“In Mary Otis’s novel Burst (Zibby Books, April 2023) following her short story collection Yes, Yes, Cherries, we follow a nomadic mother and daughter as one wrestles with alcoholism while the other rises as a dancer–exploring ideas of art, addiction, and inheritance. In this abridged scene, after Charlotte and Viva have moved yet again, we find Viva in a performing arts high school where she discovers dance will become the organizing principle of her life and her true home. ”
Charlotte said that Viva was too high-strung, a phrase that Viva detested. But it was true. Too often, she felt her nerves twist and sizzle, her senses crank to high alert, and with little discretion she would take note of anything and everything—things like the word cricket, the metallic smell of ketchup, a particularly nauseating color of blue, lyrics, slogans, TV ads, and words on the side of a bus. Sometimes, a kind of inner tornado seemed to spin and toss these things within her, cranking faster and faster, until she felt like the world was about to overtake her. But modern dance, especially the Graham and Cunningham techniques she was learning this semester, gave her a place to put all that. And dance had nothing to do with her mother.
“Crush this,” said Bethany Clay as she snaked her long fingers under Viva’s spine. The class was practicing pleadings, a contraction done on the floor. Bethany continually urged them to go to their core, expel their most primitive energies, and find the “inner gasp.” To Viva, it all seemed like code for sex. And here they were on a Wednesday morning, divided into two rows, contracting and contracting, breathing in the dance studio air—a fragrance that smelled like Secret roll-on, musk oil, and the sweat of a dozen girls ages fourteen to sixteen.
A hot-for-February sun pierced the studio window and blinded the entire front row. But this was good for them. You had to know how to dance even if you couldn’t see where you were going. The Marble School was one of the finest performing arts high schools in the state of California, and Viva had a partial scholarship. She and her mother had been visiting Charlotte’s older sister, Ardel, for almost a year now—the longest they’d ever lived anywhere.
Their previous living situation had also been rent-free, since the owner of the house, Ona Prince, an old classmate of Charlotte’s, needed someone to take care of her chickens while she taught art history in Europe. But then the semester ended, and they had to leave. That was how it was—they lived according to other people’s schedules.
Bethany stood and demonstrated for the dancers a classic Graham move, heel of the hand to the forehead. The first day of class she shouted at Viva, “Take. More. Space. MORE!” This was the best invitation of Viva’s life so far—sanctioned physical greediness. More. More space, more no-eating, more less-sleep. Some days all she ate was an apple, and she did her homework at one in the morning after practicing cave turns and bison jumps for hours in the basement. Quietly, since her aunt went to bed at eight o’clock.
But Viva was used to rules, spoken and unspoken, at the various places she and her mother had called home over the years. There was the three-sheet-maximum toilet paper rule, the no-talk Sundays, no phone after five. Sheila Titus kept a cabinet full of expensive hand towels no one could use, especially not guests. As a child, Viva prided herself on being quick to please and blend into the situation at hand, but recently her knee-jerk accommodation response had begun to feel like a personal betrayal.
Out of the corner of her eye, Viva saw the head of the dance department and senior instructor, Mr. Muich, sitting in a corner, smoking a cigarette. An original member of Pilobolus, he wore the same gray tank top and dance pants every day. His broad face, all planes and angles, gave him the bearing of a disgruntled royal. He often gazed out the window, seemingly mystified as to how he had ended up there. Sometimes, without warning, he would violently clap his hands and, cigarette still dangling from his mouth, chase a dancer across the floor as if she was a chicken.
Bethany Clay turned to the class. “What does developpé mean?” she asked with a curious little smile that always preceded a scolding. Everyone knew to not answer this question because whatever one said would be wrong.
Bethany shut her eyes and fluttered her eyelashes, a habitual expression indicating disgust. “It means development, like a photo going from black-and-white to color. I want to see the colors changing, I want to see your energy. To do a turn, don’t just turn, gather the space behind your leg.”
Space—something that for Viva had so often been defined by others. The idea that dance allowed her to be a master of space was intoxicating. For the remainder of the class, the dancers were to do one single thing—press the sole of the foot into the floor, extend the leg, and slowly, slowly, lift the foot. Point. Hold. Repeat. Again and again and again. This would teach them precision and stamina and control. If their ankles were hot, good. If they were on fire, better. “We’re talking about artistic commitment, ladies,” said Bethany. “And if you don’t have it in you, go join twirl club.” The discipline, the rigor, the repetition, was a beautiful thing to bear. Purpose was a drug, and even if she and Charlotte had to move yet again, dance was now and forever Viva’s true home.