Bwoy had moves. Toes tightened into corkscrews. He fucked with his body’s limits, bending, flexing until he broke through. Attitude and Arabesque became pop, lock, drop.
Such control is dangerous.
I know this dance.
It is ours.
C’est énigmatique? Hakuna shida. It’s a strange story but I’ll share it.
The man up there is Narciso but I prefer to call him Narcissus. If his ego were bottled a drop would poison a scorpion. I lived with this man for three years; I can handle him for three more nights.
When we were together we wrote a performance piece called ‘Dance of The Fairies’ that charted our romance from its inception to what we only belatedly realized was its demise. There were bits of dialogue – poetic - but mostly it was about body language. Our affair was primal: between fights we fucked, between fucks, we fought. But we were both artists: we distilled our drama into dance. The eventual piece, however, was five hours long, and we never actually performed it.
After we broke up I met a theatre producer. I was striking a pose at a schmooze-fest when I pitched my idea to her. She thought I was on bootleg smack. Nevertheless, she gave me her card, hoping she’d never see me again. I sent her my showreel the next morning, and harassed her for months to watch it. Eventually she did, and to her own surprise liked what she saw. She proposed a three-night run. She would find the venue, cut a deal with the management. She wouldn’t pay for costumes or set but I insisted she pay us. Our salaries were below scale – which beats no-scale.
The only snag in my hustle was Madam: I’d created the piece with Narciso and couldn’t perform it without his say-so. So I went to see him.
‘I’m over it,’ he said, smoking. ‘That shit is so two-thousand-and-late. You need to keep it moving.’
I looked around his bedsit. The mattress was stained. The laptop had a film of dust on it; next to it was a jumbo-sized bottle of lube.
‘Single life suits you,’ I said, sizing up a crusty tissue discarded on the tatty carpet.
‘I’m helping Mr. Kleenex’s kids through college,’ he replied. ‘How much are these punks paying?’
‘Do I look like Oliver Twist’s Angolan brother? Tell this mama she needs to pay. Below scale!’ He laughed at the idea.
‘Mr. Kleenex’s kids are doing swell,’ I said. ‘You’ve used so much of his product for your wankertorium sessions that his great-grandchildren will be doing swell. We, on the other hand, are piss-poor artists. Let’s do our ting.’
‘And what exactly is our ting, Anas?’ Narciso cocked his eyebrow. ‘Gato, get off my goddam dick and go ride someone else’s!’
I started making my exit. ‘Don’t slam the door behind you,’ he said, reaching for the bottle of lube. ‘I don’t want you fucking up my concentration!’
‘Concentrate on this,’ I said. ‘If you don’t show up at my flat for rehearsal tomorrow at exactly 5.30 pm I’ll have your replacement in by six.’ I slammed the door behind me.
It was a gamble: Narciso was capable of putting pride ahead of paying his bills. However he did show up, albeit at 5.45. We got to work and devised a plan. We broke the segments down into three acts, which would be performed individually over three nights. The first act, ‘This Is How I Love You,’ would chronicle the first blissful year of our relationship. The second, ‘If I Were A Dance,’ would chronicle the period when the fun screeched to a halt. The final act, ‘The World Has Made Me The Man Of My Dreams,’ would re-enact our break-up.
‘I will agree to this plan on one condition,’ said Narciso.
‘If we perform this piece, that’s it. We’re done. I have my own life now and you have yours. No more coming round to my yard arksing me whether I’ve gone to work, whether I have food in the house, whether I’ve done my laundry. If we do this performance, we take the monyeta and disperse our separate ways. Clear?’
I bit my lip and said, ‘Crystal.’
‘Good. Now, let’s get this bad boy on the road.’
We decided on the setlist for each night: Me’Shell Ndegeocello for the first act, Amel Larrieux for the second and Sade for the third. We selected songs from each artist’s catalogue, found a rehearsal space, and put our backs into it.
The first session was a mess. We kept fluffing our counts: each dip and glide was out. But by the third our bodies became familiar to each other again. His chest felt warm against mine. His musk, the intensity of his gaze, his sandpapery palms against my soft neck, his sweat on my collarbone. Everything about him felt right.
After each song we broke apart awkwardly.
But this was no exercise in sentimentality. My rent was overdue and my shifts at the call-centre weren’t cutting the cake. I needed this to work on a monetary level.
By the seventh rehearsal we had our routine down. The core elements were tightly choreographed but the details would be improvised. We plotted the arc, and how each evening’s storyline would begin and end. We would fill in the blanks on impulse and bounce off of each other.
Then it came down to logistics. We cajoled our friends to chip in gratis and soon we had people to do lighting, sound and design. We made our own costumes. It was time to rock it.
This Is How I Love You
Word got out about our project, and the mutual friends who had witnessed our personal drama firsthand quickly snapped up all the seats in the small venue our producer had found, though she stopped us giving them the comps many of them felt they deserved.
‘Are you ready?’ I asked Narciso as we prepared to go on-stage on the opening night.
He swigged back his Tanqueray and said, ‘Bring the heat.’
The house-lights dimmed. Me’Shell Ndegeocello’s Leviticus: Faggot began to play. The bassline and snare snaked round me. I strutted onto the stage, bopping my head. I was wearing an Afro wig, so there was bounce in my hair, hips and hiny. I did a semi-split, held my stance, made the booty clap. My fingers clicked to the chords. The lights turned mango-red. I lowered my split, synchronized it to the snare. Fingers clicked, booty clapped. I then slid up, breakdance-style, to cries of ‘Whoops! There it is!’ from the audience.
As I was catching flow Narciso came through. Levitus: Faggot segued into Let Me Have You. Narciso prowled half en pointe, pressed his body against mine. He dipped it low, crunked his way up, abdominals on a serpentine tip. I caught his breath. Tanqueray.
I pushed him away. The music stopped.
‘What’s the matter?’ he said. ‘Don’t you like me?’
‘No,’ I said.
He smiled. ‘I’m sure we can remedy that.’
‘Like this.’ He kissed me. A girl in the audience wolf-whistled.
‘You’re going to have to come better,’ I said.
‘Like this, maybe?’ He traced his palm across my neck. His touch felt necessary but I had to maintain.
‘I need to know more about you. What’s your stylistix?’
‘Place of birth: Angola. Date of birth: 21st of May. Country of residence: England. Man I want to be with: you.’
The audience laughed and whistled.
I smiled. ‘Place of birth: Somalia. Date of birth: 5th of October. Country of residence: England. Man I want to be with: undecided!’
This drew even bigger applause. ‘Tell him, Anas!’ shouted one of my friends.
‘Tell you what,’ said Narciso. ‘You’ll make up your mind by the end of the night.’
‘Bring it!’ I said.
Ndegeocello’s Beautiful started playing. Narciso grabbed my hand and led me into a waltz. As we danced to screened images of the Southbank I remembered the abandon I felt when we first met. The background image shifted to a shot of Narciso’s bedroom, tidied for the occasion. The lights went down but the song kept playing. We rushed backstage for a quick costume change. We didn’t look at each other.
It was time for the final scene of tonight’s act.
Narciso’s body was draped in red silk, mine in ochre. I touched his torso, pulled him close. I kissed his cheek, licked his lobe. The silk slipped off. We lay together on the stage wearing Speedos. As the heat intensified, conga drums kicked in. We panted in synch. The music stopped. We stared at each other and I saw years. I saw melancholy and yearning and resentment cross his face. I looked away.
As we lay together in silence the seasons changed on the screen behind us. I gathered myself as Me’shell Ndegeocello’s This is How I Love You echoed around us. I laughed soundlessly for montage effect but mainly to mask the fact that I wanted to cry. Narciso sensed this but played his part too, laughing soundlessly. We lay on the ground and performed our past as the song faded us out.
If I Were A Dance
Our tendons were tight the next day but it was time for round two. I was afraid of the revealing nature of this act, and during the afternoon’s rehearsal my face burned every time Narciso held my hand or hips. I wanted to trace his lips, remind him of why we had loved once. But he didn’t want to remember. Instead he performed his routine like a shadow-boxer intent on punching away each memory until he had sweated me out. By the end of the rehearsal the room stunk of Tanqueray and smoke and body odour.
I took a swig of Narciso’s drink and shook out my limbs. It was time to kick it.
The lights dimmed. Narciso and I walked onto the stage. I stole a glance at the audience: it was a packed house. My friends. Ours. His. Strangers. On the screen behind us was a shot of my kitchen subtitled ‘A Year Later.’ I mimed making eggs. The sound effects sizzled. Narciso leant in close and embraced me from behind. I closed my eyes and smiled. He felt warm and I felt needed.
‘Baby, I gotta go sort out some shit,’ he said, breaking the embrace and heading for the door.
‘Can’t it wait?’ I asked. ‘I’m making breakfast.’
He kissed me on my neck and said, ‘I’ll be back in a jiffy.’
I tossed my imaginary pan of eggs onto the floor and a clanging sound effect echoed all over the theatre.
‘If I were a dance, you’d fucking dance me well,’ I said. He leant in and kissed me.
‘You are a dance and I do know how to dance you.’
Amel Larreaux’s If I Were a Bell, a dreamy jazz standard, began to play. Narciso stretched his arms wide, shaman-stylo. He glided across the floor, dipping low as if catching deep strokes. The song segued into a Middle-Eastern riddim. Rude bwoy turned dervish like he had hot sand between his toes.
Slide guitars, strobe lights. I watched from the sideline as he worked himself into a hot, sweaty mess. The music stopped.
‘See?’ he panted. ‘I know how to dance you well.’
He grabbed his coat and exited the stage.
I started cleaning up the imaginary spill. As I got my hands dirty a bomb bassline dropped, and I found myself flexing to its funkiness. Scrub-scrub, pop-pop, scrub-scrub, pop. The song was Larrieux’s Sweet Misery.
The song was about heartbreak and the hip-hop beat salted my wounds. I ground my hips like a skeezer, gyrated until I was sticky-icky. I danced sweat, spittle and dust. I danced even though my toes cramped and my back spasmed. I danced until I cried. This rhythm was all I had left: I couldn’t lose it too. When the song ended I collapsed onto the boards. I lay there until the lights went down.
The screen flashed up with the sign ‘18 Hours Later: 4am.’ I heard Narciso yodeling in the background and when the lights came back up he stepped onto the stage, looking drunk.
‘Watch this, watch this,’ he slurred. ‘I know how to dance you really well.’ He started stumbling and falling to the ground, getting up and stumbling again. This was no act. I knew he was sloshed. He reeked of whisky. But I kept up my performance. Eventually he collapsed onto the floor and blacked out. I lay next to him and watched his unconscious face.
Amel Larrieux’s Makes Me Whole, an elegiac love song, filtered through the speakers. It was the song we made love to on our first anniversary. I wiped my face as I stared at him snoring, realizing now why we couldn’t make it work. The lights went down then up again for the bows. We got a standing ovation that was undoubtedly laced with pity but I didn’t care. I took Narciso home, fished his keys from his pocket, placed him in his bed and walked out of his flat and into the night.
The World Has Made Me The Man of My Dreams
We didn’t rehearse the next day. Neither of us could face it: we could barely face each other. We were going to wing it. As we pulled on our costumes and went through our warm-ups before the show Narciso said, ‘I’m sorry about last night.’
‘No need,’ I said tightly.
‘You don’t have to do this, you know,’ he said.
‘I want to.’
Body ached, toes mangled, but I had to do this.
‘So we’re going to reenact exactly what happened?’ asked Narciso.
He sighed. ‘Look, I don’t want to put you through that shit again.’
‘Do your worst.’
As we headed for the stage I started sweating. My feet were killing me. I could hear the audience clapping. Anxiety coiled itself around my neck, constricted my breathing. Narciso and I stepped onto the stage. The audience cheered us: all old friends now, and witnesses. As we went to first positions I scoped the dusty set, stared up at the lights. The heat was dry. I wanted to melt: drip through the cracks in the floorboards. Narciso twitched without Tanqueray. I scanned the audience for familiar faces.
‘Go on Anas!’ shouted my pal Paul. ‘You can do it!’
That was all I needed to hear.
‘Right, ‘ I snarled at Narciso, ‘here’s your trash.’ I tossed an imaginary bag at him. He pretended to catch it although he looked confused.
‘Wait a minute,’ said Narciso. ‘That’s not how – ’
But I cut him off. ‘Narciso, I stayed with you out of pity. Between the fucking around and the just-plain-ole-fuckery, you still think you’re God’s gift to me. Let me break it down for ya. You’re a trifling, tanked-up piece of trash and that’s what you’ll always be. More fool me for trying to change that. You will go back to your hovel and you will hurt. I will never lose sleep over you again.’
‘You’re being dishonest and insulting!’ he hissed.
‘You want honesty?’ I shouted to the audience. ‘This man cheated on me six times. He gave me two STIs, stole from me and made me feel cheap.’ I turned to Narciso and said, ‘How’s that for honesty?’
There was a stunned silence. Then Paul shouted again, ‘Tell him! The cunt!’
After an awkward pause the woman doing the lighting dimmed the lights. The audience started whispering amongst themselves but mi nah care. I left the stage.
‘Where are you going?’ shouted Narciso. ‘We have a fucking show to finish!’
‘As far as I’m concerned,’ I shouted back, ‘it’s finished!’
The theatre, which was small, now seemed like a maze of never-ending corridors, and I got lost trying to find my way out. Finally I saw the exit door and pushed it open. I was greeted by a gust of wind. I shook with relief and started running. I ran even though my feet were bleeding, I ran all the way from Waterloo to Peckham. When I reached my flat, I wrenched off my shoes. My toes were clotted with blood, the nails framed in dark red, and yellow-purple with bruises.
The night wasn’t supposed to end like this. Narciso was supposed to break up with me again. He was supposed to call me dull like he had once done. And I was supposed to play the victim. I was supposed to beg him to stay. And as he left me all over again, I was supposed to cry and dance through my tears to Sade’s Stronger Than Pride.
But I didn’t want to beg, I didn’t want to cry and I didn’t want to dance to Sade.
So I didn’t.
But I still wanted to dance. I dimmed the lights, swayed in silence. There was no coordination, no fancy footwork, no judgment. I simply swayed and although a passing siren filled the streets I could still hear my heart. I went where I had to go, where my body and brain took me.
I went where my blood beat.