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Angela Townsend

Angela Townsend is the Development Director at Tabby’s Place: a Cat Sanctuary. She graduated from Princeton Seminary and Vassar College. Her work appears or is forthcoming in over 120 literary journals, including Arts & Letters, Chautauqua, Paris Lit Up, The Penn Review, The Razor, Still Point Arts Quarterly,, and The Westchester Review. Angie has lived with Type 1 diabetes for 33 years, laughs with her poet mother every morning, and loves life affectionately.

Let the Girl Dance

Macrame would have made the most sense. Anyone would agree. Crafts were the longtime
hammock for my hummingbird heart, the only cat’s cradle where my breathing slowed.

Russian Literature Discussion Group was a muscular option. My spleen would soften in Rose
Parlor chairs. My Grand Inquisitor would accept samovars of conversation in lieu of answers.

But Easy Salsa kept shouting across the Student Center.

It was surprising to find myself there at all, my goosey legs wobbling from one booth to another.
Vassar’s premier introvert was not looking for the camaraderie of a “Mini-Course” taught by a
fellow student. The girl who kept her dorm door shut was not open to intramural extroversion.

But some unbidden heartburn hurtled me into the open. Some trickster angel smashed me like an
avocado. And there I was, gushing and grinning at Louis.

“You want to learn Salsa!” A tiny man of laughing colors, Louis was brilliant enough to taste the
hilarity. “Yes! Oh Lord, yes.”

We had met in Italian 101, the language requirement that I chose for my grandmother and Louis
chose for music. I knew he lived for the cherub he’d fathered at seventeen. He knew I was all
anxious A’s and underweight pastels. He plucked the barrettes out of my hair while
Professoressa was pontificating, and he had the most ecstatic accent in class. I prayed for his
family and earned his accolade, “Sicily’s sweetest, just too skinny!”

And now I was handing him twelve dollars to learn Easy Salsa.

“You won’t regret this.” Louis feigned salesman smarm, shaking my hand as though I’d just
signed up for a reverse mortgage. “I will take care of you, good girl.”

Although I was bewildered by my own existence most of the time, I regretted this particular
decision instantly. What was I thinking, make-believing I could inhabit a body for eight
Thursdays? I was all disembodied head and Diet Coke, earthless empathy pressed like a leaf
between pages. I was a Type 1 diabetic with no background boyfriends. I did not join. I did not

I sat dumbstruck, listening to my cola fizz and scold me at Christian Fellowship that night.

“You OK?” Vanessa crashed onto the couch beside me, linguini legs flying.

“I did something ridiculous today.” I took a gulp of soda, scalding my throat.


I laughed. Of course, Vanessa would need no context to approve. Her hair was long enough to sit
on, and her eyes were as enormous as any Byzantine icon’s. She loved Jesus and women and
cackling mid-sentence. She could turn tempera paints into liturgy, and she could give me
permission for anything with an eyebrow flourish.

She asked the campus chaplain why God had doled out Type 1 diabetes to “the two most
beautiful girls at Vassar.” She elbowed me when my freckles “got weird,” hers the only eyes to
recognize low blood sugar draining my color. She grabbed glucose tablets while giving her
“testimony,” saving herself without apology.

She was the first one I told. “I signed up for dance lessons.”

“Oh my God.” Vanessa shook my knees. “What kind?”

“Easy Salsa. No way it’s easy enough, but—”

“GIANNA!” She bubbled over. “I DID TOO!”

Cognitive dissonance knocked over my soda. “But you already know how to dance.” More
accurately, dance knew how to Vanessa. Her every movement was droll and delicate at the same
time, conscious comedy and Eden’s first elegance. I loved to watch her walk.

“Well, not formally.” She shrugged. “Besides, eight weeks with Louis.” She wiggled her
eyebrows. I snickered my blood sugar out of place.

“You’re going to be sensational. I’m going to be lucky if I can stay upright.”

“You’ll blow us all away.” Vanessa shook her head.

“You don’t understand. I once gave myself a concussion by opening the freezer. My Varsity
sport was ‘remaining generally ambulatory.’”

“Salsa is different.” Vanessa had decided my fate. “It will take care of you. Besides—” she
grabbed my knee “—you have it in your blood.”

“What are you talking about?”

“You’re Hispanic.”

We had been through this before. I was a mashed potato with one drop of marinara. I was named
for my grandmother but as clumped as clotted cream.

“I am one quarter Italian. That’s not even—”

“You’re a formidable Latina woman.” Vanessa waved her magic hand over me. “Salsa will
recognize you. Anyway, you’ll have me.”

We crossed the quad together that first night, following the sound of Louis’s laughter to Main
Building. The Yellow Parlor was proud of its identity, a staid host for seminars on neutrinos or
the redistribution of wealth. The world’s earnests and eminents spoke here.

But Louis was his own sovereign nation, and he had exiled the velveteen chairs. The Yellow
Parlor would feel its brightness again. I would feel around in my pocket for a tube of glucose

“You low?” Vanessa always knew.

I pulled out a strawberry discus. “Just a little.”

“You’ll be fine.” She pointed into my palm. “Don’t you love how they smoke?”

I watched the sugary haze rise like the O’s of Alice’s caterpillar. “I love how they save my life.”

“Your life is fine.”

“Welcome to my life!” Louis had spotted us. “Ladies, ladies, welcome! Pick a partner! Pick a
place! Tonight…we dance!”

“God help us.” I giggled and chewed as fast as I could.

“He always does. Blow us all away, lady.” Vanessa wiggled off to attend to another curve of her
infinity of friends.

Louis was full hibiscus, fluorescing in colors no one could name. “My people!” He clapped his
hands overhead. “Attention! We are dancing now! Salsa waits for no one!”

This would become endlessly evident, a madcap joke that punched me in and out of line. “Easy”
Salsa was subjective. My feet seized like opossums, pale and lost. The music hurtled hymnic,
fast as an honest prayer, and I froze. I contemplated telling Louis my body was an atheist.

That was not necessary. My body was telling Louis secrets without my signature.

“Miss Gianna!” Louis crowed, pausing to keep other birds in air. “Keep dancing, keep dancing!”
He put his feet on mine. “You have these lovely feet like skis. You have these long legs. Why do
you not dance?”

“I am—”

“Oh, you are.” He scrunched solemn. “You are. You are…” he shook my shoulders, some sort of
shamanic CPR “…a ballerina.”

A snort shot out my face. “That’s hilarious. I wanted to be a ballerina desperately as a kid, but I
was so awful at it they kicked me—”

“Well today, you are our ballerina.” Louis stiffened his body like a corpse, lurching side to side
until his laughter loosened him. “Everyone look at Gianna!”

“Oh God, Louis.”

All the birds landed.

“Look at this lovely lady!” Louis winked at me. “So serious. So careful. She is doing the ballet.”

“Minus the grace,” I added. A tall man laughed loudly three dancers over. Vanessa arabesqued
her arms overhead and nodded confidence in my direction.

“My lady is following instructions,” Louis acknowledged. “She is obeying the rules. Alas—” he
crumpled to the floor “—my lady has no blood.”

The tall man frowned sympathetically. I shrugged at him.

“Ballet or blood?” Louis asked. “In Salsa, you choose. Bleed music.” He shook his fists. “Bleed
sadness. Bleed passion. You have passion, my lady.”

“If you say so. I also have low blood sugar.”

“Then bleed all over. Bleed badly. Bleed life! Red, not pink!” Louis mercifully abandoned me
and returned to giving flight instructions.

I could not read his directions. But I grasped for good, steadying my sugars and scribbling flash
cards and reporting for dervish duty every Thursday.

Vanessa and I debriefed before Christian Fellowship meetings. “Are you loving this, or what?”

“I’m surviving.” There was something quite lovable in that.

“It’s the highlight of my week,” Vanessa insisted. “I hope he makes us a mix CD of all the
music. I hope he offers Slightly Less Easy Salsa next semester.”

“I hope you know I want to be you when I grow up.” These are the things a good girl says when
she finds another diabetic with icon eyes.

“You’re crazy.”

“I’m serious. I watch you dance, and I thank God for inventing dance. I’m hopeless, but you
move like the Holy Spirit exists.”

“My maple syrup girl.” Vanessa put her head on my shoulder. “God’s girl. Prima ballerina. You
don’t know what you’re talking about.”

We did not expect Louis’s mischief in Week Five. “There is no passion alone!” He clapped his
hands overhead, which caused his visiting toddler to shriek from her stroller. “There are no
bodies alone!”

“It is not good for man to be alone,” I whispered to Vanessa.

“Or woman.”

“Tonight, we find our lovers.” Louis wiggled his fingers, florid fairy dust filling the room. “Pair
up. Do it. Pronto!”

Vanessa looked at me. Louis swept her into his arms. The tall man looked at me. He had John
Lennon glasses and a nose like a tuber.


“Badly,” I nodded.

His name was Steven, Film Studies with a minor in German. He was writing a thesis on Gene
Hackman. He joined Easy Salsa for a friend.

“Me too, kind of.”

He danced better than me, but so would an electrocuted mollusk. I stepped on his feet and
swooped hypoglycemic. Louis and Vanessa stunned the seraphs with their art.

“I don’t feel well,” Vanessa admitted on the walk back to the dorm.

“Low? High?”

“Just off. I don’t know.”

She worried aloud about her major – “choose early, choose often doesn’t seem to be working” –
and coughed about Christian Fellowship. “Ever feel like they’re trying to whip us into a frenzy?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean it can feel almost manipulative. Just chanting the same chorus seventeen times until we
all FEEEEEEEEEL things. OHHH Jesus Jesus Jesus…like they work us into a trance and say it’s
the Spirit.”

She had a point. “I’m the wrong one to ask,” I admitted. “My body kind of checks out during
‘worship.’ I grew up with all these stodgy old hymns that I loved, old English kinda—”

“—maybe they’re not stodgy. Maybe they’re great. Also, Sarah – that little pixie thing that prays
loud – put a note under my door the week I skipped out. Some crap about ‘do not give up
meeting together.’ Don’t tell me how to do God. I talked to God this morning.”

Her electric wires sizzled, and my spirit knotted up when we reached her door. “You sure you’re
ok, Vanessa?”

“Yeah. Love you, dancing girl.”

There was only a week left of Easy Salsa, and I was more relieved than wistful. My legs were
sore, and my pride was pickled. It has always been my way to be little-girl grateful for memories,
but ghoulishly grateful that the actual memory-making is over. For once, I had been a ballerina
and danced with a tall man. That was enough. Now I could return to Russian literature and
Italian verbs and the London rain of my closed room.

But Vanessa swung feral, dripping tragedy. “This feels like an ending,” she lamented. “This feels
like some turning point. We’re going to be juniors next year.”

“We have a lot to look forward to,” I promised.

“You do.” Vanessa’s dark eyes stomped the rest of her face.


“I have no idea. I just want to feel alive.”

My opossum feet nearly fell off. “Vanessa, you’re the liveliest music I know.”

She stopped and smiled loudly. “You’re music, you know. You’ll always have somewhere to
turn. You dance in words.”

“It almost makes up for the balderdash body.”

“But the body is on borrowed time. Especially ours.” She wrinkled her nose. “What comes

“There is no after.” I flailed. “There will always be something. There will always be an Easy
Salsa. Or a Hard Salsa.”

“I don’t know.” She picked her cuticles.

“Don’t do that. You’ll make yourself bleed.”

“I want to.”

Louis did make mix CDs, “six dollars unless you write me a review,” which we all did. I rated
him five out of five stars but noted that the appropriate metric was full constellations. Steven
vanished with all the other boys whose fingertips I’d touched.

Sarah asked if I would take the role of Prayer Coordinator in junior year, but the title tasted so
weird I declined. I signed up to offer a Mini-Course on C.S. Lewis and the Inklings, but no one

Vanessa declared Art History and cut her hair. “I’m applying for a semester abroad,” she
announced the last time she came to Christian Fellowship.



“But you don’t speak—”

“—I’ll learn. It’ll be an adventure. I’ll call you if I get stuck.”

“You’re incandescently brave.”

“I want that needlepointed on a pillow.” Vanessa jabbed me. “I just know to stay moving. Like a
shark, you know.”

I couldn’t help myself. “It’s actually a myth that they die if they stop—”
“—well, I hear there are sharks in the Mediterranean, and then all speak Italian, and we’re going
to talk trash about you, ballerina.”

“I’m going to miss you terribly.” It was true. I was happiest on my hermit nights alone, which
made my scarce dance partners as precious as powdered sugar.

“You’ll be fine.” She shook her head, then pointed at my chest. “Just bleeeeeeed, OK?”

“Can’t stop, won’t stop.”

“And convince Louis he’s in love with me?”

“You don’t need my help there.”

“Oh, and take over the damn Fellowship.” She curled her legs under her ferociously. “I want to
come back and sing some stodgy hymns.”

“You just grab the Spirit with both hands.” I was preaching to myself more than Vanessa. “No
one can tell you that you’re doing that wrong.”

“They’d regret it if they tried.”

Vanessa went to Siena, and I went home to poetry and prose. She packed enough insulin, and I found a new power source now that I was at least part ballerina. We would never be close again. 

College is four years of intricate knots, meshwork over black holes. We fall through our best intentions and land on our own feet. If we’ve loved anyone, we are not alone. If we’ve forgotten ourselves in a yellow room, the Spirit will remember how to move us. The right paths will shout until we obey. Macrame would have been the wrong choice.