Read an Excerpt
"Five, six, seven, eight. And one, two, up three, four, down five, six andstop, stop!"
At the sound of Marvin Barkley's boisterous voice the thirty-six dancers on stage froze in various stages of motion, like a Norman Rockwell painting. Complete stillness descended.
Barkley was an impatient man, to put it mildly. He was highly critical, demanding and about as tactful as a porcupine engaged in a game of Twister. Yet every dancer, actor, singer or wannabe worth their salt would give their arches to work with the renowned Broadway director. Raven Walker, a recent Julliard graduate, was no exception.
"People, this number only works if it is precise. Crisp and clean is what we're going for here. Otherwise, it's simply a bunch of arms and legs flailing about like drunken guppies. Tall guy, you're missing the up step. Pink shirt, where are the hips? It's bop, bop, bop bop," Barkley bellowed, snapping his mid-section from left to right. "You do have hips, don't you?"
He did not wait for an answer, and Raven did not attempt to give him one. Of course she had hipssometimes, especially during lifts, she thought she had a little too much to work with in that department. She wiped a clump of hair from her sweaty brow, took a deep breath and set her jaw with determination.
"All right, let's take it from the top. Meagan, sweetie, why don't you do it with them again? Maybe following a professional will help them to get this sorry mess together."
Barkley motioned to the choreographer, Meagan Dawes, to lead the troupe through the number again. A fabulous dancer and instructor in her own right, Meagan had worked with him on his prior two productions and was used to Barkley's demanding nature.
Raven closed her eyes, envisioning the routine in her mind. She didn't know why she was a proverbial catastrophe in tights today. True, her monthly visitor had decided to drop in uninvited yesterday, bearing gifts of butt-kicking stomach cramps and searing back pain. But that was nothing to get excited over she'd danced through that type of discomfort many times before.
She'd been dancing since she was five years old and had experienced every phase of growth and development from perched up onto the balls of her feet. As a dancer, she'd grown accustomed to blocking out aches, pains, fatigue and stress. Nothing mattered once she got onstage and the music began. If an out-of-body experience meant that her soul soared up to the heavens each time she slipped on a pair of pointe shoes or gore boots, then she'd been flying high for the past seventeen years. Raven breathed, ate and slept dance, and she was focused and dogged in her quest to be the best at what she did, through it all. And even if she wasn't at her best on her toes, she knew how to make it appear as if she were. She'd been taking acting and vocal lessons since middle school. She'd learned how to reveal her heart and soul on stage when she performed; she'd also learned how to become a different character, with emotions and motivations alien to her own. This triple threat never let anything come between her and the show.
Today's dance routine was not overly complicated. It was a sensual number, with lots of short, multi-movement steps that had to be carried out quickly but still give the appearance of being one flowing, leisurely motion. But even though Raven could see the entire piece on her brain's view screen, and even though she felt the music moving inside of her, she just couldn't quite let go and flow with it. She told herself that perhaps it was just her nerves. It had only been two weeks since she'd graduated from Julliard and here she was already auditioning for a role in The Salon, Marvin Barkley's eagerly anticipated new Broadway show. At twenty-two years old, she was faced with a chance to jump-start her career as a professional stage performeran idea that was equally intriguing and terrifying. The idea of earning the opportunity to entertain a live audience night after night sent an almost electric shock to her heart when she allowed herself to consider the possibility. She was thrilled to even be there at the Minskoff in Manhattan's theater district, but what was plaguing her was much more than nerves.
Raven was distracted and had been ever since she'd found an old, tattered photograph in a plastic storage bin in her parents' closet earlier that week. She'd stared at the photograph for the better part of an hour, until she heard her mother enter their two-bedroom brownstone apartment. She'd stuffed the picture into a back pocket, closed the lid on the container and returned it to its place at the back of the closet. Later that night, alone in her bedroom with the door securely shut, she'd stared at the photograph again, seeing herself in the face of the woman who'd given birth to herthe woman who'd abandoned Raven, then a robust toddler, on the steps of the Convent Avenue Baptist Church at the corner of 145th Street and Convent Avenue in Harlem.
Raven opened her eyes, dragging her wandering mind back into the present, and shook her arms violently, attempting to release the tension that seemed to be holding her body hostage. She didn't have time to dwell on negative thoughts.
Megan began the count with a rapid clapping of her hands and Raven fell in line. The upbeat tempo began, booming loudly from the speakers, and it was on. Raven's mind got in the zone, and she moved through the routine, not as effortlessly as she would have liked, but she felt more confident in her performance this time around. Barkley continued snapping directions at them, changing steps and counts, and the dancers onstage went through the routine in part and in its entirety nearly a dozen additional times before he finally called it quits.
Ordered to take an hour break and then report to the stage left door where a list of finalists would be posted, the dancers filed off stage, faces aglow with hope and desire. Those who would make the cut were instructed to report for rehearsals beginning promptly the next morning. Some of the dancers left to grab a bite to eat. Others jumped on their cell phones or pulled out their Sidekicks and BlackBerries, itching to get in contact with agents, parents or lovers. A few, including Raven, sat quietly toward the back of the theater. She pulled a five-by-eight-inch leather-bound journal from her duffel bag, opened to a fresh page and began to write.
Raven had been finding comfort between the pages of her journal since high school. On these crisp pages she'd been able to give voice to the emotions that wrestled within her. Her fears and desires were all expressed, along with her pains, triumphs and disappointments. Today's page needed to shout successit was the only outcome she would even consider.
An hour zipped by and as the dancers began to file back into the theater, Raven tucked her journal away and gathered her belongings and her nerve. She joined the throng of bodies converging at the stage door, standing on the tips of her toes as she strained to read the list of names that had been taped to the painted metal. It took several minutes of jostling for a position before she was able to scan the list from top to bottom.
The lead roles were the characters Selma and Darren. There was a supporting cast of about five other characters with speaking and singing parts, and then there were a dozen ensemble spots. Nineteen spots to be had, yet there were thirty-six hungry performers eager to devour them.
On the pre-audition application, there were three lines on which the applicant was to place their first, second and third role choices. Raven had only made an entry in the first choice slotSelma. She was trying out for the lead role and had believed from the start that setting her sights on that role and that role only would keep her guardian angels focused on the goal.
She scanned top of the list once and then twice, her disappointment at not seeing her name causing her chest to constrict as if all of the air had been expelled from her lungs. She turned halfway, prepared to move away from the list, but stopped, her gaze returning to the white sheets of paper once more. She forced her eyes to move downward for the first time, away from the top of the list. In the middle of the page, her eyes stopped roaming. She'd found her name, written directly below as the first entry beneath the word Ensemble.
Raven's disappointment was numbing. It was not until that moment that she realized how terribly strong her desire had been to land the role of Selma. She'd known that there would be more seasoned performers at the audition than she, but she'd also known that her talent as a dancer and her considerable singing and acting skills set her apart from most. She had put her heart and soul into the two-minute videotape she'd submitted the week before, performing a short soliloquy from Porgy and Bess that ended with her singing a few bars from "Summertime." She was good, damned good. She'd obviously impressed Barkley's people because it was based on that tape that she was even called in for the dance auditions. She believed with every inch of her being that despite her inexperience and her age, her strength was dance. It wasn't arrogance that made her feel that way. Her confidence was born from the sheer passion that burned inside of her for dance. She honestly believed that, given the chance, she could bring a fire to the role that no other performer there could. But apparently, there were eighteen other people who were just as talented and at least one who Barkley believed would make a better Selma than her.
Now that her hopes had been summarily crushed, Raven wanted nothing more to do with the production. She would not settle for a two-bit position in the background. She pushed her way back through the sea of bodies and moved rapidly toward the exit. Raven kept her head bowed, her eyes cast downward to avoid making eye contact with anyone lest they see the tears lining the rims of her sockets. In one instant she was at the theater's back exit door, reaching out to push the door open. In the next second she was in a head-on collision that left her pink leotard covered with frosty brown iced coffee.
Raven lifted her astonished eyes from the mess that dripped down the front of her body to two outstretched arms and hands now holding virtually empty extralarge Starbucks coffee tumblers. Her eyes continued to travel upward until they landed on the person's face. At that moment, instead of feeling the chill of the cold liquid seeping into her pores, all she felt was a flush of heat. Deep brown, apologetic eyes gazed into hers and her pulse quickened.
"Miss, I'm so sorry. Are you okay?"
"I I'm fine I'm the one who should be apologizing. I wasn't looking where I was going," Raven stammered.
She looked at the liquid pooling on the floor between them.
"Jeez, I can't believe this. Here, let me pay you for the drinks," she said with a sigh.
"No, no, don't worry about it. It's no big deal," he said.
Raven shot him a look that was a mixture of suspicion and confusion.
"What? Don't be silly. It was my fault, and I'll cover it. Why should you have to pay for my recklessness?"
"Perhaps because crashing into you is the single most thrilling thing to happen to me all day," he said.
This time he allowed the smile that had been toying at his lips free reign. Full, sensuous lips spread, his face opening up like a flower blooming right before her eyes. His brown eyes absolutely twinkled, and a dimple in his left cheek deepened.
Raven was momentarily speechless, caught off guard by both the accidental collision and his graciousness about the whole thing. The fact that he was more scrumptious than a decadent chocolate dessert had a little bit to do with her loss for words.
"Are you sure you're okay?" he asked.
"I'm fine. I'm just a little wet," she said.
"There's a ladies' room right over there," he said, pointing. "Maybe you can clean yourself up a bit."
Raven stared at him for a moment longer and then turned toward the direction in which his extended Starbuck's cup was pointing. She spun on her rubber soles and quickly moved toward the restroom, disappearing inside. In five minutes, she'd removed the saturated leotard, used wet paper towels and hand soap to wipe away the stickiness that had settled on her torso and arms, and donned a black T-shirt and a pair of gray yoga pants. She risked a glance in the mirror and when her eyes focused on themselves, the disappointment registered in them was crystal clear.
Raven turned away from the mirror. Two deep breaths and her stomach muscles seemed to stop clenching. Two more and she felt the weakness in her knees subside. She'd wanted that lead role with every fiber of her being. She lifted her head, stuck out her chin and marched out of the bathroom. She had no intention of being a part of anyone's ensemble, so walking out of the Minskoff Theater without looking back was something she had to do.
The calls from Mr. Starbucks were no match for the speed with which Raven moved as she strode across the theater and exited onto the busy Manhattan street. She'd had enough disaster for one day.
"Starbucks Iced Café Mochas are meant to be drunk and not worn," Raven said emphatically when talking to her best friend, Carley, on the phone that evening while taking a bubble bath.
"Says you," Carley replied devilishly.
It had been an excruciatingly disappointing day, and Raven was not in the mood for Carley's antics. She shifted in the steaming water, causing the bubbles to lap at the sides of the tub, threatening to spill out onto to the salmon-pink-tiled floor.
"I don't know why I even called you," she hissed.
"Of course you called me. I'm your best friend and closest confidante. Who else would you have called?"
"And I curse the day that I borrowed those stinking tap shoes from you in Madame Aubourg's class freshman year," Raven snapped.
She'd hoped that Carley would make her feel better when she shared how she had failed to land the lead role in Marvin Barkley's new show. Instead, Carley had fixated on the part about how she'd had to take the subway home smelling like a cup of coffee and laughed hysterically.
"Look, Raven, need I remind you that at least you are dancing?" Carley shot back.