“The Dancer on the Stairs,” by Sarah Tolmie

“The Dancer on the Stairs,” by Sarah Tolmie.
Novelette. Published in Tolmie’s Two Travelers, and reprinted in Strange Horizons, November 2016.

This story was recommended for discussion by Cecily Kane.


Nina Allen wrote:

Tolmie has a careful, controlled, poised style that is the epitome of elegance – a kind of literary dressage, or dancing, in fact. Her poetical investigations into human rituals, creativity and modes of belief make her fiction some of the most interesting new work around at the moment.

Charles Payseur wrote:

This is a long and intricate story that unfolds like a dance, a very fascinating portal fantasy that looks very different from what I’m used to. It features a woman taken from a world that sounds very much like our own and put into a place that is basically one huge house. One enormous building with floors connected by a very special stairway. And it’s a great reversal of what normally happens in portal fantasies, where the main character is some sort of Chosen One. Here the woman is the lowest of the low, without the currency that would make her even able to leave the stairs she finds herself on. What follows is a rough education and the slow reveal of this society. […]

It’s a great and moving story that’s enchanting and magical and elegantly layered. An excellent read! 

Rocket Stack Rank is less enthralled. Among their criticisms:

The story takes forever to get going. […] None of the characters is developed well enough for us to feel any emotions about them.


What’s your take on  “The Dancer on the Stairs”?  Read the story, and join in the discussion in the comments below!

11 thoughts on ““The Dancer on the Stairs,” by Sarah Tolmie”

  1. I appreciated the depth of the world, here– she’s really thought through how it works, and that shows. And as it was building toward the climax I was more than a little afraid it was going to end in a really cheesy way, but she avoided that problem, as well.

    On the other hand, I agree with RSR that it takes a long while to get going, and the narrator is kind of a blank. Which serves well for introducing the strange and intricate new world– a more distinct personality would be hard to fit in with all the other information that needs conveying– but is a definite weakness.

  2. I was prepared to hate the culture and the people in the story, for the way the narrator was treated in the beginning. That passed, as I learned more about the setting, but I was still left with some doubts and questions.

    I at least expected the narrator to have some resentment or criticism. Is it a common feature of portal stories that once the heroine is out of danger, passive acceptance of the world happens? Yes, I know it can be a metaphor for immigration and marriage, but still. I think that may be why I like stories such as 12 Kingdoms and and Child of a Hidden Sea where there’s tension between the character and the culture they find themselves in.

    I also thought the story came THIS close to being a. “Missing Step” metaphor, but it inverted the moral. If there’s an area of hazard in a society, the response is not to do something about it, but take personal precautions, then get to a position where you personally don’t have to worry about it.

    Finally the logistics of the Stairway gnaw at me. Do all the coffee and supplies of a several thousand person town pass through that stairway? And there’s the horror of how a psychopath would use that stairway.

  3. Oh, my. Lots to say about this one. It was very compelling. I’m a sucker for an intriguing “contact with an alien culture” story, and this definitely had a lot of that.

    It has a lot going on. The idea of finding yourself, suddenly, not even in a new world — but locked out of one. The fantastical description of castes that aren’t exactly castes; of trading that isn’t exactly trading. The protagonist discovering dance as the center of her life, even when before she had rejected the same path (or one, perhaps with superficial similarity).

    The world doesn’t quite work for me as a fully-fleshed setting; it’s fascinating to explore, but everything seems such a monoculture that it doesn’t exactly come to life, or feel like a society that could truly function. Which is fine, for the type of story it is. (I keep comparing this to LeGuin’s stories of alien culture; sometimes it feels like that, but I think it’s aimed at something somewhat different.)

    More tomorrow, I hope. This is definitely one I’ll be returning to.

    1. On the world, I’m quite happy with it being a fragment or aspect. I was put in mind of a (crowded) Gormenghast, something gothic that perhaps doesn’t bear close examination but nevertheless *evokes*.
      I sometimes find that secondary world fantasies spend too much time establishing a massive canvas rather than concentrating on whatever the interesting part at hand is. (Admittedly other people love All The Maps so I might be a minority!) This story had a world suited to its length, and I loved that.

  4. What do you make of the protagonist being pulled away at the ending, although she resists it?

    Why does that happen here? Is she being sucked back “home,” or somewhere else? Why does the coronation trigger it? (Why do other members of the royal family disappear?)

    Traveling between worlds is obviously a part of this story, but it’s so very much in the background that I was surprised to have it pop up again in the climax.

    1. I think the dance/ceremony is using the semi-mystical sense of revulsion at breaks in the social order, hence “sudden, frightening, wrenching reversals, occasional sickening waves of revulsion” when the dance does things “wrong”. At the climax this power disables or disappears all the royals except the strongest – it’s a selection of the fittest. I interpreted the main character being further affected as due to her liminal nature – natural order has just been restored and it tries to push her out as an unnatural presence.

      1. Oh, that’s interesting!

        I’d read it as her being the *only* one feeling the sigil-forces now — that all the others were suddenly (temporarily) not feeling any sigil-revulsion. You’re saying all the dancers are suffering as they dance? I didn’t read it that way, but that’s interesting.

  5. I’ve been chewing this over. I’m thinking this story has a yearning for order, for structure, that’s almost religious in nature.

    There’s the culture itself, of course, which is all about order and structure. Everything is in structured, often-ritualistic forms; everything has its own protocol.

    But it’s also the protagonist’s story, too.
    Charles Payseur observes in his review: And the moments like when the main character arrive are just flourishes in this dance, to draw in new dancers, to create some new patterns while maintaining the core, the heart of what makes this world unique and beautiful. The main character arrives because, in some ways, she will be needed. So she is a Chosen One. Just not one that gets to enjoy what that usually means.

    She arrives, Yestril suggests, because perhaps “she was too much bound.” She mentions the pressure from her mother to dance professionally, and her own “regular” job, which she hardly seems to recall. But, as Payseur suggests, she is also here for a reason – to ultimately lead the coronation dance. And she speaks of her longing for a profession, for a role to fill – it feels like she would have approved, had she seen it this way. This is exactly what she says she wants most.

    Even her six months on the stairs – if we see the final dance as a task she is summoned to perform, then her arrival in this world is also “intentional.” Maybe even the six months on the stairs are a trade, a price for the later position and happiness she finds, in the spirit of this world’s absolute reciprocity.

    Ultimately, what the story creates is a world where order is supernaturally preserved. There are birth-sigils that divide people into tribes and different circles, but they are all equal, there is no discrimination (that we see). There is no rancor. Everybody has their place. The structure is so perfect, it even acknowledges and includes the necessity for breaking boundaries, as a rare, but significant event.

    That’s a level of order and perfection that are beyond “supernatural,” and into the bounds of the transcendent, the ineffable. That’s what defines this society, it seems, and that’s where the protagonist finds a place — where everybody has a place assigned; where there is a divine plan.

    Does this make any sense, or am I way off on a tangent here?

    1. Yes, as I say in my earlier comment this is a society with a mystical force controlling or organising it.
      What’s interesting is that it acknowledges the need for outsiders. There are the stairs as a liminal space, but also the society needs liminal figures to deal with a crisis. It’s in some ways a comment on real societies – they all have their necessary outsiders who are tolerated for their utility, the low castes, the sin eaters, the immigrants doing unpleasant jobs.

      1. Hmmm. I read it slightly differently. Certainly the protagonist is needed for her otherness and her talent, but what I saw here was the acknowledgment that sometimes the barriers need to be lowered — that they’re in the liminal space, not because their society is insufficiently prepared to handle the situation, but because it’s *important* and healthy to be in liminal space, at least once in a while. To recall your connection even to the people you usually do not interact with; to step into other people’s shoes, even if your own position is where you belong.

        Again, I see this ascribing a lot of wisdom and compassion to the Higher Force 🙂 A lot of Higher Forces aren’t so flexible or understanding like that 😛

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