By Sally Miller

In 1983, when I was ten years old I performed in the best original (very) off Broadway production our family living room had ever staged. It was a musical with two acts, and choreographed by my soon-to-be stepsister, Allie. With remarkable confidence she channeled Bob Fosse and made me rehearse until my jazz hands cramped. She was nine.

Allie had been dancing since she was three. Black and white framed images of her lined the walls. Little feet in petite ballet shoes in a perfect third position, arabesques, plies. Both demi and grand. She was tall, graceful and I… I wasn’t. I read Animal Farm and wept into the pillow when the horse, Boxer, was killed off. Unaware of the novel’s political commentary, I related to that loyal work horse’s personal motto, “I will work harder.” 

My parents had divorced about a year earlier. It seemed to happen overnight. They were married. Then they weren’t. Then my dad moved out. Shortly after, he moved in with his new girlfriend.  And her daughter.

In addition to the dancing, Allie was an avid collector of Barbie dolls. She had every imaginable Barbie, Barbie outfit, Barbie shoes, Barbie house, Barbie cars, and every version of Barbie’s boyfriend, Ken. I did not play with Barbies, which turned out to be in my favor because I was only ever invited to play with Barbie’s kid sister, Skipper. Skipper was rarely invited to the dream house and often stood forlorn as Barbie and Ken whooshed by in their pink convertible. Had there been a trademarked Barbie roadside puddle, it would have splashed onto Skipper’s face.

I naturally jumped at the opportunity to perform in a production directed, designed and choreographed by the girl who only ever let me glance through the window of her Barbie dream home. I was told I would not need to audition, I just had to dance like I meant it. Had there been a marquee, it would have been lit up “One Night Only!” 

In spite of my determination to master the steps, Allie introduced a new dancer. A life – size plush Pink Panther doll. Even though the doll didn’t do much other than stand stage left in scrunched-up leg warmers, I knew the panther would upstage me. Never really questioning why it was part of her collection, I practiced my chassé alongside my flashy co-star. 

The music was picked. “Come on, Eileen!” by  Dexy’s Midnight Runners and “Jump!” by The Pointer Sisters. I was counted in over and over.

And a 5,6,7,8 hands on hips, step ball change, pivot step, pivot step, hands on hips, stage leap. “Wrong!” “Again!  and a 5,6,7,8. Step ball change at ‘No, not us (no never)’, we are far too young’  pivot step, ‘and clever’ pivot step.” 

Had she been a smoker she would have used the tip of her first cigarette to light her second. 
The Panther and I stood side by side. Me moving my hips up and down every time I heard too-ra-loo-ra, aye and the Panther, I swear,  sizing me up from the corner of its eye.

The night of the performance, we seated our respective parents and my step mother’s best friend, Aylene. She was a hippy feminist who challenged the patriarchy by leaving long chin hairs unplucked like a political statement. Our three audience members squeezed into the two seater sofa and awaited our entrance.

Backstage (otherwise known as the hallway), Allie stretched her long legs in a way that only true dancers know how to do. I stood by the Pink Panther, who leaned against the wall and without blinking an eye managed to make me feel like a sausage in spandex. My body was suffocating in lycra and he was clearly delighting in my awkwardness. I pulled out a fold of leotard that was edging up my behind.  I was pretty sure I hated him.

Allie wowed everyone center stage with her trained steps and natural rhythm, and the Panther hit all its cues. I got some of the steps right, not really hitting the beat, often missing my mark but mostly focusing on blocking  the Panther.  I would pivot the wrong way, step ball change on 1,2 not 7,8. My arms, resembling Skipper’s,  stayed stiff and straight by my side.  Despite my effort, much like Boxer, I died, a tragic glue factory type death. But on stage. In a terribly ill fitted leotard and fluorescent green leg warmers.

Our audience members were gracious spectators and worked stupendously at muffling their laughs. They greeted us with great applause and a standing ovation. 

My sister held on to that doll. It  stayed with her in three countries, a myriad of cities, and now stands without  leg warmers in a basement in Connecticut. Recently, I asked my step-mother about him. “Oh, yeah. Pink Panther. Allie loved that thing. Her dad was a huge Peter Sellers fan. After he died she kept it as a reminder.”

That plush thing wasn’t there to upstage me. He wasn’t introduced to the act as a way to distract the audience from my out-of-step jazz walk or axel turn.  And I realize that, because I’m grown, so grown. Now, I must say more than ever. Too-ra-loo-ra, aye.

sally miller

About the Author:

Sally Miller grew up in Perth, Western Australia and moved to the U.S to study Film Production. She also obtained her MLIS at San Jose State University. She is a secondary teacher librarian and working on a collection of nonfiction essays.