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“Us, them, none of it matters. What matters is that you express yourselves, that you tell your stories through dance, that you give them (she points to the audience) a show they’ll remember.” She dabs at the nape of her neck with a handkerchief to mop up beads of sweat. “Make sure you have fun.”
“Yes ma’am,” we chorus.
There is something wrong with ma’am Chiasoka today. She is wound up tight. It’s showing in the creases on her forehead, in the silence brooding around her as if it is a forcefield keeping things out, in her slouch and in the wet sheen of her brown eyes holding back tears.
Sir Roland isn’t here today. He is always following ma’am around, smiling like a person that’s sure of how his life will turn out, breathing as if he’s the owner of the air he’s breathing. Sir Roland doesn’t understand what ma’am is doing with the likes of us, “these orphans” as he calls us. He hides it well, especially when he’s around her but his mask cracks sometimes, and his indifference peeks out, like hair peeking out of the ear of an old man.
Sir Roland doesn’t know a lot of things but that doesn’t surprise me. He has a flat head. There’s a boy I used to go to school with. He repeated Primary 4 three times and his head is exactly like that of sir Roland, flat like the top of a table. Anyone with a normal head can see what ma’am is doing for us. But ma’am likes Sir Roland and can’t see that he’s an idiot in expensive clothing. I’m glad he isn’t here today because he’d have distracted ma’am.
Ma’am always says I understand rhythm in her clipped accent that bears witness to her class and education. She says she likes the way I let the music dictate the flow and cadence of my moves, and how I can instinctively tell the difference between discord and harmony. Ma’am knows all kinds of dance. She knows contemporary dance, which I think is chaotic but she says there’s beauty in chaos and I agree with her because ma’am has read many books and because her lips are the reddish-brown color of udala seeds. But her favorite type of dance is ballet. It’s my favorite too. There’s a graceful elegance to ballet even though the moves are almost impossible to master.
I think of ma’am during the whole performance. When I pirouette, I picture her skirt flaying outward every time she pirouettes, revealing straight legs the color of an anthill. When I jeté, I pretend I am ma’am, back straight with my mouth slightly open. When I ballon, I pretend my arms are slender and delicate, with long, tapered fingers. I dance to Tchaikovsky’s ‘Nutcracker’ in ma’am’s essence, oblivious of the audience and other dancers.
The applause is thunderous. The other dancers are carrying me on their shoulders, screaming my name. Ma’am is in the middle of it all, looking at me like she has never looked at me before. Ma’am is smiling at me, her eyes shining again but this time with joy. Ma’am is saying to me, “Helen, you’re a marvel. What a dance!”