Red Shoes Blues–the tale of the Pilfered Pumps

Original watercolor by Carol Willetts (applied technique Judith Farnworth)


“And those seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music.” Nietzsche   “Dance is music made visible” (Balanchine) “ …and the hidden language of the soul. Think of the magic of a foot, comparatively small, upon which your whole weight rests. It’s a miracle…” (Martha Graham)

Her decidedly red shoes looked new, but when she danced, revealed creases, cracks, and deep connections linking foot to body and motion to the pageantry of life. If she could, she would have gone barefoot the rest of the time. She didn’t like wearing dress pumps to work, or hiking boots when traipsing into the hills round the Lake District while on holiday.  All these types of footwear pinched her feet, and caused discomfort. She wondered if the pain she experienced was similar to what Hans Christian Anderson’s little mermaid felt after trading fins for legs.

Through dance, she tapped into intimate rituals, myths, energies—especially those expressing passion, grief, longing—and pure exuberance. In her red shoes, she became Terpsichore, Salome dropping the seventh veil, an earthy form of Shiva/Kali, and the twirling figure in the World card, the last image in popular Tarot decks. She communicated a rhetorical conversation in a universal language—recognized even where dance was banned, in Iran, Kuwait, and Afghanistan, and until recently in Japan.

Isidore (Dore) mused that not so long ago, a shoe was a token of a man’s authority; brides were once delivered to husbands, along with a shoe. The husband would tap the shoe on the bride’s forehead to demonstrate his power, his rights. In China, a girl’s feet were bound, even folded to stunt growth and keep the size child-like and the woman crippled. Long ago, when setting out on a journey, those left behind threw a shoe at you to wish you well. Shoe themed rhymes and fairytales were a means of transition and transportation, literally and figuratively—from Puss N Boots and The Elves and the Shoemaker—to the ‘little old woman who lived in a shoe.’

In a pocket-sized pad, Dore noted a lucky horseshoe must point upwards to hold the luck; and when the twelve dancing princesses returned at dawn to their castle—their slippers worn through—they lied and feigned ignorance. She pondered how many women really believed a pair of stilettos with a pointy toe conveyed some form of power—in addition to the pain the faux status symbol inflicted? Only her dancing shoes gave her joy, and the right music enhanced her happiness.

She thought folks got it wrong about Cinderella and the shoes Dorothy took off the Witch of the West. Cinderella didn’t want a handsome prince to rescue her. She needed a night off and some festive rags to wear to THE social event of the season. Similarly, when Dorothy clicked her red shoes, did she really want to be transported back to flat, dusty Kansas, Auntie Em, and endless chores?

Dore was an only child. Her mother’s pagan Irish ancestors had been sold to Jamaican plantation owners, and mated to local Caribes with whom they shared the ‘old’ ways and esoteric knowledge, which was in part encoded into their celebrations and dance, and passed down. Her father, born in Boston, was the son of Welsh parents that came to America for a new start. Dores’ parents met at a dance celebrating the reels and jigs of Wales and Ireland, and were married three months later. They died on holiday in France in the mid-80s when the high speed train they were on collided with a local train. Dore inherited their home, which she sold immediately, and enough insurance money to complete an art degree. Nearly a month after their death, Dore received a battered package, sent by her parents from southern Spain. The box contained a pair of red shoes.

The shoes resembled the pumps worn by gypsies and Flamenco dancers, except for the number of tiny silver nails on the shoe’s underside and the curious symbols that wrapped around the insole instead of the designer’s name. The upper part of the shoes and thick soles were leather, the straps leather and suede, and the 2 ½ inch heels were wooden. The shoes fit perfectly, and the first time Dore wore them and went dancing she was poetry in motion, a summoner of ancient magic, cosmic forces, and ethereal elements. She awoke dark stars and pineal glands as Dionysus’ Maenads once had. Compelled by the red shoes, she danced for the living and the dead, for peace, victory, justice, the release of joy, and the capture of chaos. She cast a spell over everyone present. And so it was each time she wore the red shoes and went dancing.

Now she was older, Dore had to admit her beloved dancing shoes could inflict distress, even draw blood. She joked the pain was nothing like what Snow White’s stepmother endured when forced to wear red-hot iron shoes as punishment. Dancing never failed to lift or transport her spirits—like Aladdin’s flying carpet or Hermes winged slippers. She fretted about how to preserve the shoes before holes and tears appeared, the red flaked off, and the straps disintegrated. Should she take a photo, curtail her dancing to once a month instead of several times a week, or put the shoes in a glass display case? The choice was made for her a few weeks later.

It had been one of those years. Dore had dated and broken up with several men, including one she had considered a best friend rather than lover, though he felt otherwise. She received a big promotion to Senior Insurance Art Appraiser and a transfer to the company’s headquarters. While the pay was better, her longer commute stole an hour from her day; it also eliminated her favorite way to tone her body by walking to work daily. She had lost a number of items too: a favorite silver heart shaped necklace, an assortment of childhood and college photos, a nearly empty vial of a favorite perfume, some odd socks, and several pairs of lacy underwear. To counter balance these upheavals, Dore and her red shoes went dancing more often. Regulars at a few of the nightclubs she frequented thought she was an exhibitionist, but couldn’t stop watching. On the dance floor, half gypsy, half voodoo queen, she moved in concert with a boogying universe, and was, concomitantly, exotic, erotic, graceful, and—hauntingly otherworldly.

The items she had recently lost were of little consequence compared to the theft of her prized red dancing shoes. It was a rainy Saturday. She’d showered and put on one of her favorite dresses, a slinky black sheath that flared slightly at the hemline. The sleeveless dress had red silk piping around the armholes and a plunging neckline that exposed a hint of cleavage. Underneath the dress she wore Spanx and a black lace garter belt. Her long hair was pulled back in a loose ponytail. Dore carefully bunched a black silky stocking, slid it over her recently pedicured foot and fastened the lacey top of the stocking to the metal and rubber welt. She reached for the battered shoebox containing her red shoes and gasped. It was empty. The shoes were not among the business pumps, hiking boots, earth sandals, or bunny slippers that lined the bottom of her closet. She tore open other boxes, which held gaily colored scarves and T shirts, and left the contents on the floor.

During the next hour, she scoured every cupboard, drawer, and space in her modest flat that might conceivably be hiding her shoes. Her collection of rare stamps was intact, as was some antique jewelry and the cash hidden under the false bottom of her sewing basket. In despair, she dialed 911 and after being chastised, was redirected to the police theft and robbery desk. An hour later, two officers visited. They entered information on a standard form and took a few pictures, though one of them could barely keep a straight face as she told them the shoes were priceless.

Weeks went by; there were no leads, though the police did inform her there had been other burglaries in her neighborhood. For the first time in her life, Dore was overcome with melancholia. She couldn’t bear to frequent the places where she’d danced to rock n’roll or sultry blues music. The performance artist that could send men and women alike into a magical, sexually charged dream time could barely get out of bed. She called in sick, curled up in a ball, and listened to blues music without moving a single muscle. Someone had broken into her apartment and kidnapped the thing she valued most. Who did it and why? As darkness tiptoed into her bedroom, the music began to lift her spirits, especially songs that reached deep into the raw pain of loss, accordion squeezed the heart, and wailed like a keening banshee.

Blues isn’t really about sadness; it’s the reassembling of a secret history of rural, heartbroken, exiled, downtrodden us. It’s about wanting to return to a place that doesn’t exist—yet. It’s about deals we make with demons we create. It rose in the early 20th century from the bottom lands and muck of America like an alchemist’s homunculus or a highly sexualized Tulpa, a Tibetan thought form. Dore’s dancing channeled the blues and tapped into pagan roots she shared with African, Native American, Irish, Welsh Greek, and ancient Egyptian cultures. It connected mind, body, and soul. Her red shoes acted as telegraph and enigma translator. When she danced, she created a numinous otherworld reality—she became goddess of the crossroads. Her shoes was her voice, an instrument for revealing mystery school instructions.

America’s most authentic music is really a glorious mishmash of European and African instruments mixed with human creativity and a longing to reveal secrets, like the fraud perpetrated by some religions that mind, body, and soul should be separated, and the Puritan mistaking of morality for spirituality—curiosity for sin. Dore knew instinctively Rock n’ Roll offered a further defiant liberation, though some compared its jerky gyrations to those suffering from Sydenham’s chorea—or St. Vitus dance syndrome. Rock also traced its origins to the early 20th century when African Americans in churches were imbued with an unseen but felt spirituality and ‘rocked’ its very foundation. Dore knew the body-mind-soul response to blues and rock music originates in the hips and groin; it invites every other body part to meld and for a mad moment—allow the universe to take the wheel.

A few months after the theft, Dore moved to a more secure apartment building closer to work and enrolled in a jujitsu self-defense class—no special shoes were required. She remained absent from her favorite bars and dance clubs, and bought an exercise bike. She stopped listening to blues and rock stations and met a man that didn’t dance. He took her on long, rambling rides in his canary yellow roadster convertible. He blathered; she pretended to listen. They visited trendy towns boasting avanade-guard art galleries and eateries.

She also developed a new habit, that of looking down. At first, she was clumsy and would bump into people, walls, and trashcans while intently staring at feet. Soon she gained a new perspective, and into a pocket or plastic bag would drop numerous items people had discarded. One week, she found $2.82 in change, two cats eye marbles, a gold wedding band, discarded scratch off lottery tickets, and a rusty skeleton key. She spotted dozens of people wearing red heels, maryjanes, and red canvas sneakers, but not a single shoe was like hers.

Dore haunted pawn, antique, and second hand shops in hopes of finding her shoes. She racked her brain as to who could have stolen her shoes—and when. The men she’d dated had all been in her flat. Several men had spent a few nights there; one of them had even made her breakfast. She’d invited casual friends over for wine and cheese or cocktails before going out, and all of them had to pass through her walk in closet to get to the bathroom. She contacted everyone that had visited her flat. They laughed and thought she was joking. Later they called and told her they didn’t appreciate being contacted by the police. The one person that might have been sympathetic, her former best friend, couldn’t be reached. His phone’s mailbox was full and when she went round to his posh uptown flat, a strange woman answered the door. She told Dore the man that rented the flat previously had left abruptly. “Ohhh,” was the only thing Dore could say.

The woman was about to close the door when Dore blurted out, “Do you know if any personal belongings were left behind?” The woman replied it wasn’t likely; the apartment was bare and the walls had a fresh coat of paint. She knocked on other apartment doors. No one knew what had happened to the man that used to live there. He was quiet and kept to himself. Dore walked numbly down the street. If I’d been a better friend, or at least kept in contact, would he still have left? She had no idea how to contact him, despite considering him a best chum—until he became possessive. At first, she wondered if he might be gay. He had so many strong opinions about what she wore, how she decorated her home, even about what music she listened to. But when she was sick with a horrible flu-cold, he brought her a basket of get well goodies, braided her hair, rubbed her feet, and even cleaned her disorderly kitchen, including the fridge.

Unfortunately, he was a hoverer. Dore needed her solitude and didn’t care a fig about the opinion or approval of others. Sometimes she appreciated his helpful suggestions and worldliness. He said little about his immediate family, only that they weren’t close and lived abroad. He once shared his main source of income came from a trust from his grandfather and he was part of an investment group that bought and resold properties. He always insisted on paying when they went out for a meal, and surprised her several times with impossible to get theatre tickets. In turn, she made him home cooked meals and asked him occasionally to join her at one of the many art exhibits to which she was invited. She was even willing to let him tag along when she went dancing. He always declined her invitations; she laughed at him when he urged her to find other entertainment.

The friendship might have continued indefinitely if not for two things. One Sunday evening, he arrived unannounced at her flat rather excited, with a half dozen bags of designer label clothing. Another smaller bag contained a bottle of chilled champagne and chocolate covered strawberries. He insisted she immediately try on the clothes—everything fit, though the items were not her style—too tailored—too mature—too subdued. She thanked him and he offered her a glass of champagne. He seemed edgy as he quickly downed his glass and poured another. Then he sprinted into her closet, yanked a dozen articles of clothing off the hangers, and dumped the lot on the floor at her feet. He opened a desk drawer, grabbed a pair of scissors, and began slashing her clothes. Dore hurled the strawberry she was about to bite into at him and shrieked a string of expletives—the gist of which was to cease and desist. That was strike one.

He pulled a small box from his jacket pocket; from his mouth poured a stream of love epitaphs. The last thing he said was that if they were going to be married, she needed to understand there would have to be some major changes. He flipped open the box and revealed an almond shaped sparkler.

“Are you bat guano crazy?” she shouted. “You buy me clothes suited to a grandiose image of your own creation, and without permission, you destroy my favorite outfits. I should have realized sooner—you’re a frigging control freak. You’ve ruined a perfectly grand friendship with a—with a—toxic declaration of love. I never led you on or said I had any romantic feelings for you. Get out, just get out, and take your designer rags and ring with you.” That was strike two; there would be no strike three. With a look more shocked than hers, he fled into the night. She didn’t answer the phone, marked return to sender on the letters he sent, and avoided the restaurants, bars, and shops they used to frequent.

Later, she realized there had been hints. Months earlier, he’d given her a first edition copy of Dickens Great Expectations, a tale of unrequited love, and a mix tape with a curious selection of love songs, which she tossed. Dore took a brief dating sabbatical, but visited the dance clubs more often. She attracted even more attention with the spins, splits, and hip thrusts she added to her improv solo performances. After her shoes were stolen, she met a man in a coffee house that shared her enthusiasm for foreign art house movies and they went on several dates. When she began obsessing about viewing films featuring thieves, and insisting on watching old movies like To Catch a Thief, The Saint, Robin Hood, and Aladdin, the man lost interest.

On another rainy Saturday, Dore and the man with the roadster convertible visited a new art gallery exhibiting a well-known portrait artist with a daring new show. There were no faces in his new series of paintings. It featured hands—old, young, lined, freckled, painted black, orange, and henna red; and feet—splayed, bare, muddy, henna’ed, and shoed in all manners of footwear. There were also sculptures by other artists of body appendages, plaster casts of buffed torsos, a bronzed foot and gladiator sandal made of strands of silver wire and beer can tabs, and an assortment of sculpted hands—clapping, cupped, or in prayer—with a certain finger pointing skyward. A few of the exhibits made her laugh. One artist had selected common foot and hand idioms and made 3D models with fancy calligraphy titles. There was a ‘hand out,’ a foot dangling from the rest of a leg (footloose), a lead foot, 2 left feet, and a bird in a hand. Sadly, there were no red dancing shoes.

The art exhibit inspired Dore. She enrolled in an advanced painting class. During the next few months she experimented with charcoal, acrylic and oil paints, and watercolors. She sketched her missing red shoes in all these mediums. Most mediums overwhelmed her senses, except for watercolors. The new techniques she learned help her capture the mystique, light and vibrancy of the shoes. Much to her teacher’s dismay, all Dore’s pictures featured the red shoes, though occasionally she would sketch from memory a ruined castle at twilight or the bay in Northern England where she once took long, barefoot walks while on holiday. However, if you looked closely, you’d see a pair of tiny red shoes propped against the castle walls or half buried in the beige sands of the bay.

A few students in her class teased that she had a foot fetish and would chant the bawdy poem about the girl with little red shoes that liked whisky and booze. She called them sick puppies, but it did make her pause and question why she obsessed about finding her missing shoes. Was she being haunted like brokenhearted Karen, the girl in The Red Shoes fairy tale that finally begged the town’s executioner to chop off her red shoe clad feet? Dore was weary of looking down to scan other peoples’ footwear in the hopes of finding hers. However, she continued to notice things of interest, ranging from humorous graffiti and an additional $4.25 in lost change—to mosaic tiles and bits of broken crockery embedded in sidewalks. She was now an expert on shoe lore and ‘shoeperstitions.’ Once shoes were considered the equivalent of magical charms, able to bestow fertility, or when buried below floorboards, could protect a house and the people inside. Dore learned there’s actually a museum in England’s East Midlands (once a shoemaking center) with a list of over 1900 occurrences of shoes that were concealed in various places. About half the shoes belonged to children—or elves?

By wearing shoes, we create a barrier between us and earth; this perhaps links us more intensely to other elements and senses. Early humans fashioned shoes from animal hides, and by the 3rd century BCE, we wore sandals, flat heeled boots, and pointy toed shoes. Slowly, shoes became a status symbol. Kings and queens wore bejeweled shoes; peasants went barefoot or wore wooden clogs. The Roman historian Suetonius described perhaps the first foot fetish, a Roman Senator that carried his mistresses’ right shoe under his togo. He would shower kisses on the shoe. Red shoes were typically only wore by courtesans; later red shoes became an imperial symbol, worn by popes and members of European courts. Red shoes became drop boxes for love notes, and during the Middle Ages, shoes in good condition were willed to family members or donated to churches (ergo the expression ‘walking in my father’s footsteps’). As to dancing shoes, some early versions were glued to the dancer’s feet and crossed with ribbons.

Humans are forgetful creatures. When she danced, Dore reminded people some things have to be repeated over and over to break up old patterns and rules. When she danced, Dore stirred and woke the deadened or sleeping souls of those watching. When she stopped dancing, it was as if some vital essence had been sucked from the places where she danced. Both the live and canned music sounded hollow and distant; spotlights glowered at the dancers, distorting the length of arms and legs; and bodies no longer responded to learned commands to twist, let the backbone flip, or bend the knee in supplication to the gods and goddesses of dance and music. The mood was reminiscent of a production choreographed by clown marionettes. The magic the shoes had revived had one foot in the grave again.

Would Dores’ pilfered pumps eventually appear in the alt dimension of lost things, next to the wonders of the ancient world, the alleged Ripper’s From Hell letter (and ½ a kidney), the Prussian Gold & Amber Room, or the Bayeux Tapestry’s missing three meters? What exactly do we lose when something is lost (though she was sure her shoes weren’t lost, but stolen)? Certainly, we lose the time it takes to search and the time we spend fretting, hurling wild accusations, and mourning; sometimes we lose our self-confidence and trust in others. How we deal with loss determines whether we are victims or initiates.

Dore even tried meditation and rationalization. Perhaps she’d been granted the shoes for a short time, and the universe was doing her a favor. One day, her body wouldn’t be able to respond to the shoes demands as it once had. Had the theft forced her to quit while she was ahead—or afoot? Since she wasn’t dancing, she supplemented her need to feed body-mind-soul in motion with the notion of becoming an Art Crime Investigator. In addition to taking specialized investigative and counterfeiting training, she needed to ace physical fitness and art history exams. The job involved travel worldwide, at a moment’s notice, and certain risks were compensated for by a high salary with lots of zeros and commas.

 It was a lot to consider. While she was mulling over the commitment required to become an art detective, she was overcome with a feeling of dread—her shoes were dead, or as they say DDD: definitely done dancing. She knew it in the deepest recesses of her being. The other shoe had dropped. Her red shoes had been destroyed—but by whom? Worst of all, she would never be able to prove who stole her shoes.

Because she had been devastated by the disappearance of her shoes for so long, she arrived at the Kubler Ross fifth stage of loss—acceptance—much sooner than most. In a tentative version of this state, she retrieved a blank canvas and her watercolor paints from a hall closet, attached the canvas to her easel, and created a translucent vision of a bliss filled memory. Dore had worn a favorite pair of frayed dress jeans with an off the shoulder red ruffled peasant top and danced until the shoes produced blisters and drew blood. It was a night when magic, music, and motion made her feel immortal. It was, in fact, the last time she’d worn the red shoes.

A few hours later, humming a tune she couldn’t quite place, Dore laid down her brushes and gazed at the painting. She was elated. She had painted and captured happy shoes on the happy feet of a woman that had repeatedly known profound joy, despite having lost both her parents, despite having never found true love or a man she wanted to spend ever after with. The red shoes had served as mentor, guru, and arcane drill instructor, and connected her to mystic memories of time immortal when magic was normal. We hadn’t lost our innocence; we’d been manipulated and lost our memory of spontaneous magic, of words of enchantment and glamouring, and portals that led to other worlds and higher forms of evolvement. Had the shoes completed their mission? She realized the song she’d been humming was an old Lovin’ Spoonful song about the ‘magic in the music and a young girl’s heart…’ Real magic had always been in her and the music and the shoes. It was everywhere, in plain sight, like a purloined grimoire, or a Voynich Manuscript or Linear A tablet awaiting a key or the certain tap of a foot.

Dressed in black skinny jeans, soft leather boots with two inch heels, and a threadbare charcoal sweatshirt that revealed one bare shoulder and a lacey camisole strap, Dore floated onto the dance floor and during the next three hours tarantella’ed, tripped the light fantastic, hustled, bamboo’ed so low nothing else could fit under her, and stripe teased the entire nightclub. Those that watched Dore tried to verbalize what they’d seen. They called her a whirling dervish, a mambo maniac, a holy harlot of perpetual motion. They tried to imitate her moves, formed conga lines, and boot-scoot boogied until exhausted. When the music ended, they left hurriedly, their clothes adhering to moist skin, revealing erect nipples and engorged nether regions. They left with secret smiles and a spark of understanding of what could be achieved when mind-body-and soul worked collectively.

With her remembered knowledge and reclaimed abilities, Dore could go anywhere and do almost anything. She had found her calling—the world awaited; it wouldn’t do to stay here when she could be sharing her ‘shamonic’ expertise and rousing sleeping souls longing to be reunited and vibrate with the pulse of the universe. The first thing she did was book a flight to Spain. Her destination was a city outside Malaga, Picasso’s birthplace. She’d learned of a town there, with homes hewn into the mountainside, where gypsies and other nomad’s donned heels similar to her red shoes and danced provocatively to mad guitars and violins, slapped ribbon’ed tambourines on their hips, and conjured the moon and all that implies. Then she would walk hidden paths in Greece and Italy where gods once held court and bestowed favors or punishments, and where Pan, the original randy half goat half man still roams, at one with past, present, and future, with nature and magic. Oh, the things you can do when you allow your foot to be put in another shoe.

###   © Jo Hannigan 2019 all rights reserved ###

Dear Readers, if you got to the end, you likely read the entire story. I’d like to know your thoughts if you have a few minutes. I have lots more stories, so please keep coming back! Thanks much, Jo