Image © Kaitlin Ruether 2019
|by Ted Shaffrey||June 21, 2019|
Claire stood up inside the subway car and exhaled. Where is my dance partner? The train approached Bedford Avenue Station, triggering the brakes. Claire’s legs vibrated with the train.
There he is. She inhaled in time with the slowing train as it rattled and stopped. She sang, “Will you dance with me, my darling dear?” The doors buckled open. She exhaled, rocked back on her right foot and sprung out of the train and onto the subway platform. “I will. I will, so our hearts can be near,” she sang, answering her musical question.
Beth applied a final dash of lipstick and stepped off the train behind her. “Are you dancing with the subway again?” The train’s old brakes left behind a faint electric scent.
“The smell of sparks inspires me.”
Beth loved Claire’s flourishes but dutifully reined them in. “That’s all in your head,” she said. “The subway is gross.”
The two friends walked across the rain-dappled sidewalks of Brooklyn, their dresses flowing behind them as they arrived at an old church.
From inside came the bouncy sound of electronic dance music. Throbbing brass horns drove the melody. Beth nodded to the beat and went numb with pleasure. Someone had neatly written the pop-up club’s name, The Widowed Tulip, on a dry erase board and hung it on the front door. Beth reached under the strap of her dress and flipped a small, sewn-in switch. A stream of red lights shot up from the hem of her dress to the neckline and back down again. She smiled.
When Beth and Claire stepped into the old church, they gasped. A hundred couples danced in sophisticated patterns, the lights embedded in their clothes moving in synchronization with the music. Someone had long ago removed the pews, and a smooth hardwood floor remained.
Beth spun and her skirt billowed out. The lights in her dress followed the contours of the skirt, like an upside-down tulip in full bloom. She extended her right hand and a man dancing past her took it. He wore a suit decorated with purple lights. Their hands touched, and the purple lights on his clothes automatically changed red to match Beth’s.
Claire watched the couple disappear onto the dance floor into a sea of skirts lit to look like blossoming flowers.
Claire slipped through the room like a party-crasher trying to avoid detection. She leaned against a wall to watch the dancers but was distracted by the disc jockey who had lifted his arms in front of him, parallel to the floor. Palms turned out, he yanked his hands apart as if opening a window curtain. A shoebox-sized hologram appeared in front of his chest.
The throbbing brass horns resolved the melody and the song ended. The disc jockey scrolled through a playlist in his hologram and air-tapped his index finger to start the next song. Music filled the old church again, and Claire was ready to dance. She reached under the strap of her dress and flipped a switch just as Beth had. Blue lights shot up from the hem of her skirt to the top of the bodice and back. Her heart thrummed. Will I remember how to dance on the beat? What about the moves I’ve been practicing?
A hand slipped into hers. Claire looked up and into the man’s green eyes. “Hello,” he said. “Good to see you again.”
Was his name Bill? David? She couldn’t remember.
“I’m sorry. I must tell you, your dress is beautiful,” he said. The orange lights on his suit automatically turned blue to match the lights on Claire’s dress. She smiled, and they began.
He led her into a spin under his right arm as she passed in front of him. His arm was rigid, forcing her to move her feet differently than she wanted.
Is he trying to dance staccato? Beth likes to dance that way.
“I’m sorry,” he said, sensing she was not satisfied.
Why does he keep apologizing?
Using the power of his arms, he swung her body out, then pulled her back in, and then pushed her out once more. She had no choice but to keep dancing the eight-count move, over and over.
Why does he keep repeating this move?
The song ended. “I’m sorry,” he said again. “We will get it right next time.”
Claire turned and walked along the outskirts of the dance floor. She was looking for something. Bodies bounced into and around each other.
But wait…there it was. In the middle of a group of dancers she saw – or sensed – a gliding movement. It came from a male dancer wearing a suit with blue lights. He slid both his feet and body back and forth in front of his partner like a pendulum along an imaginary semi-circle on the floor. When changing direction, he never stopped and started, but moved continuously.
Claire walked over and positioned herself in the periphery of the man and his current dance partner, a woman in high heels who was two-stepping. The dancers were connected only in that they were holding hands.
Claire waited. The song was almost over. As it ended, she grabbed the man by the right arm, blocking the woman in high heels from asking him for another dance. He pulled away from Claire’s grasp and looked at her.
“My name is Phil,” he said.
The music started again. A lyrical flute set the new song’s jaunty melody.
She put her palms against his palms, and both dancers leaned in, pressing their hands together. Using the compression, Claire pushed away from Phil, swivelling her feet stylishly and returning to a near embrace. She drove away from him again and spun around. Her dress billowed and resembled a blue spinning tulip carved from light. As she twisted, the lights on her dressed changed from blue to red, and her chest flushed another shade of red. Phil put his arm around her waist, and they swivelled their hips in unison. The joy!
Claire pushed away once more and spun around. She looked about the room and saw her dress was part of a bouquet of neon flowers, an impression created by a multitude of spinning dancers. As her heart raced she seized a snapshot of the moment in her mind: I’m part of a beautiful painting.
Sweat collected on her lower back. She spun and the neon tulip blossomed. Her muscles trembled with pleasure. The dance was a wordless conversation about the shape and movement possibilities of the human body. And then it was over. The song complete.
“You are a wonderful dancer,” Phil said.
“You flow from one step to the next.”
“Oh, thank you,” said Claire. She held him, and they swayed back and forth to the new song. Phil let go of her hand. Are you leaving me? I’m devastated! Goodbye, dancer! Her heart ached, and tears were just beneath the surface.
Claire placed her hand in his once more. She looked at him and allowed herself to be hypnotized by his blue eyes. She put her right hand on the back of his neck and kissed him on the lips. He kissed her back, passionately, not aggressively. The blue lights on his suit turned red to match the lights on her dress.
Claire ended the kiss and backed away from Phil, still swaying to the music. Using the momentum from the swaying, Claire swung her right leg up gracefully and high in the air. Phil mirrored her movements. She triple-stepped in a perfect circle around him as he did the same in a smaller circle. A hush came over the club as other dancers watched these two bodies move. Beth was one of those looking.
Phil and Claire held each other by the tips of their fingers and leaned back, so the only thing that kept them from falling was the gravity pull of their clasped fingers. They shifted their weight to the balls of their feet and spun around, going faster and faster. The red lights on their clothes grew in intensity. The dancers sped up even more. The red lights were now pulsing — bright, less bright, bright again – not flashing, but like a heartbeat made of light. Claire looked at Phil and breathed easily for the first time that day. She eased their velocity until they came to a full stop.
Claire pulled Phil toward her midsection. She bent her knees and vaulted up, somersaulting over his flat back, landing on her feet behind him. He instinctually turned and took her hand. They slow danced until the song was over.
“Thank you, Phil,” she said.
“My pleasure,” he said. “Your flourishes are wonderful.” Phil backed up, the red lights on his suit turning blue again as he disappeared into the sea of lights. The lights on Claire’s dress also turned blue again, and she sighed.
She scanned the room and saw Beth sitting on a wrought iron chair, out of breath and with the satisfied look of someone who had just finished a tasty cup of tea. Claire sat next to her.
“You and he were wonderful, as always,” said Beth. “Did he remember you today?”
Claire exhaled. “No.” As she breathed back in, air passed over the sweat on the back of her neck, cooling her. She turned her head to see a man in a plaid suit and thick eyeglasses who was moving so quickly across the dance floor that he created a light breeze upon those he passed. Seconds later he stood in front of a man with a beret and a goatee beard who was wringing his hands. The man in plaid was taller than anyone else in the room, and muscular. He was coated in a light dusting of glitter which took the edge off his appearance, but yes, he was a bouncer.
A woman with short blonde hair stood in front of the man in the beret. She crossed her arms and frowned. The music continued to play, and the dancing continued around them.
“My timing is off!” said the bouncer, putting his right finger to his ear. “I’m like a metronome in a blizzard.” With his left hand, the bouncer grabbed the man in the beret by the arm.
“All I did was ask if I could kiss her!” the man protested, the silver hairs on his clipped goatee glistening in the light.
“I know!” said the bouncer. “Rules, rules, rules.” The bouncer tugged on the man’s arm with just enough force to walk him toward the exit. “I wish I could change the rules,” said the bouncer, scratching his head. “If I could then I would make it so I wouldn’t get recycled for parts when no one wants to dance with me anymore.”
The man in the beret didn’t say anything. The bouncer walked him out to the sidewalk. “You can come back again in a month! Have a nice night!”
The man’s head drooped and he shuffled away, off-beat from the music coming from inside the club. As the bouncer walked back inside, a booming voice from the loudspeaker filled the room.
“It’s ten o’ clock!” said the disc jockey. “Time for the gauntlet!”
The male dancers lined up in two rows. Claire and Beth joined other women in the club and walked through the tunnel of men. The male dancers tried to entice women to pick them as dance partners.
“Hi, gorgeous! Dance with me?” said a tall man to a woman in a short dress.
“We will create beautiful shapes together,” a man promised Claire. The lights on the front of his sports jacket formed a valentine heart.
“You don’t want to talk to me!” said a man who stood back from the line, appearing unavailable. Beth took the bait and went to him. A moment later they were dancing.
A dancer wearing a leather motorcycle jacket held out his hand to Claire. “Take a ride with me,” he said, winking. “I’m not dangerous – I swear.”
Next to him stood Phil. He smiled at Claire. Claire smiled back.The gauntlet dissipated as dancers paired up. Claire waited.
Phil was left. No one had picked him. Claire smiled and took his hand. They danced to three more songs, then parted.
“Magic!” Claire said as she sat next to Beth on the wrought iron chairs.
“Did you do run through all the moves you made up?” asked Beth.
“Yes,” said Claire. “They have to keep him here. Our dances are special.”
“He doesn’t remember you,” said Beth.
The music stopped and most of the male dancers, including Phil, left the dance floor. They filed one by one through a door behind where once stood the church altar.
Claire looked down as a shoebox-sized hologram, just like the one the disc jockey was using earlier, opened in front of her. She glanced up to see the same type of hologram had appeared in front of the dozens of dancers who remained in the club.
A woman appeared in the hologram. She had platinum blonde hair and was smiling. “I’m Suzie, your moderator,” said the woman. “It’s time for your vote! Remember to be honest. Your responses are anonymous.”
Claire breathed deeply.
“Tonight, you danced with Dave and Phil. Which dancer brought you the most joy or other desirable emotion?”
The two names appeared in the hologram with empty boxes next to them.
She touched the box next to Phil’s name, and a big check mark materialized.
A new screen appeared.
“On a scale from one to five, with one being “So-so” and five being “I was fully joyful in the moments of the dance,” how would you rate your dances with Phil?”
Claire checked the box next to number five.
“On a scale of one to five, how generous a dancer was Phil?
She checked five. She tilted her head and sighed. I wish I could take him home.
After they left the dance floor, the male dancers walked down a hallway and into a high school that was attached to the church. The school was out for the weekend but, like the old church, had space available to rent.
The dozens of male dancers now all sat in classroom chairs with flip-up arm desks, all alert — breathing and blinking like regular people — and all with the same satisfied look. None of the dancers spoke, but they all appeared ready to engage in small talk if prompted. Each man had his right arm on his desk, palm up, as if giving blood. But instead of a needle, a long USB cable ran from the inner elbow of each dancer’s arm and up to the teacher’s desk.
At the desk was the real-life Suzie. On her left was a small electronic box into which ran all the USB cables from the dancers. It projected a hologram in front of Suzie.
The bouncer stood on her right side, waiting for instructions.
Using her right hand, she flipped through the data in the hologram that was coming in from each of the dancers. “Hmmm,” she said. “The rating for…Phil…is what we called him tonight, is high once again.”
“Oh yes,” said the bouncer. “He’s been around longer than any other model on the floor.”
Suzie continued to scroll through the data. “His logarithm is now three years old,” she said. “He was due for an operating system upgrade a year and a half ago and should be picking up 27 percent more social cues. There is not even a full auto mode feature on him.”
Pulling her fingers up she triggered a silhouette of Phil dancing with a woman. It was a shadow playback of the biometric scan Phil had captured. One of his dances with Claire. Suzie did not know it was Claire. The company takes user privacy seriously.
Suzie watched the two figures dancing, her eyes widening, forgetting what she was doing for only a moment. “Their movements are elegant,” she said. “Not because of Phil, but because of the way she interacts with him.” She pushed her fingers down into the hologram, and a question appeared: ‘Save choreography data?’ Suzie selected the ‘Yes’ option.
“This data we are getting from him is going to make all the dancers better,” she said. “We will keep him around for another week. Wipe his memory but don’t upgrade the software.”
“Yes ma’am,” said the bouncer.
Back on the dance floor, Claire already missed Phil.
She looked toward holographic Suzie, but Suzie’s stare was fixed somewhere far beyond.
The warm sensation that remained in Claire’s chest suddenly chilled. Then she was hot again. To control the chaotic feelings, she sobbed and let it out. It worked, if only momentarily, and she thought, I know what to do.
She imagined herself dancing with Phil.
He likes glides. What if we interlock arms and bounce back and forth in double time – and then glide back for four beats? Claire stood up and tried solo the move she had just imagined, developing the choreography she would dance with Phil at the next Widowed Tulip pop up.
“Thanks again for participating in our market research,” said the holographic Suzie. “Goodbye dancers! Come back again next week to dance and vote again!”
Ted Shaffrey is a writer and a dancer. He works full time as a video journalist based in New York City covering breaking news. At night he often dances Lindy Hop and Balboa at studios and clubs. Shaffrey is interested in how our world is quickly changing.
Kaitlin Ruether is an MFA candidate at the University of Guelph in Toronto and has spent time all over Canada developing geographic commitment problems. Her fiction is forthcoming in Lost Balloon Magazine and has been published in FreeFall, The New Limestone Review, and This Side of West. Her play, “Snowfrog”, was produced by Vino Buono in Victoria, B.C.. She is a regular contributor to the Canadian music publication Exclaim! and she will talk to you about music all night, if you want to.