First Steps

by Dawn Elliot

Svel was hungry and that’s why he was there, standing in the rain and waiting. This time of year it rained a lot, and he’d been wet a lot. And hungry a lot. He wasn’t the only one waiting; there were others, some very young, some older.

Svel’s attention snapped back to the wide wooden gate as it creaked open, and silence fell among the little crowd gathered in front of the Dancer’s Hall. Stepping out into the mud, an old man smiled beneficently at them and said, “So, the first day of spring has brought you all to Dance?”

He looked them over, rich and poor, young and old, and there was something in his gaze that made Svel’s nervousness evaporate. Poor and orphaned he might be, but no one in that place would mock him for it.

“Candidates only, if you please,” the old man said and dragged the gate wider as they filed in.

This was only a regional Hall, small in size and quiet in ambition. Inside, was a complex of low buildings, eaves dripping rain, and a shallow porch crowded with students. Svel sighed, flushing. Not only would he have to take some mysterious test, but he’d have to do it under the watchful eyes of the entire Hall.

In the courtyard was a collection of stumps set into the ground. Svel stared blankly at them. It wasn’t long before the stumps’ purpose became clear. The old man hopped nimbly up onto the first stump, smiling cheerfully.

“Here for the Dance? Perhaps drawn by fame? Fear? Simple hunger? Perhaps a more complex hunger than you know.” The old man seemed to be looking right at Svel. “Well, then Dance,” the old man said, taking a step to the next stump, a quick spin and a hop to the third and fourth, and then he was dancing, his feet barely touching the stumps. He spun and swayed gracefully despite his age, surefooted despite the rain.

Svel watched as others tried the Dance. None made it past the seventh step. He realized, watching, it wasn’t the number of steps that mattered; it was how you took them. Some of the candidates who’d made it all the way to the seventh step were turned away, while others who’d not gone as far were accepted. Standing there in the drizzle, Svel didn’t know what the Dance Master was looking for and realized, if he couldn’t predict the master’s mind, he’d best pay attention to his own steps.

Svel sighed, stepped onto the first stump, and then hopped to the next. He immediately realized there was a rhythm to the steps, and he was out of rhythm. He struggled to find it but was at the wrong angle for the fourth and had to twist mid-air to reach it. He could feel his balance sliding away and desperately leapt for the fifth. He spun again and found the sixth, then kept right on spinning, off the stumps and into the mud. Sitting there, he laughed because he could feel the rhythm now, in the beating of his heart, in the rise of his breath. The Dance was there; all he had to do was feel it, and follow it.

He looked up into the old spirit dancer’s eyes. They were warm with amusement and welcome and he held out a hand to help Svel up. “You might want to get out of those wet clothes,” the old man said, “and get yourself some soup–apprentice.”