“Good morning, ladies!” Mr. Webb said cheerfully, bounding up onto the stage to join the two dozen young women who had been examining the new layout, “Another year, another new set of routines. Is everybody well-rested and ready to get to work?”
“Yes, sir!” came the cry, all the girls instantly turning towards him, eager to hear what he had in mind. He waved for them all to sit on the various chairs and couches scattered about the stage, and waited until they were comfortable before he began.
“Now, we had a lot of success with our water themed show last year, so I got together with Ramon and together, we cooked up some ideas based around animals. It’ll be a bit more subtle than last year; we’re mixing up animal costumes, songs about animals, and choreography meant to mimic animal movements. If we’ve done it right, I’m betting we’ve got another hit on our hands.”
The girls all murmured excitedly. As soon as it died down, Webb continued “What’s more, since you all did an excellent job last year and put up with a lot of frustrating technical elements and working conditions, we decided you all deserved a reward. So other than an opening, closing, and midpoint number, every one of you is getting a solo dance.”
There were gasps and cries of pleasure, and all twenty-four women rose to their feet, clapping and bouncing on the balls of their feet in excitement. Webb grinned at them. “I had a feeling you’d appreciate that. Now, I’ve been paying attention to your work over the past three years, figuring out your strengths, and based on that, Ramon and I have planned out a routine for each of you that will hopefully allow you to showcase your talents. I want all of you to head backstage to warm up; Ramon will be here in twenty minutes, and we’ll be spending the day going through each of your numbers. Don’t worry, you’ll all be getting paid for today, even if you spend most of the time sitting around. Nice work if you can get it, eh?”
There was a ripple of appreciative laughter at that. Webb winked. “Off you go, now. I’ll call the first girl as soon as Ramon’s all set up.”
“All right, that looks good,” Ramon said, wiping his forehead and nodding at Sienna, “It looks like you’ve picked up the basics already. We’ll go into more depth later this week. Off you go now, love, and call Cheyenne in as you go.”
Sienna beamed and headed backstage, stopping long enough to wave to Webb before leaving. Webb raised a hand back, then looked over at Ramon. “Do you need a minute to rest, or are you ready for the next number?”
“No, let’s keep going,” Ramon said, taking a large swig from his water bottle, “The next number isn’t overly complicated, anyway.”
“Ah, yes,” Webb said, running through the routines in his head, “Our Sssssalome number. You’re right, that one’s not going to be too intense. Should still be plenty enjoyable, though.”
At that moment, Cheyenne came on stage, eyes wide with excitement. Webb grinned at her enthusiasm and motioned for her to take a seat. “All right, Cheyenne, here’s the idea. You’re a tall girl, so you’ve got gorgeously long arms and legs. Gorgeous long neck, too, come to think of it. And thanks to your ballet training, you know how to move slowly and gracefully. So what we’re thinking is we’re going to give you a snake-themed dance. While dressing you in snakeskin would be too obvious, not to mention a bit restrictive, we are going to bring in an article of clothing generally associated with snakes…”
On cue, Ramon reappeared from the other side of the stage, holding a vibrant green feather boa. Cheyenne laughed. “I see.”
“The idea is, we’re going to dress you in a slinky gold dress with black patterns, then wind this over your arms. You’ll be spending the whole dance swaying to the music, carefully turning and spinning, letting the boa trail over, across, and down your body. Sound good?”
Cheyenne nodded, and Webb could see her eyes sparkling from the front row. “Sounds like it’s gonna be either playful or sexy, depending on the song you pick. Either way, I bet it’ll be fun.”
“That’s what we’re hoping,” Ramon said, waggling a finger to tell her to stand up, “Now, we’ll go over the dance moves later this week, since they aren’t actually the focus in this number. What’s really important is how you handle the boa. I’ll show you the sort of things I have in mind, then I’ll pass this over and you give it a go. Ok?”
She nodded again, and Ramon wound the boa half across his neck and half around one arm. He spent the next few minutes playing with the boa in all sorts of ways—letting one end fall to the ground and trail behind him, rolling his shoulders so that it slid across his arms, weaving it between his legs and then slowly pulling it back up—before finally spinning on his heel and making jazz hands. “And there you are!”
Cheyenne grinned and gave a little golf clap. “I think I can manage that. Let me give it a shot.”
Ramon passed over the boa, and she wound it around her arms and shoulders. Then she lifted her arms up and began to glide across the stage, raising and lowering her arms, curling and uncurling the boa as she went. Webb leaned forward, watching her intently. As he’d thought, her height and grace were working to her advantage here. Even dressed in a leotard, she had an air of elegance about her, especially as the boa skimmed across her body. Once they’d nailed down the choreography, he was sure she’d…
Cheyenne, who had raised one arm over her head to let the boa dramatically slide down her arm, suddenly snapped forward, nearly losing her balance. She quickly caught herself and straightened up, blinking and rubbing at her nose. “Sorry,” she said, “One of the feathers got into my nose.”
“Happens to the best of us,” Ramon assured her, “You’re doing great so far. Keep playing around.”
Cheyenne started moving again, but a minute later, as she tossed the boa over her shoulder, she froze, eyes blinking and face scrunching up, before she had to tug the boa away from her neck and turn her head to the side. “Kishh! Ipshh!”
“Bless you,” Ramon said, tilting his head, “Cheyenne, you wouldn’t happen to have allergies, would you?”
“To feathers, you mean? I don’t think so,” Cheyenne answered, removing the boa and looking at it, “A few of my friends have pet birds, and they’ve never made me sneeze. Besides, I don’t have a rash on my arms or anything. I think the feathers just tickle my nose when they get too close to my face.”
“That may be a problem,” Ramon said, glancing at Webb, “Some of the choreography we’d planned involves the having the boa around your neck and close to your face, to draw the audience’s eyes to your expression.”
“Were you planning on having me sing?” Cheyenne asked.
“Well, I might be able to hold the sneeze back, or at least wait until my back’s to the audience before I give in,” she said, “If I angled the boa right, people might think I was giving a seductive look, instead of struggling against a sneeze.”
Ramon looked about as dubious as Webb felt. Nevertheless, Webb stood up and came to the edge of the stage. “All right, give it a try,” he said, “I’ll tell you if it works or not.”
Cheyenne put the boa back on her shoulders and wrapped it around her neck, pulling her body up straight and then looking languidly over her shoulder. From a distance, it would have looked lovely and sensual. Up close, though, Webb could see the feathers brushing against her face, several of them lightly touching the tip and side of her nose. Cheyenne was doing an admirable job of keeping her eyes half-closed, but her nose was wriggling, clearly trying to move away from the feathers, and her mouth stretched into a thin line the longer she stood there. She must have noticed Webb’s skeptical expression, because she tugged the boa closer to her face, obscuring her mouth and nose. While that did manage to hide her sneezy expression, leaving only her seductive gaze, it did mean that the feathers were even closer to her nose, and no doubt tickling it even more.
After another few seconds, Cheyenne turned her back to the audience and spread her arms out wide, letting one end of the boa slowly fall down her back as she slid across the stage. It was beautifully done, but all Webb could see was her shoulders tightening and her head bobbing every few seconds, moving out of time with her feet. “Stop,” he said, “Get rid of that itch, and then we’ll talk.”
Cheyenne stopped at once, her whole body bending forward with the force of the sneezes she’d been holding in. “Keh-CHH! HISHHH! AT-KITCHH!”
“Bless you!” Webb said, a little surprised by the volume of the sneezes, “Is that from holding them back?”
Cheyenne turned to face him and nodded. “I’ve never been very good at stifling,” she admitted, “On the one hand, it makes my sneezes soundless. On the other, it just makes me need to sneeze more until I finally let it out properly.”
Webb sighed. “You did your best, and it was a pretty good best. But even if most people don’t notice your discomfort, I don’t want you fighting against a sneeze for most of the song. It’s uncomfortable for you at best, and you could lose the fight and destroy the mood at worst. I guess we’re going to have to scrap this plan and think of something…”
“Don’t do that!” Cheyenne said, eyes wide, “I like this idea! It’s perfectly suited for me.”
“But if the boa’s making you sneeze…”
“Is there any law that says it has to be a feather boa?” she said, “That might be the most common, but I bet there are other types out there. If we find one of those, I think I can still do the routine.”
Webb looked at Ramon. Ramon rubbed his lip for a minute, considering. “I think I could get a faux fur boa,” he said at last, “And actually, I could probably find one that had stripes in it, making it look closer to snakeskin.”
“There you go!” Cheyenne said with satisfaction, “See, it works out for the best all around that way!”
Webb shrugged. “All right, it’s worth a shot. I guess that’s all for today, then. Go on home, and let Krista know we’re ready for her.”
“Ok,” Cheyenne said, passing the boa back to Ramon, “Thanks a lot, and good luck with the others!”
Once she was gone, Webb looked over at Ramon. “Make sure you get that fur boa as soon as possible. I don’t want anything to delay us any more than necessary.”
“Of course,” Ramon said, moving backstage to hang up the boa, “I’ll go looking for one as soon as we’re done here.”
Satisfied, Webb went back to his seat, running the choreography through his head for Krista’s “Graceful Gazelle” number.
Three days later, Ramon appeared in the theater with a garment bag and an enormous smile on his face. “I think I’ve got just the thing for Cheyenne’s number,” he said, sitting down next to Webb, “Take a look.”
Unzipping the bag, he revealed a white fur stole, complete with vertical black stripes. “It’s dyeable, too,” he said, “so we can still make it green if you want.”
Webb stroked the fur for a moment, then nodded. “We’ll have to see how it looks up on stage, but it looks good. Maybe we’ll make it red instead of green, to mimic a coral snake.”
Ramon nodded and headed backstage to put the stole with the various props. Webb nodded and checked his watch, waiting for the girls to arrive. Today they were going to run through as many of the solo numbers as possible and see if the other dancers had any suggestions. He always liked things to be a team effort.
Two hours into the rehearsal, Cheyenne’s number rolled around. Ramon brought out the stole, and her eyes lit up. “That’s exactly the sort of thing I had in mind! And the fur’s short enough that it shouldn’t get in my face the same way!”
Looking pleased with himself, Ramon handed over the stole and moved over to the CD player to turn on the music. Cheyenne draped the stole over herself and waited for the song to begin, and then she started moving.
It was exactly what Webb had been envisioning. Graceful spins, languorous slides across the stage, swaying hips, all while the “boa” undulated across her arms and shoulders. He smiled and nodded. Obviously, there would be a few kinks to work out in the routine, but for the most part, it was shaping up pretty well.
But then, three-quarters of the way through the song, Cheyenne had just completed a spin and was pulling the stole across her body when she got that crinkled, sneezy look on her face. She attempted to ignore it, but after a few seconds, she unceremoniously dropped the stole and put her nose to her elbow. “Kishht! Ishht!”
Webb put a hand to his forehead, gesturing for Ramon to stop the music with his other hand. “Not again! What happened? Things were going so well!”
Cheyenne bent down for the stole. “I don’t know. Everything was going fine, and then suddenly, I just had to sn…eshh!”
She blinked a few times, still half bent over. Then, narrowing her eyes, she stood up abruptly, tossing the stole over her shoulder. A second later, she turned her head to the side, shoulders jerking with each sneeze. “Ikchh! Kirshh! Tishh! Ishh!”
“Bless you. Are you all…” Ramon began, stepping forward to check on her. Then he, too, froze in place, his nose visibly twitching. “RISHH!”
“Not you too!” Webb said, “What’s going on?”
Ramon took a few steps back, hand over his nose, and squinted thoughtfully at the stage. Then he groaned. “It’s shedding.”
“The fur stole. It’s shedding hair. I guess it was meant to be kept around the shoulders, not tossed about like it’s been doing. So the hairs are coming loose, and when they’re inhaled, they make you sneeze.”
Cheyenne, who had also moved out of the way, pointed both into the air and at the floor. “It’s getting everywhere, Mr. Webb. Even if I managed to hold out for the duration of the dance, I think it would cause problems for whoever came after me.”
“Nonsense!” Webb said, “No offense to either of you, but it can’t really be that bad. Sure, it might tickle a bit, but I doubt it makes everyone sneeze.”
“Krista?” Ramon called, “Come up here and stand where Cheyenne was standing.”
Krista obligingly did as asked, and not three seconds later, her eyes fluttered closed. “Ih…ihh…tichoo!”
Sniffling, she ran out of the spot, rubbing her nose. “Sorry, Mr. Webb,” she said, “They’re right. It tickles like crazy.”
“Well, maybe we could rearrange the routines a bit, and then clean the stage during intermission.” Webb said, not wanting to give up yet. He didn’t want his rehearsal derailed because of one prop.
Ramon arched an eyebrow. “Even if we moved Cheyenne to the last solo number of the first act, there’s still the mid-point group number. And even if most of the girls don’t react to the fur, there are at least two who will, which might throw off the whole rhythm. So unless you want to cut that number entirely for the sake of keeping the stole, it’s probably better to find another solution.”
Webb groaned and massaged his temples for a moment. Then, with a sigh, he said. “Fine. Anyone got any suggestions?”
“I’ll go back to the store where I got this and see if they’ve got any other stoles that don’t shed as much.” Ramon said, “I’m sure there’s something we can use.”
“Meanwhile, we can just use a ribbon or something for practicing,” Cheyenne chimed in, “It’s not as good, but it’ll do for now, won’t it?”
“I suppose so,” Webb said, “Let’s just forget it for now. Anyone have any suggestions for Cheyenne’s dance?”
There were a few ideas tossed about, which Ramon wrote down; everyone agreed it was probably best for Cheyenne not to practice them at the moment, since it might throw more fur into the air. Then, since Krista was also affected by the fur, Webb called Thea up to do her number. The music had barely started before Thea waved her hand and stepped away, her other hand over her face. “Chmmp!”
With a sinking feeling, Webb signaled Ramon to turn off the music. “All right, everyone come forward one by one. At this point, I’m just curious to see if anyone can avoid sneezing.”
Sure enough, every single one of his dancers reacted to the fur. Some didn’t sneeze right away, but once they started dancing, it wouldn’t be long before they were interrupted by a sneeze.
“Ok,” Webb said, as Amy moved out of the danger zone, still sneezing (“Pgshht! Gshhht!”), “Clearly, we’re not going to get any more work done today. You all know the songs you’ll be dancing to; go home and practice. Tomorrow, we’ll try this again, starting with Cheyenne.”
The girls nodded and headed backstage, calling out goodbyes and apologies. Ramon left a few minutes later, tucking the offending fur back into its garment bag. When Webb was all alone in the theater, he stepped up onto the stage and moved to the center. Perhaps it wasn’t a good idea, but he was curious. He didn’t exactly believe that everyone had been playing a prank on him to get out of work, but it was better to know for sure.
Webb scuffed his feet on the floor a few times to send some fur into the air, then took a deep breath. He didn’t feel anything at first, but as he took a second breath, something simultaneously soft and prickly filled his nose, and he felt an itch in the back of his sinuses. By the third breath, the itch had migrated to the sides of his nose, and on the fourth breath, he sneezed. “Ha-SHOO!”
With a rueful sniff, Webb pulled a tissue out of his pocket and wiped his nose, moving off the stage. It was probably a good thing they’d abandoned the stole—if they’d kept it, they might have wound up making the whole audience sneeze, and that would be even worse for business. Hopefully Ramon could find something better.
Shaking his head, Webb left the stage to start turning out the lights, making a mental note to leave forty bucks in an envelope for the janitor. Considering all the fur scattered across the stage, he’d deserve a little hazard pay.
Unfortunately, it seemed that Ramon wasn’t having a lot of luck finding a suitable replacement. Cheyenne kept having to practice her routine with ribbons or scarves, which at least allowed her to get the moves down but didn’t have the same visual appeal. Concerned, Webb began sketching out ideas for replacement dances, on the off chance that they had to scrap the whole thing. It would be rushed and far from his best work, but at least he wouldn’t have to make Cheyenne sit on the sidelines.
He was incredibly relieved, therefore, when Ramon came up to him a week later, another garment bag slung over his shoulder. “I think we’ve got it this time. All the fur stoles I tried were prone to shedding, and while most of them didn’t make me sneeze, I decided to be better safe than sorry. So I looked to see what else the store had, and I found this.”
With that, Ramon pulled out a long, green cloth, that had been twisted in on itself to make it thicker. “It’s made of velvet,” he explained, “So the ‘hair’ is too short to shed. And the knots they tied to make it more boa-like give it more of a ‘snakey’ look. It’s perfect!”
“We’ll see what Cheyenne thinks,” was all Webb said, though he did smile appreciatively, “She’s the one who’s got to dance with it, after all.”
As soon as the dancers arrived, Webb called Cheyenne up first. “Third time’s the charm, hopefully,” he said, as Ramon brought the boa out, “But I figured we’d start with you to make sure everything works out all right.”
She nodded, taking the boa and running her hand over it, nodding at the feel of it. Instead of putting it around her neck and getting into position, though, she put her nose against the fabric and rubbed. Realizing what she was doing, Webb leaned forward intently, waiting to see what would happen, hoping against hope she’d just stop after a minute and be able to carry on with the routine.
Instead, his heart sank as she pulled her nose out of the boa fifteen seconds later, eyes closing and mouth opening a little. “Heh…hehh…Heh-CHHT!”
“How?” Was all Ramon could say, staring in dismay at the boa, “How can this possibly be making you sneeze?”
Cheyenne shrugged, though her expression was apologetic. “I don’t know. I think it just happens to be fuzzy enough to tickle my nose. It’s just a thing that happens to me, sometimes; the makeup ladies will tell you that sometimes I sneeze when they dab a powder puff or a cotton ball against my nose.” She held the boa out at arm’s length, considering it. “It might not necessarily be a problem if I don’t bring it close to my face, but…”
“No,” Webb said, “I don’t want to take any chances. It’s moot, anyway, though. I give up. We’ve tried pretty much everything I—ok, Ramon—can think of to get something boa-like for this number, and none of them have worked. We’ll just have to scrap this number and try something else.”
“I’m not quite ready to give up just yet, Mr. Webb,” Cheyenne said, “I love the routine, and Alicia showed me the dress I’ll be wearing, and it’s too gorgeous for me to want to give it up. Let me try to come up with something.”
“The show opens in two weeks!” Webb pointed out, “We don’t have a lot of time.”
“I know,” Cheyenne said, “But I’m not admitting defeat yet. Just…give me until next Monday, ok? If I haven’t come up with anything, scrap it. I’ll work double-time to learn whatever new routine you give me, and you can stick me right in the middle of the show, where I’ll be most likely to be ignored. I’m perfectly all right with that, as long as I at least put in the effort to fix this. Besides, it’s my nose that’s the problem, so I should be the one to try to come up with a solution, right?”
Webb heaved a sigh. “All right. That’s fair. You’ve got until Monday.”
“Thank you, Mr. Webb!” she said, clasping her hands and smiling at him, “I promise, I’ll do my best not to let you down!”
“I know you will,” he said, “Now, grab your scarf and let’s keep rehearsing.”
Cheyenne nodded and disappeared backstage. Webb shook his head after her. He appreciated her enthusiasm, but he would burn the midnight oil to figure out a new routine anyway. What would she think of that Ramon hadn’t?
If Cheyenne had something in mind, she certainly wasn’t showing it. She spent the rest of the week rehearsing with the ribbon and scarf, as usual, and was her typical cheerful self throughout. She didn’t seem overly concerned at the lack of a boa, which left Webb confused. Her impassioned speech had been enough to give her a chance, but what on earth was she doing? Was she one of those people who worked well under pressure?
By the time Monday finally rolled around, he and Ramon sat in the front row of the theater, heads together as they finalized their plans for Cheyenne’s backup routine. They’d decided to go with an “underwater” motif, which would hopefully allow her to glide across the floor, while also utilizing a blue, sparkly scarf that would have a similar effect to the boa, without the unfortunate side effects. It wasn’t their greatest work, but it would serve.
“Mr. Webb?” Cheyenne’s voice came from the left wing of the stage, and Webb looked up at once. “Ah, you’re here. Tell me, did you find a…”
His voice died away as all the girls came onstage at the same time, Cheyenne leading the pack. In her hands, she held a bright green boa. “Ta-dah!” she said, presenting it with a flourish.
Webb and Ramon both got to their feet and came to the edge of the stage to get a closer look. From a distance, it looked like feathers, but as they approached, it became more obvious that the boa was made of cloth, which had been ruffled and folded to create a fluffy, feathery effect. Webb reached out and touched it gently; it was smooth and relatively soft to the touch, but not in a way that would be likely to tickle Cheyenne’s nose. “How did you…?” he said, astonished.
“I had the idea on Thursday,” Cheyenne explained, “When I was looking at pictures of women with boas on the internet. One of them had a feather boa and this frilly skirt that seemed to have way more volume than was actually possible, and I thought maybe it would be possible to recreate that effect for a boa. So I enlisted all the other girls and we spent the weekend putting it together.”
“All of you?” Webb said, looking at the twenty-three other ladies. They nodded, grinning in ways that ranged from happy to smug. “I wasn’t about to bother Alicia with this,” Cheyenne continued, “Since she has all the other costumes to do. But I know Lauren and Jenn have some sewing skills, and I figured, if we all worked together, we’d be able to at least sew something together. So on Friday, after we got off work for the evening, we all headed over to the nearest fabric store, and then spent the evening trying to ruffle the fabric in just the right way. Then on Saturday, Lauren and Jenn taught us some basics, and we spent the next two days fluffing and sewing the sections together.”
“It was pretty awesome, actually,” Lien chimed in, “We watched movies, gossiped about stuff, took breaks to pick up food or practice our routines…it was as much an impromptu bonding exercise as it was making a costume.”
“And does it work?” Webb asked, still a little in shock.
Cheyenne nodded. “We tested it three times to make sure everything held together and that I didn’t sneeze. But I presume you’ll want a demonstration?”
“If that’s not too much trouble…” Webb said faintly. Cheyenne nodded again, and the other girls got off the stage while Ramon crossed over to turn on the music. Cheyenne arranged the boa around her shoulders, then, as the music started, began to move.
As Webb watched, his skepticism faded away, to be replaced with excitement and relief. Sure, the cloth boa didn’t fall as naturally or gracefully as the feather one did, but it got the job done. And it stood out wonderfully against Cheyenne’s skin, and would no doubt look equally as good against the gold dress she’d be wearing. Webb’s eyes kept darting back to Cheyenne’s face, but there was no sign of discomfort or itchiness to be seen, just a coy, seductive look that was exactly what the number needed. Everything appeared to have come together perfectly.
When the last notes of the song had faded away, Cheyenne turned to the front of the stage and bowed. “How was that, Mr. Webb?”
“Incredible,” Webb answered, shaking his head and giving her a short slow clap, “Or, to put it in more theatrical terms, ‘I think she’s got it’. Right, Ramon?”
Ramon looked gleeful. “It’s amazing! That’s exactly how I pictured it! You’re all fantastic!”
Cheyenne grinned and hugged the boa closer to her. “Then I think everything should be fine on opening night, don’t you?”
“Let’s just make sure of that, shall we?” Webb said, snapping out of his trance and clapping his hands sharply, “Places, everyone! Let’s run through the show from the top!”
The “Animal Farm” performance opened on schedule, to great fanfare and positive reviews. The critics praised the clever idea of the show, the marvelous choreography, and the gorgeous costumes (and the girls wearing them, of course). Webb and Ramon took the whole troupe out to celebrate that Monday, elated at their success.
While the last-minute “underwater” dance wasn’t used in the show, it was pulled out, modified and turned into the next year’s overarching theme. It was with a great amount of amusement that Webb gave the spinning, floaty number to Cheyenne. After all, she’d inspired it, she might as well be the one to dance it.
The boa Cheyenne and the others had made joined the rest of their costumes, to be used whenever it was needed. Webb tried to reimburse the whole troupe for their time and the cost of the fabric, but they declined. The experience had been so enjoyable that they’d designated Sundays a “girl’s night”, and they considered that payment enough.
Thanks to her quick thinking and good-naturedness surrounding the snake routine, Cheyenne started getting more solo numbers, since Webb and Ramon knew she could be counted on. Three years later, when one of her routines was centered around being sick, she confirmed their trust in her by taking it upon herself to seek out and purchase a specific prop. Everyone who saw that number commented on how authentic her sneezes had been. And whenever it was brought up, Webb, Ramon, and Cheyenne would just smile. While they never spoke about it openly, they all were thinking the same thing; You really can make lemons out of lemonade, as long as you’re willing to work for it.