By Nicholas Kladky
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So here she was again.
Michelle often wondered why she kept coming back to this God-awful
place. She couldn't possibly need the money this bad. There had to be
other work out there. Other places had to at least be offering the same
work for about the same amount of money. Even the same work at a
different place would've been something. At least her mind wouldn't feel
smothered by the same humdrum practice over and over again. Then again,
Michelle was pushing forty now, not a young woman anymore. Most places
don't like to hire old female janitors who never graduated high school.
Best to just let it go. Let it go.
Michelle punched the time clock, remembering to hold her card just so
(thing was broken again), and headed to the closet to get her bucket. As
she passed the front desk, Carrie, the young clerk, looked up from her
book to smile and say hi to her. Michelle gave a slight half smile and
waved back. Michelle liked Carrie well enough. She had always been nice
to her, unlike Mr. Ross, the head of maintenance for the hotel. Mr. Ross
seemed to always be ready to jump on Michelle for something, which was
very convenient since Mr. Ross didn't come in until six each morning,
missing Michelle's entire graveyard shift. Michelle just didn't like to
get involved with others, in any case. Relationships weren't really her
Michelle started on the hall. The lobby had been first last week, so now
it was the halls, to keep from becoming routine and driving her stir
crazy. She rang out her mop and watched it hit the floor. She swung back
and forth with the mop ever so gracefully. Back and forth. Back and
forth. The halls were very narrow and there was no room to move but back
and forth. When Michelle reached the lobby, however, she would fly. It
would be a ballroom dance. She would spin, sway and move to the music in
her head with her hands around her own wooden Fred Astaire. This she
would do as she mopped up the footprints of guests coming in from the
She remembered days long ago when she danced all the time. That was a
different life, she felt at times. She used to love the feel of the
stage under her feet as she swayed like a flower or spun round on her
toes. She remembers the crowd applauding, begging for more, praising her
great talent. Those were the days when Michelle thought she would dance
Traveling with the University of Kansas City Dance Troupe had opened her
eyes to wonders she had never dreamed of. Her family had always been
poor. Michelle remembered leaving school to work at the department store
down the street when she was seventeen. When this young girl helped a
customer named Mrs. Conyers one night, Mrs. Conyers saw a bright girl
with no business working in a department store the rest of her life.
Mrs. Conyers, it turned out, was a professor with the Arts department at
University of Kansas City. She was also the head of the UKC Dancing
Troupe there. She saw a bright young girl with a good dancing figure and
tons of potential. The next few weeks went by in a haze, getting the
GED, receiving a dance scholarship to University of KC, and joining the
Troupe. Michelle felt as if she would soar!
Suddenly, there they were. A group of kids touring all over the country!
The grandest cities and the smallest hamlets. They performed for people
of all walks of life. Michelle loved the South. It had the familiarity
of the Midwest and the flavor of older times. The people were so
wonderful to perform for. They were so hungry for a taste of culture and
art. Michelle realized in Hilton Head, South Carolina that we take for
granted the many opportunities we have. New Yorkers had been critical of
the Troupe for the most part, and why not? There were a dozen troupes in
the city that were as good as them, or better. New York took them for
granted. The people in the South, though, really seemed to appreciate
the ray of light the troupe had to share as they performed their ballet.
This was one of many lessons Michelle never forgot.
Well, she thought, time to do the ballroom. The mopping had gone faster
than usual. She couldn't really say felt sorry about that. Even the
dance couldn't keep out the monotony for very long. It was time to
switch. She took the mop and bucket back to the closet and took out the
buffer. She hated that thing. It had taken a week for her to get used to
it. It always looked so easy when Dave, the evening guy, was training
her on it. But, then again, Dave weighed 250 pounds easy. Even at her
age, she barely made 125. The problem with being so light was that the
machine went everywhere unless you controlled it with your strength.
Unlike the broom, the buffer always tried to lead, but that was her job.
Sometimes, swinging with the buffer reminded her of Bill Hagan.
Bill came on with the troupe the same time as her. He was a country boy
from Philadelphia, Mississippi, was three years her senior, and strong,
the way she had always thought men should be when she was a little girl.
Besides Mrs. Conyers, he had had the most impact on her. In some ways,
he had more. He had a fire in his breast that both intimidated and
attracted Michelle all at once. He was the one who truly showed her the
dance. He showed her what it was and what it could become. He was the
most awesome dancer ever. He could've been anything. When they danced
together on the stage, Michelle would melt into him each and every time.
She watched as he took her to places and dreams she'd never known.
After rehearsal in Manhattan in September of '84, they'd taken a walk
together to Central Park. A trio of jazz musicians, guitar, flute and
clarinet, had gathered to play for change. Most people in the park never
took notice of such things, but Bill was mesmerized by it. Being a small
town boy, such sights and sounds were treats to his senses. He listened
for ten minutes before he took Michelle in his arms.
"Care to dance?" he asked in that drawl she could never resist.
She was surprised at first, but the magic of his touch soon overtook her
and she nodded nervously. They danced through the park, over benches and
through bushes, laughing all the way at the near stumbles. When they
reached the walkway again, he spun Michelle before taking her into the
air as she spread her arms for balance. She closed her eyes and took in
the cool autumn air that blew through her hair. Bill set her down then,
put his hands to her face, and gently kissed her as she wrapped her arms
As she opened the ballroom doors, the end all came back to her. Michelle
recalled her mother writing her that her father had become very sick and
she had to come home to Kansas City. She promised Mrs. Conyers she would
meet back up with them there when they came around. When she got home,
things became worse. Her father took a bad turn and Michelle became his
unofficial nursemaid. No one else seemed to want to go near him. Her
mother seemed too distracted to deal with any such things, as always. It
probably wasn't like that at all, she thought now. Michelle remembered
sitting up with her father wheezing himself to sleep and hearing soft
sobs coming from her mother's room. After the funeral, it seemed
important to find work and help support her mother. Her two brothers had
families of their own now, and her mother needed her. Michelle, ever the
good daughter, forgot all about those nonsense dreams of hers and found
work mopping floors at the high school.
Michelle remembered getting message after message from Mrs. Conyers
after that. She just couldn't bring herself to tell her. When she
finally did, it wasn't in her to keep from bawling. She was so sorry.
She wished she could be there with all the others. Mrs. Conyers said
that she understood, and don't be upset, it was okay. No, it wasn't.
She wanted so much to be with the others. She saw them all in her mind,
dancing in front of packed houses. Dancing for empty theaters. The girls
would be trading steps in the dressing rooms. And Bill. Bill. She
couldn't face nor speak to him. He would want to come and be with her,
and that just wasn't right. He had to share himself. That was more
important than her. If nothing else, she knew how to sacrifice for
others. He tried to call her every night, but she wouldn't pick up. How
could she hurt him? It killed her to listen to his messages, his voice
cracking in that wonderful drawl as he almost cried to her. Somehow, he
always maintained his dignity on the phone. He never pleaded or
blubbered, but only said he wished she would talk to him and that he
loved her. Mercifully, the calls finally stopped.
Less than ten years later, Michelle watched as the nursing drama was
played out a second time, this time with her mother. She was in her
thirties by that time, a has-been in dance. All there was now was to
keep working, as she had been. She didn't have any education now. There
was nothing for her but laboring. She kept at it well in to the next
decade. The dream was all but forgotten.
She did run across Becky just the other day. She was a dancer from KC
too, and she and Michelle had been close during the Troupe's tour. They
got to talking about the others. Some of them went on to choreography
while others got degrees in business or law. Becky was a choreographer
herself for a troupe out in Jeff City. It was nothing fancy, and they
were only starting out, but if Michelle was interested.No. It's been too
long. Michelle insisted that she take her business card anyway, so she
did. What ever happened to Bill Hagan? Michelle asked. The last Becky
had heard, Bill had gone back to his hometown and was teaching dance
there. Michelle felt herself envying the dance students of Philadelphia.
Michelle looked through the open doors to the ballroom. It was a large,
beautiful room the hotel kept up for special occasions. She remembered
the mess she'd cleaned up after the New Year's Party that year. It was
clean now. Nothing but the piano and chairs stacked in the corner.
Michelle looked around and out in to the lobby. Carrie was still stuck
in her book and no one else was around. She left the buffer next to the
door and walked to the middle of the room.
Then she took a stance.
It was a classical ballet stance, often the first and most common
starting point for ballerinas. She had wanted to do this since she'd
first laid eyes on the ballroom. It was perfect. She spun slowly at
first, and then quickly. She began to glide along the floor, feeling for
the grove. And then it was there. She heard the orchestra start up in
her mind and she was gone. The dance was taking her to the places she
had all but forgotten about. She remembered the feeling she always got
from the jazz and modern dances, but she had always loved ballet the
best. She flew around the room, lost in the dance and the memory. She
became the swan again. She flew through clouds and danced through mist
as she made her way across the ethereal floor.
If only I could really describe Michelle when she dances, but words are
unfit to do so. It would almost be easier to describe what love looks
like, or what happiness feels like when you touch it. The man who could
describe the dance is wiser than I am. If that someone really exists, I
can only hope he will one day write his version of this story. Michelle
danced on in to the night before she stopped, spun, and heard the
She thought at first that it was in her head. She thought she was
hearing the crowd in Hilton Head crying for an encore, but she was
wrong. It was a group of night owl guests, two young men, an older man,
and a young woman with a little boy, who had gathered at the door and
watch the performance. They had been entranced by it. Michelle smiled
shyly and made a curtsy. The group dispersed, and Michelle closed the
door, took up the buffer, and began polishing the floor.
It was the end of her shift. Michelle watched out the front window as
the sun came up outside. The storm was over. She felt around in her
pockets and found some change, some gum, a brush.and there it was. She
pulled out a piece of square card from her pocket and read it:
Jefferson City, MO 65111
Manager and Choreographer:
Nothing fancy, she thought. God, she couldn't wait!
6 AM had finally arrived. When Mr. Ross came in, she very calmly gave
him her two weeks and headed for the lobby. She was smiling all the way
up. Within three weeks, she would be driving to Jeff City. She was sure
she could find somewhere to stay in the next few weeks until she found a
permanent place out there. She would be dancing. On a stage. It would be
in a small rented hall, but so what? She would meet others and start
learning and getting better. She would be dancing again. She couldn't
wait to start making the arrangements. She almost rushed out the door to
her car, when she saw the pay phone.
Michelle stared at that phone for nearly five minutes before she walked
over to it. She decided it was worth a try. She put in all the change
she had, and dialed 1411. She waited nervously as the operator picked
"What city, please?"
Michelle took a deep breath and said: