Just wanted to give a brief shout-out to all you readers who have followed, supported and reviewed this story. I hope you manage to keep reading despite my really poor time management. I'm just so grateful for the love this gest and you're all a big reason I feel driven to keep coming back to this story.
In particular, this chapter is dedicated to Ellen Fitzwilliam Brandybuck and BlackAntoid who were such supportive readers from the very start. I absolutely know they're going to see this dedication. Thanks for your reviews and continual love for this story! I hope the whole covid-19 situation isn't keeping you too down BlackAntoid!
It's been a while since we heard from Amber so here's a long chapter from her POV. I really wanted to show her coming into her own. For anyone interested in what kind of dance I was envisioning, I'm completely in love with this version of Astor Piazzolla's Libertango.
The music itself is an anachronism since it didn't come out till the 1970s. But it was too amazing to pass up on.
As always, all credit to the original creators of Hairspray and this music video.
Saturday, 9 o'clock.
It had been almost one week since the evening at the beach. And it was going to be the first time being alone with him in room together. For hours. Touching him. She'd lain awake for hours before being able to sleep the night before. Wondering if she should show up at all. If she could handle this.
But this was a real, honest-to-god chance. To try something she'd never dreamed she'd have a chance of.
Thad had said they could work her routine into the show. She'd spent every day that week trying out moves and combinations in her bedroom mirror. In school, she'd pored over stick figure drawings and annotations in her notebook, when really, she was meant to be concentrating on math. Or geography or history or French for that matter. But she had to admit it was nowhere near polished enough for the Corny Collins show.
Past a certain point you just needed to try things out with a partner. It was a dance after all. There was no getting around the fact that it took two to tango. Or rather in this case, the eighteen members of the council, not even counting their new additions.
She had vague ideas of flowing dancers in canon - a sequence which circled the floor, a series of lifts that would make an audience gasp. But what would work? How could she get so many conflicting, and often petty, personalities who all craved the limelight to step to the beat of the same drum? She hated to admit it, but she needed Thad's expertise on this. A solo was one thing. She knew how to craft a routine that showcased HER best abilities. But to showcase an ensemble? That took a different kind of skill.
And it wasn't as if she had anyone else to ask. Her mother was off-limits for obvious reasons. Amber failed to repress a shudder at the storm that would break over her head if her mother ever found out what she was doing on Saturday mornings, and who she was doing it with.
The other council kids were likewise off-limits. Firstly, she wouldn't trust a single one further than she could throw them. And she couldn't throw very far. Not even a baseball much less a person. Ball games were not her forte. Secondly, it would lead to very awkward questions about the exact nature of her relationship with a certain Thaddeus Cornelius Collins.
A relationship she wasn't sure she had a handle on either. Boss? Co-worker? Friend? The mental list at that point simply stuttered to an abrupt halt. She wouldn't, couldn't, allow herself to think of a term beyond friend that didn't immediately make her insides swoop like she was on a fairground ride.
Keep it together Amber.
She should be excited at the task ahead of her. She should be grateful for the opportunity to pick his brains. And she was. But the thought of that charged morning, when she'd let him take control, lit a slow-burning fuse in her veins. Letting him lead, well that had led to something unexpected the next evening as well.
Do you trust me?
She felt hopelessly thrown off balance. And it wasn't just because of that rickety staircase from hell. Thoughts of said staircase still gave her vertigo. But that evening between them, there'd been a space between words and an intent beyond anything that was said. But it was like trying to catch a flame with your bare fingers. You held on a second and you got burned. And had you ever really held it? Was she just a moth mistakenly drawn to something that it could never understand?
Because she knew how to read and keep up with every cue when they were dancing. There was nothing embarrassing letting her arms press fully against his firm hold then. It looked like an embrace, but it was really communication. Every nerve in her body was alert to the slightest change in his pressure against hers, his posture, the angle at which he held his head. It was a language she understood. They synced perfectly. And if her fingers tingled from pressing against his bare arm, that was normal, acceptable.
And her pride reminded her, she wasn't just some hapless follower either! Dancing should always be a give-and-take. When she wanted to lead, when she wanted to start a spin or disagreed with a sequence, she could pull back and he'd immediately respond.
What any dancer looked for in an ideal partner – that indefinable synergy, an inspiration to take risks, a supportive attitude; well they had it. And then you threw in weeks of practice and trust and a shared focus and you had a team.
That was a dynamic she understood completely. It was affectionate but rational. It was based on common respect and courtesy.
It was what had been missing with Link, a voice whispered. How many times had one of them made a tiny error only to be snarled at on the side-lines? How many times had Link accidentally tripped her up, then left her on the floor in favour of getting his best side to camera?
She should be thrilled she finally had a dance partner she could rely on. Whom she could learn from without worrying she'd look a fool.
But now? Outside the protected fishbowl that was the studio, well that was a different kind of dance, and a different set of rules altogether.
The confusion that brought up made her want to turn tail and run.
Maybe….maybe she could think up a routine which didn't involve any close contact? Or maybe any touching at all. Or lingering looks, or sexy smiles where a lock of a certain someone's clean hair fell over his eye and every word on your tongue dried up.
'I'm a choreographer, I'm a choreographer, I'm a choreographer.'
Amber chanted under her breath as she strode up the sidewalk to the studio.
Bracing herself to meet his enquiring gaze and maybe an awkward question or two, she took a deep breath as she opened the side door. I will not be side-tracked by a pair of green eyes and I will be a professional. Thaddeus Cornelius Collins is nothing to me.
But then she'd slipped in the side door to the set that Thad usually left unlocked for her, and was greeted by the distinctive voice of...Bob Dylan? Along with his harmonica.
How many roads must a man walk down, before they call him a man
How many seas must a white dove sail, before she sleeps in the sand
How many times must the cannonballs fly, before they are forever banned
The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind
The answer is blowing in the wind
The sound guided her, not to the main sound stage where they usually practiced, but one of the small studios at the back. Thad's back was to her as he moved lazily in front of the record player. Arms held out loosely, shoulders dipping as his heels and toes tapping out a loose rhythm along to the music. Sometimes he'd throw in a goofy windmill, arms pinwheeling in slow motion for a few seconds. Or he'd slick back his hair and belt out a few lines of the refrain,
The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind
The answer is blowing in the wind
Intrigued, she inched forward, trying to be as noiseless as possible. He was lost in his own world. She'd never seen him this unguarded. He wasn't practicing to perfect something. He wasn't even really dancing, period. The performer in her gave a little smirk inside.
While he was doing something that looked a little like tap with its expressive footwork and languid shoulder movement - in completely the wrong shoes. I mean really, a battered pair of sneakers? - he was just moving for the love of movement.
She realised that for Thad, movement was synonymous with music. None of the endless lectures he'd subjected her to about musicality, about tempo or the importance of how to syncopate a beat had driven home to her how much Thad lived music. This went way beyond an academic appreciation, or even a professional's enjoyment. She'd known he'd loved music sure. But she hadn't known he breathed it in and made it into a state where he could just be. It was like he was drinking in the sound from the record; letting it infuse his body and feet in a way that radiated, effortless, easy contentment.
Not wanting to interrupt him, she leaned sideways on a wall without speaking. She just wanted to drink this in, this realization about who he was at the core. Like a lizard slightly drunk with the warmth of the sun. She was surprisingly and unabashedly happy because he was happy. She didn't feel proud that she'd realised something this personal, this important to him. Rather, she felt a familiarity. It was like breathing out and saying: 'Oh yes. I knew that all along.'
The song ended.
It was too late to hide she'd been observing him. So tough it out then Amber.
'Hey there stranger.' Her voice came out surprisingly steady.
He turned to look at her. 'Well, what do you think?'
There was no surprise at seeing her. Just welcome and a small sideways smile. As if he was glad that she was there, but he knew she would have been. Because that's where they belonged. On the side of a stage, any stage, meeting to listen to music, to practice, to laugh.
There was a large window in this practice studio unlike the stage. And the morning light was behind him, outlining his face and making his eyes appear darker, more hazy by contrast. Something about the propriety intimacy in his voice sent shivers up her spine. Was she just imagining it? It reminded her of that night, when that something had shifted between them.
The sheer casualness of this situation was unnerving. He was hardly the picture perfect self he presented from Monday to Fridays. As usual for their Saturday sessions he was in casual clothes. Fabric washed so often it would be soft as a kitten against her cheek. The logo on his grey t-shirt logo looked like it had advertised Pepsi at some point, but had since become indecipherable. He hadn't even shaved. He had a five o'clock shadow – at 9 in the morning? But she liked this slightly disheveled side of him. And, she had started seeing his willingness to dress down in front of her as an ironic sort of compliment.
Because she'd certainly never seen him this…unprofessional any time on set. And it gave her a kind of kick to her insides, to realise that she didn't just want to see him spiffed up in his Sunday best. Even if he'd looked devastatingly handsome in that blue shirt, clean-shaven chin and wind-tousled hair on that sunset drive. So handsome that she'd been lost for words, reduced to watching the road, orange in the setting sun, spooling out in front of her.
She'd always prided herself on having the best-dressed, best-looking boyfriend. The perfect arm to hold onto as she swayed past other girls in the hallways. An accessory that was always perfectly coiffed and colour-coordinated. An idol that would inspire dozens of copy-cat clones that would never be quite as sparkly as the original. An original that was hers only for as long as it remained desirable to everyone else.
But now she wanted to know what that shadow of stubble would feel like under her palm. She wanted to run her hands through his still-damp hair. She wanted to drink coffee with her hair down opposite this man in his typical, stupid, unnecessary baseball caps. She wanted to watch him dance when he didn't know she was looking. And then she wanted to see him smile, just at her. For the life of her, she couldn't remember why she had ever wanted anyone else to be watching.
She cleared her throat at the sight of those darkened eyes, but her voice still came out a little huskier than she intended, a little breathy with jitters.
'What did I think of Bob Dylan? Oh. I like him. When he says 'the answer my friends, it's blowing in the wind'; well...it's like poetry isn't it? That song. Actually most of the best music is.'
Well it was. To her anyway. It'd be a tough choice but she'd probably pick a book of poems over a new record. But dammed if she was going to say that right this second.
Just like you singing 'Moon River, wider than a mile' is poetry to me.
'By the way, I brought something too.' She handed him the record in it's sleeve, trying hard to appear nonchalant. Not as if she'd spent days agonising over this choice of record.
His eyes narrowed slightly. 'Libertango, composed by Astor Piazzolla. Or in plain american, liberty tango.'
He quirked an eyebrow at her. 'Very fitting. Or was it a Freudian slip?'
'Oh hush! Not everything is about my mother!' Nerves quickly became frustration as she stormed over to the gramophone, carefully keeping her back to him.
'Now are you going to put that record on or not?'
Thad's voice, somewhat indignant called out from behind her. 'Hang on! It's only 2 minutes 50 seconds though. Aren't traditional tango sets three songs long?'
'Well I've never done this before. Forgive me if I'd like to walk before I run.' She practically snapped. How did he get under her skin like that?
'Touchy, touchy. Must be that artistic temperament coming through.' He grinned at her.
Then again, maybe this working relationship would end in murder. Focus Amber, focus. You're a professional and you should be calm and collected! CALM and COLLECTED. Not letting every little, admittedly, good-natured jibe of Thad's rattle her like the shanty houses in the way of a freight train.
But somehow this song, she just knew it'd be perfect.
The record played. The violin swooped and dipped, and the percussion set a pulse that made you catch your breath and your heart beat that tiny bit faster.
'Ok look, I know it's not top of the pops hillbilly rock we normally play on the show. But isn't that something you wanted to do? To do something new that they've never seen before? I know it's instrumental. But I still think we should take a chance on it. There's something… something haunting to it. It opens the heart. It's freeing.'
She finally turned back towards him from fiddling with the gramophone. 'Does that...does that make any sense?' She looked up to find him staring at her like he was...surprised? Was that a good thing?
'Yes, you're right. And I like it'
She felt a shot of relief, like adrenaline.
'So come on, what're your ideas?'
She cleared her throat - Ok Amber, here goes nothing!
'Well we have what we did the last time, but I'd like to refine it. Maybe add something in the front of that section? I feel we need a dramatic start. Almost like a movie maybe? So people know it's a stylised, dramatic piece rather than your learn-it-at-home dance kits.'
He nodded absently, as if his mind was already running a mile a minute.
'I get your point, tango is going to be a real departure from our usual music. But you have really good instincts Amber. Don't phrase it as a question, just own your idea.'
He started to pace as he thought aloud.
'And don't forget we need some space planning for an ensemble not just a...wait, had he stumbled over his words slightly? - erm not just a couple. I mean a pair! Of dancers. A pair of dancers, not really a couple.
It was her turn to flush, remembering the last time they'd been in a cinch.
His pacing had come to a brief halt. 'That being said, it's still too short.'
'Well we can add to it. Should we include the traditional cabeceo?'
'Sure, and after that we can sit in a cabana and drink pina coladas. What the hell is a cabecco?'
'Did I finally find something the great Corny Collins doesn't know? Or is this like the time you pretended you didn't even know how to tango?' She opened her eyes as large as they could go, giving him her best innocent stare.
He laughed. It was light, refreshing and good-humoured. Just like him. Damn the man.
'Are you ever going to let that go?'
She stuck out her tongue at him. 'Possibly. But improbable. Anyway, it's like an invitation to dance. You make eye contact with someone across the room and you nod. If they nod back then it means you've accepted their invitation. I thought we could use it for the ensemble. If we have all the dancers standing in a loose ring, maybe pretending we're in a dance hall somewhere? We can design a set for that. Then we can get one of the boys, or girls, to lock eyes with someone across the room, perform a cabeceo before partnering off. And we could perform the opening steps in canon. So that we start with one couple, then after 8 counts another till everyone's on the floor.'
'Hey, don't get too carried away. We're choreographing an item. Not filming a movie. I don't have the budget for one of your Audrey Hepburn reels.'
But this was no time to be dragged into thoughts of a moonlit night and a song about two drifters, off to see the world.
'I can't help it that I have standards.' After a quick glance at the scribbles in her notebook she closed it with a snap.
'Right, let's get to it.'
Ignoring his raised eyebrows, they were practically at his hairline, she grasped his arm and pushed it behind his back so that it was held in the traditional position behind his body.
Stepping back briefly she surveyed the opening stance. Good enough. She took up her position opposite him. As her instructor had told her before, imagine you're a matador holding a cape before the bullfight. Keep that tension in your stance, the intensity in the eyes. You're opponents. Passion always feels like a battlefield.
'Ok, mirror me. Step forward off your left foot, keep it extended on the ground and then hold up your right hand to mine.'
She watched intently as he stepped forward as directed.
'Now palm to palm. In front of your face at chest height. That's right...Then raise it slowly. Six counts.'
His palm was warm and dry against hers, his gaze steady. Pushing against her hand, it was a delicate balance of finding how much pressure to apply so that their joined hands travelled in a vertical line, yet appeared spirited, connected. They wavered over the invisible line, towards his end and towards hers before they got it right.
Looking in the mirror she could see the symmetry of the movement, the intensity it conveyed. 'Ok, that's as high as I can go. Stop.'
'I think we need an axial movement. Can we try stepping counter clockwise with our palms still touching?'
There was a certain amount of stumbling. Amber winced.
'Ok this is way too awkward.' Mentally flipping through her notebook she struck out a crude stick drawing with a twirling spiral drawn around. Hmmmmm.
'How about the right and left arms swap heights? So my right arm now is above my head. I'm going to step counter clockwise, like I'm pacing in a circle. And at the same time gradually lower my right arm.
In the mirror, the blonde and the dark-haired figures paced deliberately around an invisible circle on the floor without touching, as if there was some kind of static field keeping them equidistant. All the while the lowering right arm on the inside of the circle kept the upper torso turned inward, towards each other. Intent eyes on each other's faces. Not just to gauge the speed of the other, but just because the feel of the music demanded it.
'Right, right that's it! Now pause. Let's use this mark. And bring the left up, all the way above the head.'
There was slight confusion as Amber snapped her arm up quickly and Thad raised his at exactly the same speed he'd been lowering his right.
'Right, slow or sharp?'
'Let's try both. Slow first, then sharp.'
She studied the effect in the mirror carefully. 'Ok sharp, sharp looks better. No offense Thad.' She threw him a quick wink and got a flashed smile in return, teeth even whiter against the dark stubble on his jaw.
'Lock eyes as we go around. That's it. One full turn.'
'How about I give you a twirl here? Keep your spin tight. What do you think?'
'I think you're right. It adds a nice full stop to the sequence. I think we also need a variation of height. I'll dip after the spin, and then when I rise up, we go into hold. Should we do a straight walk or a figure of eight?'
'I'd advise a straight line. Remember, if you're going to get a group leading off in canon, you could end up with more than ten couples on the floor. Save the figure of eights for some flashier sections with less people.'
She beamed at him. 'You're right.'
To his credit, Thad was concentrating hard on giving she exactly what she asked for. He followed her direction without hesitation, only breaking in to her mutterings to ask for clarification or suggest something constructive. His steps were crisp and exacting, always watching her for her cues. He was really letting her take the lead on this piece, making sure she felt his support and cooperation for her item.
She could do this. She could really do this.
Suddenly all the tension she'd been holding onto the past few days melted away. The second-guessing - will he, won't he? Did he notice her? Should she have kissed him? Was she standing too close? Too far? Did he know she'd been dreaming about that beach, re-living that night in her dreams?
And really, the main question that had always haunted her all the way back to her first night in a Baltimore mansion with a mother who was suddenly a stranger –was she good enough?
Right now, it was all just background noise to the glow inside her that was just this with Thad.
She'd never really understood that what her instructor had meant about passion being a battlefield at that tender age. She'd nodded and looked serious because that was what he seemed to expect of her. But now, with the sound of the Argentinian rhythm pulsing in her blood she felt exactly what he meant.
She felt strong. She felt powerful. And with the steps of the tango she could lock eyes with her opponent and draw him to her at will, then push him away when she wanted. She could snap her eyes to him from a distance as a challenge. And when he approached, wanting to match her, she'd let him. She'd invite him tantalisingly close till their bodies twined, their hands taut on the tense muscle of a shoulder or hip before turning her gaze to the side even as he stared directly at her face. A coy sideways glance back was all she'd give him before breaking away and circling back again. It was a dance full of feints and defiance, where one could not fully conquer the other.
Right here, right now, she respected him, she trusted him and she knew he felt the same. This was something they had in common, a language they could share. And they had work to do.