The first time I danced, I hated it. Six years old, skinny as a string bean, shy, observant, the last thing I wanted was to be pulled into my nana’s long, strong arms, and swept onto the makeshift dance floor at her birthday party. My hair was tightly braided, laced with the new gold and white beads Mama bought just for the occasion. My freshly oiled temples smelled like heaven, hurt like hell. Coconut and mango braids throbbed with the thunk, thunka-thunka that thumped from wood veneer speakers sprawled across two wobbly card tables in a corner of the garden. Nana threw back her head and pranced, that’s right, pranced past my two uncles, my sisters, Papa and Mama, past all her old neighbors and church friends, and rolled her ample hips like a much younger woman. I was scandalized! Everyone clap clapped and howled at the vision, bellies full of roti and spicy jerk chicken. Nana wore red. And she looked amazing, a juicy hibiscus blossom in her hair.
“Four score! Four score!” she cried, channeling Lincoln or the Bible. The sparkly eight and zero bobbed and waved on her rainbow crown. In her birthday hat, she looked like a goddess or a ten year old. I could not tell which, before she reached for me, and I was swept into the swirl of sweat and laughter, the deep pulsing music, the mass of warm brown arms and legs, fiercely dancing in her herb garden behind her brownstone in Brooklyn. As she tugged and jerked my freshly cocoa-buttered arms back and forth, a wicked puppeteer, I was mortified. Not like the time I spilled soda on my white skirt at school, and the big girls pointed and teased me, shouting “Sanaa started her period! Sanaa started her peer-ree-odd!” It seemed as if everyone in Crown Heights had gathered to see my humiliation. They say the dragon can’t dance. At six, neither could I.
But that was then.
Thinking about it now, I cannot believe how much love I took for granted. I’m talking about real love, the kind you can touch with your own hands and feel its arms around you and breathe in. When Nana made me dance at her eightieth birthday party, I was so embarrassed, so afraid I’d make a fool of myself, that her joyful, public love of me felt more like a slap than a celebration. While other kids tap danced and moonwalked over the old ‘children should be seen and not heard’ thing, bucked and clamored for adult attention, any attention, I preferred back then to recede into darkness, to be the silent night that cloaked the bright lone star. Nana wasn’t having none of that. When she pulled me into her arms that smelled like cinnamon, sweet milk and lime, I was angry. I felt exposed, naked. Dancing exposes you. In dancing, your body, traitor flesh that it is, reveals all the things your spirit tries to hide. Drawn from the margins into the center of my big family’s love and laughter, all the vulnerabilities, all the hopes and questions, all the firespark of early, tentative temptations flowed through me, flowed out of me—and I hated it.
Then the drumbeats in my feet, the longing to fly that flamed through my limbs, possessed me. The sensation singed skin, engulfed my anxiety, burnt away my invisible cloak. After that night, dancing became addictive.
Me and my girls, we used to turn up, shut it down right there in Goat Park. While the boys were out on the asphalt, sweating and cursing, checking bricks and trying to dunk in their throwback Jordans, we would be over by the raggedy ass slide, far away from crying babies and fussing nannies cussing in their mother tongues, but close enough for the fine boys to see us, making moves, moving in time, and imitating our favorites. Chanel could fract better than anybody. Her arms and hands flying in precise, quick fast patterns. Her sharp elbows were arrows that pierced the air, even her long spiraling locs swung in time to her rhythm. Bijou’s neck and thighs were like that old school silly putty. She could stretch and slide, whine and grind like she was all water, not bones and flesh. Me, I was the choreographer, always been, always will be. Sanaa, Queen of the Stans. I could do all my girls moves and then some I never shared. Even back then, I dreamed new steps and stands in my sleep, woke up counting beats and wrecking rhythms, even when I brushed my teeth.
To dance was to live.
Other younger girls and little children sometimes watched us from the sidelines, tried to mimic our moves. None of them had enough booty yet, the extra bounce for the ounce that added that special polyrhythm. But I wasn’t stingy. I taught anyone who wanted to learn and have fun, and some of them were really very good.
Back then, I gave my moves away for free.
“Might as well,” Bijou used to say. “They gon’ steal it anyway.”
Chanel disapproved, flinging her locs back to underline the point. “You can’t give away everything, Sanaa. Some stuff you got to keep for yourself.”
It was when they asked us to perform at the Rucker Park Streetball Fest, an annual fundraiser against police brutality, for the families of the latest victims, that it all changed. That’s when Isis first saw me. We couldn’t believe that Ice came to Manigault. Her appearance was completely unannounced, otherwise she and the Goat would have been swamped by fans and paparazzi. She was promoting her upcoming release and would be the celebrity judge for the tournament. Everyone and their mama, folk who know damn well they couldn’t ball or stan, was trying to get up in that competition. It was chaos. Harlem was out of control. There was no way they were going to be able to hold the people back, but we weren’t ordinary people. I had been waiting for a chance like this since beyond forever, and now here it was. I had no idea just how jacked up it would be.
While the seconds counted down before curtains, my stomach filled with a hundred steely butterflies. Their wings shredded my confidence, then my doubts. After collaborating with Isis for so long, I still felt anxious, still felt the nervousness before I was tasked to move the crowd—her crowd. But just like the times when I battled street crews with Chanel in Goat Park on the West Side and with Bijou on the drummer’s hill in Harlem, my nervousness was quickly replaced with extreme focus. When green zeros filled the air above me, I watched our splendid bodies explode into action. As I moved I almost forgot that the force behind Isis’s explosion was my own.
Under my stage lights, my skin glistened like blue-black diamonds. I did the counts in my head, allowing Isis’s music to flow through me, flow with me. Inside my crystal cave, as I called the room designed for my unseen solo performances, I danced with only the barest of clothing. Dark brown threads designed to wick sweat, designed to match my skin, monitored and transmitted my every movement to Isis without hindering my movement. I was the behind-the-scenes choreographer and the spotlit superstar—all at once. As a child, like many girls, I used to dance in the middle of my room, until one of my sisters would walk in. Then I would stop for a moment and giggle, then begin the dance again as if no one was there. As I danced alone, I was the brightest star, the only star in my imagination. In the crystal cave, whose walls sparkled with light and data and pulsed with the music’s rhythm, the illusion was the same. In the cave, I was the puppet and the puppeteer, a tamed dragon.
Instead of breathing fire, I was the flame.
Management wanted to install climate control, to reduce the possibility of my sweat damaging the software and equipment. Under our special contract, “unprecedented” my agent had said, there was a severe gag order—proprietary tech and cloak-and-dagger secrecy—and clause after clause after clause. So many fine points and legalese that I finally signed it when my agent emphasized the number of zeros that would grace my first check. Management was worried about me damaging the equipment, but no one was worried about the equipment damaging me. Climate control for their suit. Ksst! I laughed at this, said I preferred to sweat. Surely they had insurance for cosmic funk. They pushed back. I pushed harder then. It would make the dance more authentic, and Isis, despite her meteoric rise, needed all the help she could get. My dance was born in New York’s streets, channeled fractals from across the nation, adopted traditions from around the world, reimagined Ailey and Dunham, Jamison and Jackson reborn as starship troopers, flinging their black bodies through space. Isis was born in the city of a thousand suns, her voice quickly becoming the anthem of a legion. To deliver, I needed to feel the saltwater beading on my skin, to feel the fire coursing through me.
I needed it far more than Isis and her backup dancers, gifted girls who twirled and stamped in perfect synchronized steps. I watched as the dancers performed my choreography, as Isis, the blazing star, performed my steps mere nanoseconds after my own movements, the delay an unavoidable consequence of the ocean between us.
Mistress of my crystal cave with its vital signs monitors and cords, its wall-to-floor screens reflected the sold-out concert stage and the audience that screamed four thousand miles away in Freetown. I could see the stadium reflected all around me. Each set for Isis was a variation of an ancient Egyptian or other pseudo-African theme. Over the last of our forty city tour, the world had seen Nubians and Pharaonic Pyramids, Dogon masks and references to alien close encounters with the inhabitants of the Dog Star, Sirius. The last show in Paris had Isis lounging on Napoleon’s tomb, surrounded by obelisks and giant replicas of herself. Tonight’s show in Sierra Leone, diamond capital of the world for centuries, was a historical remix of surrounding nations. Our biggest number—my biggest number—would find Isis rising up from a rolling pink lake like the one in Senegal, its waves carrying her up to the base of a skyscraper-sized baobab tree that held her throne. All praise Isis, Queen of Life. For her finale she would appear to break into a hundred pieces, then resurrect herself for the last song.
Even though Isis could not create her own dance, I knew better than anyone how good she was at creating her own myth. Friendships, family, and fans, she hustled them as deftly as a goddess. All were ripe for sacrifice.
“We sisters,” she had said when I had mustered the courage enough to tell her I was gone. Even her voice had taken on my cadence. She could code-switch with the best. “You need me, I need you. Sanaa, Na-Na, they can’t do this without us. I can’t do this without you.”
I guess Management had told her I was serious this time, so Isis made a special live-in-the-flesh personal visit to me. It had been a long time. It caught me by surprise, and I was angry that she could still flatter me, that I still cared so much about her opinion.
I was suited up, the brown fabric covering me like a second skin. She stared me down, watching me hungrily. Like my hips, my skin, my blood she wanted more than food, than air itself. For what it’s worth, Isis had plenty game. I didn’t want to play anymore.
I no longer welcomed her visits.
I didn’t answer. Walked off the set, manually raised the lights in the cave. No illusions now. Just the truth. My heart rate skyrocketed. Management monitoring me could tell I was about to bust a gut. The cave suddenly filled with the hiss of fresh oxygen.
I turned from my wet bar, nothing fancy, just aloe juice and wheatgrass shots and whatever “proprietary” ingredients they stashed in the energy blasts. The nasty taste, like much of my life in the cave, I had long gotten used to.
Isis had completely shaved her head. Only little blond stubble, her new growth, was visible, and the tell-tale tiny cuts on her scalp where Management had implanted nanitic sensors. The old scars still looked like angry red ants. Unlike the dark ones that dotted my spine and every limb. I realized I had never seen the real Isis or her natural hair. When we first met in Goat Park she was rocking a red Afro and Bootsy shades. She looked like Little Orphan Annie and the Mack. I must have looked at her like I was crazy, but how could I not be? I had wanted to be a dancer, but now nearly all of my flesh sang the body electric. Mite-sized robots, nanites translated my thoughts to movements. Management’s processing banks instantly transferred this data to satellites that downloaded it to Isis, wherever she was in the empire star. My dance became Isis’s own. An interstellar duet, imperceptible to the media or her global fans, we were captives of the flame.
And zeros or not, I was losing, had lost nearly everything. When my nana died, Management would not let me go to the funeral. I was furious. Trapped in the crystal cave, I raged for days until my body was spent. Isis was scheduled to perform at a major, international awards show. I could not be spared. The satellites watched over both of us, no matter how far apart we were, no matter how much I grieved.
“Oh, this,” she said and raked freshly manicured pointed nails across her crown. Her fingertips looked like daggers. Manicurists and stylists were sent to me each week, but I kept my nails, my hair simple. Who would ever see me?
“Management wanted me to cut it,” she said. “They won’t tell me yet what they’re going to do to my hair. You know them. Always got some next level plan for me to take over. First music, then the world.” She laughed carefree, the way only white girls could, and walked over to me. She smelled like roses or was it that flower my nana used to wear, the one in her garden. I had to work harder and concentrate to remember, to hold on to where my family and I used to live. To remember their faces, and the foods we used to eat, my friends, Bijou, Chanel, even the fine boys in the park, everyone that Management paid off long ago so they would forget me. I was losing parts of my memory, losing parts of myself.
I couldn’t believe I used to love her.
“We are like this,” Isis said. She grasped my hands, formed a knot. “Sacred. Nothing is more sacred than sisters, than the bond we have.”
I wanted to cry, but I was too exhausted. Did she even care that I no longer remembered my sisters’ names?
“I love the new choreography, love it! Girl, you’re brilliant! With it, there is no way we can’t make history. Not this time. We’re selling out everywhere, and I mean everywhere. So you can’t leave now. You can retire later but not now, Sanaa. And you know I love you.”
Why it got to be like this, I wanted to know. Why can’t nobody want me, all of me, just as I am? I used to have that, didn’t I? I couldn’t remember. I let go. Her hands felt clammy, cold, inhuman. I didn’t want to be near her anymore. We were close enough.
If she noticed my distaste, Isis was too professional to let on. I’m sure management had given her a script. Isis was good at memorizing her lines. She lip-synced better than anyone who ever lived.
“Got somethin’ for ya.” She handed me a box.
Ksst. I didn’t want anymore payoffs from her, no more expensive trinkets and souvenirs. What’s the use when I no longer had a life?
“Go ‘head, open it,” she commanded. There was the Isis I knew. I snatched it from her open palm.
“I don’t need your toys, Ice, I need my freedom.”
I tossed the velvet ribbon and opened the latch. A gold and diamond encrusted ankh decorated with a scarab beetle rested on a white satin lotus flower.
“Thanks.” I walked away. I needed to shower, to sleep before the next rehearsal. It was obvious that neither Isis nor Management cared about me. Something about geese and golden eggs.
As I turned the lights back off, I could see Ice’s face before she slipped out the door. If I didn’t know better I would have sworn she was crying.
“Keep it,” she said before the cave sealed me in. “I have one, too. Just like it. You might need it one day.”
Something about the way she said that, no hustle, no hype, that made me shiver. I walked back from the sauna room and into the main set, raised the lights. The crystal cave hummed quietly. The big screens were turned to a saver mode. Pictures of the past tour dates flickered by. Barcelona, Rome, Munich, Istanbul, Amsterdam, places I might never live to see. So why would I need a gaudy necklace, even if it was worth two mints?
I picked the box off the floor and examined it. A typical jewelry gift box, plush, expensive looking. I flipped it open, pulled out the cross-like ankh. I was offended because it was like something Isis’s press crew would hand out in swag bags. Besides the crap ton of diamonds, nothing special. Or was it?
“Music: Ndegeocello, ‘Dance of the Infidel,’” I said. Light trumpets and jazz drifted through the air. I set the box down on a coffee table and sank into the couch in the rear of the cage. The seat cushions molded themselves around my body, enveloping me like a cozy cocoon. The amulet was expertly made, heavily encrusted with jewels, the jewels of aptor. But it wasn’t the jewels Isis wanted me to see. There was something beyond them. Something extra that she hadn’t wanted Management to know.
I traced my fingertips along the curves of the ankh, then noticed that the largest diamond was in the center, below the scarab. I stroked it with my thumb, then pressed down hard. To my surprise, the amulet broke apart. My left hand held the bottom of the cross, in my right was the top of the golden bow with the scarab beetle. I held the dagger in my trembling hand, and sank deeper into the couch. The blade was sharp, lethal enough to pierce skin, slash arteries. Ice said she had one of these, too. Was that her retirement plan all along?
I rejoined the ankh, held it by its glittering bow, placed it carefully on the table. They said the dragon can’t dance. I always thought that wasn’t true. Looking in the mirror that was my crystal cave, I didn’t know anymore.
Sheree Renée Thomas (@blackpotmojo) is a native of Memphis, and lives in Tennessee with her family. She was awarded fellowships by Cave Canem and the New York Foundation of the Arts and edited two anthologies, Dark Matter. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Callaloo, Mythic Delirium, Strange Horizons, Eleven, storySouth, Harpur Palate, African Voices, Meridians, Obsidian III, and in several anthologies, including The Moment of Change edited by Rose Lemberg, The Ringing Ear: Poets Lean South edited by Nikky Finney, Mojo: Conjure Stories, and So Long Been Dreaming edited by Uppinder Mehan and Nalo Hopkinson. She was commissioned by the Studio Museum in Harlem to write original work for the “Bill Traylor, William Edmondson, Modernist Impulse,” Souhern exhibit. Shotgun Lullabies: Stories & Poems, and her first chapbook, is available from Aqueduct Press (Seattle).