Wednesday Write-In #54

This week’s words were:

academy  ::  pot of tea  ::  bunch  ::  snap  ::  vending machine

The Last Dance

‘I should so not have gone to the café at lunch,’ said Emily, with a frown. ‘Why didn’t any of you evil selfish cows drag me to one side and scream ‘Not one more pot of tea, do you hear me? You have to dance this afternoon!” She grimaced as she folded herself in two, neatly, her forehead coming to rest against her legs. ‘I think you’re all just out to sabotage me, frankly,’ she concluded, her voice sounding a little strained.

‘So you think it was the tea that did the damage, and not the scones, then?’ replied Marcy, coaxing her feet into fifth position. She raised her arms above her head as she winked down at Emily, who was regarding her gravely from behind her own knees.

‘Most uncouth of you to bring those into the conversation,’ she observed.

‘Come on,’ laughed Nora, practising her plié at the barre while admiring herself in the mirror. Her empty hands looked as though they were full of flowers, and her hair, in the same neat bun as everyone else’s, was like a painting. ‘As if anyone didn’t know. You’ll be thumping around here like a pregnant hippo all afternoon. Every Tuesday is the same with you.’

‘You bunch of absolute…’ Emily began, before the rest of her words were drowned out by the sound of forty dancers drawing themselves to attention, then falling into a curtsey.

‘Yes, yes, all right,’ snapped Madame, sweeping into the room. ‘First positions, ladies, s’il vous plait.‘ Her movements were perfectly graceful, despite the silver in her hair. She turned her back on the class as she dropped her bag to the floor and bent to rummage through it. For a few seconds she listened to the hisses and rustlings as the class rushed to obey her instruction, and she turned around only when she was sure her face was smooth, uncreased and calm. She was Giselle. She was Ophelia. She was the Swan Queen. She breathed deeply, her mind cycling through the steps, settling gradually, until she was ready.

‘She looks like one of those dolls, you know the ones,’ Nora hissed into Emily’s ear as they began their warm-up. ‘With all the sticky-up hair and an expression like a walked-on doughnut.’ Emily bit her lip as she tried to imagine one in a practice leotard.

‘The sort you’d get out of one of those vending machines, the ones with the grabbing hooks,’ she muttered back. She felt a gentle pinch on her back – Nora’s way of trying to keep her own laughter in – and did her best to focus on her arm movements. A tiny snort bubbled out of Nora, and Emily’s shoulders shook.

Silence,’ barked Madame, from the back of the room. She made every move gently, wondering when she’d feel the snap and the rushing pain she’d grown so used to. She distracted herself from thinking about it by watching the dancers, their every movement like a beat of her heart. She allowed her expert eye to follow the sweeping movements in front of her, the arms being raised and lifted, the feet sliding perfectly into position.

Then, from nowhere, a flourish of red-black feathers tickled the side of her vision; she closed her eyes and saw a glitter of sparkling frost spinning behind them. A snatch of music soared through her head. She gritted her teeth until it passed. She opened her eyes again, gazing upon her girls. They were a pile of sticks, a heap of rocks. They were a line of knights in armour, dancing.

‘Your arms are like a forest grown wild!’ she shouted. ‘This is not a class pour les enfants. We are the Academy of Dance, ladies. Remember it!’ The room filled with muttered apologies, and she watched as the girls, stealing surreptitious glances in the practice mirror, attempted to move as one.

She closed her eyes.

The lights were up. The heat filled her nostrils with a mixture of scents – makeup, sweat, anticipation. Her audience was hushed, waiting. On stage, she sat crosslegged, bowed and broken. In the wings the monster lurked, red and covered in feathers, teeth dripping and claws extended. This was the role of her life, her last as a prima, her swan-song. Lifting her hand to her forehead, she showed the audience her fear, and they ached along with her. Rising to her feet, she pirouetted once, twice, before crumpling to the ground once more. The monster roared, and she trembled at the sound. She heard the audience’s intake of breath as it took its first steps onto the stage, its claws clicking sharply on the boards. Her muscles felt like ice as she watched it approach…

‘Madame?’ came a voice. ‘Are you okay?’ She opened her eyes again to find two or three of the girls standing around her, looking concerned. She hated them, in that instant.

‘Enough!’ she barked. ‘Back to the barre, immediately!’ She hoped they hadn’t noticed the beads of sweat on her brow, or the red-black flashes she felt sure were in her eyes.

‘What’s eating her today?’ muttered Nora, as she and Emily settled back into position beside Marcy.

‘Who knows?’ said Marcy, stretching out her neck.

‘Who cares, right?’ giggled Emily. She turned to smile at Nora. ‘She’s nothing but an old witch, anyway.’

Suddenly, a loud thump jerked the girls out of their concentration, and they turned to see the crumpled form of their teacher, lying on the floor. After a few moments of shocked silence, some of the older girls took charge. Mobile phones were fetched from the dressing room; a too-late ambulance was summoned.

‘She… she executed a perfect plié and flew into a beautiful pirouette,’ babbled one girl, a junior, when the doctors came. ‘And then… she just fell.’

In the mirror behind them, unnoticed by all, a red-black beast devoured its prey.

17 thoughts on “Wednesday Write-In #54

  1. Tessa Sheppard

    Wonderful! Love the characterization and the use of a ballet class was a great idea. I got a real sense of the movements through your descriptions. 🙂

    1. SJ O'Hart Post author

      Thanks! 😀 That’s funny, since not only have I never danced ballet, I’ve never even seen one. I have no idea why my brain screamed ‘ballet class!’ when I saw the prompt words this morning… I’m really glad it made some sort of sense. 🙂

  2. highinbrixham

    The ballet class certainly was a great idea, as Tessa says. I’ve never been ballet-incllined (more hippo-inclined) so it was lovely to have immerse myself in a completely different world, so vividly described. The feather and frost description sounded like a migraine coming on to me, so it was a great twist at the end to find it was a real monster. Kept me guessing!

    1. SJ O'Hart Post author

      I am queen of the hippos – I’ve never even seen a ballet shoe, let alone worn one. I read a book about ballet once, as a kid, so I guess my memories of it bubbled up out of somewhere!

      I’m not even sure whether the monster was meant to be ‘real’, or ‘real to Madame’. That’s what I like about writing short stories, though – sometimes the questions you pose as you write aren’t answerable, even to yourself. 🙂

      Thanks so much for reading and commenting.

  3. Elaine McKay

    This took me in a completely different direction from where I thought I was going. I thought the theme was going to be anorexia: the dance teacher an advanced case of it. But no! I loved how it turned into a thriller- possibly psychological. I love the descriptions of black and red flashes, claws clicking etc. The descriptions of ballet class are great,too Great work all round.

  4. sarahgracelogan

    I liked where you took this piece, especially towards the end. I think it feels a bit like two separate halves; for me, you spend a long time setting up a group of characters then you switch over to another pov with the story being about this other character entirely. Personally I think you could lose the build-up with the girls, it doesn’t add much to Madame’s story imo! Unless you altered it so she’s more listening and judging what they’re saying – either reminded of herself or others at their age? Or convinced that she was never that unfocused? I dunno. But yeah, the Madame parts of the story were great, really well described.

    1. SJ O'Hart Post author

      Thanks so much for this. The connection between the girls and Madame was, in my mind, very clear – you hit it on the head, pretty much, with your observation about the contrast between their lack of focus and her total self-control – but I can see now that I haven’t explained it properly. Thanks for your helpful feedback. 🙂

  5. emmaleene

    For someone who’s not au fait with ballet you really managed to immerse us in the world! Could hear teacher’s voice clearly (accent reminded me of madam Gazelle from Peppa Pig-my brain has been overexposed!). Love the line “What’s eating her today?” As she is about to be devoured by her monster! Enjoyed the darkness of this!

    1. SJ O'Hart Post author

      Thanks! I read a book years ago called ‘Ballet for Laura’, and I guess it stuck in my mind a bit more than I thought. Thankfully, I can confirm the character has no basis in Peppa Pig. 🙂

      Yeah, I liked the ‘eating her’ line, too. A bit cheesy, but you’ve got to take your pleasures in life when you can get ’em!


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