Excerpt: Rhythm and Blues
Many of the things in Alya's life have been unexpected: She never anticipated receiving a full scholarship to the private school she attends; she never thought she would end up as a member of Hydra Force, the hottest all-girl breakdancing crew around, or that she would be "discovered" and asked to be part of a cool new girl group called EnChantay... But that's what happens to her, and overnight, Alya's life changes. She moves to Montreal and begins voice lessons, practicing choreography with the two other members of EnChantay, and filming a video for their single. Yet, of all the unexpected things in her life, Alya is most surprised when she finds herself questioning the person she is, and feeling things that she never imagined feeling...all for one of her friends.
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You know when people say, “It was all worthwhile because I learned so much”?
I hate that.
Whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger. I wouldn’t change a thing. That kind of education is priceless.
Sure, that sounds mature, but really, who wouldn’t rather get it right in the first place?
I know what I’m talking about. I’m a dancer. Dancing takes practice, but no one ever thinks, Wow, I’m so grateful it took me eighty-four tries to get the timing right on that turn. No choreographer will ever chassé up to me and say, “Well, Alya, you’ve been here three hours, and you still don’t know the combo, but I can feel that you’re changed, so we’re going to keep you.” No one. Not even those touchy-feely lyrical-contemporary types.
“You have to be honest,” they’ll tell you.
“You have to pour yourself into the choreography.”
“Those may be my steps, but that’s your life story you’re dancing out there,” they’ll whisper, before wiping away a sweaty little choreographer tear.
You’re supposed to be backed by a lifetime of training. It supports you. And in that big moment— the time-stands-still nanosecond when the spotlight finally falls on you—you’re even supposed to be a credit to it.
But training can betray you, too. I had so much of it behind me, it was all my life amounted to: a training life. Like I honestly believed that if I practised enough, I’d get to have a real one someday— if I was ever ready to take off the extra wheels or pull out the padding.
When my moment came, my training was useless. Learning is nice and everything, but I want a redo.
I know exactly the day I’d use my time machine to revisit. I can practically see the Reset button. It was last April, a week after my sixteenth birthday.
I’m in this b-girl crew (“breakdance,” if you’re trapped in the Eighties, but don’t feel bad if you are) called the Hydra Force. It’s made up of me, Alya (aka Phat Al); my best friend from grade one, Madi (aka Slasher); this hardcore chick from the T-dot, Nadine (Lady Six Sky); and my immature older brother, Devin, who avoids giving out his b-boy name (Typ0) because he’s afraid someone (our mom) might notice all the walls he’s tagged it on around Rivercrest, where we all live (for now, anyway).
In case you haven’t guessed already, the Hydra Force is one of the best crews ever to come out of the Greater Toronto Area, or maybe even the entire East Coast, if not the World.
Because of our all-encompassing awesomeness (and practice, and Nadine yelling at us all the time), this other, more established (that means old) crew, Infinite Jest, invited us to practise with them and do shows. Someone has to carry the flame— the almost unbearable flame of undeniable freshness.
That’s how I came to be stretching in my best white track pants on the highly suspect floor of an iceless hockey arena, backstage at a festival who-knew-where in Montreal, with Madi pointing out theoretically hot guys and me pretending to care.
“What about him?” Madi said, pointing as she reached for her ankle, twisting at the waist so it wouldn’t look like she was staring.
“Where?” I pretended not to see. I mean, I didn’t see. But I could guess. Madi had her types. Indie Fanboy: lanky, unruly hair, puppy-dog eyes, underground band T-shirt. The Digital Camper: medium build, attempted goatee, laptop bag, hiking shoes. Base-Model B-boy: baggy pants, hat over eyes, mp3 phone in use at all times, tattoo in indecipherable script on left forearm. The Post-Reggae Hottie: tall, dark, big easy smile, dreadlocks.
The dude standing at ten o’clock over my left shoulder was a solid P-RH: Madi’s favourite type to push on me. I looked up just as he turned our way. He smiled. I thought I recognized him from the sound check. I nodded back.
Madi looked down, giggled, and blushed. “See? Am I right or am I right? He likes you. You should totally get his number,” she said, as if I should automatically have been into him because we might be cute together in a matchy-matchy way; as if I was supposed to want him because I was a girl and he was a guy. Memo to world: that’s not always how it works.
I’d have told her she should get his number, but I knew she wouldn’t. Madi only ever fell for orange-tanned Abercrombie alpha-jocks— the perma-sneering kind who never returned her calls because they were too busy polishing their own abs.
We both needed to broaden our horizons.
Dreadlocks turned back to the amp he was carrying. I looked back to the floor and deepened into my stretch, partly to avoid Madi’s eye, and partly to remind her that my hips were more flexible than hers. She yawned and manoeuvred into a gymnastic contortion I was too dignified to react to, much less attempt. She didn’t notice Dreadlocks watching her from across the room.
Dix minutes, Hydra Force! Scène A.
I was startled out of my stretch by the headset-wearing stage manager shouting our ten-minute call— ten minutes for Madi to puke her nerves out three times, ten minutes for Nadine to get herself wound up tight enough to explode, ten minutes for Devin to chatter incessantly, ten minutes for me to stay out of everyone’s way and find my happy, focused place.
Backstage was a circus. It had the clowns, the jugglers, and a freak show more entertaining than anything on the three stages that backed into it. Security was practically nonexistent, so every local group had an entourage of twelve friends hanging off them, eating the free food, playing hacky sack, and hitting on people from other acts. A gospel choir was spread out, practising in small groups, trying to harmonize over the speaker distortion spilling from the stage. There were instruments and band gear in every corner, a cluster of DJs who would talk only to each other, and a weird magician’s box that was roped off with yellow caution tape. All we were missing were the bears on unicycles and a trapeze artist or two.
On the far side of the tent, Devin recklessly tagged along after Nadine as she paced through her pre-show anger ritual.
“I hope we do a good show,” said Madi, starting to fidget beside me as the opening act came off stage. “Do you think we’ve rehearsed enough? I didn’t try my flares once in practice this week. I just hope they like us. Do you think they’ll like us?”
“Whatever. Good luck,” the exiting lead vocalist said to Madi. “It’s wall-to-wall lamewads out there. They’re dead. DEAD.”
The drummer rolled his eyes. “Don’t listen to him. He hates everybody.”
But one look at Madi told me that she was already about eight seconds from losing her Larabar lunch to the row of porta-potties to my left.
“C’mon.” I grabbed her by the elbow. “Let’s walk.”
Those last ten minutes before getting on stage are always the worst. Ten minutes is exactly the wrong amount of time—generally for anything, but especially for waiting your turn to astound an audience with the brilliance and sheer heat of your dancing fabulousness. Run back to the van to get your lucky bandana and you’ll miss your call. Eat and you’ll be either indigesting or covered in ketchup by the time you get on stage. Read and . . . nah, forget it. Your head’ll be in the wrong place. But just try to sit calmly and wait it out, and you’ll see: it feels like three hours. The only way to cope is to find your zone. Mine is in my headphones. Bershawn Sera. Whatever his most recent single is. I have adored him since I was thirteen. (Who cares what Nadine says? Music snob.) I want to be him when I grow up. (But with breasts, of course.) With Bershawn energy surrounding me, I can only do good things.
I steered Madi to a quieter-ish area not too far from the stage entrance, between a napping yoga priestess and a six-foot-tall cupcake set-piece. I handed her an earbud and began the futile quest to find a setting that would actually allow us to hear Bershawn over all the chaos.
Cinq minutes, Hydra Force,” called the SM, the stage manager. Five minutes.
Someone yelped across the room, and I spun around just in time to catch Nadine forcing Devin into a headlock. Madi and I exchanged a worried look, but I was secretly relieved. Tearing the two of them apart (again) would give her something to do. At times like these, it was best to keep her busy.
“Children! Please!” she yelled, running to separate them.
And miraculously, at T-minus-one-and-counting, we were all standing together beside the SM booth at stage right: one unified Force, done battling one another and ready to take the stage.
“Hydra Force en scène, maintenant, maintenant, NOW!” the SM yelled, practically chasing us up the short, shaky staircase to the hulking wood-and-pipe-and-lights-and-vinyl-signage stage. Huge but crappy, but huge, it rattled as we walked to our positions. Still, it was a step up from the crowded gyms and filthy clubs we were used to.
The crowd— about three hundred strong— sat on bleachers looking bored. “Give it up pour Le Hydra Fooooooorce,” bellowed the MC. I liked his style.
The audience clapped politely, and I made up my mind right there to do whatever it took to shake them to their feet. I don’t ever want polite. I want ovations and thunder. Preferably, people should weep, but cheering is okay too. No one sits on my shift.
A very long second went by as we waited for the music to start. That moment is pure torture— but in the best way possible. If you play it right, the anticipation makes you stronger.
My knees shook involuntarily as I took my spot. They always do that, no matter how prepared I feel, even if I don’t think I’m nervous. To my right, I could feel an almost deadly calm where Madi should have been. As soon as her nerves leave her, it’s like everything else does too, and she’s able to perform because she’s a zombie on stage. To my right, energy radiated off Nadine. On the other side of her, Devin was no doubt fighting to keep his hands still— his nervous habit of clenching and un-clenching amplifies the closer he gets to a stage. But we were there, and we were ready, and we had it under control. So many crews crack up and break up before they ever even get to that point. Not us. We were in it to win it.
At last, the speakers crackled to life and our music kicked in. It was an old-school medley, heavy on the funk— a bunch of James Brown and something called Scorpio and a little Vitamin C and some more of Nadine’s favourite old-school breaks. I would have preferred Timbaland or Kanye, but I couldn’t fight her on everything. She had the seniority in the b-girl department, and in her eyes, I was probably still just a lowly hip-hopper with light skillz and inferior taste.
I counted to four, waited for the snare hit, and then—bang!—exploded into action. I couldn’t really gauge the audience response over the music, but I told myself I heard a gasp as we launched into our perfectly synchronized top rock, then dropped down to the floor for a bit of coordinated monkey business. We polished it off with each of us hitting a unique freeze, twisted and upside down, and then we broke apart so we could do our solos.
My biggest challenge at this point was to act enthusiastic and interested for sixty-four counts during which I had nothing to do but clap and react as if I hadn’t seen the routine four hundred times already.
Nadine went first— she always has to— then Madi ramped up the crowd’s enthusiasm level with a handless flippy cartwheel thing, a throwback to her gymnastics days. I was up next. I jumped out of my spot and ran across the front of the stage, pumping my fist to keep the audience clapping.
I don’t have the same big moves that Nadine and Madi do, but I work with the music better. That’s why the coolest part of our music was right in the middle of my solo. The music was going through this happy-go-lucky breakbeat bit with lots of brass and cymbals, and I was going all boppy along with it like, Hi, I’m a cute hip-hop girl like in all the music videos, but with way more talent and slightly less ass-shaking. And then the sound of a needle scratching the record sliced clear through my routine, and whoa, hey, what? The bass kicked in, so deep that you felt it before you heard it, and then I changed personas, from cute Phat Al to phat Phat Al, and I got all serious— not serious like studying for biology, but serious like: You—opponent, hater, wannabe— you are about to get schooled.
Devin went last. He did okay. He gets by on stage because he’s funny, and the crowd can never get enough of funny, even if funny is the Funky Chicken. That wasn’t in his run last time . . . I could already hear the lecture Nadine would yell out in the van later about not changing our act to bring back moves her mother might have done in a velour catsuit at one horrifying time in her life.
We came back together for our grand finale, struck our final pose to the trumpeting close of our music, and . . . the crowd— while not exactly made up of losing-their-ish types of people— they cheered! They stood and they cheered. So much for “lamewads.” No one can stay lame for long in the presence of the Hydra Force.
Pumped up by the reaction, we bowed seven times each, and then leaped down the stairs to the backstage tent.
The guys from Infinite were waiting back there to high-five us like always.
“Thanks for warming up the stage for us,” said Ender, their de facto leader.
“Watch out— you’ll be warming our stage someday,” said Nadine, laughing and ducking as he moved to knock her hat off her head.
“KID-ding,” she said, but I didn’t see why it couldn’t be true. I’ll admit it— sometimes, in between biology exams, I had dreams about making it bigger than Infinite ever had, about taking the Hogtown Throwdown, about getting invited to the Battle of the Year and flown halfway across the world to compete, about shoe sponsorships and TV spots and danc ing in movies, the movie they would make about us: small suburban crew overcomes lack of cred with surplus of heart. I could see the trailers in my mind. I could see myself in them. I could imagine how smart I’d sound in interviews, and the outfits I’d wear to award shows, and even the airport, and how, if I were famous, I’d be one of those celebrities who always look spotless and sound mysterious, and whom everyone loves because they are so gracious to fans and co-stars alike.
It was a super-long shot, and I wasn’t crazy enough to actually put eggs in that basket, but was it really so far out to believe we could pick up where Infinite left off and do a little bit better? I didn’t think so.
“All right. Enough chit-chat,” said Ender. “You guys hit the change rooms. I want you ready to go as soon as our set is done.”
“Do we have to?” Madi asked.
“Now!” he answered.
“Sir, yes sir!”
Nadine saluted and ran off, with Madi close behind her. I slowly gathered my stuff and started to follow.
Never mind tour buses and hotels and seeing the world. I’d come to accept that we would never get to see the end of whatever show we were doing, let alone hang out in any of the cities we performed in. No matter how far we travelled, our world would never be any bigger than the inside of the Infinite van, which, I have to say, was a lot smaller than its name would suggest.
But I was not going to rush. Maybe we were nobodies. Maybe I wasn’t even getting paid as much as I would have made staying home and teaching a couple of dance classes at the Movement Spa, my part-time job. But a show well done was its own reward, and I wanted to savour it— at least until my heart rate returned to normal and I stopped sweating, so my track suit wouldn’t stick to my back all the way home.
“Al, I mean it—” said Ender. But he got pulled away before he could finish his sentence.
“Yeah, yeah, fine,” I said, picking up my bag. I spun around, irritated at being rushed, and—wham!—I practically knocked Tall Dreadlocks over with my bag.
“Urgh!” he said, crumpling in the middle. “Whoa, whoa, what’s the rush?”
My hand flew to my mouth. “I am so sorry!”
He smiled and bent to pick up the cable I’d made him drop. “I come over here to tell you how hype your show is, and this is the thanks I get?”
I laughed. “Uh, yeah. I mean, usually we like to greet fans with a punch in the face but . . .”
He laughed. “Seriously, you guys were wicked. All the tech guys were losing their minds.”
“Thanks,” I said.
He craned his neck to look past me, around the tent.
“So, where’s your friend? That blonde chick who did the flippy thing?”
“Madi? She’s changing.”
“Oh. That move was insane.
“Yup. She’s pretty strong,” I said.
And then Dreadlocks said nothing. The conversation had taken a turn for the awkward.
“Uhm . . .” he finally said. “Tell her congratulations for me?”
A slow grin spread across my face. He was totally into her. Not me. Her. This was good. He was—what?—maybe eighteen? Just older enough. And friendly. Cute. Responsible enough to hold down a real job. He gave off a good vibe.
“Here,” I said, taking out a pen and scribbling Madi’s number on the back of the show flyer. “Congratulate her yourself.”
I could worry later about whether she’d kill me when she found out.
Dreadlocks smiled, a little confused, like maybe he wasn’t used to strange girls handing out their friends’ numbers with no provocation. Then he looked at the number again.
“This is long distance?” His smile faded a little.
“Not that long.” I waved it off, feeling just a little sorry for him. “We’re here pretty often.”
“Thanks,” he finally said. “I’m Trevor, by the way.”
“Al. Later?”
“I’ll see what I can do.”
And there was that smile again: broad, warm, friendly, somewhat shy-ish. Any feelings of potential remorse I was developing evaporated. There was something right about this guy. Just not right for me. As he walked away, I mentally patted myself on the back for a good deed well done.
Then, Madi came out of the tent.
“Hey, why aren’t you—?” She trailed off as she noticed Trevor walking away, slipping the flyer into his pocket. “You gave him your number?” she squealed. “You did, right? Do I have a good eye or what? Omigod. Alya gave out her number to a guy. On her own. An actual living, breathing guy!”
I smiled. “His name is Trevor,” I told her, and I ducked into the change room.
Publisher: Doubleday Canada