YOU (South Africa)

Shadow Dancer

Everyone has a dream – and sometimes it comes true


IT’S the time of year when the leaves fall, twisting and twirling. A fouetté of foliage, dance of decay. They leave behind a tracery of limbs to pirouette in the breeze. The streetligh­t outside shines through the tree and casts a shadow on the wall. In summer, as it was when I first saw it, the shadow image is blurry. If the figure performed a relevé or plié, you wouldn’t even notice it unless you knew to look. Even a grand jeté could be missed, unless you wanted to see.

I’d wanted to see a dancer when I first came to En Pointe House. Not as a shadow on the wall but as a reflection in the mirror. Mom couldn’t afford lessons for me. A teacher at school spoke to her about scholarshi­ps. Mom listened politely and thanked her, but afterwards she shook her head sadly.

“Sorry, love. Not even if they’re free,” she’d told me. She smiled. “Free love brought me your pretty mouth to feed. Free ballet lessons would only cost shoes and tutus, but I still can’t manage it.”

I didn’t follow all that, but I did understand she couldn’t afford silk pumps for me to wear. Sometimes she couldn’t send me to school with more than dry bread for my lunch. When the factory went to a three-day week, she couldn’t afford the rent either. At the time we were sharing a room in a terrace, just a few doors away from En Pointe House. It was rumoured the owner, whom people referred to as Mademoisel­le, was foreign and very wealthy. We’d spoken to her a couple of times. She didn’t sound foreign.

IN DESPERATIO­N Mom knocked at Mademoisel­le’s door and begged her to allow us to use one of her many spare rooms in exchange for her cleaning the rest of Mademoisel­le’s house. “How did it go?” I asked afterwards. “I don’t think she’s rich after all, but she does have lots of empty rooms. We’re invited to tea tomorrow.”

I was smartened up as much as possible and instructed to sit nicely and not speak until I was spoken to. I did try, but when Mademoisel­le ushered us in, I saw the shadow on the wall and gasped.

“What did you see, child?” Mademoisel­le asked. “A dancer.” “It’s just the shadow of a tree,” Mom said. “Were you a dancer, Mademoisel­le? Someone at school said you were.”

Mademoisel­le laughed. “What did you call me, child?”

“Mademoisel­le . . . I, I thought it was your name.”

“No, it means a French woman who isn’t married. It’s a long story and you’re young.”

Her name was Juliet, she told us, but she didn’t mind me and Mom continuing to use the name we’d come to think of her by.

When Mademoisel­le saw me trying what I now know as first arabesque, she made up her mind. As I ate cake and sipped tea which smelled of perfume, it was arranged that we had a place to live if Mom kept our own rooms, the kitchen and the bathroom spotless. Mademoisel­le agreed to fund my dance lessons and clothes if I practised with her for hours and hours and hours.

I almost hated her at first, she made me work so hard. But we became friends. Eventually she told me about her French lover. And about the lady who’d owned the house before her. She’d once been a principal dancer and had become Mademoisel­le’s teacher and patron.

“I was poor, poorer even than you when you first came here and not nearly so well brought up. I looked in through the window there in the hope of seeing something edible I could grab. The owner saw me try to copy the position of the shadow,” she said, indicating the tree dancing in the breeze.

Like Mademoisel­le, I gained a place in the corps de ballet. I progressed and even danced a few solos. After each tour I returned to Mom and Mademoisel­le. They’re both gone now.

It’s just me and the shadow in En Pointe House. Or it has been. Last night about this time, the boy next door kicked his ball over the fence. He knocked and asked for permission to retrieve it. The father has lost his job and the mother is hardly ever there. I watched, unseen by the boy, as he fetched his ball and carried it over the lawn onto the patio. Then he dropped it and moved closer to the window.

He looked in for a moment, his face pressed against the glass, then moved back. He extended a leg behind him and raised an arm en haut. I don’t know his story, but the boy and his father are coming to tea on Saturday.

Until then, I watch the leaves fall from my tree, leaving behind a tracery of limbs to pirouette in the breeze. The streetligh­t outside shines through the tree and casts a shadow on the wall. S

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