Once upon a time, there were two girls, Mary and Anne, who were signed up for dancing lessons at the local park of the Chicago Park District.
The girls thought this was a wonderful idea, not so much because of their love of dance, but because it got them out of the house two or three times a week for at least an hour when they might otherwise be forced to do homework, or chores, or laundry or such, being from a large family, there was a great deal of laundry or such that they were chained to like dwarves in a Grimms fairy tale, not the nice French kind.
Unlike those in suburban households, where children live on cul-de-sacs and must be driven everywhere, Mary and Anne had the option of either walking or riding their bikes to dancing lessons. I say option, but the truth of it was that in general, no car was available anyway for the trip.
This was not really a burden, because the park's field house was really only a long block down their street, another very short block to the stop light. A few feet to the driveway for the park, and a few more feet to the door of the Park District field house where the dancing lessons were held. A trip of less than 10 minutes, unless, unless, well, we'll get to that, for that's the story.
As a Chicago Park District program, the lessons were free of course, the costumes for the end of the class show were to be provided by the class member's families. Remember this point. It comes into the story later.
Mary and Anne were from a large family for the time, six in, say 1975, when Anne might have been in, at best 3rd or 4th grade, at best, and Mary would have been in 5th or 6th grade, at best, but certainly with a better sense of consequences than Anne. Mary also had perhaps, a little more interest in dancing.
For you see, on that short trip from their house to the dancing class their was, a potential for - diversion! Yes, diversion I tell you!
And this diversion took the form of the home of the two girls' true and dear friends' Ann and Peggy. Ann was Mary's age and Peggy was Anne's age, or a little younger.
Now this is a true story and the names have not been changed to protect the innocent, or not so innocent in this case. So we must bear with a little confusion. Anne lives in the house up the hill a little and takes dancing lessons with Mary. Well, she is supposed to take dancing lessons with Mary. Ann lives in the house down the hill at the end of the long block on the corner that Mary and Anne are supposed to pass on the way to dancing lessons and not enter once the have turned the corner and are just out of sight of their mother, who I will call simply "Mom".
I think, given that I have revealed already that this is a true story that it would be just too much to reveal whether I called this woman "Mom" in those days too, as it would rip away any semblance or pretense of anonymity that the characters Anne, Mary, Ann and Peggy might have as the story goes on.
You can grant me that can't you?
So, to Anne's credit, she did attend the very first dance class with Mary. She absolutely did. She met the dancing teacher. She learned some dance moves. She lined up with the other girls and listened to them start to follow the teacher's movements as so many classes each fall had to the ever so moving and thrilling strains of that thrilling popular tune Alley Cat.
And Anne was indeed moved. It is indeed unfortunate that history does not record Anne's comments to Mary about the class she had just attended on the way back home, because Anne is one of the naturally funniest people in the universe. Especially, especially, when she has an audience capable of understanding her special blend of irony and wit.
If they, and the temptation by now would have been irresistible, stopped at the home of Ann and Peggy to describe exactly how strange their dance class experience had been, and they would have stopped in any case to avoid getting home early enough to get drafted into making one of the delegate-able typical Irish-American dinners so popular with their mother (such as kraft dinner and hot dogs, or roast chicken, onion salt and green beans (salt on the chicken before roasting), or broiled hamburgers, baked fries, and applesauce, or, a ham slice, corn, and another boiled veggie (ever wonder why PBS has never featured a series called "The Great Cooks of Ireland?))
Fortunately, there is no need for historical veracity here:
Anne: That is the stupidest thing I have ever done.
Mary: You mean intentionally.
Anne: You agreed not to bring up the time I let Anna cut my hair ever again!
Mary: And you believed me?
Anne: I believed that these dancing lessons might be good for something, so far all
they are good for is getting us out of the house. O.K. that is something.
Mary: Look, its just the first day, things will get better.
Anne: Things will NOT get better. Did you hear that song they had us dancing to?
I think I heard it at a funeral once. And Mom is supposed to make part of
our costume. you trust her to do that? Mom can not sew.
Mary: That's just a practice song. No way will we be doing it for the final recital.
Besides, we'll get Grandma to do the sewing.
Anne: Like she has time after cleaning up after 9 cats, 3 St. Bernards, a mangy
Collie, and Grandpa.
Mary: The cats don't count, they live under the front porch, Aunt Sally & Aunt Laura
help with the dogs, and Grandpa is self-cleaning and still works. She only has
to sew on some reindeer tails and there are three months to go.
Anne: Maybe, I'll go again, but you better not tell anyone at school that I'm in it
and if I don't go anymore you better not tell Mom!
Mary: You're kidding right? I would never violate The Code!
The Code: Survival among the siblings created the code and caused the defeat and retreat of many a babysitter who hoped to threaten them into submission.
Simply put: Though shalt not squeal. Whenever possible, though shalt not cause the
wrath of parental units to descend upon us. If such should befall you
Though shall do your best to take it for the team.
The effect: For Mary, Anne and their siblings, adult wrath of all kinds was avoided. This also made them popular with the friends to whom they extended this treatment.
Somehow though, Anne never made it back to dancing class. Instead she stopped a Peggy's house and played with Ann and Peggy and Mary would tell her about what happened at dance class. As the weeks went by Anne's worst suspicions were confirmed.
There was no new music. They would have one number in the Christmas show. They would be dancing reindeer. The curtain would open and they would do a simple number where they danced in circles and from side to side in reindeer costumes to the tune of "Alley Cat".
What "Alley Cat" had to do with Christmas neither of the girls could figure out. Their best bet was that the show was originally a Halloween show that had been pushed back to Christmas, but that while the costumes were changed, the music was not because the de-dee-dee de de de de dee de de beat of Alley Cat was impossible for young dancers NOT to hear.
Also, the girls, any boys in the class dropped out within two classes, usually, had only to change from buying black leotards to brown leotards and from making long cat tails to short reindeer tails. The noses were painted on about the same, except for those who wanted to do gender crossing and pretend to be Rudolph.
Through all of this time, Anne remained unconcerned about the number of practices she was missing. Sometimes at Ann and Peggy's house she would ask Mary to run through the steps and Mary would make it looks so easy that Anne thought, shoot, I can do that, say "Thanks, I can catch up if I have to" and go back to playing with Peggy.
Mary: Ann, I'm worried about Anne, she's not worried at all that my Mom and Dad
are going to figure out that she's not going to class.
Ann: Well, why should she worry? They're not going to see her dance, so what's
the problem. She just gets sick on show night and that's it.
Mary: That won't work! My Mom and Dad will feel like they'll have to apologize that
she didn't make it, and after making that costume, Mom just might Make her
go thinking its just stage fright.
Ann: You'd better make her go to a few practices.
Mary: I think she's scared that she's missed so many they won't let her come back
and will call home.
Ann: Oops. So She's going to have to just show up for the show and fake it?
Ann: Well, don't tell her beforehand, but look for us in the top row, he he.
Ann: If you think I'm going to miss this. This will be better than the hair
Just like in a fairy tale things got worse. Grandma had to visit a sick relative. Mom had to buy the leotards and came back with black ones. Then made the reindeer tails without actually looking at a picture. She made them out of stockings. Fortunately, the reindeer antlers were purchased. Nonetheless the afternoon before the show, the girls were shown the leotards with tails permanently sewn on.
They screamed in horror. Windows broke for blocks around.
The local news attributed it to a weather anomaly.
Anne: Mom! Those aren't Reindeer tails, those are Rat tails! We'll look like
Mutant Rat-Reindeer. We're supposed to have cute white tails. (Almost crying.)
Marye: Mom! You've got to fix them. Ann's right! These are awful.
Mom: But Reindeer are like horses, don't horses have long tails!
Mary: Not LONG THIN RAT TAILS! Besides, Santa's Reindeer have cute white
cotton tails, all the girls agreed!
Mom: I'm sorry girls, but you didn't tell me that. (History is uncertain
of this detail.)
Anne: But don't you see, with black instead of brown costumes, we will REALLY look
like Christmas Rats!
Mom: We can't do anything about the leotards except maybe give you red collars.
Then with two of you, you will look special. Maybe I can pin the tails
in a circle or something and stuff them into a white sock...
So this was done and our two reindeer now had stubby tails that were quite fat, but they now no longer looked quite so much like rats and they were a little mollified. Until...
Dad: Good news girls, I talked to Grandma, Uncle Ron, Aunt Sally, Uncle Neil,
Dave and a few other friends and drummed up a real audience for you
tonight. With their families I'll bet you'll have at least 30 people there
to see you dance tonight! Plus the six of us not dancing of course.
Mary: (To herself) Plus Peggy and Ann, 38, plus anyone they told, that makes,
easily a thousand.
Anne: Screams and falls to the floor attempting to simulate the onset of a grave
Two hours later, fed and a little nervous, Mary and Anne are dropped off at the entry for the "backstage" of the performance area. Since the announcement of the potential attendance of 30 relatives Anne realizes that she is well and truly trapped and has spent the last two hours in the basement, without the benefit of a recording of the dreaded Alley Cat, trying to learn the routine.
Her one advantage is that Mary knows it by heart by now as it has been drummed into her until she can do it in her sleep. So she sings the tune as they go along. Two hours is not enough time for Anne at her state of panic to learn the routine. She has never tried to learn a routine before. But she does learn how to do each of the moves, she just cannot get what order they are in.
Walking in Anne has two strategies. One - not be noticed and two - get on stage.
Anne does not want to be noticed because if she is noticed the Dance Program Director might not let her go on. She decides to hide in the darkest corner of the room with her head half hidden and her tail completely out of sight as she knows her tail is completely in opposition to strategy number one - not be noticed.
Mary on the other hand bravely tries to draw fire by being noticeable. And of course she does, as most of the girls can't stop themselves from laughing at her tail, even the nice ones. They all like Mary, she's that kind of girl, nice to everyone, supportive, always something nice to say to everyone, but even with the foreknowledge that Mary's Mom is a terrible sewer, the reality is beyond their comprehension and trying not to laugh just makes it worse.
What saves it of course, is that Mary sees the humor in it.
Mary: You should see what it started as. She took a stocking thinking that reindeer had long thin tails. My sister Anne said I looked like a Mutant Reindeer-Rat.
After that the room exploded with laughter, even Anne couldn't help laughing, the pent up tension inside her bringing tears to her eyes as she looked at the clock and noticed that the show was due to start in two minutes. Just then, the Dance Program Director walked back into the room and called the girls to attention. It was nearly their turn. The younger classes had finished and it was time for them to go on.
Dance Program Director: Girls! Time for you to go on. I want you to know that I am very proud of each and every one of you. You have all worked very hard and you know just what to do. SO, go out to do it and have fun. For some reason we seem to have a particularly big audience tonight, one of our biggest ever. Don't let that throw you. They are here to see you succeed, so pay attention to each other and not them. At the same time, don't forget to smile at each other. After all, you know each other very well and you can count on each other if you are not sure what to do.
If so, just follow the person ahead of you or to either side! Now break a leg!
Line up in one minute.
She left the room and Anne took that moment to sneak up next to and behind Mary as close as she could in line. The clock was ticking. The Dance Program Director came back in went to the curtain, began to open it, looked across her girls smiling, saw Anne, frowned and then hurried to her and said:
Dance Program Director: WHO are YOU? And what are you doing in line with my class, in a costume?
Anne: I'm in your class!
Dance Program Director: No you're not! I've never seen you before, I have no idea
who you are!
Anne: But I'm in your class, I'm on your list, look at it, my name is Anne, it's
on it just before my sister Mary here.
Dance Program Director: Why so it was, I scratched it out when you never came back,
but I can't let you go out there if you haven't been here,
you don't know the steps.
Anne: I've been sick, but Mary's been teaching me at home, and my whole family is
out there, praying that I'm well enough to do this.
Dance Program Director: Well I'm sorry, but I pray that they'll understand that
I can't let you go out there without seeing you do
this right at least once and we just don't have the time.
I AM sorry to disapoint you, but it's just not fair to the
And Anne, terrified, sat down, weeping as the other girls went out. Then the Dance Program Director slid out the side curtain to announce the girls and start the record.
Then, terrified of what her parents would say and do, Anne did something that would change her life. She got up, peeked though the curtain, saw that the lights were still down and slipped into the back row of reindeer, not noticing that she had ripped the seam holding the sock onto her "Rat tail" somewhat.
Then Alley Cat began and the lights went up to vigorous applause. The crowd was larger than in her worst nightmares and all of the girls froze for about 4 bars, enough that the Dance Program Director apologized for some "Technical difficulties" and reintroduced the act in blackout again, this time bringing up the lights before the music in hopes of fooling the audience that she was at fault for the incomprehensible stares.
The second introduction worked and it gave Anne a head start as at first she remembered what Mary had taught her. This lasted a glorious 45 seconds, of reindeer dancing to the left, to the right, spinning to the left, spinning to the right, then moving in a box so that those who had been in the back of the formation were now in the very front of the audience.
Two things happened then.
One, Anne ran out of choreography without an example right in front of her to copy from so she was forced to look to either side for help.
Two, she was now blocking Angel, the girl who for the last 6 weeks had been in the front of the pack at this point and whose mother could not get the great picture of her that they had been planning.
Three, this very same girl, Angel noticed something funny about Anne's reindeer tail, it seemed to be having a stitch problem. Surely it would be better if that hanging white string were removed. So, when the reindeer all danced in place in a circle to the right, the little minx held on to that thread and let it unwind, undoing the thread holding the sock in place and before the entire audience, dead center, down front, in front of 30 relatives, poor Anne who appeared to be dancing pretty well thus far, was transformed into a Mutant Rat-Reindeer.
Without Anne's knowledge, at first.
So, if you will excuse the term, seamless was her transition. And so clearly was the transformation the work of Angel, the reindeer behind Anne, that it was mistaken for plot, and from then on all eyes were focused on Anne to see what would become of this poor bespelled Mutant Reindeer-Rat.
What became of her was that she immediately began to lose her reindeer powers to dance.
For as Anne reached the end of her memory of the choreography she began to do every dance move increasingly behind the rest of the dancers, with the gap increasing as time and her panic went on.
When the reindeer turned left, Anne turned left, just a second too late. When the reindeer hopped backwards, Anne stuck in front, caught on a St. Nick of a moment too late and hopped back with so much enthusiasm that she almost knocked the girl behind her, Angel, into the closed curtain, again, this was mistaken for plot. The audience roared. Anne, thinking this reaction was due solely to her inept dancing, was really shaken, but bravely went on, determined to follow the advice given earlier and ignore the audience.
The next time the group twirled full circle, Anne was so determined to dance dramatically, Anne's mutant tail elevated and whipped Angel in the face, hard. She screamed, the audience clapped and laughed again, now convinced that Anne was the star in some little morality play. And Anne began to suspect that the laughter was due to a costume flaw involving her tail. This was confirmed when she spotted the white sock on the floor where she had been standing in front of Angel previously.
Could Angel have? Nooo....
Meanwhile, Mary, a little behind and to the right, watched what was going on with growing concern. Angel could be a vindictive little soul and was not beyond starting a throw down cat fight in front of everyone if this went on any longer. At the same time, Mary knew who the audience would favor. What to do?
Then the reindeer did a block dance again. This finally put Angel in the front row and Mary near her. Angel noticed that Mary had a similar tail to Anne's and put two and two together and she ripped Mary's sock off with glee as the audience whistled.
Mary: (whisper) This means war Angel!
Angel: (whisper) I'm not afraid of you!
Mary: (whisper) You should be worried about the 40 relatives I have in the audience
if I were you, I'd be thinking of a way to give this fairy tale a
Angel: (whisper) 40! You're lying!
Mary: (whisper) Unfortunately not. Just look at their noses. The really tall boys
are her brothers. They are having fun, now...
Mary: (Tail undone - perfectly timed rotation of tail) "Whack"! Think about it!
At this point Angel's confidence had fallen a bit. Realizing that in front of the audience she had removed two tails, and was seen, as the "bad reindeer", she had only one option.
With the end of Alley Cat nearing Angel moved out of position in front of the dancing group and did her best "remorseful" dance which ended with her on her knees facing the side of the stage on which Mary and Anne were "Dancing".
Mary was now doing her best to follow Anne poorly following the other dancers since M was now also a Mutant Rat-Reindeer and so unable to dance in time to the music. She grabbed Anne once Angel was kneeling and brought her to the front to see what she was up to. Angel then, brilliantly, ripped her own tail off, split it in half, and offered it to the two reindeer, who rejoiced in an ersatz "Snoopy Dance" bearing no resemblance to anything taught at the park or the timing of the music.
Mary then ripped off Anne's tail. Anne ripped off Mary's tail. And they raised them up as if to crown Angel for her kindness. Instead, they tied the two together which made them long enough to tie around Angel's waste making Angel a Mutant Rat-Reindeer just as "Alley Cat" ended.
The audience roared with laughter and applause.
The dancers all took a bow together.
Then the audience, being mostly relatives, called "Mary and Anne, Mary and Anne" and to the Dance Program Director's dismay, they came forward to take bows. But then Anne went back and pulled Angel to the front, and to her surprise, the audience, thinking her shenanigans were all part of the act, gave her big applause as well. Thus redeeming Angel in the eyes of her mother. So she joined the three in one final bow.
Then the Dance Program Director having had enough, cut the lights.
Wisely, Mary and Anne did not return backstage.
In the car on the way home. A short but revealing ride.
Mom: Huh, ha, Huh. Ha, Huh, Ha. Anne, You, Ha, You, Anne, Ha, You, Ha, You, Ha didn't ha, go, to a, ha, huh, single, ha, practice, did you?
Anne: Um, I went to the first one. Does that count?
Mom: If that, ha, huh, wasn't, ha, so, funny, ha, seeing, hu, you, ha, a, ha, a step, behind everyone, ha, else, you'd hah, be, in big, trouble, now. Whew, ooh, lord.
And so the story ends, Anne lived happily ever after. Except that she was doomed to hear this story over and over for the rest of her natural life, because it is one of Mary's favorites, and it is better when Mary tells it.
Except when Anne tells it, of course.
And of course now it is on the internet, where her friends and co-workers at the Park District may see it and understand why she always uses Alley Cat for the Fall Introduction to Dance classes she teaches now.
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