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Danse Macabre

It was a typical summer evening in New York. The air was laden with moisture and relief for many took a form that gladdened the hearts of soda and ice cream vendors. I had been working hard on a magazine article and felt the need for a bit of diversion. I decided that a stroll through Washington Square Park might prove interesting. Arriving at the LaGuardia Place entrance, I saw that several hundred other souls had had the same idea.

As I approached the centrally situated fountain, I heard a rhythmical clapping coming from the east side of the park. Looking over that way, I beheld a large crowd of people encircling someone or something. Worming my way through the throng, I perceived a singular-looking individual going through some amazing gyrations to the beat of the clapping.

He was thirty-ish, below average height, with raven ringlets of hair cascading to his muscular shoulders, an olive complexion and a long narrow nose that came to a rather fine point. His eyes were deep-set and dark, the kind that pierced rather than merely observed. Narrow lips framed a large mouth populated by pristine teeth. He was wearing only green tights and a gray tank top.

I watched with fascination as he moved from a Cossack dance to a flamenco to a tarantella without pausing. From the tarantella he switched to a series of ballet movements, finally ceasing in a pose that left him with both hands, one knee and one foot on the ground. He slowly raised his head and gazed boldly at his audience, seemingly unaware of the loose change and bills being tossed in his direction. Having turned full circle and stared at everyone, he looked down at his spoils. A broad smile flashed across his face and he sprang into the air so suddenly that a collective gasp arose from the onlookers. Alighting on the ground, he resumed his motions, but now they were of an unidentifiable nature. With a few quick movements, he swept all his loot into one little pile and began dancing on his toes around it, bending from the waist with his arms stretched at full length as if worshipping the exiguous haul. His velocity increased so greatly that he appeared unable to stop himself. He spun, whirled and twirled around into the fountain and out again. He leaped, twisted and pirouetted through the spectators like a nervous dervish. I, like all present, was enthralled. I half expected the man to spin around vertically while balancing on that nose of his.

A gangly fellow with a flute emerged from the crowd and began playing his instrument. The dancer’s reaction was to further quicken his steps, so that he looked like an actor in a silent film being projected at the wrong speed. Someone rolled a portable piano in from somewhere and launched into a lively two-step. I had an idea of leaning seductively over the top of it and saying to the pianist: “Play ‘As Time Goes By,’” but thought better of it. Looking at my watch, I saw that I had been observing this Terpsichorean phenomenon for over twenty minutes. Apparently the other spectators noticed the passage of time as well, for they began drifting away. Soon only an elderly couple and I were all who remained. After a few more moments I also turned and left, still marveling at the man’s ability and stamina.

Returning to my apartment, I found that I could not concentrate on my work. The dancer’s image haunted me all night. I dreamt of his dancing all over the city, from Harlem down Fifth Avenue, across to Queens into downtown Brooklyn, until reaching the top of the Brooklyn Bridge, he leaped into space and became enveloped in a white flame.

I was awakened at that point by my clock radio, which I keep set on an all-news station. A report about a man found dead in Washington Square Park earlier that morning was being given. The man’s heart had literally burst. He was only thirty-eight years old and had been a leading member of a modern dance troupe who had been let go after falling out of favor with the company’s new director. Friends and colleagues who were interviewed revealed that dancing had been his life and that he had no other skills.


Philip Leibfried’s published efforts are in the area of film history. A resident of New York City, he now concentrates on fiction and limericks.


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