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April 2, 2023 by The Citron Review

by Hallie Johnston


December 31, 2004. Parking lot. Fiesta Bowl Stadium in Phoenix, Arizona. Minutes before the Fiesta Bowl Parade.

“Girls,” she says. “Huddle up.”

Our Alabama high school danceline circles her, this petite woman who yells and yells. We clump and crouch to listen but leave just enough space between each girl so that our sequins don’t catch the leg of another’s fishnet hose.

“Look around,” she says. “Look at each other.”

Sixteen, seventeen, and eighteen years old, but right now, we could be thirty. Our faces done up in Mary Kay—red lips, pink cheeks, black liner, mascara. Real lashes and false lashes. Eye shadow. So much eye shadow. Charcoal near the lid, midnight swept close to the brow.

Our hair is curled and teased and teased again.

Our bras, some stuffed with shoulder pads, are safety pinned into red and silver one pieces. The costume cuts like a bathing suit at the thigh, and two super-size safety pins hold it all together at the back of the neck.

There are no snags or tears in our toast tights or fishnets. No scuff marks on our knee-high white boots. Only spray paint and sequins and go-go block heels.

“Look,” she says. “Right now. Right. Now. Is the best you’ll ever be.”

I look around. Disco-girl-clown faces look back. I think we think she’s wrong. But no one says a word because the adult is talking.

“There’ll be cameras everywhere,” she says. “You must be perfect.” She rings the air around her face with her finger. “Most important is this.” She explains a good face is more than a smile. It’s saying something with the eyes. It’s making the audience believe deep down we have “it.”

The parade is long and hot. We march and dance and melt. After, we take pictures with the band and color guard, posing boobs out, belly in on high-rise bleachers. As metal and sequins spark in the sun, I squint and smile, smile and sweat. I feel my breath push against the packing tape wrapping my stomach from hip bone to rib cage—my idea as I dressed that morning, arms circling body, waist cutting in and in.

January 1, 2005. The front page of an Arizona newspaper printed after the parade. A close-up of our danceline captain. The photograph is above the fold, almost takes up the whole page. Her face is electric.

“It!” the adult yells a week later. We’re back home in Alabama, sitting in our high school dance room. She holds the paper, dangles it before us. “This is what I was talking about. It.”

The girl in the photograph, the captain, smiles now, blushes. Some of us smile back. Some of us give her the side eye. The adult thumb-tacks the clipping to the bulletin board outside our dressing room so that we can’t miss it, have to look at it every day until one day it’s upside down, tack stabbing a sharp point through her paper face.

Soon after the captain misses practice—something a captain never does—and is seen instead in the principal’s office with her mom. I think it’s about the thumb tack. That at practice we’ve got it coming—a stern talking to, a come to Jesus and not our first.

But not this time. This time the adult doesn’t yell, her voice quiet as she explains about the captain. That after the newspaper printed she received fan mail from Arizona, people telling her how beautiful she is. Letters and letters. Then one letter. From a man. Something different about this letter. Worrying.

The clipping is taken down.

Months later, at the end-of-the-year recital, we danced a number from Chicago. Half the girls dress as flappers, half the girls dress as men in polyester pinstripes and black fedoras—the costume that in past years was thought the uglier of the two. But not that year. That year we wanted to dance the dance of gangsters. We wanted to barrel roll in blousy zoot suits and stand wide stances in blazers and balloon-leg trousers. We didn’t want to be men men. We wanted to be free like men, to have air and space for our bodies. To say something without saying something. To do what we were taught. And to undo.


Hallie Johnston is a writer from the South. She holds an MFA in creative writing from the University of Miami. Her work has appeared in the Southern Humanities Review, The Louisville Review, and Sinking City.



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