THE President’s Birthday celebration was held in the grand ballroom of the White House on February 12th. Leigh had asked Walter, her violinist from the Metropolitan, to play for her, and they spent three days rehearsing on the empty stage at the theatre.
She decided to dance something upbeat and coquettish, along the lines of Kitri’s fan solo from Don Quixote. She hummed the basic melody to Walter, and between them they came up with a seven minute set piece they both liked.
The night of the event, in a small private salon set aside for "Madame Rosalie", Hettie dressed Leigh’s hair in a Spanish style, tied back severely and secured with fine net embellished with camelia and ivy and smoothed flat and shining.
‘Miss Leigh, I ain’t never seen a dress to pretty. All them shades of reds and yellows and burnt orange. It’s like a sunset!’
Leigh looked at herself critically in the changing room pier glass, turning this way and that, smoothing down the tight red satin basque and testing her shoes against the hard wood floor.
‘The puffed sleeves could have been bigger.’
‘Oh, no… it’s just perfect. Even them saffron pantalets!’
‘They’re just for modesty with this shorter skirt. When I jump and turn I can’t flash my thighs at the President!’ Leigh snapped open her black silk fan. ‘Will this quince jelly hold my hair?’
‘Sure it will. Did you use that recipe I gave you to stop the sweating under your arms?’
‘Coconut oil, cornstarch and baking powder?’
‘That’s the one. It’ll keep you dry. What time you performing?’
‘Nine thirty, or thereabouts. Hell, I’m nervous!’
After what seemed an age, the call came, and Walter, dressed in hired formal dinner attire, led the way followed by Leigh wearing a long black silk cape over her costume with Hettie trotting behind. Leigh heard her name being announced, and cringed inwardly as she always did at being called Madame Rosalie.
Walter took his place to one side of large dance floor where Abraham Lincoln and his wife, Mary, were seated with all the pomp and ceremony befitting the occasion at the head of the long dinner table at one end of the room. As Hettie slipped the cape from Leigh’s shoulders, a collective gasp went up from the hundreds watching her. She swept forwards a few steps with an imperious confidence she didn’t feel, stopping several yards from the table, then raised her eyes.
Lincoln was dressed in black with a crisp white shirt and white kid gloves. Lank of body with the sharp angular features so like all the images and statues Leigh had ever seen, he was surreal to
her; like an eighth wonder of the world. Totally in awe, Leigh remained immobile, her right leg in front, her left gracefully pointed behind, both arms suspended in mid air at her sides.
His eyes held her, and in that moment she understood why a whole nation followed him. Yet, this flesh and blood face looked bone weary. It spoke to her of sleepless nights, decisions made in Hell and a preternatural inner fire burning too fast for that body to sustain.
Her eyes flicked to Mary Lincoln, a short plump woman with a doughy unhealthy complexion. She wore a gown of white silk beneath silver lace, and though she smiled her eyes were cold, and Leigh felt the scrutiny and wondered at it. Mrs Lincoln’s brown hair held a jasmine blossom headdress, and she wore pearls around neck and wrists and cooled herself with a feather trimmed fan. The soft hum of voices in the room lessened to silence, the anticipation acute.
Leigh stepped back, and glanced at Walter then bowed her head to the president, and snapped open her fan. Beneath her feet, she felt the solid yet reassuring wooden floor. She knew it would jar her bones, and make her jumps harder, but at least it wouldn’t catch her feet en pointe as carpet would. She was vaguely aware of a multitude behind and around her; a homogenous mass of watered silks and dark dinner dress and uniforms. Then Walter was striking up the opening of Kitri’s music and Leigh began to dance.
Everything she had ever learned, all her training, her years of agony and ecstasy of mind and body, her sense of failure and her dogged determination, now condensed into this single fatalistic performance. Adrenalin surged and she did the highest kicks, the most powerful jetes, and whirled across the dance floor like a small volcanic ball of energy. As the Moreno Dance began, incredibly, she heard the group of musicians at the back of the room, the Marine Band, hired to play for this vast crowd, take up the beat and tempo and add their improvised support to Walter’s soaring strings.
As the piece came to its close and the rhythm built in tempo she prepared herself to execute the ten fouette’s she’d rehearsed with Walter.
With each spin, she spotted on the president, coming to finish facing his table, kneeling on one knee, left hand on hip, her fan and head held high and huge grin on her face. She watched the seamed face return her smile and as she rose the thunder of applause was deafening. Leigh curtseyed long and deep to the Lincolns.
Mary was sour faced, but her husband stood and applauded with the rest of the room. Leigh turned to left and right, careful not to turn her back to the presidential table. Then the crowds parted to let her leave. Her job was done.
Hettie beamed at her, waited until she got her breath then said, ‘You ain’t like nothing they ever saw.’
I can’t believe I just danced for Abraham Lincoln.
She sank onto a chair as Hettie removed her shoes. ‘Oh, Jeez, your feet are bleeding!’
‘It’s that floor. No give in it. I’ll pay for this tomorrow.’
‘It’s only a little from your toenails, but it’s stained your slippers.’
‘I should have used more lamb’s wool.’
Hettie wiped the blood away with her handkerchief. ‘You sure got beat up feet.’
Leigh laughed. ‘I know. Help me get into my gown.’
Leigh’s dress was specially made for this event; a peachy pink silk skirt gathered up in six places over a ruffled net underskirt of pale butter yellow with flounces of cream lace at each gather.
The large puffed sleeves had lace flounces at the elbow and the décolletage was low and exposed the gentle swell of her breasts. Hettie helped her slip on a pair of gold earbobs and handed her a pair of cream lace gloves and matching fan.
‘You look beautiful,’ she said.
‘I’d sell my soul to just go back to the hotel.’
‘I’m sticking to you like glue,’ Hettie said. ‘I ain’t missing this for the world.’
‘All those people,’ Leigh said. ‘They look like dignitaries.’
‘Hey, those people out there?’ Hettie winked at her. ‘They all take a crap like everyone else!’
Leigh smiled. ‘I guess they do.’
‘But you, Madame Rosalie, are the toast of the President’s Birthday Ball.’
Leigh tried to muster some enthusiasm. ‘Do you suppose they have a back door we could sneak out of?’
Hettie took her arm and led her firmly from the room.