THE DAY STEVE IRWIN DIED
by Steve Carr
Content Warnings: Mentions of Steve Irwin’s death
Crikey! Klein Manhurt loved to hear himself talk. ‘Being a male dancer on the theatrical stage brings a lot of assumptions with it, everything from your sexual orientation to questions of if you’re capable of doing, or smart enough to do, anything else,’ he intoned.
None of the guys sitting on the dance studio floor in a half-circle around the stool he sat on as if it were a throne were new to ‘the business.’ I had been in as many as a half-dozen shows with a couple of the other dancers. Shows came and went like transit buses carrying a lot of the same dancers with them.
We all sat cross-legged like stage set pieces. My dance belt was too snug, and no attempt to adjust it through my tights did any good.
Klein kept his eyes on me, possibly suspicious of what I was doing with my hands. He was a choreographer, one of the best, and a legend in musical theatre, but he seemed to have lost touch with the woes of being a common chorus line hoofer. He was dressed in sweatpants and a hoodie. Sweatpants and a hoodie!
His tap shoes were brand new. Most of us wore old ones, taken from the box kept on a closet shelf, dusted off, and shined for each new audition and rehearsals. It was common knowledge among all dancers not to buy new tap shoes until the theatre seats had filled for more than three shows. That meant it might turn out to be a hit, which would mean a steady income for a short while at least.
‘I know you all observed the first table read for this show, but I hope you didn’t come away with any preconceived notions about how it was going to be choreographed,’ Klein droned on. ‘If you did, wipe those notions from your mind.’ He ran his hand slowly across his forehead to demonstrate how it was done.
The dancer sitting next to me, Marcus Biggs, stifled an obvious giggle.
‘Steve Irwin led an exceptional life and was a great human being,’ Klein continued, ‘and we are going to dance his life on stage in a way no one has seen before.’
There were only so many ways to tap dance, even if you were one of the greats.
Twenty minutes after beginning his speech, Klein ended it with, ‘Are there any questions?’
Jules Lowery, the most irritating dancer – and human being – on the planet, raised his hand.
‘Yes, Mr Lowery?’ Klein said. He addressed everyone as either Mr or Miss; he hadn’t gotten the message about gender neutrality. I was surprised that no one had taken him to task about it, but Klein Manhurt had a reputation as being impervious to correction about anything.
‘Are there going to be any dance sequences performed in the nude?’ Jules asked.
Marcus let out a loud guffaw and then quickly slapped his hand over his mouth. Filled with restrained air, his cheeks quickly filled like balloons.
‘Nudity was never a part of Steve Irwin’s life,’ Klein replied, ‘except in the privacy of his own bedroom with his lovely wife, Mrs Terri Irwin, but she was too much of a lady to ever mention it.’
Marcus fell backward onto the floor, unable to keep his hilarity in.
‘Loosen your ankles.’
It was the beginning of our second rehearsal.
Klein stood in the middle of the dancers who encircled him. He slowly turned like the second hand on a watch, watching our ankles as we shook our feet rapidly as if they were attached to our legs by well-oiled hinges. We had done this during the auditions and the first rehearsal, not that it did anything than demonstrate that we knew how to prepare our bodies to tap dance. In the first rehearsal, Klein had been on his cell phone while we were loosening our ankles. This rehearsal, having loose ankles seemed of paramount importance to him.
I was six years old when I took my first tap lesson. Loosening my ankles had been the first thing I learned.
‘Freeze!’ he shouted. The only time he didn’t speak in monotone was when he barked orders.
All the dancers froze with one leg raised, their feet pointed to the floor as they should be, preparing for a ball tap.
‘Think of your foot as a snake about to strike Steve Irwin as he climbs through some Australian brush,’ Klein said.
‘What kind of snake?’ Jules asked. ‘I’m scared to death of snakes.’
‘A viper. Something deadly.’
Travis Hedge, a dancer I had been in four shows with who was getting his masters in biology at a local university, said, ‘There are many types of vipers in Australia, but few people ever get bit.’ Most of us who had danced with the incredibly handsome Travis wondered how he managed to make every fact he uttered so extraordinarily dull.
‘That’s nice to know,’ Klein said, ‘but no one gets bit in this show anyway, not even Steve.’
In my peripheral vision, I saw Marcus biting his lower lip. His entire face was a big grin.
‘Okay, dancers,’ Klein said, still turning like a drugged child’s top, ‘lower your foot, very slowly, with complete control. Feel every fibre of your gastrocnemius muscle as you do this.’
‘I forget, which one is that?’ Jules asked.
‘It’s part of your calf muscle and extends to your Achilles tendon,’ Travis said.
‘Take a tap dancer’s natural stance as your foot comes to rest on the floor,’ Klein stated.
We all did that automatically. Keeping our feet spread evenly, not far apart, had been ingrained in us from the moment we put on tap shoes. In position, we stood with our arms lowered at our sides.
Klein stopped moving his body, but his head continued to turn, like Linda Blair in The Exorcist, until his eyes came to rest on Brian Booker’s face. Brian did drag shows, and some of the eyeliner and sparkly gold mascara he wore from a show the night before hadn’t been washed off. Klein slowly turned and then pointed at Brian’s eyes. ‘That will be noticed by everyone in the first three rows of seats.’
The forever-caustic Brian replied, ‘Only if they’re still awake during this snoozer.’
Marcus sputtered, emitting spit like a garden hose.
‘Nothing about Steve Irwin’s life or this musical is a snoozer, Mr Booker, and let’s keep in mind you were hired to dance, not do reviews of this show.’
Jules raised his hand and waved it at Klein. ‘I drank too much coffee before coming to rehearsal. I need to pee, really badly.’
Klein scowled at him. ‘You should know better, Mr Lowery, but if you must go, then go.’
Jules ran from the room.
‘Let us all remember, Steve Irwin would never have let his bodily functions get in the way of his work tracking wild animals,’ Klein said. ‘He would have peed in his pants if he needed to.’
Marcus burst out laughing.
At the start of the next rehearsal, Klein had us stand in a line. ‘Okay, we’re going to pick up from where we left off yesterday with the simple ball heel combination. Dancers, position.’
We all stooped over slightly with our arms out in front of us, our hands shaped into upturned claws. They were meant to represent the jagged, menacing teeth of crocodiles. In the show, we would be wearing crocodile costumes. For the rehearsals, we were to be the crocodiles.
Alex Weeks, hired to provide the beat we’d dance to, began to lightly tap his drum. I knew Alex from my gigs doing cabaret shows. He was a decent sort, but so afraid he might have a gay impulse he wouldn’t remain in a bathroom alone with another man, even if the other guy was inside a stall. The only person he was homophobic toward was himself.
‘Together, be the crocodiles,’ Klein said, signalling us to come forward. ‘Remember you’re on the prowl for prey.’
‘I don’t understand, are we in or out of the water?’ Jules asked.
‘Out,’ Klein answered.
‘Crocodiles don’t hunt on land this way,’ Travis said with an air of knowing superiority.
‘Less chatter and more dancing,’ Klein stated, walking backward as we advanced toward him.
At six years old, I began attending tap classes right after school. I’d been in the first grade.
‘It’ll give you something to do and keep you out of trouble until I can pick you up after work,’ my mother had told me. Dancing classes became my babysitter.
After learning how to loosen my ankles in the first rehearsal, the next thing I’d learned that day was the ball and heel steps. They were simply the downward movement of the heel and the ball of the foot to make the initial tapping sounds. In the next few days, I learned time steps, which required more tapping ability and were part of simple combinations. At night I’d practice them while looking at the poster of Steve Irwin that was on my bedroom wall along with posters of Superman and SpongeBob Squarepants. The tap teacher had told my mother I was born to be a dancer.
When I awoke from daydreaming, the line had moved on while I had stopped and remained in place doing single time steps.
Klein was face to face with me. ‘A good crocodile never lets other crocodiles get ahead of him,’ he said.
Unable to control himself, Marcus chortled.
Three weeks into rehearsals, we were on the second day of going through the choreography of the dance routine involving kangaroos. We were tap-hopping across the studio, trying to keep from colliding into one another, when Millicent-Veronica walked in. She was the only female cast member in the production. She played Terri Irwin and actually resembled her. The writer of the musical was apparently of the mindset that Steve Irwin had never encountered another female – animal or human – other than his wife.
Millicent-Veronica had one tap number but had been rehearsing it in a separate studio. Her number wasn’t with the kangaroos.
Klein clapped his hands loudly. ‘Dancers, Miss Millicent-Veronica has come to say hello.’
We all came to a stop.
‘I played her in a show I did in Jersey,’ Brian whispered to me and the other two kangaroos near us. ‘Even a drag version of her is death warmed over.’
I had never seen her on stage, but the talk among the dancers who had seen her was that she could belt out a song that shook the rafters, a bit like Kristin Chenoweth but without the musical talent or ability to actually sell it. ‘She’s all about the noise and none of the notes,’ was how Brian put it.
She had never tapped on stage before and had no training in it other than what she was now getting. She walked to the middle of the room and curtsied.
At the other end of the room, Marcus howled.
Klein gave him a withering glare.
Unfazed by Marcus’ outburst, Millicent-Veronica quickly glanced around the room, and without hesitating, said, ‘I hope we all make Steve Irwin proud.’ She then turned and left the room.
We were all stunned into complete silence.
‘Every dead diva just rolled over in her grave,’ Brian said.
When I was four, my father stormed out of the house one night after an angry row with my mom over something that involved their relationship but had nothing to do with me. He visited me off and on for a while and then stopped coming around at all. He completely vanished from my life before I finished kindergarten.
Steve Irwin took his place. I watched episodes of The Crocodile Hunter as if I were watching home movies. It was easy to imagine that the rugged Australian, who seemed fearless but loved animals, even the most dangerous ones, was my father. My mom bought me The Crocodile Hunter Game that I never took out of its box and a Crocodile Hunter puzzle that was too advanced for my age and intelligence, but I stared at the picture on the box cover for hours on end.
When I found out they were auditioning dancers for a new musical about Steve Irwin, especially dancers with a strong tap background, I didn’t hesitate to audition. I had also been trained in jazz and modern dance, with some ballet and ballroom, but tap was my bread and butter.
Since we weren’t wearing the kangaroo costumes we’d be wearing during the show – they were still in the process of being sewn together – Klein had told us the day before to ‘pretend we had pouches.’
This had brought a scream of gleeful laughter from Marcus.
While Klein stood on the sidelines, a little too close to Alex who was eyeing him suspiciously, he shouted into his cell phone. ‘How many times do I have to tell you? None of the costumes can have feet. It interferes with the tapping.’
This brought on an instant imitation, with all of us doing soft shoe routines in place of tapping.
Klein looked up from his phone. ‘Wait!’ he shouted. ‘You boys may be on to something.’
‘Boys!’ Brian cried out as if he had been shot. ‘Some of these old hags haven’t been boys for years.’
‘Speak for yourself,’ the usually quiet Ruff Thrower replied.
A few of us believed with a name like that he was secretly a male porn star.
Klein shoved his cell phone into his sweatpants pocket and ran to the middle of the room, where he waved his arms about as if he were on fire. As usual, this was his way of telling us he’d had a brilliant idea. An hour later, we were mixing hopping tap steps with soft-shoe-type glides across the dance floor. It was hideous choreography, especially for tap dancers, and resembled nothing a kangaroo would do.
Travis was the sole outspoken voice of reason. ‘Klein, are these wounded kangaroos?’
Marcus, on the other hand, kept breaking out into bouts of guffawing.
By late afternoon Klein gave up on that idea, and we returned to bouncing kangaroo-like across the imagined Australian landscape.
Everyone at the first table read had noticed that the play didn’t have a name. There wasn’t a title on the playscript, and even now, only weeks from opening, its name didn’t appear on the posters or in print or online advertisements. ‘A new musical by Lester Craig about the life of Steve Irwin’ was all that was given. Lester Craig had created only one previous musical that was successful, running six months off-Broadway. None of the dancers had worked in one of his shows before, and most of us had only laid eyes on him once: during the table read, when we were rushed out of the room as soon as possible. Dancers and cast didn’t remain in the same room for very long. It was an unwritten rule.
In the last week before we would begin rehearsing on stage with the full cast, Lester had come to the studio to watch us perform a couple of the fully choreographed routines. He and Klein sat in metal folding chairs, whispering to one another throughout the routines, at times pointing at one of us without actually acknowledging the one they were pointing at. Lester Craig was in his forties and carried his status as a rich bachelor with an aloofness shrouded in mystery. As hard as we tried, we couldn’t find out where he was from or whether he was gay or not. He had the dark looks of a Mediterranean but walked and talked like he had been raised among cowboys somewhere in the western plains. He seemed particularly interested in Travis, pointing at him more often than anyone else.
None of the dancers had been singled out to perform a solo routine or play one animal that was more important than any of the others. We knew there was one last number that we hadn’t begun rehearsing. We had seen the orchestral music for it but not the choreography or the words to the music. All of us, except Travis, were certain he was being singled out for a reason.
On Monday, September 4th, 2006, I had come home from tap school, riding in the back seat of my mother’s car. We stopped at McDonalds and picked up a bag of hamburgers and fries that I held in my lap. As soon as we pulled into the driveway, I leapt out of the car, ran into the house, plopped down on the sofa, and turned on the TV. I opened the bag just as the news came on.
Two days before we were to begin rehearsals on stage, Klein was even more nervous and overbearing than usual. As the dancers rehearsed the tap-dancing koalas routine in groups of three, Klein circled us, complaining that we all danced as if we were wearing cement shoes.
‘No koala on Earth moves this quickly,’ Travis said.
‘No koala on Earth will feel my foot on their ass as you will if you don’t perform the steps as they’re choreographed,’ Klein replied.
‘Are there going to be real or fake eucalyptus plants on stage that the koalas are supposed to be eating?’ Jules intoned.
‘My God, Jules. You are so stupid,’ Marcus declared in one of his rare verbal outbursts.
The rest of us broke into laughter.
Finally fed up with us, or losing patience with holding in what had been on his mind any longer, Klein clapped his hands. We all stopped and looked at him. ‘Dancers, Mr Craig and I have come to a decision about who will dance the solo number of the stingray.’
‘The what?’ a few of the dancers asked in unison.
‘The sea creature, the stingray, that killed Steve Irwin. Mr Craig has decided the name of his play will be The Day Steve Irwin Died, and this will be the most important dance of the entire production.’
In that moment, that afternoon when I was six and saw on the news that a stingray had killed Steve Irwin came rushing back to me. His heart had been pierced and, in a different way, so had mine. I had collapsed there on the sofa and woke a few hours later in the hospital emergency room. My mother was standing by the padded table I was lying on with my tap shoes in her hand. I hadn’t even bothered to take them off after the tap lessons. They were as much a part of my physical being as Steve had become part of my psychological being.
The stingray didn’t randomly kill Steve. Steve had offered his heart and soul to it as a sacrifice. It was a hero’s death.
I looked up to see Klein pointing at me. I knew it before he said it out loud. I heard Steve whisper it to my subconscious.
‘I’m thrilled to announce you will dance the part of the stingray.’
Steve Carr, a gay writer from Richmond, Virginia, has had over 570 short stories published internationally in print and online magazines, literary journals, reviews and anthologies since June, 2016. He has had seven collections of his short stories published. His paranormal/horror novel Redbird was released in November, 2019. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize twice.