Keeping You On Your Toes

Alliieah White-Moncrief, Golden Tunnels. Watercolor and gold acrylic, 2023


By Jude Wood


        I am beyond frustrated. Every single one who has auditioned insofar has failed. Is there no real talent left in the world? What has become of the arts but mediocre, undertrained daydreamers? On the stage, the eleventh dancer is hopelessly butchering his act. His shoes slap desperately against the ground and his arms flail. These low-lives will never amount to anything in the world of musical theater. His movements slow and then stop entirely, though he continues to sway side-to-side. 

        “No, no, no! Proper position! Remember? Arms in the proper position! By your side, then up! You look like an utter fool up on that stage! You simply don’t belong in a professional environment.” All I get in response is the dead stare typical of people like this, who think their dreams will be handed to them on a silver platter. I was trained in the same manner as the way I train my students. I sigh and scratch off yet another name from the clipboard. 

        It’s simple, really. If you can touch the floor, you can tap. It was one easy dance routine they should have been following every day for two weeks before the final audition. They obviously had not taken it seriously, putting off their much-needed practice until it was too late. I had passed this trial by fire, and I had the scars to prove it; a light ring of skin around my neck, a sign of pride and skill. 

        “Get outta my sight.” The dancer doesn’t move. 

        I get up from my seat, grab my knife, and leap onto the stage. I slice neatly through the rope suspending him four inches off the ground, allowing his limp body to collapse against the wooden floor. I grab the frayed end of the noose and drag him backstage. Adding him to the pile adds up to a total of eleven purple-faced corpses of the previous failures who didn’t have the talent, the drive, or the focus to be a student of mine. 

        I click my tongue in disapproval as I step around the curtain, looking at the height of my next potential student. Gale Newsome, a young man, six-feet tall, who has gone to an art school and studied dance for the past two years. 

        I raise the bar, setting the rod on stage to the appropriate height so he would be perfectly suspended to the point of being able to tap while being unable to breathe properly. As I hoist the noose up and out of sight, I chuckle softly in twisted pride, remembering the poor, self-conscious souls who had lied about their height and, in turn, caused their own death. 

        Reviewing the man’s resume, I run my fingers through my thin hair, feeling rather conflicted. This kid obviously has things going his way, but it could all come to an end here tonight. But that entirely depends on just how long he can hold his breath, and if while doing so, he can dance with death. 

        The auditorium doors swing open slowly, and Gale steps in hesitantly. 

        “Mr. Linch? Am I ready for my audition?” he asks from down the walkway. 

        “Yes, yes,” I say, clearing my throat importantly. 

        I step to the left side of the stage as Gale marches solemnly towards the center. Or maybe he’s just nervous and I’m over-analyzing everything again. He plants his feet onto the ‘X’ of tape I marked out. Eyes closed, he takes a deep breath and exhales slowly. A twinge of hope begins to wriggle its way through me; he’s taking an excellent approach. 

        “Good. Keep your eyes shut and focus on your breathing.” The words are spoken in a soft, affirming voice as I slide towards the noose hidden behind the velvety red curtains. “Do you know much about rain dances, Gale?” His breathing rhythm falters slightly as my question catches him off guard. 

        “Um, no. They didn’t teach us those in class unfortunately.” Like a thread passing through the eye of a needle, I wrap my fingers into the hole in the knot. I drag it over behind him, widening the opening so a Gale-sized head could easily pass through. 

        “Well, in moments of extreme desperation like drought, Native Americans would perform complex, traditional dance patterns to appease a higher power, to beg for mercy or pity.” 

        “I sure hope I can make a bit more than water when I end up on Broadway,” Gale quips. A smile splits my face in two. I like this kid. He’s quick and confident, just as a dancer should be. 

        I lower my voice and lean in to speak over his shoulder. “Keep those rain dances in mind Gale. Dance for your salvation.” I hiss the final word through my teeth, then drop the noose over his neck and sprint to the back of the stage with the other end of the rope in hand. I slow down as I run out of slack, not wanting to break the kid’s neck with a swift yank. With carefully applied strength, I take a few steps back until he’s right where I want him. His yell of horrified realization is cut short as he rises for just a moment off the ground before I position him properly. He claws at the rough rope constricting his airway, his feet flying through the air as he tries to touch the ground. 

        “Dance!” I howl in a mix of rage and delight. His right shoe slams against the floor with far too much force, then his left taps it gingerly. Once he has grounded himself, he begins his performance of a lifetime. I watch in pride and joy as he moves his limbs in a coordinated, predetermined pattern, graceful and elegant and desperate. 

        “One, two, three, four, five, six, one, two, three, four, five, six,” I chant helpfully, keeping Gale in rhythm. He’s so close, and you can tell from the shade of blue his face has become. With a final flare of the arms and a conclusive beat of his shoe against the stage, he goes limp. I clap as best as I can, brandishing my knife in one fist. I thrust the blade through the twine of the rope and catch Gale before he hits the ground. Kneeling slowly, I lower him onto the ground then stand and turn towards the empty auditorium. But I know it’s not empty. The seats are filled with the spirits of the previous disappointments, tickets for a show they bought with their very lives. And I know somewhere in the back, maybe leaning against the metal doors, stands my old teacher who’s nodding in approval. 

        “I did it, teach,” I whisper, my eyes stinging with unshed tears pressing against my skull. “I kept the show going, just like you asked me to. I found you a star!” 

        I feel pressure against my throat, but not an emotional buildup. A tense, coarse pressure, one that brings back memories of brilliant celebrations and colossal disappointment. The pressure of a rope crafted with betrayal and woven with scrutiny, only to be brandished by a lowly red-faced apprentice. I try to protest, to explain the great success that Gale has stumbled upon, but I am thrown to the floor, and the cold metal of a tap shoe lands squarely between my shoulder blades. 

        “How many did it take?” Gale asks. I almost don’t recognize his voice, now gruff and raspy from the audition and the sobs tearing through it. “How many dreamers did you lie to to get to me?” He pulls harder, and my vision blurs. I push against the stage in an attempt to save myself, but his shoe digs against my back. 

        “A rain dance… to appease a higher power, huh? Maybe you can try one soon to cool the flames of your personal hell.” 

        The world fades away. I sink below the stage, down somewhere damp and hot. The faces of the dancers, bloated with blood and mouths agape, crowd through my head. They flash before my eyes, merging into one twisted countenance of agony. 

        My teacher’s face. 

        The devil’s face.