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Illustration by Carolyn Ridsdale
Girl Can’t Dance

Emma dreams of stardom. What will she give up to make her dream come true?

By Lisa Yee
From the November 2020 Issue

Learning Objective: to compare ideas about fame expressed in a short story and in a poem

Lexile: 640L
Other Key Skills: foreshadowing, figurative language, plot, allusion, inference
AS YOU READ

Think about how fame changes Emma.

At first sight of me, I guarantee you’d want my autograph. Well, maybe not now—but there was a time, not so long ago, when that would have been true.

It’s not that I am extraordinarily talented, tremendously smart, or spectacularly beautiful. In fact, I’m pretty ordinary, which is why what happened was extraordinary.

My twin brother, Theo, said that I should thank him.

“For what?” I asked. “For making my life miserable?”

“You made your own life miserable,” he replied. “I just happened to be there.”

Maybe I should start at the beginning.

Celebrities have always been an obsession for me and my best friend, Aubree. You know—movie stars, singers, influencers, anyone on that show Immediate Access. We devote endless hours to YouTube, especially Jackson Jax’s channel.

Once, Aubree’s mom took us to his concert, and I swear, even though I was one of 15,000 screaming fans, Jackson Jax pointed straight at me and uttered in his signature whisper, “Girl, this song is for you.” A few months ago, Aubree and I were watching a Jackson Jax video when she asked, “Emma, what’s the most important thing to you?” “Fame,” I replied. “What about you?” 

“Friends,” she said. “If you ever got famous, you would still be my friend, right?”

Aubree and I had been friends since first grade.

“Of course!” I answered. “I’d also go on the Gary Larry Show and ride in a limo.”

As it turned out, I would do two out of three of those things.

It started with the karaoke machine Uncle Roger gave me for my 13th birthday. For the longest time, it stayed in its box—and for good reason. My singing is so cringey, so horrendously dreadful, that when it’s someone’s birthday, it’s best for everyone if I just mouth the words.

But one Saturday night, Aubree and I opened the box.

“Karaoke!” Theo exclaimed, barging into my room. “Can I try?”

“Go away,” I ordered.

“Please . . . ” he begged.

“Go away!” I shouted.

“You’ll be sorry,” he warned ominously.

After he scampered off, I started belting out Jackson Jax’s megahit, “Girl, It’s Gotta B U.” Then I began to dance. I looked like a cat trying to cough up a hairball. Aubree laughed so hard she couldn’t breathe.

“Emma,” she cried, “please promise you won’t ever do that in public!”

“Oh, right,” I said, giggling. “Like that would ever happen.”

On Monday, Theo was eager to get to school. That should have been a clue that my world was about to turn inside out.

I have P.E. first period. Being as uncoordinated as I am, I hate P.E., and I think it’s fair to say that P.E. hates me. We were lining up to play basketball when a bunch of boys started singing a horrible rendition of “Girl, It’s Gotta B U.” Everyone was laughing, including me. But when they started dancing, I felt like I had been punched in the stomach.

I recognized that dance. It was my dance. The boys were imitating me. But why? How . . . ?

“Hey, Emma,” Julian said as he dribbled the ball. “You’re a star!”

All through middle school, I had hoped that Julian would notice me. I had even practiced speaking to him in front of the mirror. “Oh, hello, Julian,” I’d say in a sophisticated voice.

Julian was waiting for me to speak.

“Whaaa . . . whaaa . . . whaaat?” I stammered.

“Saw your video,” Julian said, grinning. “You know, ‘Girl Can’t Dance.’ ” He pretended to hack up a hairball.

Things only got worse after that. The entire school had seen my “Girl Can’t Dance” video.

And then I knew.

When I spotted Theo at lunch, he took off running. He was fast, but I was faster. “You creep!” I yelled, snagging his T-shirt. “You’re going to pay for this.”

Then I noticed Serena Malik and her friends cackling. A few of them did the hairball dance, while one intentionally sang horrifically off-key. I let go of Theo’s shirt and ran to the bathroom to hide.

Mom and Dad grounded Theo and took away his phone privileges for a month. But it was too late. “Girl Can’t Dance” had received more than 500,000 hits—and we had only 600 students at our middle school. Even after Theo removed the video from his YouTube account, it kept showing up on other people’s.

Then the strangest thing happened. Some kids at school started being nice to me. And one day someone I didn’t even know showed up in a “Girl Can’t Dance” T-shirt with my photo on it.

My video had gone viral.

“You’re a celebrity,” Aubree gushed. “Emma, you’re famous!”

“Yeah,” I admitted. “But I’m famous because I can’t sing or dance. Because I humiliated myself. This is not how I imagined it.”

“Just enjoy it,” Aubree said. “Everyone knows who you are.”

It seemed that she was right. The day “Girl Can’t Dance” surpassed 1 million views, Aubree and I jumped up and down and hugged each other. By the time it hit 14 million views, I had been on Wake Up A.M. and even Immediate Access. When I got the call inviting me to be on the Gary Larry Show, the producer said a limo would be sent for me.

As the studio audience looked on, Gary Larry asked, “Emma, how many people have seen your video?”

“Well, Gary,” I said, turning to wink at the camera, “I stopped keeping track when it passed 20 million.”

Gary Larry grinned. “Emma, we have a surprise for you.”

The curtains parted, and out came . . . Jackson Jax.

He sauntered to the microphone, looked straight at me, and whispered, “Girl, will you join me?”

The crowd went wild as Jackson Jax sang “Girl, It’s Gotta B U” and I performed my famous moves.

I was a star.

Everywhere I went, people asked for my autograph. Total strangers would do my dance when they saw me. Everyone wanted a selfie with me. #GirlCantDance was trending on Twitter and Instagram.

I started wearing sunglasses to hide from my fans.

“Hey, Emma,” a boy said at lunch one day. He held out a piece of paper. “Can you sign this for my cousin?”

I took off my sunglasses and asked, “Do I know you?”

“It’s me, Julian,” he answered. “We have P.E. together?” I exhaled loudly, then scrawled a giant “E” on the paper.

“Thanks, Emma!” he said. “You’re amazing.”

“Whatever,” I said.

“You’ve changed,” Aubree commented, biting into her pizza.

I looked at my hot-pink nails. Maybe I’d try deep purple next.

“How so?” I tossed my head back and flashed a smile as someone took my picture.

“Well, you’re sort of . . . and don’t take this the wrong way, but you’re kinda . . . stuck up,” she said softly.

I put my sunglasses back on. Aubree just didn’t get me.

“You’re jealous,” I told her. “Maybe I need a new best friend—someone who can deal with all of this.”

“Maybe you’re right,” Aubree said, her voice cracking.

I thought she might be crying, but it was hard to tell because my sunglasses made the room so dark.

Theo walked past us and muttered, “I’ve created a monster.”

After that, I stopped eating lunch with Aubree and sat with Serena Malik and her group instead. Only a few weeks earlier, they had made fun of me. Now they wanted to hear all about Jackson Jax and the limo and Gary Larry.

As the days went by though, I learned that you can tell the same stories only so many times before people become bored. My YouTube hits began to dwindle to only a few thousand a day, then a few hundred, then a couple, until it seemed that no one was watching it anymore at all. The new top trending video was called “Betty & Herman.” It featured a dog and a duck who’d become best friends.

“Your 15 minutes of fame are up,” Theo said one night.

I was sitting alone in my room, watching “Girl Can’t Dance” on YouTube. I looked like an idiot. A happy, clueless idiot.

“Huh?”

“Andy Warhol said that everyone will be famous for 15 minutes,” Theo explained as he stood between me and the computer.

“Who’s Andy Warhol?” I asked. “Does he do karaoke?”

“He was an artist,” my brother told me. “You’re hopeless.”

As quickly as I had become a celebrity, I had turned back into a pumpkin. A pumpkin with no friends.

“Hi, Julian!” I said. He was standing at his locker. “Did your cousin like the autograph?”

He looked like he didn’t know who I was.

“It’s me, Emma,” I said. “You know, ‘Girl Can’t Dance.’”

I did a couple of hairball moves. When he cringed, so did I.

Even though I still sat with Serena and her friends, I was pretty much ignored. After several days of this, I picked up my tray and walked to where Aubree was eating with a bunch of kids from our English class.

“Hey,” I said, motioning to an empty chair. “Mind if I join you?”

Aubree shrugged, so I sat down. No one said a word. It was beyond awkward. After 10 minutes of silence, I got up and left.

As I ate alone in a bathroom stall, I thought about how I wasn’t famous for something I could do. I was famous for something I couldn’t do. I was famous for being untalented. If that was my 15 minutes of fame, I had wasted it.

It took three minutes for me to do “Girl Can’t Dance,” five minutes for Theo to upload it to YouTube, and 14 million views to make me a star. What did all that add up to? I’d lost the one friend who really counted.

I owed Aubree an apology. Maybe even 14 million apologies. She had been right all along. About fame. About friendship.

I tossed my sunglasses in the trash and headed back to Aubree.

I had something to tell her.

Fame Is a Bee  

By Emily Dickinson

Fame is a bee.

It has a song—

It has a sting—

Ah, too, it has a wing.

Image credits: Shutterstock.com

This article was originally published in the November 2020 issue.

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Step-by-Step Lesson Plan

Close Reading, Critical Thinking, Skill Building

1. PREPARING TO READ (15 minutes)

2. READING AND DISCUSSING (45 minutes)

3. SKILL BUILDING AND WRITING (20 minutes)