Short Story: "The Dancing-Master"
An excerpt from Alexandra Kleeman's new collection Intimations.
The body of Victor Tallon bends both of its knees on the downbeat, sinking and suddenly halting, like a toy abandoned by a child. Legs crooked, he remains there too long, squatting shallowly in the midst of what had once been a passable plié. The stiff arms hold their shape, suspended as if from threads extending invisibly into the heavens. After several seconds, the finely positioned arms begin to quiver.
From where I stand, I watch this tremor grow bolder, as I watch also the eyes beginning to brim with a considerable quantity of tears. He moistens rapidly. His emptied mouth gapes toward the audience like a dark hole deep, deep in the woods. Meanwhile, the music has already moved on, marching toward the fourth bar, though a strain of hesitancy creeps into the notes as it occurs to each of the players that they might soon be ordered to slow down, or to cease entirely.
I give him a stern appraisal, from the slack mouth to the slackening hips. He should now be executing the élevé, but it is all terribly wrong. He tilts left somewhat and looks as though he might topple. Though he has been perfectly still for the last few minutes, poised mid-sequence for fear of making an error, now his legs begin to wriggle in place. It occurs to me that he might fall upon all fours and make a dash for the palace doors, straight for the elegant foyer and its elegant escape, fleeing like a dog from a promise of certain punishment. Such a turn would not take me by surprise: Victor Tallon is a savage, and holds a coward’s attitude toward the art of dance. But when I lower my hand gently to the rod at my hip, he pitches forward and releases a gasp, a spasm of fearful sound. The neck protruding from his collar and coat is pink with fear, twisted round like a wrung goose. Then he resumes his choreography, proceeding as instructed through the rise, the jeté, another plié, another élevé, another light and airy kick. For one such as he, accustomed to the harsh admonitions of the wilderness, only a similar harshness will stir him to civilized action.
I look to the braggart philosopher Portesquieu to measure his response, but he does not meet my eye. Victor continues to sway a bit too much for my liking, giving the elegant chacotte an unseemly teetering quality. However, it must be said that his posture is impeccable.
Young Victor Tallon wandered into our village three years and 37 days ago, wearing upon his head a flap of filthy linen made more vile by the matted teats of hair hung beneath it. The physician who examined him estimated his age at 16 years, though with his stunted height and well-developed teeth he could have been a man closer to my own. When we realized that he was more than a beggar — far more, by way of being far less — we descended upon him as children upon a sack of sweets. Not only was he unable to give us an account of himself, his name, origin, occupation, the name of his father, the occupation of his father, the whereabouts of his mother, etcetera, he was unable to account for anything at all. To our questions and threats, he made a soft chuffing sound, followed by a sort of attempt to bite the air, snapping at it and gnashing his teeth as though he had seized upon some delicacy. Men and women of all ages and ranks, we convened upon the town square to see this empty vessel, to gather around him, to lift up his lips to examine his gums, to explore his sensitivity to prodding and loud sounds.
Perhaps knowing the proper execution of the gavotte would help the boy make sense of the world.
That night in the tavern, the philosopher Portesquieu addressed me before all present. Dancing-master, he said from a mouth stained with meat, why do you not try your hand at reforming the wild young man? You claim that you are a favorite of the court, surely some official would commend him to your custody, to teach him the essentials of modern thought and comportment. Perhaps knowing the proper execution of the gavotte would help the boy make sense of the world.
Amid his laughter, I reflected upon the many spiritual benefits that a mastery of the dance could offer. A firm knowledge of the social dances — invented for pleasure yet placed in the service of the public good — could benefit the poor savage in both mind and body. For if the elegant gestures of the dance spring from a deeply cultivated sense of intelligence and propriety, it is clear that knowledge of these gestures would cultivate the appropriate intelligence in its practitioner.
It is to this end that I took young Victor on as my own student, and to this end that he performs the steps as I have taught him, in the order I have taught him, before this audience: the audience that will affirm his civilization. It is for this reason that he rotates with his left arm extended and his right gently curved — performing the court dances like a gracious and sensible man. Although he does not yet understand what any of those words mean.
Victor executes a magnificent bow in the center of the hall. He bends before a bramble of eyes, convened to witness the degree to which bodily form may supplant a long history of mental formlessness. He is a portrait of health and good grooming: His eyes and gums no longer ooze. Atop his head, he wears a wig of coppery curls that suits him as though it were his own from birth, and upon which the sides have been pinned back in the style of the moment, and to prevent him from chewing at it. The fitted coat and collar make the most of his shape, so much so that the least choosy of the court ladies titter to each other as he passes by. As he takes his first step into the second prepared dance, a minuet choreographed to the playing of flute, tambourine, and harpsichord, I am pleased to note that every possible sign of good breeding has been stamped onto his surface, wrought in his flesh. Not a thing is out of place as he glides forward into the first movement, but for the composition of the face.
Set back within a recess of the coppery wig, two eyes twitch back and forth rapidly, like finches traversing a small cage. They give the appearance of little creatures trying to see past the glorious billows of auburn waves, to see a way out. Below, Victor’s small red mouth pops open and closed, open and closed, a vestige of his former penchant for gnawing at the air. Beyond the red rims, teeth that are blinding white: purer, whiter than any I have seen in the mouths of those raised on more cultivated foods.
I frown to myself. In his treatise on the history of dance, Cahusec writes: “The different affections of the soul are the origin of gestures, and the dance, which is made up of them, is consequently the art of executing them with grace and proportion relative to the affections they express.” Yet I know that this particular gesture originates in young Victor Tallon’s desire to have his chewing-toy returned to him, a base desire reflective of his regression toward savagery. Earlier that day he slyly tried to hand over a piece of chipped wood when I came to recoup it from him before the performance. When I persisted, he made attempts to demonstrate his affection for the toy, miming his pleasure at gnawing upon it, showing that it could be concealed completely within his mouth.
Rooting around among the feverish little points, the wet and roiling tongue, I explained to him that, invisible though it might be, the simple knowledge of its presence would rot the occasion from within, destroying my satisfaction entirely.
Young Victor arrived at my door a dwarfish creature, freshly shorn and clothed in a length of linen. He resembled a boy, but only in shape. He lacked a boy’s liveliness and capacity for joy, he would not be enticed by bright scraps of cloth or the antics of dogs at play. To most of the world he was calloused: He did not turn toward the sound of a human voice, nor did he seem to note particularly the difference between a well-enunciated sentence and a hacking cough. He loved to eat and to lie about unbothered and to gnaw upon the objects whose names and functions I attempted over and over to teach him. To all else he was indifferent. I placed his head and hands in the proper position for attending to my instruction, only to look back and find them slumping back into his customary untidy heap. There were times when I watched him rolling around belly-up in the pastures, chewing upon a convenient branch, and despaired that I would ever teach him even the meanest of jigs.
He resembled a boy, but only in shape.
While with most beginning students I would first impart an understanding of the names and qualities of the most common courtly dances, young Victor required a most intricate and time-consuming education. I was faced with the problem of persuading him to pay any notice at all to higher forms of activity, for he was inclined to an eventless life spent supine in various corners of his chamber. Once, I performed an exquisite series of balancés for his benefit, to which he responded by gnawing on my headpiece while I was occupied. In rejoinder, I removed from his daily routine those few things that he favored — food, flowers, and chewable items. I set in their place a system of tutorials directed toward teaching him the most elevated of concepts and behaviors, which I believed he would interest himself in were he not continually able to please himself by putting objects into his mouth. It is in this manner that societies have caused their own advancement: by starving themselves of ready satisfactions, they stir their appetite for finer sustenance.
Unfortunately, my benevolent deprivations created in Victor only the most rudimentary physical effects. With movements and sounds, he complained of his hunger and boredom, of the disuse of his mouth, while I lectured on, discoursing on the subjects of agriculture, ancestry, the difference between present-day architectural ratios and those employed by the ancients. The only tutorial that attracted his attention was my explanation of crying, a sort of footnote to a more extensive lecture on the relationship of emotions to gesture. Victor watched with open mouth as I mimed sadness, even greater sadness, and then indicated with my fingers the streaming of tears down my face. When I made the noise itself, the gutted syllables of a man weeping, he leapt up, clapping with his hands and chuffing madly. As I tried to calm him, he roved about the property uttering sobs and palpating his eyes that they might tear more readily. I pursued his weeping form through the parlor, the library, the pantry, shouting commands at his swift and fleeing back.
There was an air of contentment in his weeping that I felt to be incorrect, formally imbalanced, perhaps.
When I captured him at last, he wore the expression of an animal smug with unearned fulfillment. His eyes were blister-red, racked with weeping, yet he wept still, wept freely. There was an air of contentment in his weeping that I felt to be incorrect, formally imbalanced, perhaps. Yet when I reached for his throat to amend certain flaws in enunciation, he ceased weeping at once and turned himself away from me. I heard him swallow deeply, as though tucking the remaining sobs into some secret, unseen cavity.
From that moment on, young Victor refused to weep before me, though I often overheard him weeping in private, when lying about in the barn or in some moment of leisure.
Victor, I say. Victor, give me your attention. Look at me. I will not ask again.
His great dull head stirs slightly, but remains fixated on a point far to my right. Victor, I say. Victor. Look at me. If you do not look at me, I will have to make use of the rod. I place my hand on the rod for good measure.
He turns his head slowly, achingly toward me. The heavy skull swivels on its stand. It is his chewing-toy that distracts him so, resting naked and exposed upon the side table where I have placed it. He finds it cruel, cruel that he is not permitted to make use of it during this tutorial when I allow it for most of the lectures and dances. I explain again: Victor, we are practicing conversation. We are improving your speech and your pronunciation. You will not improve so long as you insist on keeping that useless bauble in your mouth, where it obscures your breath and proves an obstacle to your tongue, which I remind you has never been as limber as it should.
He seems to have lost interest again. The chewing-toy gleams atop the table, lozenge-shaped and glinting like gold. The rod, I say, remember the rod. With this reminder, he regains a healthy alertness.
Now, Victor, I begin. If another guest should approach you at court and speak to you, uttering the phrase "How do you do?" what should you say?
Victor swivels his tongue around within his mouth, twisting his lips. He has never liked the taste of words, and I sense that he has not developed much of an idea what they are for. He sighs, and his eyes remain upon the toy.
VerywellthankyouandIampleasedtomeetyouhowdoyoudo? he says, all in a rush, his mouth flapping up and down upon the sentence as though it were a piece of meat.
I, myself, am also well, I say. Do you enjoy dancing? I ask.
He stares at me, unsure what to do. I have never given him this prompt before.
Are you enjoying the ball? I ask. This one he has done many times before.
Ohverymuchsowhatareliefitistobeamongpropercompany, he says wearily.
Good, Victor, fairly good, I say. But you would do well to attend to the pauses between your words, for they are as the counts in a measure of music, directing the body toward the greater expression of its own musicality. Measure your breaths, boy, and release them with much care and restraint. Let the words be a dance in themselves, a dance of meaning upon the surface of a tongue.
He stares at me, chewing his finger. He has understood nothing.
He stares at me, chewing his finger. He has understood nothing.
Swollen-faced Portesquieu leans back in his chair and turns his open maw toward the sky, releasing a moist gibbering of laughter. His mirth strains against the strictures of his clothing, the flesh of his neck bulging sweetly over the stiffened collar. Beads of grease from the lamb leg float upon the dark surface of his ale.
An infant does not learn to discourse on the advantages of walking before it learns to take a step, I declare, assuming a dismissive tone. Rather, the steps teach the walker the value of their use. You would have the infant crawl into old age, if it could not explain why it wished to elevate itself.
And you propose to produce a butterfly by feeding a wolf on rose blossoms and sugar water, Portesquieu replies.
Victor is no wolf, I say. And he shows a tender affection for butterflies and other creatures, one that would shame most well-bred children.
This tenderness is a topic of conversation among your neighbors, says Portesquieu with an oiled grin. They say your student can be seen from time to time eviscerating small animals on the grounds. Your friend Madame Rameau suffered from strained nerves after witnessing him gnawing with great contentment on the skull of a rabbit, its fur still largely intact. Or perhaps this is a bit of fashionable choreography that I am too dull to comprehend. Were they dancing the gavotte?
He tips the mug down his gullet. The blood pools in my face and I feel flush with sickly warmth. His face before me resembles a pile of meat, arrayed in the shape of a grin.
One needs only to visit my home in the evenings when we practice conversation to observe how beautifully Victor expresses his nature. Come for dinner, and you will see what a sensitive soul might be revealed in any man once you have scraped off the grime, I say, reaching for my mug. I attempt to quaff my ale in a single robust gesture as Portesquieu does, yet it finds a way around my lips and trails down the corner of my mouth, cuts a path across the curvature of my chin.
Other villages have had feral children of their own, whom they have reared and educated; they have had wild boys whose unformed minds struggle to grasp the meanings of words and pictures, whose hands grope clumsily at pens. But no other village has had a feral child capable of performing the finest functions of the human body and mind. No other wild-born child has been able to speak with grace and refinement, employing the same terms of politeness and formality as high-born men. No other comports himself like a well-bred boy, or works the flute as nimbly as any middling player. Portesquieu would claim that this is impossible, that a body cultivated in the wild assumes the essence of wildness, turns swampy and will not admit of the growth of more refined habits. But with my labor, I prove him wrong: My wild child dances the minuet on command, as well as several other current dances.
The head must be held upright, but not stiff; the shoulders falling back, extending the breast and giving a greater grace to the body. The arms locked, statuesque, with the left extended down to hip level and the right curving gently in front of the breast, forming a frame around the dancer’s body to ornament the proportions of the legs and lend gravity to their movement. Fixing the relations between these parts frees the expressiveness of the lower body, just as the verticality of the human anatomy frees man for complex motions of the hand and intellect. Victor struggles to stay upright as I put him through a series of gentle leaps into each of the five positions. But he is malleable as clay, and his body responds with an eagerness to take form when I correct the placement of his head, feet, and hands, when I press the feared rod to his back in order to demonstrate to him what I mean by “straight, perfectly straight, and upright.”
Some may hate you for what you bear out, but all will note your ability.
He pants, standing there in fourth position, holding it decently, but losing shape before my eyes as his body bends beneath the pull of his savagery. At what must be a look of displeasure on my face, I see dismay reflected in his own. Then I go to him and place my hand upon his stunted shoulder, and I say to him that he may leave to have a cry if he likes. I say, Victor. Victor, the work you have been doing is not adequate, but it is admirable. There is no other like you, no other that may demonstrate to the world the civilizing power of art. You are the frozen mammoth, the crocodile. Your presence is proof. Some may hate you for what you bear out, but all will note your ability. To many, you will be a battlefield on which they strive to destroy and slander our accomplishments. But you will always be my garden: a shard of wildness bent into order, a geometric humility carved into the world, and adding to its beauty.
I remove my hand from his shoulder, and he runs off to one of his weeping nooks, I know not which.
The body of Victor Tallon reaches the form of its repose: position four, one foot before the other, enabling the smooth transition to a well-practiced bow. The room sings with applause, applause beating against the walls like a hundred clipped birds. Now there is only one dance more that Victor must perform, one dance to prove himself a competent — though not brilliant — executor of the social dances. The lady emerges from the crowd, a young girl close to Victor’s age, the age experts imagine him to be. This is the courante, a couple’s dance, and a dance of such exquisite tenderness and modesty that it is certain to stir the emotions of the audience. The two partners shall approach one another from opposite ends of the floor, facing each other briefly as mirror images of masculine and feminine grace, before turning toward the front to commence the inscription of delicately wrought arcs and turns invisibly upon the ballroom floor: mirroring each other yet never touching, like the sun and the moon drawing twin circles around our days.
Victor and the young lady approach each other tentatively. Her face wears a sweetly youthful air, set within a complexion of lilies and purified milk — though I notice also a tinge of trepidation. His face is at first a bit difficult to glimpse through the elaborate costumes of my fellow onlookers, but I move left and right until I see him clearly. His face holds an expression that I cannot recall having seen before: a smile, a true smile, spreads over his face as he nears her, a true upward lifting of the edges of the lips such as I have never witnessed. He gazes at her like one waking from a sleep that has lasted a lifetime. It is as I imagined: The noble spirit that imbues the dances of our age have awakened a noble sensibility in my savage boy. He lives, he moves, he loves! My heart heaves in my chest, an organ sighing with well-deserved peace. The girl’s face smiles in response, but her troubled demeanor increases visibly.
Victor’s gaze rests upon her décolletage, fixed to a point beneath which her heart beats hot, quick, like a rabbit’s.
I look to Victor. His smile has grown since I last observed it: Now it reveals teeth, and a bit of fine, healthy gum. I look to the girl, her eyes clogged with fear. Victor’s gaze rests upon her décolletage, fixed to a point beneath which her heart beats hot, quick, like a rabbit’s. Victor, I say. Then I notice the young girl’s necklace.
Delicate, finely made, and strung with several lozenges of real gold, gleaming like teeth in the candlelit room. Victor, I say. There is a resemblance, I say, but those are not yours at all, not yours to chew, they are not the same thing at all. The room is still, and I do not know whether I speak these words aloud, or utter them only in the pit of my stomach.
Victor bears on with an expression of unutterable joy. His mouth plunges forward, open and full of hard white points. I feel like weeping. With my hands I grope at invisible strings, which do not exist. I look to Portesquieu, but he looks straight ahead, his pillowy face tightening. I turn my head and stare out the casement window at the royal gardens instead, wet and slippery and dark as the center of a body, where the roses twitch an extinguished red.
Alexandra Kleeman lives in Staten Island and is the author of the novel You Too Can Have A Body Like Mine and the short story collection Intimations, both from Harper. Her fiction and essays have appeared in the New Yorker, Harper's, Paris Review, Zoetrope, New York Times Magazine, VOGUE, and n+1. She was the 2016 winner of the Bard Fiction Prize.
To learn more about Intimations, click here.