Amaya looked around at the tapestries, gilded statues, and pristine dancers, and felt decidedly out of place in the King’s palace. Most of the other dancers had all lived there for years training in the arts of courtesans, and she had just arrived with nothing but a few costumes, props, and lessons from Parvaneh, her mother’s oldest friend.
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It didn’t help that Mahasti, the King’s favorite, was also wearing red. Today was the only day of the year where the King chose new courtesans, and it was rumored he gifted his favorites with wishes. The current courtesans flaunted their status and talents while the nervous hopefuls stood little chance of being chosen. Of a hundred dancers, he would choose just one, and some years he chose none at all.
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When he finally did summon them for the first dance he was a vision in white, but she quickly averted her eyes when she remembered it was forbidden to look him in the eye. At least not in public. Parvaneh’s voice rang in her head, Always remember a King is still a man. Amaya fought the urge to look at him again as the dancers took their places for the first dance. Before the musicians started playing, she remembered the last thing Parvaneh told her: One look of true desire can move a man more than a dance, a song, or even a touch.
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Once the musicians hit the first note she felt the surge of energy that magically switched off her usual shy self and turned on her sure, confident self. She loved a crowd but this crowd was different, skilled themselves in the arts of courtiers and courtesans, no doubt her little tricks would not get her far in their eyes.
The first dance was only to show off the basic skills (and figures) of the girls. Amaya was surprised to find she didn’t consider herself one of the worst dancers, but definitely not the best. Mahasti held that honor, and she knew it by the way she held herself and flung herself about. The poor girl dancing next to her kept getting whipped in the face by Mahasti’s hair.
Halfway through the first dance the girls laid down in circles with their heads facing the center. The male dancers rushed in and did a cane dance around and over them. As the men stepped over the girls, one by one, they pounded their cane on the floor next to their heads which not only made the girls squeal(and the crowd laugh), but also created a drumming rhythm as the canes hit the floor all at the same time.
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Only half of the dancers would make the cut to the next dance, and even though she wasn’t the worst, she was the newest and the most vulnerable. Parvaneh told her she must not be afraid to stand out even in the first dance. Even though she was nervous, she knew what she had to do.
A dancer in yellow pants was making his way toward her and before he could slam his cane near her head she yanked it from his hand, stood up, and joined the male portion of the dance. The crowd gasped as this was never done, but she knew it would make her memorable in the eyes of the King. For the rest of the dance the poor male dancer kept trying to get his cane back from her. Each time he did, she’d rap him hard on the bum with it and he quickly gave up trying as the crowd and the King roared with laughter at each attempt.
At the end of the dance, the King had his guard tap each of the girls on the shoulder if they were asked to stay and perform the next dance. When the guard turned to her he said, “The King would like to speak with you. You must kneel in front of him. Don’t speak unless he asks you a question, and do not look at him.”
She nodded, to show she understood. As he turned around to lead her to the King, she saw he had the most perfect tattoo of a bluebird on his shoulder. She walked slowly to show deference but also because her legs felt like jelly and she was absolutely sure her heart was about to burst from her chest. But, she made it and kneeled in front of the King, looked down, and waited for him to speak.
“You’ve made me laugh and pleased me much with your…antics. You’re brave to do what you did. What is your name?” he asked.
“Well, Amaya, I want to give you something in return. What is it you desire from me for you shall have it.” The crowd murmured in awe behind him.
Amaya sat there not sure what to say. She’d heard that he grants wishes of his favorites, but she never expected him to do so with her. If she lost his favor by asking for the wrong thing, she’d be on her way home in a flash. She wanted to be a courtesan, so she had to make it to the end, which meant she had to continue to stand out from the others, but in a good way.
“You are very kind Sir; I am honored with your favor. I only want to continue to please you with my dancing, but if you will allow it, I wish to look upon you while I dance.”
“Is that all? No gold? No jewels?” The King laughed. “Of course, silly girl, you may look upon me while you dance.” And he laughed again dismissing her with a wave of his hand.
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The next dance was the water jug dance. The goal of the dance was to show the dancers skill and balance by dancing with a jug of water and not spilling a drop. The girls were split into two groups. Mahasti was in the first group and Amaya was in the second.
As the first group danced, Amaya couldn’t keep her eyes off of Mahasti. She wasn’t the best dancer or the most beautiful, although she was both skilled and pretty. What she did better than any other dancer was play to the crowd. She flirted with them, men and women alike, with her movements and flirtatious looks. It was almost as if she included them in the dance, and when her eyes fell on a particular person, she danced only for them. The one person she didn’t do this with was the King, as Mahasti wasn’t allowed to look at him.
Amaya looked down until the music started and then bravely looked directly at the King. He was watching her; she felt her face flush so she looked down again. No, she thought. He is only a man. And from that moment on, she looked up and didn’t take her eyes off him. Even when she faced away from him, she still looked over her shoulder at him. She danced for him, like Mahasti danced for the crowd. He became her crowd, and every movement, every flick of the wrist, every sway of the hips was only for him.
At the end of the dance, she kneeled before him and took a sip from the water jug. The King smiled and the crowd laughed. She offered him a sip, still not taking her eyes off of him, and he obliged her.
“Well, now that you have thoroughly enchanted me with your eyes, what is it you wish now?”
“My wish is still to please you. What is it that you wish of me?” Amaya responded
The King laughed. “Alright, then. I wish for you to dance…with him.” He pointed to his guard, the one with the bluebird tattoo.
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The guard’s mouth flew open and he turned to the King in protest, but the King quickly silenced him with a look.
The guard stood next to Amaya, looking quite awkward and looking down at his feet, and she was sure he’d never had a dance lesson in his life. She felt a pang of guilt when the crowd laughed and wanted to make this as easy as possible for him. She remembered Parvaneh saying, Always remember your actions affect others and their actions affect you. Every moment in life is both an opportunity to teach and learn.
As the music started she turned him to face her and she said, “Don’t worry about them. Just keep your eyes on me and you’ll be fine. Have you ever danced before?”
“No.” He still looked frightened.
She had to physically place him in the correct position. She crouched down to spread his legs apart to a good distance to provide balance. She put her hands on his hips and push down gently so that he bended his knees slightly, which would allow freedom of movement.
“Now, it’s very important that you look up. Look me in the eyes if it helps, but if you look down at your feet, you will get dizzy and lose your rhythm.” She placed his hands on his hips, her hands on top of his, and showed him how to sway to the beat of the music. He smiled and immediately looked down at his feet and lost his rhythm.
She tilted his chin up so he was looking at her again. “No, look here,” she said, and he found his rhythm again. They started off with a slow beat, and once he seemed like he got the hang of it, she yelled over to the musicians, “Faster!”, and they sped up the beat.
Once he got on rhythm to the new beat, she yelled again, “Faster!” and the musicians sped up the beat once again. This time, the guard kept swaying his hips and didn’t miss a beat until the music stopped. He smiled shyly at her, quite pleased with himself, and the crowd clapped and cheered.
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The next dance was the sword dance, and each girl got to use her own sword and sheath in any way she saw fit during the dance. Mahasti’s group went first again, though there were fewer girls since most had already been asked to leave.
Mahasti again played the crowd well. She immediately pulled the sword from the sheath and gracefully moved it through the air as she turned, leapt, and swayed. She balanced the sword easily on her hip, head, and throat. It seemed this was the dance she was most skilled in.
For the last several counts of music she shocked the crowd by placing the sword in a sword holder on top of her head and lighting it on fire. On the very last beat of music, she lifted the sword from her head and blew out the fire swiftly before she bowed deeply.
She definitely knew how to play the crowd.
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The sword dance was one of Amaya’s least favorite dances because it was so dangerous. The swords were sharp and battle ready, and that’s why the crowd loved this dance, for its alluring mixture of beauty and danger.
As the music started Amaya kept the sword in its sheath. She still danced as well as the rest of the girls, and balanced the sword on several parts of her body, but soon the crowd realized she was cheating and became hostile toward her. What a scared little girl…How silly she is…She will be cut this time…are some of the things she heard people say.
By the end of the dance the jeers were so loud she almost believed she would be cut, but the crowd didn’t realize she had a strategy.
At the very last beat of the dance, just as Mahasti had blown out the fire on her sword, Amaya pulled her sword from its sheath and held it bravely to the King’s cheek. The crowd gasped and the guard leapt forward to grab her but stopped short.
It was only a large feather. Amaya smiled and tickled the King’s cheek. The King laughed and broke the tension, which allowed the rest of the crowd to laugh along with him.
Always seek to surprise, Parvaneh had said.
Photo courtesy of Chris Boakye
After the sword dance there were only four girls left. Each was asked to bring a prop from home that they would use in the next dance. The first girl used a fan and the second used finger cymbals which were common dancing props. Mahasti danced third and she did a gorgeously unique routine with sand.
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She told the musicians she didn’t need music. She walked over to the male dancers and asked them to provide a specific rhythm for her by banging their canes on the floor. It was a complicated rhythm, and she had to help the dancer in the yellow pants several times as he kept going too slowly.
Once they had perfected the rhythm she brought her basket to the center of the floor and took off the top. As she danced around it her pet snake raised his head above the edge of the basket. The crowd gasped and backed up in fear. She knew the snake was harmless and trained to dance based on the rhythm the canes hit the floor.
If she danced slowly, the snake mirrored her and swayed its head gracefully around and around as it rose from the basket. As she danced faster and faster, the snake continued to mirror her and his movements became more jerky and unpredictable. Once the snake was completely out of the basket she draped it around her shoulders and she signaled for the male dancers to stop drumming.
She put the snake back in his basket and stood in a line with the other three girls. The King’s guard gestured for Amaya and Mahasti to step forward and kneel in front of the King.
“You are the final two dancers and have pleased me well. I offer each of you one last wish.” He looked at Mahasti first.
“To look upon you while I dance, my King.” Mahasti said. The King laughed and Amaya stifled a chuckle, amused that Mahasti would copy her.
“Of course you can.” He said, and turned to Amaya. “Let me guess. You’re wondering what my wish is?”
“Actually, I do have a wish to ask of you. During my turn, I’d like you to dance with me.”
The King laughed again. “You never fail to surprise me, Amaya. I shall try my best to keep up with you.”
Amaya smiled and looked over at Mahasti. She didn’t look pleased.
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The final dance was the dance of fire of which Mahasti was extremely skilled. She was bright, bold, flashy, and absolutely certain she was going to win when at the end of her dance she stood in all her glory, chest heaving, torches blazing, eyes deadlocked on the King’s. By the response of the crowd, they thought so, too.
Photo courtesy of Shantaru
As with the sword dance, Amaya was frightened of the fire dance because she’d been badly burned before. She knew she couldn’t beat Mahasti’s version of the fire dance with traditional torches, so when the King stood to dance with her, she asked him for a single candle. He had a servant bring one in a glass holder, etched with roses. She also asked the servant to bring her a chair which she asked the King to sit in.
“I thought you wanted me to dance,” he said.
“Sort of,” Amaya said and winked at him. The wink was bold, but she wanted to win.
As with Mahasti’a dance, all torches in the room were snuffed out, which proved a dramatic affect for the final dance. With only a single candle lit, the affect was even more pronounced. As the musicians started playing, she asked the King to close his eyes. To her surprise he did without comment.
She whispered in his ear, “Now, don’t move a bit or I might burn you.” He nodded in understanding.
She danced around him moving slowly at first, always keeping her eyes on him so she wouldn’t burn him if he moved. She held the candle near one ear and he flinched. “Ah, ah, ah…I said don’t move.” He smirked, but still kept his eyes shut.
She moved to the other ear and did the same thing. This time he stayed perfectly still. “Very good,” she whispered. As the dance went on the beat got faster and faster and the King remained still with his eyes closed, though she could tell it took all his internal strength to not move away from the flame when she teased him with it.
In the final moments of the dance, she picked up his hand and turned it palm side up. She rubbed it quickly with one hand and then poured just the slightest amount of hot wax onto it. He flinched and his eyes shot open just as the musicians stopped playing.
She was worried he might be angry with her, so she looked up at him and quickly kissed his palm where the wax had fallen. She then blew out the candle leaving the room in complete darkness.
The crowd murmured. She felt him move toward her and then he whispered,’You won.”
And in that moment she remembered a saying Parvaneh had once told her: A single flame will light up the darkest room.