Margret Frey pumped her legs and swung above the patrons at Atlanta’s Tic Toc Club. The high perch kept her from knocking into the heads of the topless waitresses, and away from the grabbing hands of the men. Between sets, they could lean back and follow Margret in her string bikini, swinging back and forth.
Down on the stage, Regina had long legs, a pretty decent extension, and the most moves by far. Billie did a full body twist to land, squatting in her high heeled shoes at the lip of the stage. Lana had big boobs and a doll-baby face. Her claim to fame was snaking around the two stage poles, shaking her long hair. From her swing, Margret rooted for them and also judged them.
Dancing on stage was actually supposed to be Margret’s thing. It was where she belonged.
Margret had danced with The Washington Ballet in D.C. each summer during high school, riding a Greyhound bus from her hometown of Fredericksburg, then orange line, then walking the eight blocks to Wisconsin Avenue. She bought bottles of baby food—plum, apple, peach—thinking this was how she ought to eat. Small bites. Little portions, almost nearly enough. Alone in the locker rooms, she changed out of sweaty leotards and licked and licked her spoons. Chewed three saltines, almonds in a baggie.
She’d been asked to join a pas de deux class, a special opportunity for a summer student, and was paired with Kevin, who had been accepted into the company the year before. He lived at the company house with the girl whose grand jete defied gravity and who had arches so high her feet looked broken, like Chinese lotus feet.
With Kevin, Margret learned the gravity of her own body. How you didn’t lunge at a man, you lifted yourself until he held you. How his one finger and palm could guide endless soutenu across the stage: turn turn turn, until the final, striking arabesque.
Those summers, she mastered technique.
“Do it again,” Master Shumann would say, and Margret would breathe deeply and repeat the movement. “Once more,” the Master said in his krauted English. In the end, she lifted. She lighted, and the heel of Kevin’s palm in the opening at the front of her ribcage led her up to the ceiling.
The summer after high school, she lifted all the way to the East Coast Ballet School in New York City with an apprenticeship. The first year with East Coast Ballet, Margret lived in a tiny apartment with a girl named Chris who stayed thin as a rail and milky white. Gaunt and ghostly but strong-legged and quick to learn, Chris fit the Corps de Ballet well, standing five foot three, able to hold her arabesque cleanly just above hip height to match the other hip heights, to hold her arms exactly as directed, and to wear the white feathers of the swan at her ears with a shut, unsmiling mouth.
Margret, on the other hand, felt compelled to smile. She felt so much joy in the music, so much hope with each pique turn en dedans, pique turn pique turn, quiet on the landing. How could she not glow? How could she not spread her arms to the perceived audience and grin? This is what a bird felt like in winged flight, this was soaring. If one more step needed to be taken, she took it. If her balance was on, one more pirouette.
“Miss Frey, you grin like a fool,” Mistress Hayden had said in rehearsal. “Are you an idiot?”
Margret found it difficult to conform.
At her hometown ballet studio, she had discovered her emotions could move her body. Lilac Fairy guided the magic in the kingdom, Aurora would not be killed. With the swirl of Lilac’s wand and deep curtsies as she spun through the pumped fog, Aurora would only sleep. As Lilac Fairy, Margret enchanted them all, the whole village. Then she went on a powerful hunt to find the man who could break the spell.
At East Coast Ballet, the spell broke when the Mistress stopped rehearsal and yelled, “Miss Frey, what in God’s name are you doing?”
There is no way to answer that question, so Margret didn’t.
“You are still an apprentice, am I wrong?” The Mistress laughed and gave a wave. “Do you think you are a principal?”
Margret thought about the Lilac Fairy and how the audience applauded when she returned on arched feet, quick neat chaines across the stage to wake the spell-struck villagers. The magic had worked. The audience applauded, and Margret’s heart rose to her throat. Opening night and Saturday night and Sunday matinee—the magic had worked again and again.
To the Mistress, Margret said, “No.” But she did want to be a principal.
The other girls hoped to be principals, too. And perhaps they’d been Lilac Fairies or Auroras or Sugar Plums in their hometowns, and learned to tame their magic here too, to stuff it into their pancake tutus like small bits of glass that nipped at their waists as they danced. Reminding them this pain would become something more, something else. And yet all thirty of the corps could not be promoted. Some of us, Margret knew, will always be the corps.
When they received their notice of casting, her roommate Chris had said, “The corps is beautiful, it’s precise. It’s so chaotic and wonderful to be onstage together, creating the shape of the dance.” Chris shifted into her right hip and bent for a deep stretch along her left leg. A simple move made elegant.
The Mistress, never done with Margret, said, “Are you ready to try again, Margret? Are we keeping you from something?”
How would she stand out if the Mistress only saw her looking the same as everyone else?
The Mistress pinched her lips at Margret then clapped out, “Places everyone.”
The others groaned and pushed past Margret with elbows.
The pianist began, and Margret held her easy extension back, lowering her leg in the arabesque. She didn’t turn her head the way she did when the breathlessness of the movements caught in her chest. Her legs struck with the piano keys, faster and faster, her turns slowed with the others, and with the swans she lowered her neck and flew in feathered flurry around and around and around.
“Where is your gaze?” Mistress hollered above the music. The answer was: on the calves of the girl in front of you. Careful, perfect circling swans, pecking at the tail feathers of the other swans.
It was July in Atlanta. Hot. It had been a month at the Tic Toc Club and Margret hadn’t danced. She never told them she could. Instead, her oiled legs pumped forward and back and she held the ropes that were tied to the rafters and to the thin metal swing. She let her bottom hang down in the back like Bo told her to do. It meant the metal hit her right in the backs of her thighs, leaving hard red marks. She’d do a skin-the-cat and land on a chair Bo set out for her. She slipped a batik scarf around her waist to hide the ugly indentations and went out back to escape the endless cigarette smoke wafted up to her on her swing.
The East Coast Ballet called it Beaux Arts: a celebration at the end of the season with costumes and cocktails and drugs. The techies congregated in a back room with low lights, metal on the stereo, and drifts of cocaine on a glass table. Someone put a jar to the side for donations. The dancers tiptoed into the room and took their snorts, and the techies scowled if the cash wasn’t forthcoming. Dancers had a reputation for expecting freebies, but they were the biggest cokeheads, everyone knew. Forget diets and purging, or being too tired for rehearsal. Coke sustained.
Margret wore a Frenchie frilled mask with white boa fluff at the crown. The soft leather came to the tip of her nose and tops of her cheekbones, and she brought a tube of Red Corvette lipstick to keep applying on her dehydrating lips.
“Who are you?” someone asked. Margret remembered him from the wings. Sound. No, lights. Set?
Margret rubbed her lips together and said, “Margret.”
“Uh-huh,” he said. It was loud, so she stepped closer. He had shaggy brown hair, not too long. His eyes were red-rimmed, but they twinkled.
Some of the dancers had taken a lap, and when the music died, Margret’s roommate Chris sat on Scott, who they called Kentucky because of his thick accent. Chris started their secret song about the ballet Mistress, Melissa Hayden, who they called Millie behind her back. It was to the tune of “Do, a Deer.”
“Do, plus G spells Millie Dog,” (laughter all around and other girls joined in swinging their pretty legs), “Ray, the pianist that she likes! Me, the one she bitches at—”
“Why aren’t you singing?” The techie’s name was Joey. She’d been right. He was a sound guy.
The chorus sang, “So, you’ll never learn to dance, ti, don’t touch your inner thigh—”
Joey looked around the room and laughed. “She sounds horrible. Is she really that horrible?”
Margret swished her can of beer. Only a few more sips, and such a dry taste in her mouth. “She’s tops,” she said. “She’s in the encyclopedia under Ballet.”
Joey raised his eyebrows.
“The one at the downtown library has a mustache and black leg hair.”
“I’ll bet,” he said.
“I’m going to grab another beer.” Margret turned from Joey and the singing room. They’d started in on another round.
Her letter had come in the mail on Thursday. She had not been cast in the summer exposition. She was welcomed back for fall, free to take classes, but for the next two and a half months, she’d be without choreography. Without the drive towards the stage, rehearsal schedules, new shoes to break in, sweat. Chris would get to perform in the summer show. What the hell was Margret supposed to do for rent?
Chris said, “Stay in New York and wait tables. Take your free classes.”
Wait tables and be around all that food she wasn’t supposed to eat? No way.
Margret had a fresh beer and a fresh application of lipstick, but instead of returning to the techie coke den, she wandered through the costumes and out onto the back porch. There were several smokers standing out in the tiny yard blowing white streams into the May sky.
“Here you are.”
It was Joey. Margret couldn’t decide if his following made her happy or not. She said hey and leaned against the railing. “I won’t be here this summer,” she said. The coke tore down appropriate banter and pushed conversation to bluntness. She told Joey how it broke her heart. How she wished she could get out of the city for the summer, but going to her parents would depress her even more.
“I know a guy in Atlanta,” Joey said. He’d crept up close as she spoke and now his arm draped over her shoulder, easy as you please.
Bo, Tic Toc’s club manager, had the AC cranked. Margret pulled her flannel shirt tighter around her waist, feeling the sweat cool and shiver on the back of her neck. Under her arms. She drank sea breezes for her shift drink. Vodka and cranberry. It’s how Southern beaches would taste: bright and sweet, leaving an ache in the cheeks.
Billie left early, so it was just four of them left. Lana drank whiskey and water on ice, and Regina changed it up: shots of tequila one night, white wine another, screwdrivers now several nights in a row—some kind of slump. Bo smoked and sat in the way he did, with his legs wide and his arms sprawled across the backs of chairs, taking the space of three men. Bo wasn’t a total scum—he didn’t pinch behinds or ogle boobs, and he heavy-handed the booze in their shift drinks.
Margret wore her jeans shorts and flip-flops. Her thighs ached where the swing had dug at her flesh for nearly five hours. The vinyl chair bit and rubbed.
“You okay? Regina asked.
“I’m tired of swinging.” Margret ripped her legs from the vinyl, stood, and stretched to the right and then to the left, knowing the three of them watched her. She stopped and sat back down. “I want to dance.”
Chris called the following day from New York. Had Margret received her letter for Fall auditions?
“Yeh,” Margret said. She’d washed out her bathing suit and hung it, anchored by two water glasses, over the window AC unit.
“You don’t sound very excited.”
“Don’t tell me you want to stay with the Atlanta Ballet?”
Margret had fudged on the details of her summer job in their last conversation.
“Even if they hire you,” Chris went on, “you can’t leave New York. It’s New York. It’s the East Coast Ballet.”
Margret shrugged and sat on her coffee table, watched the strings on her bathing suit flutter. “Maybe I’m not cut out for New York,” she said.
Chris blew out a breath. “Don’t be so dramatic,” she said. “The Fall show is Le Diable et le Bon Dieu.”
Margret lifted her legs up one by one and pointed her feet, turned her legs out and then in. “Yeah? Isn’t that sort of modern?”
“More modern than all that Balanchine shit last year. London did it. I heard it’s great.” Margret caught the excitement in Chris’ voice. She imagined her pacing on the blond wood floors between the living room and the tiny kitchen in the apartment they’d shared. “The corps are pilgrims. Lots of parts for all us. Very interesting choreography.”
Margret kept pointing her feet, thinking.
“You got to decide. I want you to room with me, but if not, Ann wants to keep the room.”
Margret listened to the buzz on the line, thinking of New York twinkling like sequins. All sparkle and shimmy.
That night, she leaned in and told them: Bo, Lana, Regina. She danced ballet in New York. Their eyes widened and then squinted.
“You mean, you want to dance dance?” Bo asked. He leaned back into his chair and gathered the chair beside him by the neck, like a date.
Margret sipped her sea breeze. “Yeh,” she said.
A solo is a magnificent fold into the lights, into the wood of the stage floor, into the blur of faces, breathing their expectation. Margret wore black lycra hot pants and a nude sports bra she’d decorated with two strips of sequins. Backstage, she rolled her feet in her point shoes, the ribbon sewed using Regina’s travel kit. Lana had finished her pole work ten minutes ago, and the patrons watched Billie in the swing and refilled their drinks, waiting.
The sound guy cued the music and the room hushed.
It’s the lights, Margret thought, it’s the song. It’s the way my torso and my feet know when to contract and expand. It’s feeling the quiet in the music and then a pull, and an arrow slicing the air. She’d pierced her solo. Finally, a solo.
Bo gave the table a wink and walked to the bar. Margret let herself relax with the group. One of them now—a dancer at the club. Lana shook the ice in her glass. “You know he’s not going to let you dance every night with your clothes on.”
Margret stared at her. Regina giggled and adjusted her flannel shirt over her pasties. Margret said, “What?”
The response to her dance had been fabulous. They’d never seen dancing like that before. Real dancing. The audience stood and clapped, mouths open. Better than the raunchy whoops they’d given the other girls. No copping a feel as they shoved dollars into the g-string. Margret hadn’t undressed. She’d chosen Donna Summers’ “MacArthur Park” because she could do both slow and fast parts, ending on the ground rising and lowering her torso in that provocative Gus Giovanni style the men would mistake for something she really didn’t intend for them. The song was all about cake. On the stage, she’d placed an upturned top hat for tips. Lots of them. She’d shoved the bills into the inside zip-pocket of her purse to count later. It was a good take.
Lana said, “And you won’t get to pick another twenty-minute skating rink song either.”
The cranberry sucked at Margret’s cheeks and the icy vodka made her eyes water. She was drinking too fast. “I know,” she said to Lana, and held a liquored ice cube in her cheek, hoping to make her tears freeze.
“Another one?” Bo called from the bar.
Lana raised her glass, and Margret too. Regina tried to remove her pasties from under the flannel shirt. It looked like she had a wild ferret under there. Lana rolled her eyes. “Regina, too.”
Bo came back with a tray, observing Regina’s pasties on the table next to her empty glass. “Better?” he asked. He looked around at their faces and said, “What?”
Regina sucked on the two red straws in her screwdriver. Lana held her fresh whiskey in one hand and leaned back in her chair, pinched her lips shut. She had drunk off her lipstick so just the liner was left, bleeding into the hair under her nose. “Margret wants to dance again.”
Bo looked at Margret. “That’s funny,” he said. Something different. Not the same shift-drink Bo.
Ice settled in someone’s drink. Regina reached for her cigarette pack and fumbled to knock out a Marlboro light. They waited while Bo took his shot of tequila and picked up his beer bottle. “What?” he asked his audience again.
“Why not?” Margret asked. The heat was in her face. “What’s wrong? I made good cash. They loved it.”
“You’re not doing them pirouettes on my stage again.”
Lana piped up, “I told you he’d make you strip.”
“I don’t want to see her strip.”
Reginia blew her smoke in a cough.
Bo said, “I want you to get the hell out of my club.”
“What?” Margret asked. She could really feel the vodka. It felt like she was looking down at herself from the swing.
Bo leaned on his forearms and tilted the table, pulling rivulets of drink towards him. “I want you to take your goddamned tips and get the hell out of here. You know how many girls would give their right tit to dance like that?”
“How many?” Reginia asked when nobody else did.
“All of them.”
Margret’s hand shook on her glass so she set it back down without taking a sip. “You firing me?” she asked Bo.
He said, “Yeh. Finish your shift drink and get your ass back to New York.”
She looked at the sweating glass. It was mostly water now, the cranberry and vodka spinning in her head, catching in her throat.
“Okay, I’ll get my things.”
Margret had jeans on over her hot pants and an Echo and the Bunnymen t-shirt. She’d left her bathing suit at home. The top hat belonged to Regina. Yeh, what things.
She stood, rocked a little and picked up her purse.
Regina stood, too. “Give me a hug, honey.” Her hug felt good. Warm and strong. She smelled like cigarettes and hairspray and the breath of the club. In Margret’s ear she said, “Go be where you belong.”
At her apartment that night, in bed, Margret lay on her back with her arms up across her chest the way she imagined dead people were posed. She stared at the ceiling and let her mind roll through her solo dance at the Tic Toc.
And then she lowered her arms to her waist, still crossed at the wrists, and imagined a tutu there: white and feathered. One swan among the many perfectly dancing swans.
is a writer and the co-owner of PDX Writers in Portland, Oregon. She has received several awards for short stories including the Oregon Literary Arts Fellowship, two Pushcart Nominations, and Regional Arts Community Council grants. Her first book, Wallace Farm, is represented by Joanna MacKenzie, Nelson Literary Agency.