Dance Move is Belfast author Wendy Erskine’s second volume of short stories and the first one I have read. Her debut Sweet Home was reviewed to critical acclaim, so I was looking forward to reading this collection published in 2022 and appropriately I chose to read it in-flight, on my way to Belfast for a weekend visit.
I also was reading it for Reading Ireland Month 2023, but did not have time to review it before that ended.
In-flight versus On-Train Entertainment
It was the perfect choice for in-flight reading, as the stories were thoroughly entertaining and kept me gripped in between flight delays, air traffic control strikes, and would have kept me company on the Elizabeth Line had I not been engrossed in eavesdropping on a conversation between two captivating young men where they discussed how they create fashion insta stories, the merits of studying in Portugal versus London; a recent concert one of them performed in Cuba last week (as you do) and gossiping about their friend who found love after challenging himself to go on 100 tinder dates – not the kind of conversation one might overhear where I live, thus book aside and ears wide open!
And so to some of the stories that have stayed with me:
In the first story, the opening line reads:
“The drawer beside Roberta’s bed contained remnants of other people’s fun”
It is a wonderful encapsulation of all that is to come, referring to a collection of things that have been left behind in the various short-let rentals our protagonist has cleaned. She works in a hotel that has a policy of holding lost property for 2 months before the staff can claim them, but her other boss goes by the saying ‘finders keepers, losers weepers’. Unless it is a weapon, then it should be given to him.
“Mr Dalzell had said that anything she found was hers, automatically.”
She gets driven around from place to place by another employee with a van, cleaning up after all kinds of people, who we never see or know who they are – but clearly they are not so much the short holiday crowd, more like overnight partying groups. One day she finds something left behind that creates a significant dilemma. Perhaps it was only a matter of time, but from this moment on the story captivates and builds tension as we wonder what choices she will make. Brilliant.
Mrs Dallesandro opens as she leaves the hairdresser, giving a wave and observing her reflection as she leaves. She has been married twenty-three years, knows what to expect from her predictable life, is well maintained and under no illusion regarding her husband’s various dalliances with much younger women.
Mrs Dallesandro wouldn’t call them affairs or relationships, since that would elevate them to a status they didn’t warrant. She has never once felt threatened by them.
She is on a mission to go to a sunbed clinic, an activity that she perceives as a minor transgression, that ultimately will give her something she does not get elsewhere. She recalls an episode in her youth with a shopkeeper’s son and we wonder if that had an impact on the way she is now, the choices she subsequently made.
It is an evocative story of the shallowness of a life half lived, of the things a person might occupy themselves with when life has hollowed them out, the strange lengths one might go, to find a substitute for human connection. It reminded me a little of Forbidden Notebook by Alba des Céspedes, another woman living a half-life, who discovers an interior version of herself at odds with how she acts, when she begins to keep an intimate journal.
In this story jealousy and resentments between sisters surface alongside familial expectations and judgments. A birthday party creates the scene for family dysfunction to play itself out, imbued with the symbolism and pointedness of the gift, with the observations of what people wear, how trivial objects trigger emotions, how the laid-back and the intense personalities function side by side in the great mix of extended family. How human connection blossoms in surprising ways despite the circumstances.
A story of family loss, of grief, of obsession and activity. Just as the family are sitting down to dinner, Curtis pops outside for a minute. He does not come back. Ever. Posters go up all over town, they keep the mother busy. Time passes and signs appear of life changing, reforming, resisting, resenting, of repeat patterns that overtake the old reality. A provocative profound observation of life and death.
In the titular story, a mother takes a pole dancing lesson and at home tries to push her daughter to enrol in ballet. She watches her daughter and friends have fun dirty dancing with a critical eye and is quick to apportion blame.
We learn of an event from her past relating to her brother, an accident, her parents. The reader takes in the present and the past and will make their own connections between them, forced to use their own imagination to ponder any cause and effect on relationships.
Family Dynamics, Human Connection, Cause and Effect in How Lives are Lived
It’s not easy to make any overall assumptions or impressions about the collection, as each story took me to a different place through their characters and circumstance, that pulled me in quickly and left me pondering one thing or other.
Perhaps as I describe above, it is that setting up of a dynamic, a situation and the observation of how people react or respond, the reader being given a little or no insight into a person’s past that makes us wonder why people decide to act the way they do.
Leo Robson in The guardian, describes the collection as ‘pleasurable stories of magical thinking and unlived lives go straight to the emotional core’, you can read more of their observations here.