My first word was “tlo.”
You know, “tlo.”
It meant “cat,” my Mum would tell me, proudly.
“How did you know?” I remember asking skeptically.
Mum would get out my baby book and there it would be, in my Dad’s handwriting:
“Sarah’s first word: ‘tlo’ (cat).”
I do not recall whether I used “tlo” to refer to all cats, or just the one particular cat with whom I was well-acquainted. His name was Musty, and he was a curmudgeonly tabby for whom my introduction into the household was the great tragedy of his life. I loved him, and he hated me. I would apparently shout “tlo, tlo!” jubilantly whenever he accidentally entered a room that I was in, and then I would waddle over to him and pull his tail as a token of friendship.
Eventually, Musty died from despair. Then, when I was four, to my dismay, my parents brought my baby brother home from the hospital. I remember showing off my nascent reading skills by reading the picture book Meg and Mog, about a young witch and her cat, out loud to my parents. They seemed impressed but also distracted by the new baby, even though he couldn’t say “tlo” or read Meg and Mog. I suddenly understood exactly how Musty had felt.
But my parents had a plan to break the cycle of resentment. They got me a kitten of my very own. Sally, as I named her, was a tiny thing, black and white. I wanted desperately to squeeze her very tight to show her how much I loved her but, wise to the eager glint in my eyes, she spent most of the first few months of her life hiding under the freezer where I couldn’t reach her. Sally turned out to be most in her element when she was outside, prowling along the old brick walls that spread out like a grid dividing the rows of terraced houses’ back gardens from each other.
I was more of an indoor cat, and, as my reading improved, enjoyed keeping the company of fictional felines. Two of the series I most adored as a child were C. S. Lewis’s Narnia books (featuring Aslan, a big talking magical cat) and Barbara Sleigh’s Carbonel books, featuring Carbonel (a small talking magical cat). I think it may have been my cousin Louise who gave me T. S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. I can still see in my mind’s eye the distinctive Faber cover with the tiny fs that looked like houndstooth. I was taken by the book’s premise that it made its reader privy to the secret lives of cats. It was obvious from Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats that my Sally was a Jellicle cat (“Jellicle Cats are black and white, / Jellicle Cats are rather small”) and, therefore, a dancer; Jellicles, you see, reserve “their terpsichorean powers / To dance by the light of the Jellicle Moon.” I too was a secret dancer. Well, it wasn’t a secret, exactly, but it felt entirely distinct from the mundane world of school and the playground and homework.
Even before I had ever heard that there was a stage version of Eliot’s poems, my interest in cats and dance had already mingled in a unique theosophy with its own trinity. Every night (and I swear this is true), I would pray to my three deities: Aslan, Carbonel, and Fred Astaire. This was when I was around eleven—a very young eleven. I still wore my hair in pigtails, liked to play make-believe, and my fantasy life concerned neither boys nor girls but the possibility of getting to Narnia or how I would furnish my ideal treehouse.
I can identify quite precisely, in fact, the moment of puberty’s onset because it occurred while I sitting in the front row at the New London Theatre (now the Gillian Lynne Theatre, named after Cats’ choreographer), about to watch Cats for the very first time. For those of you who have never experienced the show, as the overture plays and your attention is arrested by the gigantic junk yard that the revolving stage slowly reveals, you become uncannily aware that that the bodies around you are not just those of other audience members. There are also, stalking, crawling, slinking around the seats, feline dancers. One dancer leapt into the lap of the man sitting on my left. I was frozen, half terrified half longing that he would leap onto me. The dancer purred and nuzzled into the man who seemed startled but not unhappy. The dancer turned his head over his left shoulder and gave me the most charming cat-who-got-the cream smirk. In that moment, I knew: I was no longer a girl, I was now a woman, and my sexual orientation was androgynous feline dancer.
Before seeing Cats, I was already into leg-warmers and fingerless gloves; but after Cats I rarely wore anything else. And I wasn’t the only one. Madonna in Desperately Seeking Susan looked like she had just stepped off stage from Cats. So did David Bowie in Labyrinth. But it wasn’t just the style of the dancers that I admired; it was also the dancing itself. Recently, I watched not the new movie version, which I still haven’t seen, but the 1999 film made of the Broadway production. Gillian Lynne’s choreography (which featured in both the London West End and Broadway shows) is riveting and enjoyably allusive in the way it “quotes” different styles of dance.
From the stag leaps (and, yes, pas de chats) that pepper the opening number to the first solo in which the graceful white cat, Victoria, moves through a taxing series of développés, you can tell that a ballet dancer choreographed the show. The group formations in which the male cats move across the floor at the ball evoke Jerome Robbins’ choreography for West Side Story. The pas de deux between Victoria and Plato evokes Kenneth MacMillan’s choreography for the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet, made famous by Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev. In Macmillan’s pas de deux, Nureyev holds Fonteyn in a series of fish dive holds. Likewise, Plato and Victoria’s pas de deux culminates with a fish dive hold. The main difference is that Victoria and Plato’s pas de deux then transitions into a giant cat orgy, which is an element that MacMillan chose not to include.
Former Royal Ballet dancer Wayne Sleep created the role of Mr. Mistoffolees in Cats, and Lynne’s choreography accordingly shows off his ballet chops. Sleep’s virtuoso skills are most evidently on display in his “Conjuring Turn,” consisting of 24 consecutive fouettés en tournant (24, mind, not 32; these cats are talented, but they’re not swans). Lynn’s choreography for the Rum Tum Tugger character evokes Jagger-like swagger and hip swiveling while that for Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat ominously foreshadows the perverse desire to turn human bodies into trains that would come to diabolical fruition in Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s next musical, Starlight Express.
But my very favorite choreography in Cats accompanies the song, “Macavity, The Mystery Cat.” Macavity is a master criminal also known as “the Hidden Paw.” The song tells the legend of his character and exploits in a sultry, cabaret-style number with the choreography to match. Now, I recognize it as a routine inspired by Bob Fosse—but at the time, I just knew it was mesmerizing: tense (sharp and angular knees pulled up and drawn in, elbows jutting) but also languorous (hips undulating, shoulders shimmying).
The choreography to “Macavity” struck eleven-year-old me as alluringly adult. And so I saw in “Macavity” the perfect vehicle for boosting my social status at school. It honestly never occurred to me that what was so obviously cool to me might not strike my peers in the same way. They were a pretty sophisticated bunch, with diverse musical tastes ranging from “The Beastie Boys” to “The Cure;” and this sophistication extended, as I only later came to realize, to not generally regarding London’s West End theatre scene as the barometer of cool.
The school I attended—our local state school—was very arts oriented. Modern dance was a compulsory subject for all students. We had an annual school dance performance that was also a fundraiser and, at the beginning of the school year, our dance teacher, Ms. Cheeseman, asked for volunteer choreographers. There were two volunteers in my class: a boy called Ben, and me. In the gym, Ben and I each had to perform our dance in front of the rest of the class, and then the class would decide if they were interested in participating in either one of our dances. Ben went first. His dance was quite impressive. I don’t remember what the music was like, but the dancing involved a lot of leaping and quasi-breakdancing. He bounced off of a wall. Then it was my turn. I got into position, poised to begin the dance I had choreographed to “Macavity”—which was not the same as the choreography in the show but which channeled, let’s say, its Fosse spirit.
The dance began with me lying on my side with my back to the audience. As the opening bars of the song played, I slowly pulled my upper leg over my lower leg in a retiré and into an extension and then tapped it on my knee in time to the snare drum. It’s difficult to describe, but I felt it was very glamorous and mysterious; I was also, however, worried because I couldn’t see the expressions on anybody’s faces. After the toe-knee tapping part, I slinked my way up and stood clicking my fingers in time to the music (here I imagined myself channeling Cyd Charisse in Singin’ In the Rain).
I couldn’t tell what my classmates were thinking, but I got through the whole dance and then Ms. Cheeseman turned to the class and said,
“OK, so who wants to be in Ben’s dance?”
Three boys raised their hands. Ben looked pleased.
Then Ms. Cheeseman asked, “and who wants to be in Sarah’s dance?” and I braced myself.
And then I saw the rest of the class, maybe fifteen people, raise their hands.
I could not have been more shocked nor more elated. I was used to being picked last for gym and eating lunch by myself. I couldn’t believe my classmates wanted to do anything with me, let alone this dance. I contemplated whether this was some kind of elaborate practical joke the entire class was playing on me (my experience taught me that this was an entirely plausible scenario). But they couldn’t be pranking me because they were actually going to have to perform it themselves in front of the whole school.
Ms. Cheeseman was happy, I believe, to see me receiving validation from my peers but not altogether happy about the dance itself. And here I must make explicit the qualities of my choreographic choices in this dance in case they are not already evident.
If I were to describe the style or genre of my dance today, I would describe it as “cabaret” or, possibly, “burlesque.” I didn’t realize this at the time; I was emulating the way that the dancers danced in Cats. I found the way they danced thrilling, but I couldn’t have said much more about the nature of the way in which I found it thrilling. Ms. Cheeseman, I suspect, must have been imagining a large room of parents watching a group of eleven-year olds writhing to music that could have accompanied a striptease—and wondering how it would play.
Although I was ecstatic with my newfound cachet as choreographer, something made me uneasy. I’d been inspired to choreograph the dance to “Macavity” after seeing a girl from my ballet class perform a dance that she’d choreographed to “Mungojerry and Rumpleteazer,” another song from Cats. My choreography was pretty derivative of hers—although different in mood because “Mungojerry and Rumpleteazer” has more of a Vaudeville-double-act feel than a burlesque vibe. Still, I felt a bit guilty. I consoled myself that it was a very Macavity move to appropriate someone else’s dance. After all, Macavity was “the Napoleon of crime”: “there never was a cat of such deceitfulness and suavite.” Moreover, the only person who knew about the other girl’s dance was my friend Chloe who was also the only person in my school who attended my ballet school. Chloe was a couple of years older than me and much cooler, so we had a tacit agreement that I wouldn’t acknowledge her at school unless she acknowledged me first. I didn’t think she would expose my dance as a copycat, but I couldn’t be sure.
For the next several months, I adapted the dance to accommodate my back-up cats, as I definitely thought of them. Things were going well. I was discovering that I enjoyed being in charge when I felt confident of my abilities. My chorus line was enthusiastic and hardworking. One girl brought in a real dustbin as a prop to add to the alley-cat ambience, and I was touched by her commitment to our creative collaboration. Chloe lent me a catsuit with cat markings that she happened to own, as you do. It was perfect: black with a white belly, just like Sally. I asked my Mum if she could sew tails for us all to wear and she gamely agreed.
I told Ms. Cheeseman excitedly about the tails and she paused meaningfully and pondered aloud,
“I just wonder if having tails wouldn’t seem rather …. twee?”
I stared at her blankly.
She hastily added, “But of course if your Mum has already made them, then that’s great!”
On the day of the performance, the other dancers and I drew whiskers on each others’ faces. I also put on lipstick and eyeliner.
One of the back-up cats rolled her eyes,
“I thought we were supposed to be alley cats,” she said, “we shouldn’t be all dolled up.”
“On the stage you have to wear make up,” I said loftily, “otherwise people won’t see you from the back of the theater.”
And then, it was the moment of truth. The hall was packed—with teachers, parents, and, it seemed, every single student in the school.
This was a big moment for me but also, as I saw it, for Macavity. In the original show, Macavity mostly skulks around in the shadows. Even in the song (as in Eliot’s poem), Macavity never speaks for himself; instead, two other cats tell the legend of his crimes. But, now, finally, Macavity would step, proudly, into the limelight and announce, “My name is Macavity. And I’m a Mystery Cat.”
As we all assumed our positions in the dark, the music started and the lights went up; I felt utterly exhilarated. I was excited for the world to see me as I envisaged myself in this persona: mysterious, powerful, alluring.
Here we come to the turn in the story that perhaps you have been dreading: the moment in which, presumably, my dreams came crashing down. Was it a performance that would live in infamy, that would haunt me for the rest of my school days? Or would I rise like a triumphant, Lycra-clad phoenix?
In a turn of events that strikes me to this day as miraculous, Macavity and his merry band of twee alley cats brought the house down. But the best was yet to come. After the show, kids who had never talked to me before came up to congratulate me on my performance. And they seemed to mean it. I think now that maybe there was something about my unerring commitment to something so completely absurd that somehow preemptively disabled mockery. My indefatigable self-belief had somehow made what so easily could have been the most wretched, humiliating spectacle into something glorious.
In general, I didn’t have much sense of what any adults in the audience thought of my performance, and I didn’t much care. I do, however, remember my lovely French teacher, Mr. Collins, looking absolutely shell-shocked when he saw me the next day.
“Sweet little Sarah,” he murmured, shaking his head and staring at me in disbelief. I was a little abashed but also proud; his response meant that what I had done was shocking.
Was my performance of “Macavity” a turning point in my secondary-school years? Not exactly. The aura of triumph around me dissipated as quickly as it appeared as people remembered that I was, after all, reserved and bookish, more mousy than kittenish. But I didn’t forget. That performance gave me a kind of inner strength as if, even on the days when I felt most oppressed by the indignities of adolescence, I could summon the sense of sleekness and agility conferred by that catsuit.
As the years went by, I would sometimes notice how I processed new information through the lens of Cats. When, in history, I finally discovered who Napoleon was, I thought to myself, “Oh, I get it! He’s the Macavity of warcraft!” When, in English, we read “Prufrock” and then “The Waste Land,” I was, at first, a little taken aback. It was like discovering that Richard Scarry had also written, I don’t know, American Psycho. But then I realized that the cats were still there:
The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes,
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,
And seeing that it was a soft October night,
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.
And then, when we read Angela Carter’s short story collection, The Bloody Chamber, there they were again in a tale about “The Tiger’s Bride,” whose purring groom licks her until his rough tongue has ripped off “all the skins of a life in the world, and left behind a nascent patina of shining hairs.” And then, so the tiger’s bride tells, “my earrings turned back to water and trickled down my shoulders; I shrugged the drops off my beautiful fur.”
Last night I performed as much as I could remember of my “Macavity” routine for my two children. Accommodations had to be made. There was no question of attempting any of the high kicks or my original big finish, which culminated in a cheeky side split. But even performing a much more sedate version proved taxing. (“God, this song goes on forever,” I found myself thinking as I danced around the living room). I was completely winded afterwards, and my back still doesn’t feel quite right.
“Well, what did you think?” I asked, dying to know what my children would make of this strange spectacle.
“Epic,” said my son.
I turned to my daughter and braced myself. She looked ready to dash cold water on my West End dreams.
She sucked in her breath and pursed her lips.
“I do think it’s a bit … inappropriate … for you to have danced at that age.”
Which parts were inappropriate, I wanted to know. She looked mortified and spelled out “B-U-T-T-S-H-A-K-E.”
“The butt shakes?” I exclaimed. “I think butt shaking is appropriate at every age,” I declared. And then I shrugged the drops off my beautiful fur.
Sarah Tindal Kareem is Associate Professor in the Department of English at UCLA and a co-founder and editor of The Rambling. Her research and teaching focus on eighteenth-century literature with particular attention to the history and theory of the novel and fiction’s representation and solicitation of affective attachments. Her first book, Eighteenth-Century Fiction and the Reinvention of Wonder (Oxford 2014), argued that wonder and the marvelous were integral to eighteenth-century literary realism. Her current book project focuses on the ways in which distance, obstacles, and negative feelings facilitate attachments within—and with—literary works.