Blast | December 16, 2022

BLAST, TMR’s online-only prose anthology, features prose too vibrant to be confined between the covers of a print journal. Jeneé Skinner’s voice-driven “Feet Only I Can Hear” is a surprising ghost story that touches on questions of artistic excellence, power imbalance, and female agency.  

Feet Only I Can Hear

Jeneé Skinner


Isla didn’t want to remember who she was before the pointe shoes. The girl who only got to be an understudy. The one whose face disappeared behind the arms and legs of more talented dancers. The one with muscular curves boys invited themselves to pinch when nobody was looking. To the world outside the studio, she’d be considered beautiful for her regal jawline, soft afro, and sturdy thighs. A body that made room for its person. But on the stage and across the barre, she was a puddle, spilling into the way, causing other dancers to hop around or in front of her.

“I think you’d make a better librarian. Everyone will always need literature,” her mother said.

Her mother only saw the quiet in her child, how Isla’s voice was often in whispers and her eyes rarely met others’. Books made for good hiding places, especially for living ghosts like Isla. But there were noise and desire that crept up in her bones and desperately wanted to touch and be touched by others. Sure, she enjoyed the various places that books brought her, but they never created a place where she wanted to live. Every time she saw a dance concert in high school, the bends in the artist’s body framing their music, Isla felt herself expanding, filling up space she didn’t know was there before, already wondering how to make the dream of their bodies the reality of her own. She wanted the attention, to be someone other than who people thought of her as, to dance as if to say, “You don’t know me at all.”

She took modern and ballet classes at the age of sixteen, determined to catch up with the girls who’d done it all their lives because it was her life now too. Of course, it was humiliating at first. Her lack of flexibility and confidence, the dizzy mess of her spins and crooked angle of her flat-footed toes. But she bore the giggles and chatter as she had done most of her childhood. Eventually, her limbs grew fluid and she weaved with the rhythm rather than against it. She was good enough to audition. Not New York City good, but New England metropolitans suited her better anyway. Though most people couldn’t stand the isolation of the winters, that only made the season a closer companion of hers.

Auditioning straight out of high school, she’d been accepted at the Dunham Studio. It made her smile whenever she went on social media to see the girls who’d laughed at her now working jobs at the mall, dropping out of college, giving birth to children they couldn’t afford, while she lived the dream they’d all given up. But the stream she’d been swimming in suddenly gave birth to a river. She became lost among women whose dreams had fed them since the age of baby teeth. It wasn’t that Isla was bad; she just wasn’t memorable, had to fight twice as hard for even a glance from instructors. She lacked the presence and energy to set her apart as the lead. Her abilities only made her a competent supporting performer, a figure to help fill in stage space. As much as Isla tried, her feet never adjusted to pointe shoes. Her toenails kept cracking no matter how much she wrapped them or how short she trimmed them, turning her feet into blistered cherries.

One evening after rehearsal, she wandered down to the dress closet and stood touching the hems of tutus, leotards, and dresses. And then she stumbled across me, a pair of graying pointe shoes. Most people ignored me because they only wanted beautiful things that complemented their own beauty. And I looked like work, a memory hard fought for, a story that most people didn’t have patience to hear. But Isla knew the value of listening, given how rarely anyone listened to her. She stroked my seams, valuing the labor that had seeped into them with the smell of cement.

We were drawn to each other’s ghosts. When Isla held me, it was clear we’d belong to each other. She grabbed a needle and thread and stitched ribbons to me, then put me on. There was beauty in being wanted, and we knew it, felt it, as she stretched into a small glissade, assemble, sous-sus. I hadn’t been held in years, and neither had she.


From then on, I gave Isla’s muscles my skill and memories. The desire and artistry were there, but she lacked the confidence to push herself past discomfort. I cradled her feet instead of crushing them as her other shoes had done. Her distal ends had the strength to lift higher. Her torso bent into the shape of water, filling in wherever the choreography called for it, even past what the instructor asked. I knew how to anticipate a man or woman’s wants, but especially the piano and the fingers of an adagio. I imparted this gift to Isla, not only for embracing me but because I wanted to have a body and applause again. With my help, Isla wasn’t afraid to look up at others anymore. She let them see the performance painted with each gesture. And I got to come alive again through her, reuniting with my first love. Dance. It was wonderful to have flesh that could wrap around each note, stretch the character I became as far as the stage and music allowed, and to be free within the story I got to tell.

The creative director watched Isla one morning before class. He’d gone gray over the years, a few wrinkles defining his mouth and neck, but his muscles remained taut. He was the man I remembered. Mostly. He walked over and gently pulled her hair back into a bun and let his hands slide down her shoulders, telling her to relax. As he did this, I sensed his naked fingers and the tan line from a wedding ring. Gone but not forgotten.


It didn’t take long for Isla to finally become the swan and collect her flowers. Over the next few months, the director came to rehearsals and tried to give her notes on her dancing at the end of the day.

At first, Isla eagerly looked at the first page of his notes, but I made sure she threw them out before leaving the building, that she’d forgotten any residual thoughts by the time she sat down to dinner. My voice entered her mind, a contrast to her more timid thoughts. My voice came in sharp and direct, clear enough that Isla knew her thoughts no longer belonged only to her. Each idea she had was now a conversation between us.

He doesn’t care about you making improvements. This is about control, I told her.

Isla’s eyes darted around as she looked for the body of my voice, eventually settling on the pointe shoes. She’d always known I was there. How could she not? Ever since she first put me on, all her moves were more skillful than she’d ever been able to execute on her own, and she was aware of that. Still, she found it daunting to hear a new opinion in her head. I could understand that I would take some getting used to.

Everyone gets feedback, she thought in answer to my warning

Well, your feedback from him is a test.

 A test for what?

To see how much you’ll allow him to get away with.

 Isla shook her head as if she didn’t have the mental capacity to consider a man’s cruelty. Why are you telling me this? she wondered.

Trust me. Throw out the notes.

 She looked at the pages with his neat handwriting, running her thumb along the first few bullet points. Then she turned it over to its blank back side as if to erase what she’d just seen and dumped them in the nearest recycling bin.


I could taste the director’s desire to get Isla to submit to him, as he’d done with me. But I knew better now, and she’d see that soon enough. The next week, he left a note in her locker with a time and place scrawled down, and his initials. A dinner date.

Rumors were already spreading about how Isla had made her way up from a corps to prima position. Who she’d slept with. What drugs she took. What a bitch she was outside of the studio. It was a sign you’d made it when girls had something to be envious of. It didn’t matter if what was said was true or not. There was nothing any of them could do about it either way. All the other ballerinas had were words tucked into bathroom stalls and alleyways with their cigarettes and lonely walks home.

“I heard she survives on fruity gum most days.”

“So that’s why she smells like the asshole of a kiwi.”

“Hardly opens her mouth around us. It’s like she can barely form a sentence.”

“Five dollars says she’ll drop out several weeks before the show to join a commune and learn how to make rice milk.”

Thankfully, Isla’s years of being bullied in school had prepared her for such mean girls. Their gossip danced with them. They rolled their eyes and hid behind smiles as Isla led them with a grand jeté. She felt the envy, hatred, lust in their fingernails as they danced around in a circle. During rehearsals, some of the corps dancers treated Isla’s hands like pets, while others ensnared her, waiting to bite off any part of her that would fit between their grinning teeth. Let their evil feed you, I whispered into her bones. You have what they want, so let’s give it to them. It brought back delicious memories of when I was prima. I used the other dancers’ egos as my dance floor, stepping over each to make my way to the top, where I belonged. I got to breathe an anointed air while watching them choke on their failed attempts to be noticed. I remembered every past grievance, who had muttered “Slut” under their breath as Isla walked by, who turned away from her attempts at conversation, and every cue they missed that left Isla vulnerable to fall. She wouldn’t be lonely as long as she had me. Their spite only made both of us stronger.


Isla contemplated meeting the director for dinner, but I convinced her not to. We went to the library instead, with me tied to the arm of her gym bag.

What if I get into trouble? she thought.

You won’t, I responded.

Adding steps to the chase only made him run farther, as long as she stayed within sight, and he thought there was a chance of catching her.

He approached the next day, keeping her after class, telling her which positions he wanted her to practice. “Did you get my note?” he asked, moving her leg into a higher arabesque.

“I did.”

“Is there some reason you couldn’t make it?”

“I had other plans.”

“What other plans?” he said, spreading out her fingers.

“Plans that didn’t involve you,” she said blankly.

He grinned at her cheekiness. Isla was pleasantly surprised by it too. She liked the freedom of being able to take or leave him rather than waiting to obey demands she hadn’t asked for. Besides, consequences grew fewer the more talent one had.

“So when will you be free?” he said, looking at her in the mirror.

She removed his hands, sensing that their rehearsal was over. “I’ll let you know.”


Though she liked flirting with power, Isla struggled to fully take it. It took me several weeks to convince her to go on a voluntary date with him. It’s inappropriate, she thought.

Not if you remain in control of the situation.

 If someone finds out, this could get him fired.

That’s what makes it hot. Besides, if anyone believed it, that’s his problem, not yours.

 Isla was only used to doing her best, even when that wasn’t enough. But being “selfish” and “manipulative,” as she accused me of being, were new traits for her. So I quickly had to give her the mindset as well as the skill needed to accomplish her dream. Selfishness was what kept us ahead of other dancers, made us fine by ourselves, and would ultimately get us the fame we wanted.

Assertiveness is not the same as cruelty, I explained as we lay in bed one night.

And cruelty is not the same as assertiveness, she thought, stroking the spine of one of the books resting next to her.

If having control over the situation is cruel, I’d rather you be cruel than he. It’ll hurt a lot more if you give him the chance to be cruel first.

Isla placed a book on her pelvis. How do you know that’s what he’ll do?

Because of the boundaries he’s already tested on you. His corrections, dinner requests. The way he looks at you, touches you. Do you really want to wait to find out what he does next?

 She sat with my words, then fell asleep on them, and I knew she’d seen things my way.


Occasionally we’d meet the director for dinner; other times I told her to stand him up and get lost in the books she loved so much, the ones she kept by her bed. When she was lonely, she’d form a line of books on the other half of the bed, a paper body for her to cuddle and sleep next to. And she wore me to bed every night after noticing that her thoughts were less lonely the more she kept me around.

Sometimes the director would be upset and retaliate by demanding that Isla show the class the new morning routine we’d just learned. But the reason why he loved me, had once loved me, was because I could take whatever he, or anyone, threw at me and turn it into silk. The class sheepishly clapped when Isla finished showing the floorwork. Their hatred made their sweat stink and stretched her smile a little wider.

He never stayed mad after he saw her dance. Well, not until he saw the way other male dancers held her. At one point, the whole group of them lifted her in the air, making her the most coveted thing. That was my job, to seduce, to pull at the audience’s eyes, chests, and thighs, even when they weren’t sure why.

The director pulled Isla into his office two weeks out from our end-of-the-year performance. “I don’t think I want you in the lead role anymore.”

She pushed his hand off her arm, already feeling a bruise forming. “Why?”

He shook his head as he stared at her body. “It feels wrong having them look at you that way. I know the audience will be the same.”

“That’s not for you to decide.”

“It is, actually.”

“Not if you want the show to do well.”

He snorted. “This show was doing fine before you got here.”

“But it’s doing great with me,” she said.

The director stood back and looked down at her. “I’ve made my decision.”

“Well, if you want to see me again, I hope you made the right decision.”

We shot out of his office and out of the building. Isla’s heart fluttered like birds in a crowded cage. It was her first time giving an ultimatum, and I knew she wouldn’t know real power when she first got it. Submission never ended with respect. No, she would need to belong to herself for that. That would be the only way he’d love her.

She stumbled onto a bus heading home, clutching her gym bag. Now, more than ever, I needed her not to panic and cave in and ruin the groundwork that we’d laid. If she could just make it until tomorrow . . .

What did I just do? she thought, twirling one of the ribbons nervously between her fingers.

You stood up for yourself. Don’t worry; he’ll respect you more for it.

 What does respect matter if I’m out of a job?

Who said you were out of a job?

 You did!

Stop being so dramatic. You’re about to be a part of the biggest performance of your career because of me.

 I don’t like who I’m becoming with you.

Who said anything about liking? I’m trying to make sure you get the love you deserve. Isn’t that what you’ve always wanted?

 She stuffed the ribbons in the open part of the zippered bag, as if that would tuck all her anxiety away with them. The vibrations of the bus filled us both until we got back to the apartment. She opened the bag, took me out, and felt up my seams. I wish I could’ve explained that I knew what was best, but I knew she wouldn’t believe me, not until she saw the results first, so I didn’t bother.

Suddenly, Isla dug her nails into me, tears in her eyes. I was scared that she’d try to break me, which I couldn’t bear, not after I had striven to make myself look beautiful for her, to keep the vamp, box, shank, and other parts of the shoe tight for her. Now she’d try to purposefully undo me?

Don’t. Whatever you’re about to do, it isn’t worth it.

 But Isla was past listening. She walked over to the window and threw me out into open air, where there was nothing and no one to catch me. As a ghost, I’d already died once, so I wasn’t afraid of the fall, but I was afraid of being left behind again. How could she do this to me? After I’d listened to her story, cradled her feet so that she could sleep without feeling alone, given her parts of me that I hadn’t even given myself?

The night was cold. Even more so with the streetlights glaring down on me. Leaves and pebbles blew over me as if I were already in a grave. The thought of being buried and forgotten again was the real trap; that was what connected us. Me and Isla. She knew what it was like to be dead while you were still trying to live. To want to breathe, to be art, to be whole. A love that wouldn’t turn away or expire. Had that all been an illusion?

In the morning, a rabid raccoon wandered over, sniffing at the familiar scent of earth on me. It examined my body, scratched to see what parts were hard and soft, to discover if it could break and eat me. As it began gnawing at my seams, the entrance to the apartment building opened, and I heard bare feet rushing down the stone steps. Isla tried to rescue me from the creature’s fangs, but it swiped angrily at her hands. It was too infested with madness to reason with. Isla grabbed a few rocks from a neighboring garden and began throwing them at the beast. One of them managed to knock me out his mouth. The next stone landed with a thud on the animal’s back. The vibration of crushed bone traveled through the pavement. Isla moved forward with a final stone, tears soft and merciful as she watched the slow, spastic motions of the dying animal. The rock came down on his head, and the morning was silent. Not even the birds or wind interrupted.

I was proud of her for doing what needed to be done but still upset that she had let me go in the first place. Grabbing me by my ribbons, Isla quickly ran up the apartment steps, unbothered by anyone’s presence, because it was a neighborhood that didn’t wake early and minded its business. So the mess of the raccoon’s death didn’t belong to her; it was me, and only me, that she had to claim.

Don’t ever leave me like that again.

 “I won’t. I promise,” she said aloud.

She spent the morning, searching for a store that carried the cotton and satin needed to repair me. Several hours later, she came home and got out her needle and thread. No one had ever cared enough to hold me when I was broken, let alone try to put me back together again. It was nice to have someone else take the lead for once in a way that meant care and healing rather than egotism and pain. Each stitch of the needle was like a kiss to my forehead.

As she finished stitching, she looked over and saw her phone light up on the kitchen counter. She went over and grabbed it with one hand and held me by my heel seams in the other. Eight missed calls. She called back the number, and the other line picked up after the first ring, unleashing an assortment of sharp hisses in her ear. She waited for a break and asked, “Am I still prima?”

Hang up if the answer is no.

 Her body stiffened at the thought, but I knew she would listen. If she didn’t trust me to know what was best, she wouldn’t have come back for me or fixed what she had let break.

A moment later, she lowered the phone and ended the call. Had he actually rejected us?

“He said yes.”

She jumped up and down, smiled wider than ever, and pulled me close to her chest. We became whole again with each other.


Once upon a time, I was a girl who was barely a woman and fell in love with a man who brought me up to the stars. He embraced the nape of my neck, showed me how to appear demure, and taught me about George Balanchine. Somehow, he made me feel smart while also enlightening me. He became a home away from home, and I felt myself being given to him more with each day. Every praise that came from other teachers or audiences, I only saw through his eyes, his notes, his voice, his smile. I was good only if he said so. I loved his corrections more than his praise because with correction came touch. The feel of his middle and ring fingers running along my collarbone was my favorite sensation. I pretended the golden band on his finger was a symbol of his allegiance to me instead of to his wife.

Once upon a time, I didn’t know what to do with these new emotions that came with holding another person’s body inside my own. The affair made me feel beautiful and ugly at the same time. Grateful when he made it to dinner, the piano bar, the park, or wherever he said we would meet, but torn apart when he canceled for family or work. I trusted him less and less, yet somehow my love grew the more I waited for him. The fantasy of what we could be always dangled just out of reach. I tried to get lost in other men’s arms, then blamed them for not being smart, handsome, or funny enough to satiate me, when the truth was, I just hadn’t gotten my heart back yet.

Once upon a time, our relationship dwindled to just sex. Fewer words were exchanged, and there were days he didn’t even look at me. The lover in his fingers left, and he became the teacher he should’ve been from the beginning. Since he had stopped caring, so did I, coming in late, sometimes not bathing, eating my feelings. We were never done, just not enough. The last time, he met me outside during a busy afternoon.

“Get yourself together, or I’ll give the lead role to someone else!” he spat.

“How can I put myself together when you have all the pieces of me?” I asked.

The director scratched his chin and looked down. “This was a mistake. We were a mistake.”

My mind became loose and unaware for a moment. And a moment was all it took for me to wander into the street, trying to get away from his words, only to hear the horn of a beeping truck. The last sensations I felt were metal and cement.

Once upon a time, another ballerina gathered the pointe shoes I’d worn the day of my death and brought them back to the studio. A part of me followed behind her until we entered the costume closet, where she placed my shoes on an old bench. I thought she was giving me a place to be remembered, but within a year, I’d been forgotten for new and living girls who could still have their way with the world. Meanwhile, the only part of myself that I felt was the shoes. They had become my new house, and my ghost had shrunk to fit in the last place that loved me. I’d always said that art was the center and that the center began in the feet.

Once upon a time, years later, I met another barely woman, Isla, who was used to being overlooked. She gave me my feet back, so I gave her the best of me, as well as everything I hadn’t been for myself. I wanted her to see enough in herself, if nowhere else, to move in the spaces that gave the most meaning and away from the voices that tried to shrink her down to a size they could control. I wanted her to see what she could take and leave, to see what being priceless felt like. I spread myself in her toes, her hands, her torso and relived our first love as if it would never leave us, not knowing that she would become a love for me too.

Once upon a time, the first performance of many happened. Together, we pointed and flexed, undulated, stood in relevé and arabesques, allowed our back to bend to the music’s will and past our own. There was discomfort in finding that perfection, but it was always worth it, to know it was possible to achieve it, if only for a second, and chase after more moments like it. We danced with our eyes closed because only Isla and I existed in the dark. Afterward, we lived in the standing ovation for as long as possible, stretching out the smiles and lights and whistles.

There was so much want screaming in and out of us that could only be quieted by another person’s want.

Isla hugged me when we returned to the dressing room, filled with colorful bouquets and well-wishing cards. “Thank you for giving me my dream.”

The soles of the shoes curled into the curve of our breasts. Thank you for giving me back mine.

Once upon a time, after an ice bath, we dressed for bed, then heard a knock on our door. We opened it to find the director. He wanted, and we were ready. We trusted that we had him this time and not the other way around. If he ever tried to keep us, we would leave, but for now this level of body was safe to give away. He took off our clothes first, then tried to remove me.

“Leave those on,” Isla said.

“Why?” he asked, stroking our ankle.

“Because I said so.”

He respected that. Respected me truly for the first time. I was so proud of her. Only we needed to know what we were for each other. No matter how he kissed us, we would let his touch melt away until we were ready to be wanted again, just like we did with the rest of the world.



Jeneé Skinner has a degree in creative writing and went abroad to the University of Oxford to study Renaissance Literature and the Italian Renaissance. Her work has appeared in Catapult, Roxane Gay’s The Audacity, Crazyhorse, and elsewhere. Additionally, she won Michigan Quarterly Review‘s Jesmyn Ward Prize. She has received fellowships from Tin House Summer Workshop and Kimbilio Writers Retreat. From 2020-2022, she was the Writing in Color Book Project Fellow for the Lighthouse Writers Workshop. Her work has been nominated for Best Microfiction, Best of the Net, and a Pushcart. She’s an MFA candidate at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and can be found on Twitter @SkinnerJenee or Instagram @jskin94. More of her work is listed at