The Alphabet of the Body
Illustration by Iris Pelosoff
PART 1: THE AWAKENING
When I first ask my mother for dance lessons, I imagine ballet. I imagine a teacher, strict and iron-backed, hair up in a tight bun, an unforgiving matronly sort. I imagine myself twirling and spinning, an arch in my back, a precise point to my toes. I imagine a pink dress, tulle probably, and silk slippers and an audience of awed faces watching me be poised and beautiful. But my mother suggests Kathak. And I - a graceless, eager little thing - take what I can get.
The first time I see Miss Rimmel, I feel like I am stepping into an awakening, my whole body itching for metamorphosis. I am ten years old, with fat little wrists and clumsy fumbling feet. Miss Rimmel is dressed in a gauzy pink jora, her hair twisted back from her face in a flowing braid. Her wrists are dancers-wrists, her steps dancers-steps, as though her entire body responds to music only she hears. Miss Rimmel is to human beings what unicorns are to horses - we are achingly close to being her, but we lack the fundamental magic. “I usually only teach older children,” she demurs softly to my mother. “But I’m willing to make an exception for her.” Me! The exception! It is a terrifying burden, to be young, to have so much left to learn. What is it Miss Rimmel sees in me, I remember wondering. Perhaps she sees the monstrous desire in my eyes, the vulgar need to be wild and watched and always-in-rhythm. Perhaps she sees the way I slouch, and how my steps are heavy and unpracticed, entirely empty of song. Perhaps she just sees herself, reflected in my eyes.
“Kathak,” she informs me during my first lesson, “is the dance of story-tellers. It’s not just about movement - it has a plot, a character arc. Learning Kathak is like learning a language.” She offers me a glass of water, and the cup sits on a stray side-table, collecting condensation as I practice an alphabet of the body. Index finger folded over my thumb, three fingers out, extend your right arm, step forward with your right foot, keep your chin up. No - step with more precision, shift your weight forward, not that far. Again, now with the left arm, left foot. I start lessons in December, and by April I begin to yearn for complicated routines, for fast spins like I have seen Miss Rimmel’s more practiced students achieve with ease. I begin to braid my hair for lessons, after seeing older girls twirl and twirl, their plaits like trails of light, moving a step behind them.
The mango bugs arrive in May. Miss Rimmel always asks that I take my shoes off in the dance studio, as I carefully twist and turn to her unerring count: ta thai thai tat. I try and fail to ignore the soft bodies of the insects under my heels. Later, I will wash the pale yellow blood off my heels - like I have been stepping on diseased sunshine. “Keep your elbows up,” Miss Rimmel says, and she fixes my posture with a delicate hand. I don’t think she has ever killed one of the dozens of scurrying mango bugs which infest her studio. The insects wouldn’t dare get in her way. They know, like I do, that every step she takes is a holy thing. When Miss Rimmel dances, the rest of the world goes still.
One of the older girls warns me about the mango bugs, tells me to begin stepping with force so that the insects scatter before I approach. “You’ll still get one or two of the little ones,” she says casually, tying the strings on her anklet of jingling bells, “but they don’t bleed as much.” I don’t wear the anklet yet - it is too heavy for me, it would unbalance me. I am still finding my center. And, despite her advice, I can never manage to be forceful. When mango bug season approaches, I become slippery with hesitation. My eyes dart constantly to the floor, on the look-out for the grey ovals, with their invisible little legs pushing forward, forward. I stumble, off-rhythm, a part of me recoiling from my own weight, knowing that I am capable of a golden blood-letting. Miss Rimmel gently corrects me, every day for a week. “You mustn’t let your mind speak louder than your body,” she says, demonstrating the half turns I have been struggling with for far too long.
I practice the half-turns in my room for hours, until my breath comes in sharp pants and sweat starts to collect on my forehead and upper lip. The floor in my room is carpeted, and there is too much friction, but I force my feet across the rough surface and almost relish the pain when the skin of my heels reddens and breaks. At school, I walk with a limp, blistered and triumphant. The boy who sits at the desk next to me pokes me with his pencil. “You’re a gimp,” he whispers, and laughs cruelly. Miss Rimmel would have stared at him, coolly. She would turn the weight of her gaze upon him until he shattered, like she did with the girls who giggled and whispered during dance class. I hunch over my mathematics notebook and calculate the area of a triangle. “If you were a horse,” he whispers, “you’d have to be put down.” I imagine myself galloping down an empty street. I imagine the wind on my face, as my strong legs thrum with unbridled power. I imagine the humans pointing their fingers at me in shock, as I run faster and faster, one of the few wild ones left.
At dance class, I execute a perfect half-turn, feet coming down with thundering gravity. Miss Rimmel smiles.
PART 2: THE METAMORPHOSIS
The dance recital is in five days. The past few months, all the girls in class have spent every free moment at dance class, perfecting the choreography, trying to remember their cues. I am thirteen years old, and I wear the anklet of bells in practice. Miss Rimmel had taught me how to tie it, carefully pulling the string taut and double knotting it. She hadn’t said anything, but the glow of pride on her face lodged itself into my chest, tender and bright. Miss Rimmel never showed blatant favouritism. But lately, she had been asking me to come in early to practice my solo. I soaked in the extra half hour with her, like a mango bug soaked in sap. She would offer me tea, and let me spoon in four teaspoons of sugar, before laughingly removing the bowl from my hands. “Too much of a good thing disturbs the balance of your body,” she would say. “What about too much of a bad thing?” I would ask, trying to be impertinent and lovable. She would laugh, and the memory of the sound would be a flotation device, lifting me up, letting me breathe.
The intensity of dance class leading up to the performance has caused many girls to whisper venom behind Miss Rimmel’s back. They feel the heels of their feet toughening up where they were once soft, and complain about aches in their shoulders and necks. The mothers dropping their children off to class smile too tight, and offer each other significant looks. No one says anything to Miss Rimmel, of course - no one would dare. When Miss Rimmel talks, the rest of the world listens. I somehow slip into friendship with Miss Rimmel’s staunchest defender, Selina, a fifteen year old who is loud and slender and shifty-eyed. “If they don’t want to practice, they don’t have to,” she says stoutly, reapplying her pale pink lip gloss in our fifteen minute break. “It’s not Miss Rimmel’s fault that none of them can dance. She’s trying to make them better, but she can’t put in what God left out.”
This is Miss Rimmel’s favourite saying. When angry parents confront her, about their daughters who have practiced for months, who still have flailing limbs and a marked lack of grace, Miss Rimmel shrugs her shoulders. “I can’t put in what God left out,” she says. “I can teach girls choreography. No one can teach girls how to dance.” The parents always walk away flustered, and red-faced. They’d rather pay for years of useless lessons than admit that their daughters are innately untalented. This slightly horrifies me, but it endlessly amuses Selina. I wince when I watch the clumsiest of us misstep, or droop their shoulders, or stumble after a series of fast turns. Selina smirks.
Selina is the best dancer in our class, by light years. Most of us possess slightly more elegance than a horde of baby giraffes. Selina, in comparison, is a lioness. She loves Miss Rimmel and her classes, almost as much as Miss Rimmel hates her. When Selina accomplishes the impossible in dance class, moving faster and lighter than a pebble skimming over water, each curve of her body organised and precise, Miss Rimmel gives her perfunctory praise, eyes cold. “Well done, dear. But don’t you think the last spin was a little fast?” Selina bows her head and accepts it, turning again and again toward the light of Miss Rimmel, despite the burns, the scorch of hurt. I almost feel bad for Selina, but my empathy is a stunted thing.
Because for Selina, it is easy. She learns new steps the first time, memorises routines without ever having to scrunch her nose with effort, extends her legs and arms without ever wincing at the stretch. She comes up to me after lessons, complaining about the other girls holding up the lesson, being too slow and stupid to keep up with her. I listen, without comment. I know somewhere deep in my bones that I will never be more than moderately okay at dancing. But I also know that I am stubborn enough to keep trying anyway, contorting myself into shapes that don’t quite fit me, arguing my body into submission. Miss Rimmel said to let my body speak louder than my mind - but neither comes close to the barbaric yawp of my determination. Miss Rimmel claps her hands in joy when I manage to finish a spin with my arms thrown up, foot forward, weight shifted on to my left leg. “Brilliant! You’re brilliant!”
I think Selina only seeks me out, talks to me, because she wants to know my secret. She wants to know why Miss Rimmel responds to me, and not to her. Miss Rimmel never shows blatant favouritism - but for us, she makes an exception. What Selina is too talented, too inherently graceful, to ever understand is that Miss Rimmel revels in trying to put in what God left out. Every step she takes is, after all, a holy thing. She recreates us, in her image. We stumble after Miss Rimmel, we are mud and labour and breath, she is pure and blinding light. But in Selina, Miss Rimmel sees the parts of herself she never wanted to give. In me - I think in me, Miss Rimmel sees the monstrous desire to be her. And she loves me because she knows I never will be.
At the recital, I am dressed in a deep red outfit, embroidered with delicate gold thread. The trousers cling to me like a second skin, and I spare a thought to worry that I will have to have them surgically removed. My mother and father are in the audience, their pale faces unnoticeable and bland from the glow of the spotlight, and it is easy not to look at them. I do not feel nervous for a second - I know that I will not make a mistake. Miss Rimmel taught me too well - my body wouldn’t dare. When the group of girls complete the final turn, the audience of parents and siblings and friends applauds in synchrony, whooping and standing in a writhing mass of approval. The girls are pink-cheeked, and half-mad, and I know that all the complaints of too-long practices have disappeared from their minds, dissolved like sugar in hot tea.
Selina has performed with us, in the same way a forest fire could perform with a lighter. She has brought the stage alive, practically giving off sparks, and from the way her chest heaves with satisfaction, she clearly knows it. Miss Rimmel clasps Selina’s hand and smiles at her, whispering softly in her ear while Selina swells with delight, puffing up like a prideful bird. Until Miss Rimmel comes up to me, and bends down to throw her arms around me. Selina deflates, and even as her parents come up and hand her a large bouquet of flowers, she is silent and still. I spot her getting into her car in the parking lot, and she is slouched, neck bent at an awkward angle. This is the consequence of too much of a bad thing. I feel uncomfortably complicit in taking out what God put in. I remember, suddenly, the squish of mango bugs under my feet.
PART 3: THE END
This is my first time seeing Miss Rimmel in three years. I quit Kathak at fifteen - I became, all of a sudden, unable to cow my body into doing what I wanted. I developed uncomfortably and suddenly, and my girlish desire to be looked at evaporated, replaced with the womanly imperative to remain invisible. All that was wild in me went tame, and I started caring about things that had once disgusted me - the soft-looking hair of the tallest boy in class, how I could make my eyes appear wider with a slick coat of liner, how to take in my school uniform to show off my waist. Miss Rimmel encouraged me to keep going - but not too much. She had a new prodigy, a girl of eleven, who couldn’t walk two steps without getting tangled up in her own too-large feet. Miss Rimmel loved girls - the raw vulnerability, cruel and flat-footed, barely beginning to nibble the hard rind of life. Almost as much as she hated women, who could look at her and see the black dye staining her forehead, the shabby moth-eaten quality of her clothes, rather than her fundamental magic.
Miss Rimmel had sent a card, with spidery gold lettering. She invited us to a performance she was putting on - her final one, her grand exit from the world of dance-teaching. I spoke to Selina about it - Selina, who appeared at dance class the day after the performance with her head held high. Selina, who was braver and better than I ever could have dreamed to be. She told me Miss Rimmel had hurt her hip, somehow. Miss Rimmel couldn’t demonstrate moves anymore, and had been teaching from an arm-chair for the past five months. Selina told me this in hushed tones, both of us feeling a little like apostates, or blasphemers. Both of us were devastated at Miss Rimmel’s retirement - it felt like the final nail in the coffin of our girlhood. While Miss Rimmel was still teaching, the images of our past selves existed somewhere in the city - in the steps of other young girls, echoing our own movements, in the pause between counts while Miss Rimmel took a breath. A part of us was still stuck in the soft and overwhelming shadow of dance class. A part of us that would evaporate as soon as Miss Rimmel stepped away from the light. A part of us we never wanted to give.
The girls performing dance like girls - clumsy and flawed and enchanting. The girls performing dance like ghosts - I am staring at the fading imprints of my own fingertips on the world. The audience stands to applaud, and Miss Rimmel takes to the stage. She is leaning heavily against a silver-topped cane, and her hand shakes slightly while she waves out at the crowd. Suddenly, she thrusts her cane at one of the students, takes two halting steps forward and bows deeply. I know that it is not the performance, or the choreography she is bowing for. She is bowing to us as a mercy, letting us thank her for putting into the world what God left out. She smiles, bright and vicious, eyes full of tears - and it is a woman’s smile, not a dancers. The spotlight is like a halo, suffusing her with a mythical whiteness, as she sweats slightly from the effort of standing. We clap, and clap, and clap - unable to do anything else. We are shocked, awed, this is a triumph, it is a massacre, the death of the only wild one left. For a few, final, aching seconds, Miss Rimmel bows - and the rest of the world stands, still.