A young up-and-coming dancer finds a new way to dance with some special help.
Teri Collins proudly stared at the crowd before her, who witnessed her bellydance on Memorial Day. It’d been exactly a year since she tried that dance, on that date, with much better results this time. It was a proud moment for her, hands raised high, sharing the excitement and satisfaction of her audience, as proud as she ever was even with her many past accomplished performances. From cheerleading, to ballroom dance competitions, to this new plateau she felt she just conquered. Her audience seemed totally enraptured during the dance, praise delivered in various expressions. It mattered a great deal to her, but it paled compared to the consideration of her still-favorite instructor, Camille, who looked upon her with a mix of pride, satisfaction, and other unreadable positive expressions. Whatever it was, it was passionate, the one thing that was always stressed to Teri when it came to dancing. How that passion manifest itself over time left her beaming brighter than any spotlight that graced her dancer’s form.
It hadn’t been that far back when they first met, and Teri couldn’t believe how things first started out between them. It was a Memorial Day dance preliminary competition, the biggest competition yet for her. She attended at least a few dance competitions wherever they were in the Midwest, and was always expectant of high marks in any judges decision, in any type of dance she excelled at. Competition was tougher that year, which she didn’t mind, but her performance still needed work, which she absolutely loathed. It was partially her own fault as she tried self-taught and non-professional means for learning belly-dancing. She hadn’t done amateur instruction since she started teaching herself, and turned out to be not the total dancing savant she’d been told she was. The only reason she seemed to make it past preliminaries is because the tap dancer before her totally screwed up, that and maybe how all the judges knew her, and unspokenly cut her some slack as they expected excellence with her the next time.
Money was always stretched thin in her middle-to-low class family, but she was good enough in her youth to have caught the eye of what remained to be generous donors after so many years. They afforded her the best talent in the region to train and prevail in multiple forms of dance, but it was clear that on short notice thanks to recovering slipping grades at her community college, she wasn’t able to get the help she needed in time. Mr. Rogers, a huge fan of the Rockettes, always gave his suggestion of such, which always turned her attention elsewhere. She admired them greatly until 10, then looked elsewhere for inspiration.
“Keep it American,” her older, rich benefactor told her that year, which irked her more than it should’ve, making her think of the first style foreign enough yet thrilling enough to work for her. Teri knew of his bias, down to his unspoken preference for her slim, athletic body type and natural but short, cropped blonde hair; almost a Barbie doll if dressed right. It didn’t help Mr. Roger’s case that the competition was supposedly “international dance,” though most dancers sought to stick to their comfort zones. They would’ve argued more than they did about which style, but more than keeping it “American,” they cared about her winning, of which she almost never disappointed. She didn’t know much about belly-dancing, the brunt of it from videos her friend Carlie, who also benefited from Teri’s donors often, showed her while messing around. It looked easy to Teri’s watchful eyes, but performing it on-stage easily proved there was something missing. Neither could say what, but they decided to bring in some help since she was adamant in sticking with it. Carlie made a call to a friend of a friend of a friend, of a highly recommended dancer by the name of Camille Fares. Word got out to the recommended dancer, as well as a plane ticket. Within the next two days Teri met Camille.
Upon Camille’s arrival, she didn’t know what to expect when she got there. The gist made sense, but she could tell there was more than a simple explanation that she would’ve felt she needed to know. First and foremost was how different Teri’s Midwest living was compared to the city life she loved. It meant next to nothing in a metropolis, but Camille’s Lebanese features turned heads for more than just her beauty. Most of the small town of Andersen, and Teri herself seemed surprised in the dancer she was getting.
“Ms. Fares, is it?”
“Please, call me Camille. Nice to meet you Teri.”
“Is that a midly-I mean, Middle Eastern name?”
“Fares? It is. My parents are from Lebanon.”
Camille could see that Teri was trying to keep her foot out of her mouth, and kept the conversation to things dance-related. She considered Teri lucky that she didn’t know “midly” was some kind of derogatory phrase kids her age came up with for Middle Eastern people; she might’ve taken the quickest return flight possible.
The two sat in Andersen’s only dance studio and discussed the dilemma, her life-long dance experience, and what she wanted from Camille. The older dancer was surprised to hear of an itinerary set up for how she was going to learn, what steps she wanted to learn by what days in the month before the competition; it went beyond organized and into the realm of something nearly like OCD, though some of the disorder in their interaction would come from hints of her assertive attitude. She took this job out of the blue, out of sheer curiosity from what Penny told her about it, and availability due to Keith taking a temp dance gig in the UK. She could already tell she might have much better time being spent with him instead of this job, no matter how substantial the pay, which it was. But one thing she and Teri seemed to have in common was ambition and an eagerness to meet new challenges.
“That’s quite the circumstance you have ahead of you, Teri. I would say this is rather short-notice, and I don’t know what competition you face in order to win, but given your obvious love for dance, and your willingness to excel in this, I can promise you that you’ll be well-versed in this style of dance come July.”
“Thank you Ms. Fares.”
“Please, Camille is fine.”
The two shook hands, and Teri drove her to the motel where she’d be staying, just half a mile away from the dance studio at the edge of town. The original offer was to stay with either Camille or one of the benefactor’s “humble” abodes, but with what little information she had, Camille seemed content with keeping her own space. By the time she met some of the people surrounding Teri the next day, she felt she had made the right decision.
Camille walked to the studio that morning where everyone was to meet. She noticed the looks she got as she walked through the town’s main street. They seemed as surprised to see her as she was surprised to see how conservative things looked in the town, from its buildings to its people. They weren’t stuck in the ’50 or anything, all ages were seen in their downtown, but it seemed perplexing to see this Lebanese woman with caramel color-dyed hair walking their all-Caucasian streets. She wasn’t dressed very differently from them in jeans, a leather jacket and sunglasses, but one would think she was dressed in a full face-covering hajib to draw so much attention. Perhaps they just don’t get that many new people in Andersen, she thought. But either way, Camille hoped she wouldn’t get those looks her whole time there. The looks didn’t seem as questionable as the regard received at the dance studio.
The first person who greeted her was Teri’s original dance instructor, who’d been working with her since she was 6, Wilma Cantor. Apparently, Wilma was a semi-rising star in the ballerina world, but only seemed to get so far. When it became clear the good performances she thought she deserved were never coming, she returned to her hometown to teach the next generation of girls who loved to dance. The exotic dancer could tell from seeing her physique that Wilma was a professional at some point; Mrs. Cantor, pushing late 40’s, gave the younger woman almost a concerned, guarded look. Camille almost thought her extended hand wasn’t going to be shaken at all in greeting. She still got one, albeit a cautions one.
“Nice to meet you, Mrs. Fares.”
“Ms. Fares, but Camille is fine. You must be Mrs. Cantor.”
Cantor shook her head to note some amount of pride in being a Mrs., letting her know there might’ve been some issue with Camille just being Ms. She was directed to Mrs. Cantor’s office where a Mr. Rogers and Dannon were waiting; George Rogers was the richest business man in several counties, looking about early sixties, but distinguished and handsome, a reserved but obvious charm. Piers Dannon inherited lots of family money and influence, which he believed made him handsome despite the proud, protruding beer belly and horrible toupee. The two most powerful men in Andersen gave a slight hesitation as their first appraisal of the hired instructor. Camille didn’t want to make snap judgments so quickly about someone, but the last time she’d gotten such a reaction, it had to do with her heritage, and it wasn’t a nice interaction. The businessmen kept cool enough to hide their issue with it, and didn’t hesitate to shake her hand as they sat down and discussed things.
“Welcome to our town Ms. Fares. I think I know someone with your last name. Would you happen to have Irish Protestant lineage by chance?”
“I doubt it. My family is from Lebanon.”
A sly look was exchanged between the two men, one that didn’t go unnoticed but was met with silence.
Camille kept her speaking to a minimum, only discussing her experiences with bellydancing, and what she had in mind in terms of lesson plans. She didn’t hesitate to sell them on her skills by explaining how she won several competitions herself, in several countries including the US. She didn’t want to reveal much as she hadn’t even seen her new pupil dance yet, nor did she want to rock the boat so early with revealing plans that might contradict already-established teachings from whomever. She discussed a vague plan to help Teri, the businessmen discussed the pay and accommodations, Mrs. Cantor surprisingly kept silent, and that was all Camille cared about, happy that the conversation remained short and she could exit the small space filled with repelling vibes quickly.
After, Camille met Teri again and introduced her to her other dancing friend Carlie, who was also self-taught with belly-dancing, though for much longer. Carlie seemed nice enough, like Teri. Unlike most of the reactions she garnered in the community from that point, Carlie’s struck her as an unspoken “wow,” like a young girl who just gazed upon her future idol. Camille gave a genuine smile to the young amateur bellydancer. She had her friend’s dancing physique, but seemed more bubbly in personality, down to the happy bouncing of her brunette ponytail whenever she walked. It almost seemed strange how distinct the differences were in personality, yet they were the best of friends. In the back of her mind, she hoped most of her time would be spent just among the younger girls for most of the lessons, so far the most tolerant people she’d met in Andersen.
In their first lesson, Camille had Teri recreate her dance for the preliminaries. Under the watchful eye of Camille and Mrs. Cantor, she performed it with a determination that pleased the older ballet dancer, and the veteran belly-dancer to a much lesser degree. It was a good first impression, moving her hips correctly, her feet correctly, her arms and hands correctly. When applause came for her repeat performance, it came from Camille in congratulations for how gifted she really was in transitioning to this style, which wasn’t easy for many dancers. She watched Teri and Carlie jump up like excited cheerleaders and perform the most difficult scores of the dance together, in almost perfect synchronization.
Mrs. Cantor’s critique was mainly about how the Independence Day competition would be judged by different standards, neglecting to say ‘wholesome,’ but pointing out how there would be children watching and judges would take note of the racier parts of her dance. Wilma looked to Camille and hoped that some of her teachings could come up with something more innocent-looking. Camille answered with a “we’ll see” smile. Camille’s biggest critique was how ‘correct’ Teri’s dance was. It was too correct, in fact, to the point of mimicry. She’d mirrored her friend’s dance so well, yet Camille could tell that Carlie had taught her, and Teri just followed her lead. And whether or not her teachers, judges, or anyone else hadn’t noticed it, her new teacher did. Not that there was anything wrong with mimicry on its own, but most of Camille’s training came under the belief that mimicry was a stepping stone, more from the point of a beginner to find her own soulful style. In her eyes, passion was the most important ingredient of the dance, and there wasn’t much of it there, except for a need to succeed. Admirable, but still lacking.
Teri was already a talent, meaning Camille would have higher standards for her new pupil. Honestly, she suspected that Teri might not even need her for what was to come, but relented to tell anyone that. She was being paid for her expertise, and Teri would become even better than she knew she could be.
“I hope you don’t mind, but I think it would be better with the time we had if I instructed Teri alone, under my sole instruction. Not for the whole month, but a majority of it.” The girls were still dancing amongst themselves while Camille spoke to the other adults in the studio. Mrs. Cantor was unsurprisingly incensed at how such a request could be made, in her own studio. Garbled claims of a need for a chaperone and such were understood, but the benefactors were smart enough to know they were paying for a professional specialty, and the idea of too many cooks and Wilma’s naked paranoia would create too much friction. The two men spoke in her office, explaining the situation to the begrudgingly upset teacher, reminding her who owned the lease to the studio before she got too loud.
Camille explained to Teri that their schedule would be at least four hours a day, after her summer school classes and after Mrs. Cantor’s lessons with her elementary and middle school students. Carlie was allowed to come and learn some things when she wanted, but Teri was the main focus. She also explained how the regimen would be more difficult than she realized, and that things about her would have to change to rise to this challenge. Teri had no problem with the scheduling, but scoffed at the difficulty claims, believing this was just another style of dance, and that Camille was just another teacher. She received a smile at the challenge to come.
The day everyone met at the studio, Camille took Teri through some basics of belly-dancing she already knew, while Carlie watched and practice off in a corner. That first way was boring to Teri, which was the point; the next day, it was just Camille and Teri, and her first official lesson left the student confused.
“You want me to dance to this with no instruction?” Teri asked as Lebanese belly-dancing music from Camille’s learning days played on the studio stereo.
“Yes,” her teacher informed. “Let me see what you can do with your own body and will.”
“You’re here to teach me steps I need.”
“I’m here to instruct you. How I do so is at my discretion, not yours,” Camille clarified with a smidgen of a strict tone in her voice. She didn’t need anymore to her tone as her words said enough, as she watched her blonde student stand there, confused at how her original plan was being ignored.
“Before we start building your dance for the competition, I need to know what raw materials I’m working with,” she explained with concern in her voice.
“What do those tell you?” Teri pointed to the trophy case near the office, filled with most of the dancing awards she’d earned since her youth, most proudly boasting “1st Place” on them.
“Those tell me that you are an accomplished dancer, maybe more than that. But all accomplished dancers and beyond have personality to their step, to their movements, to their everyday dances. You’re in no judgment here for what you show me. We begin cultivating ourselves by revealing ourselves.”
Teri gave Camille an incredulous look as the first track stopped, and the next track began to play. Looking down at her own bare feet, like it was her first time off the high-dive, she stretched herself out, and started part of the same belly-dance she’d already learned, mimicking it again without fail, even if her movements felt like they clashed with the music playing. Camille saw it, Teri felt it, but the dance continued well into the end of the track.
Camille kept herself from frowning. “That was good, but try something brand new on this next track. Something I haven’t seen before.”
Teri started again with what she hoped looked random movements before she heard “And close your eyes.” Teri did so, and nearly fell to the floor, but stubbornness kept her standing, as she moved with anger, to spite the teacher, fusing belly-dancing with ballroom dancing and ballet styles she learned, crafting her own hybrid style that mixed more to the music much more than her last effort. As the track she danced to died down, Teri finished with a loud stomp to the floor, to show her teacher up. Open eyes found Camille almost wide-eyed, looking as if she were impressed. Teri didn’t understand the small smile on her lips, and the applause given.
She excused herself to the bathroom to keep from yelling at her teacher. After a few minutes of cooling down, she exited the bathroom to find her teacher dancing about the studio to the final track on the CD. She saw the grace of Camille’s well-toned body sinuating through a track that sounded as beautiful as Camille looked dancing to it. Teri circled Camille in a wide circle while Camille danced as if lost to the rest of the world. Slight jealousy sprung at how Camille kept more control over her mass of colored hair, instead of Teri’s blonde locks whipping around during faster parts of the dance. Teri admitted she got lost in watching her teacher move, waking only to realize that the music had stopped but her teacher had not.
“Start the CD from the beginning, please,” Camille told her pupil. Teri moved to the stereo system, and thought of a funny joke to play on the belly-dancer. Camille continued to dance without music, waiting for the next track to play; what came out of the speakers was soft country western music. Teri expected her dance to be unceremoniously interrupted or even lose her footing to the floor, but her jaw nearly dropped as Camille’s body easily adjusted to the song seamlessly, guided only by her feet and the passion in her limbs and hips. Conceptually, no one could imagine belly-dancing would be what country music made you dance to, but Camille made it fit, anticipating every high lilt of the lyrics, every stress of the instruments in the song. Teri was stark still until she found the bellydancer approaching her slowly, looking lost from above the waist, but her hips guided by their own purpose. She rocked from side to side in a crescent shape, cutting off any escape her student could muster. But the pupil’s body nor her eyes could escape; her only movement was to retreat backwards, until she found herself falling to sit on a bench her knees backed into. Camille stopped in-front of her, shaking her hips, undulating her belly in circles, making her student follow the jeweled piercing and nothing else.
A loud fingersnap next to her ear is what it took to wake Teri, still unfocused on the unmoving jewel and dancer.
“Are you alright, Teri?”
“Yeah, sorry. Was just…going over the dance in my head.”
“That’s very good Teri,” Camille praised. “Do you see what I mean now as far as, your own style, your own personality?”
“Yeah, but…but in a the videos Carlie showed me, it all starts to look alike, and then everyone would have the same personality.”
“That’s not so different from people, how they can all look the same, until you take the time to notice the differences, and notice how they make all the difference. Not every ballet dancer is the same, are they?”
“Touche,” Teri admitted.
“We’ll do a little more for today and I’ll send you home with some homework, ok?”
“Sorry, Camille, did you know what I was up to with the music?”
“I noticed there was country music in the CD player besides what I put in, but I’d never heard the song. I enjoyed the challenge by the way,” Camille smiled at Teri.
Teri helplessly smiled back.