What Does the Music Tell You?

What Does the Music Tell You?

Her toes burned. Her legs ached with the strain of holding her position. Yet her arms flowed elegantly, like branches in the wind, like the fine neck of a swan. Her body dipped. Her feet stayed aloft. She formed the perfect shape, held it for the perfect amount of time before releasing it and –


Cazella lost her balance and pitched forward, falling off her toes. She caught herself with her hands before her face slammed into the hardwood of the stage.

The Madame clapped her hands as she trotted up the rickety old stairs, her face pinched, her lips pressed in a thin line. Each clap was like a nail being hammered into a coffin.

“What in blazes was that?” she demanded as Cazella straightened and dusted herself off.

“I thought I was doing it exactly the way you showed us,” Cazella protested, her milky cheeks blazing. Had she miscounted? Had her strain been too evident?

The Madame’s eyes softened, though her expression remained firm. “Non,” she intoned in with her heavy French accent. “Nonnonnon, my dear, you are better than this.”

Was she? She had been pouring all her effort into this practice and the Madame had been nothing but annoyed.

Hard to believe she had traded one form of confinement for another. But to Cazella, ballet offered a freedom the streets never had. Who cared that she had to answer to another grouchy old woman with high expectations? At least her time on stage filled her with exhilaration. She didn’t, after all, dance for the Madame. She danced for herself. Even if this new Madame was twice as hard to please as the old one.

“I don’t understand what I’ve done wrong-“

“I can see that.”

Cazella held her breath for a moment, counting silently to three before she replied. “I have taken great pains to replicate the technical aspects of the poses you presented to us when you outlined this sequence-“

The Madame snorted. “That, mon chouchou, is precisely your problem. The forms are for lessons, not performances. You may dance the most technically correct sequence on performance night and you shall look as comely as a bored attempting to master ballet.”

It was difficult not to deflate with feedback like that. And here she thought she looked refined, each night when she practiced in front of her apartment’s tiny mirror.

The Madame clapped her hands. The sudden sound made Cazella jump. “You will do it again,” the French woman proclaimed as she strode back down the stairs. “Better this time.”

“But Madame… how can I do better if you don’t want me to focus on form and technique?”

A cryptic smile brushed the old woman’s eyes. There was a light in her eyes the other girls tended to shrink away from, but Cazella gravitated toward it like a moth to a flame.

“Your feet know the forms, do they not? Your legs the technique. Your arms the flourish. Non, mon chouchou, you must concentrate on the dance.”

“But I-“

Silence!” Stillness fell over the room. The other girls ceased their practices to peer at the spectacle on stage. Cazella tried not to feel the heavy weight of their combined gazes on her shoulders. She must be light if she was to dance.

“Close your eyes,” the Madame commanded and Cazella obeyed instantly. She must have waved to the assistant controlling the practice music for it soon filled the large space with its splendor.

“Now,” the Madame breathed, her voice suddenly close to Cazella’s ear. How did such an old woman move with such speed and silence? “You listen to the music, child. Do you hear it?”

Cazella nodded.

“Do you feel it?”

“Feel it?”

A sharp tap on her shoulder made her jump. She scrunched her face to keep her eyes closed.

“You know the story the ballet is meant to tell. A story without words, told in music, in body movement, in emotion. So, mon chouchou, what does the music tell you?”

Cazella drew a deep breath and focused on the notes. The recording wasn’t as deep or three-dimensional as the music played by the orchestra would be on opening night. Yet, she understood instantly what her teacher was trying to say. Beneath the smooth surface of the mixed instruments lay a depth she had never before imagined. Waves that rose and fell, figures that clashed and collided, like a massive maelstrom of activity.

And each instrument conveyed its own emotion. The frenzy of the drums, the anxiety of the flutes, the despair of the trumpets, the hopelessness of the tubas, all overlaid by the dying embers of hope in the clarinets.

The revelation was like a bucket of cold water dumped over her head. She understood.

“Do it again.” She heard a hint of triumph in the Madame’s voice and imagined her grinning that cryptic grin.

Cazella didn’t open her eyes. She waited for the music to begin anew, waited for the loop that indicated she should begin.

She lifted her arms and legs, not caring how they were supposed to look or how her legs should bear her weight. She let the music carry her, leaned into the despair, tossed herself through the desperation, flowed through the hopeful interludes, fluttered with every anxious flute note. She was breathless by the end of it, both from the effort and the thrill. Eyes still watched her from every angle. No one else had yet returned to their studies.

Again the Madame clapped her hands. This time it sounded like cymbals at the peak of the orchestra’s crescendo. “Magnifique!”

Don’t forget to check out what my writing partner did with this prompt.

Over at Ithilear, Beth Alvarez has provided her own prompt, “I was the first.”

If you’d like to participate, leave a link to your response in the comments and I’ll feature it next week!

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