"We want Annie! We want Annie!" yelled the crowd.
"I guess you'd better get on stage before they get too riotous", the event organizer said to the tiny woman beside him. "No problem, that's what I'm here for", she cheerfully responded and bounded onto the stage.
Within minutes she had the crowd eating out of her hand. Tiny she might be, but her mop of red curly hair lit up the stage and her strong, musical voice carried to the far lines of dancers at the back of the hall.
A couple of hours later, covered in tiny beads of sweat but with a broad smile on her face, she waved good-bye to the dancers and left the DJ to keep the floor moving. But she didn't get far. "Please Annie, would you mind signing this step sheet, it's my favourite dance", said the excited woman in front of her, "I wouldn't have missed seeing you for the world. When I heard you were coming to teach down here, I registered straight away and told my family that they would just have to look after themselves for this weekend." "Us too", chimed in the group which was growing larger by the second. Taking her time, Annie thought of something personal to sign for each dancer making all of them feel special and gaining even more fans. "I think Annie needs to put her feet up for a few minutes, she'll be back later", said a voice behind her. "You've got to promise you'll bring her back though Mandy", laughed the dancers. "I promise", Mandy grinned and grabbing her friend she led her through the crowd.
"You did a great job, Annie", Mandy told her as they walked through the grounds outside the hall, "You seem to gain confidence with every teaching gig." "It's their faces that do it. As soon as I step on stage and look down at their expectant expressions, I just want to do the best I can to put a smile on their faces. It wasn't so long ago that I desperately needed someone to bring some light into my life."
Anyone who saw Annie now would doubt that statement. They would see a vibrant woman who looked in her early 40s but had just recently turned 56. Their eyes would be immediately drawn to the brightness of her hair but would move then to the clear blue eyes whose direct gaze encouraged confidences. With her trim figure, Annie looked like an athlete although her sturdy legs looked made for dancing. Peering at her closely though, you might notice the remnants of past sadness etched at the corners of her eyes and there were times when her gaze seemed focused beyond the sight of the spectator.
In truth, Annie was seeing herself sitting in a darkened kitchen, curtains closed to shut out the light and a cold cup of tea on the table in front of her. It was a year since her husband's funeral and fear of the outside world still impacted on her movements. Life had not been kind to Annie Minden. She had grown up the only child of older parents who found the world a terrifying place with home as the only refuge. Annie was never allowed to play outside its confines and would sit at the window peering from behind the curtain at the children immersed in their games. Even when she left Secondary School and worked in the small real estate office just down the road, she didn't join her co-workers at the pub after work but headed straight home. But the outside world has a way of intruding; this time in the form of an articulated lorry which crossed the median straight into her parents' Ford Escort as they were returning from the Supermarket. They were killed instantly.
Beyond the shadow of the grief that shrouded her, Annie heard herself speak to the well meaning neighbours who offered support to this lonely young girl. She allowed the local vicar to arrange the funeral and listened to the accountant who handled her parents' annual income taxes. To her surprise her parents had squirreled away large sums of money and she was now fairly well off. Immediately she quit her job; she could not face dealing with people. She had everything she needed delivered and her home became her prison.
That was until she got to know Ralph the postman. Ralph had heard about this wealthy young woman and, priding himself on his charm, was determined to break down her barriers. Everyday he would deliver flyers, knock on the door and call out to Annie. As the days went by Annie began to look forward to Ralph's knock and eventually acquiesced when he invited himself in for a cup of tea. Within a few months he had wormed himself into her confidences and soon he was the only person she trusted and they were married at the local registry office. However, once Ralph was ensconced in Annie's house and had access to her money, things changed. He was abusive, possessive and threatening and Annie's fear returned. The only light in the grey of her days was when she became pregnant and gave birth to a little girl Ralph named Sarah after his mother. Being a mother gave Annie courage and she would take little Sarah for walks to the local park and sometimes would even exchange a few words with other mothers. This was soon stopped by Ralph who derided her attempts at friendship and exerted full control over Sarah as she grew. And so Annie remained a prisoner of her own home. Sarah discounted her mother in any decisions that were made and lived her own separate life leaving home as a young teenager. She maintained contact with her father but very little with her mother. Even this was broken when Ralph died of a sudden heart attack.
And so Annie's lonely life would have continued if Mandy Brown had not moved in next door. Mandy was outgoing, curious, friendly and compassionate; the wife of John and mother of Susie, Jessica and Rob. She had heard stories of her strange neighbour and being the kind hearted person she was, she set out to make contact. Annie would find freshly baked biscuits on her front door stop, home made jam, a meat pie and other goodies. She watched from behind her curtains as the plump, dark haired young woman, usually with a child in tow, would deposit her gifts. Finally one day Mandy knocked on the door and Annie found the courage to open it. Gradually, little by little Mandy learnt about Annie's sad life and determined to open up her world. Annie gained enough confidence to visit Mandy's house and even make the occasional visit with her to the supermarket but Mandy couldn't persuade her to go any further. Until the day that Mandy became desperately ill with pneumonia. John was beside himself with worry for his wife and was unable to cope with the three young children. "Please Annie", begged Mandy, "Can you help John with the kids?" What could she say to her devoted friend? She had to overcome her own fears and she did. It wasn't overnight but responding to the children's needs, Annie ventured out into life.
Once Mandy was back to good health, she was determined to rejoin her line dance class. Many of her friends had dropped by to help when she was ill so they had got to know the quiet woman who had helped the family survive this traumatic period. They joined Mandy in persuading her to join them on Tuesday nights. Her first visit to the Club was overwhelming and if Mandy hadn't been behind her, she would have turned and run! The hall was packed with dancers of all ages. Everyone seemed to be talking at once then cheers erupted when Mandy was spied. However, next thing Annie saw an older woman jump on the stage, music blasted out and to her amazement the floor transformed into a smooth flowing wave of dancers. "How do they know what to do", she whispered anxiously to Mandy. "Don't worry, you'll find out", Mandy responded.
It would be wonderful to say that Annie's life changed as of that night but life is never that easy. There were many evenings when it took all of her courage to leave the confines of her home and enter that noisy, lively hall but the music pulled her. Her feet just had to move to the sound of the beat, and the feeling of being a part of the whole when she took her place in the line kept her coming back. Gradually she became able to distinguish the dancers one from another. She got to know the elderly man who always seemed to be turning in a different direction from everyone else but who smiled at her with such merriment that she had to smile back. Maureen would always stand behind her and point her in the right direction while Jane would call out the steps under her breath. She was asked to sign Sandy's birthday card, contribute to flowers for Ella who was in hospital, bring a dish for the Christmas pot luck. Bit by bit she became part of the gang and their friendship warmed her heart.
Annie's ultimate hero was Alice Withers, their patient, fun loving instructor. Alice set the tone for the Club nights. She wanted the evening to be an opportunity for her dancers to forget their worries and at the same time to keep them fit and healthy. Her love of line dancing showed in her enthusiasm which rubbed off on her dancers. Under Alice's tuition, Annie's natural talent began to show through and soon dancers were following her steps and asking her advice. Her confidence grew until one evening she was inspired by a song on the radio and found her feet following steps she had not learnt before. A disjointed step sheet followed which Mandy promptly showed to Alice. With Alice's encouragement and input, Annie completed her dance. Standing shyly at the back of the room, she watched as Alice taught the class her dance and waited with her heart in her mouth for the dancers' response. Spontaneous applause followed and Annie was on her way.
Five years later, with six dances published in the Step-In-Line magazine, three of them entering the magazine's top ten and one nominated for the prestigious choreography awards, Annie was in demand as an Instructor all over the country. As her confidence as a choreographer grew, she relaxed as she instructed and her natural sense of humour and ability to communicate began to surface. Very few people would recognize her as the timid housebound woman she had once been. However, her favourite spot was still in the line beside her close friend and manager, Mandy, at the Club with all her friends while Alice called out the steps. "Keep it fun" Annie would always say, "and value your friends".