Sometimes, Sophie wished that she had never learned how to dance.
It was the sensual cadence of the tango that had first made Sophie fall in love. The sound of feet sliding on wood, the rhythmic scuff of soles and taps of heels, the controlled breathing of two people in such close proximity, leaning into each other, utterly dependent on their partners to make the dance work were all things that had once stirred Sophie's heart. Even now, when the sound was a reminder of the ability she had lost, she was still drawn to it. Sometimes, it almost made her forget. But she could never forget. At just age twenty-five, her career as a dancer was already over.
Her fingers tightened on the handle of her black wood cane. She loathed the thing, would have thrown it into the nearest fire if Darren hadn't insisted she use it. She refused to walk with it, absolutely refused, but she would acquiesce to her friend in this one instance: she would use the cane when teaching a class, if she wasn't demonstrating steps, to take some of the weight off her left knee. Now, she used it to tap the beat out against the wood floor. At least it was good for that.
"You have to feel the music and let your body react!" she called to the class. "Listen to it! Don't think!" She rapped the cane harder against the floor, watching as each pair moved in front of her in the harsh, sterile white light of the dance studio. This evening's class was an intermediate one, so the dancers were familiar with the steps but not yet fluid in their movement.
"They're not hopeless," Darren muttered in her ear. "Well," he qualified, "not totally."
Sophie bit back a smile. The classes at this level were reserved for people with a real interest. Of course, when faced with the harder lessons, their interest would often fade. Only a rare few found a real passion for the dance and went on to her advanced classes.
"Okay, stop!" she called, rapping the cane on the floor once, loudly. The couples froze. She scanned the room, doing her best to ignore the stream of people walking by on the sidewalk outside the large front windows. She still wasn't quite used to the more than occasional gawkers who stopped to watch the dancers on the other side of the glass. Darren was the one who'd suggested the floor to ceiling windows along the front of the studio to gain the business some exposure. He'd been right. Not that all the classes they offered were booked full, but enough of them were that she was operating in the black, due in no small part to their walk-in clientele.
"Men, you have to make her feel confident in your support. If she doesn't feel that the support is there, she won't let you bear her. And ladies, you have to learn to let go. Follow your leader. Trust him." The words sent a small lance of pain under her ribs, but Sophie ignored it. "Now, try it again."
She watched them closely for the smallest misstep and found it quickly. "Wait, wait." She waved her hand in exasperation. Once again, the dancers paused. She motioned Darren over.
"I can't stress enough how important the embrace is," Sophie said. Darren lifted his arms and she stepped into him but didn't place her hands in his just yet. "Men, with your left hand you have to be doing your Shakespeare. Darren?"
He rolled his eyes at her but turned his left palm toward himself and intoned solemnly, "'Oh, that I were a glove upon that hand.'" The sober expression cracked and a broad grin spread across his handsome face, his dirty blond hair tumbling over his dark green eyes. "I would be kid leather and cost a fortune!"
Sophie sighed, shaking her head at him. She loved her friend but his inability to remain serious for any length of time could be trying. "Thank you, Darren. Guys, you see how he's holding his hand? Your palm should be facing you, wrist turned in. In order for this to be comfortable for your partner, you really have to hold her close. Keep that other hand on her back. Support her."
Darren slid his right arm around her, his broad hand cupping her shoulder blade. Sophie glanced at the students, making sure they were observing. "You have to have some tension in your arms, guys. If you don't, your partner won't know where you're going." She nodded at Darren and he swayed just a little, showing how his motion was transferred to her through the frame of his hold.
"Ladies, you can't be limp noodles either. Keep those muscles tight, but your wrist relaxed. Rest your arm along his, fingers on his shoulder. Let him draw you against his chest and brace you." Sophie matched actions to words.
"Now, once you're in his embrace, when he moves, you move. The two of you come together to make the dance. If you aren't completely together, there is no dance. Watch."
Sophie took a deep breath, gritting her teeth, and nodded to Darren again. He began to move slowly at first. She followed, stepping back as he stepped forward, twisting her hips, forcing her breath slowly in and out. Her body moved mechanically. Sophie knew these steps in her sleep, and Darren was a very competent partner, an accomplished dancer in his own right. They were comfortable with each other, which allowed her mind to focus entirely on her left knee. If it showed the slightest sign of buckling, even just a twinge, she would immediately halt the dance. The last thing she needed was to fall in front of her students.
Darren was pushing her today, tipping her off her axis in a series of complex volcados, leading her into a molinete. Her heart pumped a little harder, bringing a flush to her cheeks. There was a time when it would have been a flush of joy, anticipation. Now, it was just anxiety. The harder he pushed, the more likely her knee was to give out. Still, she reacted almost instinctively to his lead, kicking her leg up and sliding it around his thigh.
Her knee throbbed at the added weight. She froze, pulling out of Darren's embrace with a small, fierce tug and turning back to the class. Her friend let go, but she didn't miss his look of worry.
"You see," she said to the class. "No matter what, the embrace must be strong. It's the foundation of the dance. Ladies, lean down into your partner on the volcados. Not flat against him. He isn't a brick wall."
There were several soft chuckles in response. She stiffened her back as her leg gave another throb, praying her knee wouldn't give way. Darren caught her eyes, winking, and a small bit of tension eased from her. "Okay, let's start again. We'll try it with the music this time." She clicked her remote and the spicy beat of tango music filled the room.
Darren leaned down as she watched the couples begin moving together again. "Okay?"
"Just a twinge," she muttered under her breath. She felt him turn his head and study her, but kept her eyes on the class, and Darren knew better than to push it.
After the class was over and people had dispersed back to their homes, Darren approached again. "You know when your knee goes like that, it's okay to sit down."
Sophie grimaced. "Obviously I made it through the class, so I didn't need to sit," she said. "They have to trust that I know what I'm doing. Nobody wants to learn to dance from a cripple."
"Honey, you're far from a cripple."
She glared. Of course she wasn't a cripple, but she wasn't able to do everything she used to be able to do either, and for a dancer that was pretty close.
Darren sighed. "Just keep it in mind, Soph. I'm going to lock up. The dinner Wayne made is probably cold by now."
Sophie laughed. "Noted. Must be nice, having a man cook for you. I think I'm going to do some stretches before I head home."
"Great. I'll see you tomorrow."
As Darren headed for reception to lock the front doors, Sophie stood and crossed to the ballet bar. Gripping it in both small hands, she began some slow stretches, focusing on loosening up the tightness in her knee joint. With some difficulty, she lifted her leg onto the bar and bent over it, stretching her hamstring.
She heard the front door open and paused, listening for the sound of Darren's voice. There was a low, polite sounding murmur—Darren greeting the walk-in—and then a deeper reply. Though she couldn't hear her assistant's words, she detected a note of awe and apology in his tone. The other voice, low and smoky, became more urgent. The sound seemed to settle against her skin like cashmere, luxurious and tantalizing.
Sophie lowered her leg and made her way carefully toward reception. Who could that voice belong to?