.
Shuffling through the background of everyone’s story was an old woman. No friends or family were by her side to include her in any scene of importance. She did not even stop at any shop to take a brief speaking role in a shop keeper’s life. All the woman did was make her way, slowly, in a straight line. From her sunken eyes and skeletal hands, you could see how thin she was, the many layers of clothing she wore for warmth doing little to bely her brittle frame. Her face was screwed up in concentration as if each step were a great effort. Her left hand was fastened round a worn walking stick. Her right foot betrayed the source of her discomfort as it pointed almost at her left foot. Indeed, her entire right leg was a near useless limb, barely able to support her feeble weight for a few moments without becoming too painful. It caused her discomfort even to walk at her slow pace. If she sat she could not keep it in the same position for too long before it ached. It was the bane of her life and would be so for as long as it continued. That did not matter to her though because once long ago she had danced.
Even longer ago, before she had even danced, she had been a little girl. She had grown up far away from the world she would eventually find herself in and in a country far from the one she would grow old in. Her childhood was spent in a poor village made up of little more than huts. Before she was born there had been a great war and the old village had been destroyed. You could still see some parts of the old village like the arch which had been the entrance to a church that the invaders could not pull down. There were chips all over it where they had tried to smash it, and shoot it, and blow it up, but to no avail. The people in the village were proud of their arch and built their new, much smaller, church opposite to it. All the houses had been knocked down in the war. The new government had promised them new houses but in the end told them to build them themselves. With no money for new materials all the houses had to be made out of what could be salvaged from the old ones, so they were all very small and crooked. The Little Girl did not mind this though. It was her home and it was just right to her how it was. The village was nestled in a valley between two great hills which the Little Girl called mountains. This made some of the older villagers who had seen real mountains laugh, but to her they were mountains. Along the valley the villagers scattered their farms, scraping a meagre living out of the land.
When the Little Girl was not milking cows or gathering the chicken’s eggs she spent her time flying around the valley and hills. She was the only little girl in the village, the other children were all boys. Because she didn’t want to spend all her time with the old people she longed to be part of their games, but they would never let her because she was a girl. They would always try to run away from her and hide from her. But even if they pushed her down or locked her in the stables she could always find them. She was just so much faster than any of them that if she could find where they had gone (and they were so loud it was difficult not to) she could always catch up to them. Even when they tried to lose her by running all the way to the top of the hills she would be waiting for them there, barely out of breath as they staggered and wheezed their way up. When they all came in for dinner the old women would laugh with the Little Girl for her success and the old men would clip their sons around their heads for their failure. This was life for the Little Girl, a world contained between two hills, between work and play, between sunrise and sunset, never needing nor expecting anything beyond that.
One summers day the Little Girl and the rest of the village were reminded there was a world beyond the valley when a travelling circus appeared. The cacophony of drums, horns, bangs, and even a trumpeting elephant could be heard from miles away. Some of the older villagers feared the invaders were returning as the noise was so unexpected. The children all ran up the side of the hills to gain a better look to see what was coming. Naturally the Little Girl was high enough to see it first but she had no idea what she was looking at. There were bright colours, acrobats jumping over each other and through the air, a giant man banging a huge drum, clowns with instruments that let out strange noises, and the elephant coming up in front carrying a tiny man with its trunk. The Little Girl did not have any idea what she was looking at, she did not even know what such a spectacle was called, but she knew that it was brilliant. Just as the boys were wheezing their way to where she had climbed she started sprinting back down the hill to meet this ostentatious group.
By the time she got back to the village the circus had transformed it. She had always loved her little village but it was not an obviously merry place. It was grey and quiet, a place one had to learn to love. Not anymore. Now the village was full of colour, sound, movement, and life! The acrobats were tumbling over the huts and flying over walls and people. The elephant, itself a wall of colour because of the vibrant decorations put on it, was putting its trunk in a pond near the church and spraying the water through the air somehow creating more dazzling colours and lights. There were dogs howling along with a trumpet player, chickens fleeing the charge of the man with the giant drum, clowns and magicians pulling flowers from their sleeves for the old women, and throwing cream pies in the faces of the grumbling old men. Then unseen by all, the tiny man appeared from behind the elephant’s ear to start singing with the loudest voice the Little Girl had ever heard. He sang a song about how the war was over, and how sadness and death were all in the past. Now was the time for life and laughter. His song told how they had been travelling around all the lands affected by the war to bring back happiness to those who hadn’t know it for so long, and how they were even going to go to the land of the invaders to bring joy there.
It was during this song that the dancers began to pour out of one their carriages and the Little Girl was entranced by them. Even with everything else that was going on around them the dancers were all she could see. So poised, so graceful, so elegant were they. The Little Girl had never seen anything so beautiful before. They were like rivers of smoke, their movements seemed so natural and ethereal. They flew around the village at an astonishing speed, faster even than the Little Girl, but they did not look like they were expelling any effort. There was no sign of strain or fatigue on any of their faces. They were phenomenal! She stood there watching them go through dance after dance as the music kept changing. Every time they finished a dance and she applauded frantically she feared it would be their last dance. But they continued for hours until eventually the sun was setting and they and the rest of the circus went back to their carriages for the night. The Little Girl watched the dancers all the way as they went back. Even when just walking like anyone might do they did so beautifully as if it was the only way their bodies knew how to move. When the door closed to their carriage she felt a hand on her shoulder and looked up to see her father standing by her. He asked if she had enjoyed herself that day? She replied that she had very much so. They walked on a little bit towards their hut and she looked up at her father and told him, “one day I’ll be able to dance like they did today,” with a huge grin on her face.
The next morning the circus was ready to set off. The little man was singing again to tell them that they had so many more people to bring so much more joy to and they could not delay. The villagers gave them what spare coins they had for what they had done. Just before the procession set off the Little Girl managed to get to the dancer’s carriage and knocked on the door. One of them opened the door to be greeted by the grinning Little Girl and the biggest bouquet of flowers she could hold. The dancer accepted them with a smile of her own and told the Little Girl how sweet she was. Just as the carriage began to set off the Little Girl said that she wanted to be a dancer just like them. The dancer called back just before she closed the carriage door that she should start practising then. She did not waste a moment and began doing exactly that. She remembered many of the steps and movements they had performed the day before and began trying to replicate them as best she could. She did not stop until her father picked her up in his arms at sunset to take her to her dinner.
Dancing became the Little Girl’s life. She endeavoured to make every move she made part of a dance. She made the simplest of actions controlled and beautiful. Her father had told her that the best dancers performed on stages in front of large crowds who applauded their skill, and so she imagined every move she made was in front of such an audience. Even when she was milking a cow or washing sheets she made sure every part of her body, from her shoulders down her arms to her fingers, and from her hips down her legs to her toes, were moving gracefully, without waste. Then when her chores were done she would dance around the village, no longer concerned about chasing after the boys. She had found her own purpose. At first they left her alone, claiming victory now that she did not bother them anymore. Soon though they became annoyed and jealous of her newfound passion. They began chasing her, but of course they could not catch her. So they started throwing old vegetables, clumps of mud, and even stones at her. But she was never hit. She was always too fast.
The Little Girl continued like this for months. Soon she forgot how to move without beauty. When she slept the she dreamt of dancing. After a short time, the Little Girl was confident enough that she asked if she could perform in front of the village. They acquiesced, and the Little Girl gave her first ever performance to a crowd. It only lasted for about ten minutes but everyone applauded her. The old women were in tears and doting on her for her brilliance. Her father led the applause, he was so proud of her, and even the grumpy old men had to admit she had a lot of spirit in her for such a little girl.
Over a year after the circus passed through the village something else exciting happened for its people. After the devastation caused by the war to the land and the lives of the people of the village they had only been able to produce enough food for themselves. Until now, finally, after years of hard work and good fortune they had been able to produce enough food so that they could feed themselves and had a surplus they could sell. For the first time since before the war they would actually be able to make money. All the villagers dreamt of rebuilding their homes better than they were before or of buying the new incredible machines travellers had told them were being made. They would have to travel to the nearest city to sell their crops and it would take well over a week to get there but it would be worth it. In the city there were thousands of people who all needed more food. The Little Girl’s father would be going and he insisted she came with him. She was more than happy to go; the Little Girl had never been to the city before. She hadn’t ever even left their valley until now.
The journey to the city delighted the Little Girl at every turn. Once they left the valley and those familiar imposing walls of the hills the world seemed to open up. She was amazed when her father told her that the point where the land met the sky, what he told her was called the “horizon”, was not the end, and that there was so much more beyond even that. They passed over a huge bridge across a wide river that could have held her entire valley in it. She had not known there could be so much water in one place! “What a very little girl I am,” she thought to herself, but the thought exhilarated her more than anything. It meant there was so much more to do and see, so much potential.
Finally, after days of travel they came to the city. The Little Girl was struck by how it made her feel the same way the circus had. It was of course very different. It was nowhere near as colourful or cheery, the wall of noise was less musical, and there was no elephant that she could see, but it was full of life. Everywhere she looked there were people all moving and shouting. It all seemed so chaotic, but they all clearly knew what they were doing and where they were going. She looked down one street and saw more people than lived in her entire village. How could one person be expected to know all these people? How could you even remember their names?
The next day was the market day. The Little girl and the other villagers pulled up their wagon loads of food to the market area early in the morning before the sun had even risen. As they had some time to spare and the streets were empty her father offered to take her around the city, she was of course very pleased to. He showed her buildings that were bigger than the hills by her village which he told her were called museums that were there for nothing more than to show off interesting objects. He showed great monuments, taller than anything she had seen before. He showed her areas of the city that still showed the scars of the war, far more so than in the village. Great burned out husks of buildings, massive holes in the ground where bombs had wrought their devastation, buildings riddled with bullet holes. This city that showed so much life to the Little Girl clearly also knew death. He showed her dozens of things, great and small, but none were of as much interest to her as was the dance school. It was not the largest building by far but it immediately stuck out to her. She did not read much but she knew the letters for “dance” and asked her father to fill in the rest. The Little Girl was so excited at the prospect of a place that taught dance, and was even more so when she heard the music coming from an open window to the side of the building. She ran around to it and climbed on a wall and was just able to look in to see girls who could not have been much older than her dancing. She had seen herself dancing in the one mirror in the village and thought that she was graceful but these girls were something else. They were all moving in unison, as if they were all of the same mind. She would have watched them forever but her father had to pull her away. It was time they got back to the market.
The day was a huge success. Food practically flew out of their wagons, and money flew in. They had thought that they would be at the market for a few days but they had nothing left after one. Everyone was happy. They had more money than they had before the war. The wagons were abuzz with talk about what they could now buy with their new found wealth. New tools, better equipment, more animals. When they came back next year, they would sell ten times as much! Some of them went out and came back with bottles of vodka. Soon everyone was very merry and they found people with instruments to come and play songs for them. The Little girl of course danced the whole night for their pleasure. “This,” she thought, “is what life is supposed to be.”
The next morning the villagers awoke bleary-eyed and with throbbing heads, but they were still in good spirits. Today they would spend much of their new wealth and take much needed goods back to the village. The Little Girl insisted that her father take her back to the dance school first though. She was determined to be enrolled there. Her father did not want to squash her dreams, but he had to tell her it would likely cost more money than they had even now after the market, and that even if he could afford to send her there it would mean leaving him and the village for a long time. The Little Girl knew this already though. It had been her second thought after first seeing the school. She knew that it would be painful to leave her father and everyone else she knew, but if dancing was really to be her life then she would have to do it. Besides he would always still be there. She could visit him, and even when she couldn’t she would always have his memory to warm her heart.
When they came through the front door of the school they were met by a young woman. The Little Girl’s father explained that his daughter wanted to join the school. The woman told them to wait there a moment. When she came back she was accompanied by a much older, much taller woman. She had lithe arms and legs that immediately told all who saw her that she was a dancer, and the aloofness in her manner and confidence in her gaze told them she was accomplished. “I am told you wish to dance,” she said in a low voice, “show me.” Without hesitating the Little Girl began gliding around the room. She was never nervous or fearful when she danced, and she was not even now. The only change in her thought was a determination to succeed. After a couple of minutes, the tall woman put up her hand to tell her to stop. “You have a certain raw, undisciplined talent. It is crying out for guidance if you are ever to be of any quality. I can provide this, for a price.” With this last sentence she turned to the Little Girl’s father who had been quietly watching his daughter. “She wants this,” he thought. He asked the woman how much it would cost. The woman named her price. It was less than he had feared, but it would mean giving up all the money he had made at the market and most of the meagre amount he had saved before. He looked again at his daughter’s hopeful face “she wants this”. He turned to the tall woman and told her he would pay. He would still be a farmer next year and the year after and forever. There would be more harvests and more chances to make the money back. His daughter though was not meant to be a farmer; he could see that. If he didn’t let her go now she may lose hope and also fade into the life of a farmer, forever wasting her potential. He would not be responsible for that, “she will be a dancer” he told himself.
The Girl did not cry as her father left. She did not wish to look weak in front of the tall woman who was looking at her as if to dare her to. Once he was gone they went back inside the school. It was very early in the morning so all the other girls at the school were still asleep but the woman said she wanted to start on the Girl early. “First of all you shall know to address me as Sudarynya,” began the woman, “when I tell you to do something you shall respond ‘yes Sudarynya’, and then you shall do it.”
“Yes Sudarynya,” obliged the Girl. This pleased Sudarynya and she continued.
“Now, while it is evident you have some potential, it is equally clear that you are untutored and undisciplined. You have learned by watching others and yet have received no instruction. It is only by luck and some natural ability that you do not gallop about like a donkey. Instead you are like the fledgling swan that flaps its wings about like its mother, but cannot yet fly.” This was hard for the Girl to hear as she had only ever been told how good she had danced. The woman did not notice the annoyance on her face though as she was too wrapped up in her own lecture. “You have had no one to push you, to tell you where you fail or where you are lacking. You bend your back so far and believe it is enough, jump so high and believe it is enough. But belief is not enough, knowing is enough. I am Sudarynya and I know dance, and I will make you know dance.” Only now did she look back at the Girl and in an instant she flew across the room to stand over her. “What is the difference between the first position and the second?”
“Um…” replied the Girl, and she received a slap across the face. It was not a forceful slap, just enough to sting, it was more shocking than anything else.
“What object in this room is the barre?”
“Um…” another slap.
“What is the difference between retiré devant and retiré derrière?”
“I don’t know, Sudarynya!” No slap.
“Good. I will not have idiocy in my classes. If you do not know something, or do not understand what is asked of you then you must say so.”
The Girl looked up at woman through tears that were beginning to well up in her eyes more from anxiety than pain, and understood that this was someone who expected perfection, but more importantly was prepared to wait for it. That was why she had agreed to take the Girl on. She was not yet a dancer but could be moulded into one. The Girl was just beginning to understand that it took more than just pretty movements to be a dancer.
“It will be years before you perform anywhere but in this room. Before then you will learn the names of all the movements and how to perform them perfectly. You will learn the five positions of the feet, the ten positions of the body, and the three positions of the arms. You shall stretch your limbs and joints until they bend to your will, not their limits. You shall work your body until it is as strong as steel, and then you shall work it even more. You shall do all this or else you shall not be a part of my school. Is this clear?”
Ten years passed. Ten years where the Girl who had pranced around her village to the delight of a handful of old women tried to become a dancer. She soon realised dance would have to be her life, or she would fail and go back to the village. The training was rigorous from the start. She found herself bending her limbs, feet, and body beyond what she would have ever thought was possible. There were times when she would be stretching with one leg pointed to the floor and the other into the air when Sudarynya would grab the air borne leg and take it even further away from its natural position. If she complained or resisted a stinging slap was her only reward. The Girl found at the start that she could only maintain the gruelling pace Sudarynya made her train at for an hour or two. On the very first day after an hour and a half she asked Sudarynya for a break. Sudarynya did not even slap her. She went to the door and opened it. “You can rest as long as you like outside these walls. If you wish to stay inside them, you will train.” The Girl quickly learned to push herself beyond what she thought was possible and so for ten years she trained through pain, both physical and mental. Once she broke her ankle and Sudarynya berated her for landing to heavily on it. “You must now be even better as if you land without grace it will cause you severe pain, it may even mean you cannot dance ever again.” Soon the Girl’s body became hardened. Pain was a constant companion so she forgot to feel it. She came to think of her body as merely an instrument to create something beautiful, what it felt was unimportant. What it did was all that mattered.
The Girl had never been to school, there had not been one in her village, but to become a dancer she had to learn an incredible amount. All the positions and movements of the body, complex routines, and the advice and criticisms of Sudarynya which came every day. For the first year Sudarynya would every day ask her to tell her certain positions or movements. Any error in explanation or demonstration earned her a slap. Correctness got her nothing. “Being right about dance is its own reward,” explained Sudarynya. “It means you are doing what a dancer should be able to do.” It was incredibly taxing on her mind to try and remember every facet of dance. She would end the day with her body exhausted and crying out for sleep, but she would then have to spend hours going over positions and movements to try and remember them to avoid Sudarynya’s displeasure the next day.
Harder to bear than all the physical exertion, more painful than any injury, and a bigger strain on her mentally, the most difficult part of all her training was learning of her father’s death. It had become clear to the Girl early on that she would not be able to return to the village during her training. Sudarynya would not let her back in. He would have to come to her. He was only able to do this once a year when he came to the city to sell his crops with the rest of the village. She waited every year for this time when he would come to the school early in the morning to not interrupt her training. The Girl would show him all that she had learned. “Wow,” he would say. “To think I thought you were already perfect when I left you here. Now you are beyond perfect.” She would fly weightlessly into his arms and though she never wanted to let go he would have to leave as Sudarynya came in to start the Girl’s training for another day.
Most of the time they communicated by letter, and it was by a letter from one of her father’s friends that she learned of his death. The bounteous crop they had sold when the Girl first came to the city turned out to be an exception, not the norm, and though he had good years mostly her father was merely scraping by. Where the other villagers had been able to buy better, newer equipment he was stuck with his old things, doing everything by hand. He had to work longer and harder than all the rest. It was no surprise said the friend in the letter when disease ravaged the countryside that her father died. He was a strong man, but he had been made weak by all the work he had to do. In a fit of emotion, the Girl screamed at Sudarynya that she would return for his funeral and to hell with dancing if that’s what it meant. Sudarynya though while strict was merciful every once in a while, and admired the passion the Girl displayed and so allowed her to go. She even paid for her passage with the proviso that she trained all the harder when she came back.
When she returned to the village she was surprised and gladdened by the change she saw despite her grief. Gone were many of the hastily assembled huts and semi-repaired wrecks of houses from her youth. In their place stood proper, well-made homes. They were still small compared to the buildings she knew from the city but they were a massive improvement. There were also more machines for farming stood about on the edge of the village, the reward many of the villagers had received for their hard work all those years ago. There were less of the old men and women she had known, and those that remained were almost as decrepit as the old huts they had once lived in. In their place there were new old faces who had been middle aged when she was young. The boys who she had chased after were now tall young men who seemed embarrassed when the she reminded them of the times they had thrown stones at her. She no longer cared though. She was not the Little Girl any more she was a young lady now. Most pleasing of all were the amount of children that there were. There had only been a handful of them when the Young Lady was a child, now there were dozens. Despite returning because of death there was plenty of life in her old home.
She wept only when she saw her father in his coffin. The Young Lady almost didn’t believe it was him at first, he looked so different. He seemed smaller. She remembered how he had towered over her when she was little, but was sure that she would be a head taller than him now. His face was thin and his hands bony. Some of the other men had told her how he had not been ill for long. The Young Lady was glad. This was no state for her father to have lived in.
The Young Lady did not cry because of his appearance alone though. It was because at that moment she was sure she had done this to him. “If,” she thought, “if I hadn’t insisted on going to the dance school then father would have had money to buy new equipment. He would have prospered like the rest and not have had to work so hard. When he got tired I would have been there to help. He would have been happy and healthy, if not for me.” She cried then as we have all cried at some point when we foolishly felt useless and that there was no good in the world and no good to come.
When there were no more tears to cry and her very soul felt heavy with her sadness a memory came, unbidden and almost forgotten. It was from when she was very young, little more than a baby. Her mother had just died and she was feeling much as she did now. She was wailing about not spending more time with her mother or doing more for her, not showing her enough love, and all the time she had wasted. Her father though had told her to stop that. “Why are you crying for the past?” he said. “Why cry for things you cannot change? They are things that have been and gone. They are history now. To weep for them is a waste of energy. But you can always change the future. That is not yet written and it is you who will write it. It can be whatever you wish and that is your service to the past. You cannot change the past, but you can use it to make a better future. If you believe you did not show your mother enough love (and I can tell you that you are wrong about that) then make sure you always show those you love that you love them at every opportunity. I will not say never feel bad for the past, it is impossible, but do not be blinded to the future by the past. Hold on to it deep down, but focus on the future so that when you look back on that future as the past you can do so happily and build an even better future on that.”
He had made the decision to let her go to dance school, he done so knowing full well what it could mean. The Young Lady thought back and never once had he made any mention that he regretted letting her go or that he wanted her to come back for him. He had made his decision but he would not have let it rule him. The Young Lady knew now he would only have looked to the future, even if it was not his future.
They buried him later that day. The Young Lady did not cry again, she had cried enough for the past, and tears would do nothing for the future. The next day she set off to return to the dance school.
Though her father’s loss was her biggest heartache it was not her only one. Every year there were perhaps two or three occasions when members of the school would go off to some place and perform pieces for audiences. The school was prestigious and performed for kings and queens, prime ministers and presidents, celebrities and businessmen. Whoever they were they always came in their hundreds, even thousands to watch the dancers. It was what all of their training was for and only the best were selected by Sudarynya and the other teachers to go. Only the true dancers.
At first when the Young Lady was not selected she was not so disappointed. After all she thought, she had only been there a short while. Others even younger than her had been training for much longer. But time after time, year after year she was not selected. She was not a dancer yet, Sudarynya told her. It only became harder on her. She was always pleased when her friends were taken, but she could not help being jealous, especially when they came back with tales of how it felt to be on stage, to be actually dancing, not just practising, to be applauded by thousands of people. It was especially difficult as she got older and the little girls who had been there only a year, far less than she had been, were taken. Did she not put in as much time and effort as them? Had she not improved? But she could not be jealous for long. It was not in her nature. When she saw how happy they were she could not but be pleased for them. Her time would come.
This changed when she returned from her father’s funeral. She was no longer content to wait for the future; she would make it. The Young Lady already trained sixteen hours a day, sometimes longer. Now she trained for longer every day. Most nights she only slept for an hour or two. She forced herself to move at the same speed at the end of the day as she was at the start. She was taking her body to its limit. There were only three months until Sudarynya would announce who would go to the next performance and she used as much of that time as she could. This time she would not be left behind.
The Young Lady was not disappointed. Sudarynya announced first who was selected for this performance. The Young Lady was one of the first called out. She was elated. Every part of her body was aching or sore but for the first time it felt worth it. The pain had produced something. A decade of training and sacrifice had gotten her where she wanted to be. Sudarynya then told them what their parts would be. The Young Lady was not the lead, but that didn’t matter. “That’s the next goal,” she told herself, for now she was content as she did have a big part in the performance. She was going to be a dancer.
The Young Lady trained even harder after this, and in a much more focussed way. Now she had a performance to do she was solely dedicated to those routines she would need for it. Day in and day out she practised the same routines with the other dancers who would be going with her, and Sudarynya expected all the more from her for it. The bar for perfection had just been raised she realised.
Soon though the time for training was over. On the last day before they left the Young Lady actually saw Sudarynya smile, briefly. The bar for perfection may have been raised but they had all, the Young Lady included, risen to it. The night before they were going to leave she was packing the few items of clothing she had for the journey when one of Sudarynya’s assistants came into the dormitory, laden with fabric. She began handing the outfits she was carrying to the girls who were going to the performances and finally gave one to the Young Lady. It was beautiful. Colours that shimmered and glowed when they moved, intricately detailed embroidery, tiny sparkling glass crystals. It was the most beautiful thing the Young Lady had ever owned. “When I perform in this,” she thought, “I will be a dancer.”
The next couple of days were a whirlwind of activity. Early the next morning they travelled to the airport. For the Young Lady it was the first time she had ever been inside of a car before. The excitement of this was swiftly replaced by her first time in an airplane. Some of the other dancers had done this before and tried to act as if it was not a big deal but many of them were still as impressed as they had been the first time. For the entirety of the flight the Young Lady was glued to the window looking down on fields, towns, and cities. Eventually they passed over the sea which she was seeing for the first time. She was taken back to that first time she had journeyed to the city and passed over the huge river. She thought of how impressed she had been by that river back then, and yet that would have been a quite literal drop in this ocean. Even after seeing and doing so much there was still so much more. “What a fantastic notion,” she thought.
After landing they were taken to the hotel they would stay at. This city was even larger than the one where the dance school was. It was also cleaner, and so advanced it was almost alien. Buildings were dancing with lights covering them. There were cars that could have been houses. Colour televisions were everywhere. As they travelled she was able to pick out famous monuments she had read about in books she had been able to find from time to time. It was like stepping into a fairy-tale now that she could actually see them.
Her amazement only continued at the hotel which was so lavishly decorated she was sure it must have been in fact a palace. She thought there must have been some mistake when she got to her room. In it there were such luxuries as a fridge, television, toilet, bath and sink, both with hot and cold running water. She was certain there must have been a mistake. Someone more important than her must actually be staying there, but the others told her that was just how it was here. In this country everyone had such luxuries.
There was little time to be awestruck though as early the next morning they went to the theatre for one final practice before the first performance. As soon as the Young Lady saw the stage and the thousands of seats facing it her mood changed. Gone was her wonder, in its place was eagerness. This was where she belonged, where she was meant to be, and where she would do what she was supposed to do.
The noise of the crowd crept through all the way to the dressing room. At first it was a muffled buzz as the first few took their seats but it soon became a distinct rumble. That period of waiting as the Young Lady and the rest of the dancers were dressed and had their make-up done was like a dream. Afterwards she could remember no details of it, just a vague amalgamation of events. So anxious was she to begin that it felt like her heart would pound straight out of her chest. She had to keep waiting as large groups of the dancers went out first. Her moment would come about half way through the performance when she would take to the stage alone for a while before being joined by her male counterpart. His name was Vladislav, and he was about five years older than her and had been part of the school even longer than she had. Sudarynya always called him the brightest star in the school. The only reason he was not the lead this time was because he had been injured recently and did not want to overly strain himself. He was a veteran of dozens of performances and was currently sat relaxed with his head leant back gazing at the ceiling, not a care in the world. He had been challenging to work with for the Young Lady as he moved so fast, but he had helped her become all the better for it. He caught her looking at him and gave her his smile he was always so willing to give and she was always happy to receive. They had spent much time together to prepare for this performance and had grown close.
It was time. A large ensemble of dancers had just taken to the stage for the dance just before her part. She went up after them to wait by the stage side. The Young Lady went through her routine in her head as she waited. For so long and so many times had the Young Lady practised it though it was a second nature to her.
The music reached its climax. The dancers on the stage held their final positions. The crowd applauded. The lights faded. The dancers exited the stage. The Young Lady took the plunge. The lights came back on and she had a brief moment where she looked over the crowd and could see the expectation on their faces. She smiled back at them. The music started and so did her dance. She was like a swan formed from water. The Dancer flew through the air and flowed across the stage. Her arms were wings, powerful yet controlled, sharp and fast yet graceful. Her body and mind were in perfect unison. How she thought she wanted to do a movement her body did it. All doubt left her in an instant. She really did belong here; it really had been worth all the sacrifice. The crowd were also playing their part perfectly. She could hear them applauding her more spectacular moves and gasping each time she soared into the air. Presently Vladislav joined her on the stage. The two complimented each other brilliantly, like two orbiting stars, each acting on the other and moving in perfect equilibrium.
All too soon the dance was over, but that did not matter to her, it had happened. She had become a true dancer. She carried the crowd’s applause with her as Vladislav carried her back down to the dressing room. Happiness coursed through her body. As he placed her down Vladislav beamed at her and exclaimed “you were fantastic!” before kissing her to further applause from the other dancers. As easy as it would have been she could not yet allow herself to be blown away by her happiness. As soon as the Dancer took her lips from Vladislav’s she went to change into her next outfit, though the two kept glancing at each other. There were still more dances to be danced.
It all went perfectly. Whether she danced alone, with Vladislav, or as part of a group, every dance was perfect. The performance ended and the Dancer was in heaven. All her dreams had been realised. She had repaid Sudarynya’s faith in her and now surely she would get to do this again and again.
At the end amidst all the congratulatory embraces from the other dancers, the stage hands, and even Sudarynya, the Dancer found herself in the arms of Vladislav. “Come on,” he said, “let’s get out of here.” She followed him wondering what could come next on this night of dreams. He showed her out of the theatre, passed a clamour of paparazzi who showered them with camera light. The Dancer beamed at them. Vladislav showed her round a corner to where was parked one of the most beautiful cars she had ever seen. Vladislav saw her admiring it and pronounced it to be as fast as it was pretty. “Would you like to see?” She most certainly did. They jumped into the car quickly and even quicker they shot off into the night of the city.
Vladislav had not been wrong, she had never felt speed like this before. Of course the airplane had been faster but this close to the ground, with the windows open she could really feel it. So fast were they going that neither of them saw the car that slammed into the driver’s side. The Dancer did not really know what had happened even as the car turned over and the ground rushed up to her window. She knew they had been driving at the top of a hill and she could only wonder why they were now going down it. As the car tumbled down the hill and her head was smacked around the inside of the crushed cabin she blacked out.
When she eventually awoke she still did not know what had happened. “Something bad,” she thought, “something bad has happened.” That she was sure of, but what? All she could remember was dancing, that had certainly happened. It had been the best night of her life, the fulfilment of all her dreams and sacrifice. She had been a dancer; how could anything have gone wrong? But it had most certainly gone wrong. She knew that now as she began to feel the pain, in her head, her ribs, her arms, in fact the only place she could not feel any pain, or indeed anything at all were her legs. She realised she was lying down in a bed and tried to raise her head to look down at her legs but the pain got the better of her and she passed out.
When she awoke again Sudarynya was standing over her. She looked as if she were looking down on someone she had just caught stealing from her. “What happened?” the Dancer managed to croak out.
“Vladislav is dead,” Sudarynya stated. It was that simple. His life was a part of the past and he was gone from the world. It was a slap to the face more shocking than the one Sudarynya had given her when she first came to the dance school. Sudarynya’s eyes rolled away from the Dancer’s and her face became more mournful. “And you are as good as dead to me,” she said looking at the dancer’s legs. This time she managed to sit up and looked down to see her entire right leg in a cast. She looked up in dismay at Sudarynya who snatched up something off a table. “That mercifully hides most of the damage but this is the truth.” She held up what the Dancer recognised was an x-ray, but could not tell what of. There were bits of bone shattered and pointing in all directions. At the bottom appeared to be a foot, but at a horrific angle.
“I have just come to tell you we are leaving today,” said Sudarynya.
“Leaving? But surely I cannot travel?” asked the Dancer.
“No you cannot. You will not be coming with us.” The Dancer did not understand.
“You will never dance again; you are not a dancer. I run a school for dancers, I train dancers. I pay for travel, for food, for shelter, for dancers. You are less than useless to me now; you are a burden.”
“Not a dancer,” thought the Cripple. Before she could say anything Sudarynya had fled from the room, more gracefully than the Cripple would ever move again.
Nothing mattered for a long while. The Cripple laid there listening to the doctors try to explain in a language she barely understood just how badly her life had been ruined. They told her with smiling faces that with lots of work she would one day walk again. She scoffed. Lots of work before had made her able to dance. For four days she ate nothing and barely drank a drop. The doctors had to feed her intravenously in the end. Her thoughts were an endless loop of how she would never dance again, and that perhaps the cruellest thing of all was that she too had not been killed. The Cripple knew she was selfish to mourn the loss of her career more than Vladislav, but she simply did not care. “They dance in heaven,” she thought.
It was not for days that she gave any real thought to the fact that she was now homeless and alone in a strange country. Even when the Cripple did think of this it was an afterthought. Another consequence of her inability to dance.
One day she realised she was being picked up by a large man, a nurse she realised. She may not have noticed him because she was sleeping, she may just not have noticed him. The Cripple was never really aware of anything happening around her these days. He placed her down in a wheelchair. Cold metal, and rough fabric, it was all she could hope for. He babbled away cheerfully enough, but she still spoke little of the language and his accent was thick. He wheeled her out of the hospital into a little garden and the Cripple was in sunlight for the first time in days. The garden was beautiful. There were flowers of all colours and scents mingling to create a pleasant cocktail for both nose and eye. There were shrubs that had been carefully cut into beautiful shapes. Birds flew in and out of the branches of a tree that delicately shaded the area. The sunlight glistened off of the water running from a pleasant little fountain. It was a place where one could find peace. A small pocket of beauty. The Cripple felt nothing. The nurse was glancing around smiling. He looked to the Cripple and saw how scarred by sadness her face was. The smile fled from his face and he wheeled her back inside.
Life passed the Cripple by for months after that. Every day was dominated by the crushing reality of what her life could no longer be. She began her rehabilitation but where could the joy be in that when it could only take her shorter than where she needed to be? People worked around her to help her find a home and a way to live in this strange country. She might even have been glad if she still had the capacity for it. Instead she found the walls of the hospital replaced by the walls of a small ground floor flat. The wheelchair, crutches, and debilitating injury remained though.
One day the Cripple was sat as ever staring at the brown walls of her flat, passing the time between visits from her carer, when somewhere deep within her a voice cried out that belonged to a person she had not been since before her injury. It called for her to try, to not give in. It stirred something in her, hope. After all, it said, in all the great stories the heroes always overcame impossible odds. They always seemed to triumph even when the world said there should be no way they could. They succeeded because they said they would. They willed it to happen.
She pushed herself out of her chair. She could just about stand unaided, but she believed. If she was careful, if she compensated on speed and power, she believed she could prove to the world and to herself that she could still dance. She went to make a simple turn but her legs refused to work as they should have. Something cracked, and she was sprawled over the floor, unconscious from the pain.
She woke where she had fallen, confused but not for long. Then despair took her. She cried for the first time since she had been injured, since her life had been ruined. She wept like the pathetic mess her life had become, alone on the floor of a dark and dingy flat. She had nothing, nothing she thought. Her life had been dancing and that had been snatched away. What was the point of surviving if she could not live? What was the point? She was tired, in body and mind. Tired of feeling only hopelessness, tired of continuing to exist in a way that was lesser than what she was, what she should have been. Something inside her broke. The Cripple decided there was only one way in which she could take control of her own fate.
She dragged her useless body into the kitchen of her flat. She wrenched open the door of the oven. “It will be like going to sleep,” she told herself, “like going to sleep where I can dream forever.” She felt pain then like nothing she had felt before. It was beyond the body, beyond the mind, this pain shot right through to her soul, crushing everything she had ever been. She felt she didn’t deserve to live any more. The memory of her dancing came to her. The Cripple could almost feel the warm air of the theatre as her body had sliced through it, the pressure in her joints as she leapt and landed, the electricity that raced across her skin as she heard the audience applaud. It all felt so real she was almost happy again. It felt so real she almost could not believe that it could never happen again. From somewhere deep in the recesses of her soul, the voice that had convinced her to try to dance again spoke once more. “But it did happen,” it said.
“So what,” she replied, “it can never happen again. I can never feel that way again.”
“Of course you can,” the voice shot back, “you felt it just now.”
“It’s not the same. I’m looking back at what can never be again. It happened and is now gone forever. Nothing I could ever do could ever be the same.”
“Of course it’s the same. The past may be gone, but it is not forgotten. What is the point in doing anything if not to look back at it fondly, to say ‘I did that, and it was good’. You can never dance again, but you have danced. That can never change, it can never be taken away from you. The feeling you felt that night was real and will always be real. It will always be with you. Whatever other people see you as is unimportant to you. That is for their story. What is important is your story, how you see yourself. If you choose to see yourself as ‘the Cripple’, then that is your fault for failing to see that you are far more than that. If you choose to forget that you have danced, that you are a dancer, then the past is dead, and none of it mattered, and that will only be because of you.”
The young lady who was sat on the floor of her kitchen, next to the oven with its door open, thought long after this. She digested all of what that quiet voice inside of her had said. Once more unbidden, the words spoken by her father long ago came to her:
“But you can always change the future. That is not yet written and it is you who will write it. It can be whatever you wish and that is your service to the past. You cannot change the past, but you can use it to make a better future.”
She looked at herself then, at what she was doing, at what she was becoming, and she did not like it. She was not this woman sat on the floor next to an open oven, she was not the Little Girl, she was not the Girl, she was not the Young Lady, she was not even the Cripple. She was the Dancer, because she said so, because it had happened, and it was important to her, and nothing could change that. She was the Dancer.
It took her a short while to crawl back to her chair, to then haul herself into it, and call for an ambulance, but she did so with purpose and without complaint. When she arrived at the hospital and was speaking to the doctors she did so now with a smile on her face. She worked eagerly at her rehabilitation and befriended many of the staff at the hospital who could not believe her transformation. It was like she was a different person.
I wish I could say that she was completely healed after this, but some wounds taken even longer to fix than broken bones. Just as the memory of dancing would always be with her so would the pain of never being able to again. The two would constantly battle with each other, with her life stuck in the balance. It was not an easy road to travel, but she did travel it. It took her through pain and heartache, but also through recovery, through joy, through a life which she built for herself. It took her all the way through to an unremarkable day, in a town centre like any other. She knew that the people she shuffled past considered her a crippled old lady, if they considered her at all. But that did not matter to her. To her she was, and always would be, the Dancer.