“Gotta Dance” — a short story by Kevin Barry Howe

October 21st, 2019



“Gotta Dance,” a story by Kevin Barry Howe, was a finalist in our recently concluded 51st Short Fiction Contest. It is published with the permission of the author




photo by Karen Arnold/CCO Public Domain


Gotta Dance


Kevin Barry Howe






…..The rain had simply just stopped, as suddenly as it had started, with only an occasional leftover droplet now falling from a street sign or lamppost. Some made it to the sidewalk where they joined the puddles in tiny splashes; others were interrupted in their descent, hitting the folded newspapers held overhead by those caught without an umbrella.

…..Rosemary McNulty waited in line impatiently, wondering why for chrisssakes was it always sunny as shit when she was inside at work, and whenever rain was on its way it was because she was stuck outside.  She was down to her last 10 minutes of a lunch break, having spent much of the previous 20 wet and involuntarily listening to Martha and the Vandellas (and who knows what else) from the loud transistor being held by one of the new moms. Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide…She might not sound like me, but I have no problem with what that girl says, Rosie thought.

…..Now here she was still in line at Foster Park, attempting to sign her youngest kid, Declan, up for a freakin jiu-jitsu class, whatever in god’s name that was.

…..Since she first joined the line, it had now grown well beyond the side door, and in an orderly fashion that surprised no one more than Officer Delaney.

…..Old man Delaney wasn’t really an Officer, though he demanded that everyone in the neighborhood address him that way.

…..His walk was as cockeyed as his dime store hat, but the “swear ta god” explanation that had been shared by the older guys was that Delaney had once been a Chicago cop, injured on duty while performing a heroic deed, and when his disability check could no longer cover his monthly nut, the parents in the parish had agreed to unofficially hire Officer Delaney as a full-time security man for any neighborhood functions.

…..Whether a wedding, funeral, First Communion or graduation, Officer Delaney in his thrift store uniform could be counted on to keep things in order: it could mean shagging boys from between cars in a game of lampost-to-lampost touch football, or keeping order at the Foster Park playground.

…..His warning to the boys playing in the street (You realize you run into one of these cars comin’ down the street, somebody not lookin’, how much that’s gonna cost your old man to fix?) established Officer Delaney’s priorities in a way that was familiar for all of the guys.

…..When Declan once asked Officer Delaney how he injured his foot, he was told, I shoved my size nine up the arse of a juvenile delinquent much like yourself, and it bent while being retrieved.

…..Young Declan doubted the story, but knew not to ask again.

…..Looking past Officer Delaney, Rosie could now see Declan being picked on by the more athletic kids in the neighborhood. She could hear him being called McNutty for added measure, but she sure wasn’t gonna lose her place to go save his ass now. Small chance somebody’s gonna let her back in line. More like, no butt-inski’s here, sister.

…..Jeez, at least she had time to cop a smoke before her part of the line entered the gym, when most folks obeyed the ‘no smoking’ sign.

…..She was well past half-way with her smoke when she saw a lady inside motioning for her to step forward. A quick glance at her square and she thought: This ain’t worth a pinch an’ save. Instead, she took a long, last drag. Then, using her thumb and index finger, launched the butt towards one of the small rain puddles on the tarmac. The slight, brief sizzle and final mini-cloud of smoke when it hit meant that she at least just freed herself from being called a firebug. That was the worst, especially from these kids.

…..Just before entering the gym, Rosie turned her head over her shoulder, and with a Popeye expression on her face, exhaled her last drag, sending the smoke behind her. Without skipping a beat, she then continued walking into the auditorium while swatting away any telltale signs of smoke from in front of her face, and approached the sign-up table.

…..When it was her turn to talk, she asked about the Saturday morning class Declan’s been screaming about.

…..Well, there have been a lot of changes around here, she was told. As if she hadn’t noticed, for Pete’s sake. As if.

…..Not only had the City cut back on its Park district budget, but also the classes they were now going to offer at Foster Park were those it was decided were more in keeping with the recent demographic shifts in the neighborhood.

…..What freaking language is this broad speaking, Rosie thought, but rather than give her any guff, she took the lady’s advice and signed Declan up for the only Saturday morning class with an opening: Modern Dance.

…..As a matter of fact, she was told, the proper lady speaking to her from behind the banquet table was herself scheduled to be the instructor. Rosie was surprised that an old biddy like this was up to leading a class, but the more she eye-balled her, she came to the conclusion that she was one of those kooks who had nothing better to do than to stay in shape. Whadda life.

…..You gotta promise me one thing, Rosie pleaded.

…..Another quick glance at the wall clock told her she was down to her last four minutes to get back to work, before old Mr. Johnson at the A&P had a total conniption: He (using her thumb to motion over her shoulder to Declan, who was having a basketball bounced off the top of his crew cut) thinks he’s going to Jiu Jitsu class. Can you just not call it Modern Dance?

…..Your son will be taking Modern Dance but he thinks it’s a form of self-defense?


…..The teacher, no doubt realizing that the class would be cancelled if no one enrolled, and its funding returned downtown, saw no good reason why she couldn’t agree to Rosemary’s unusual request, especially if the young man’s attendance guaranteed her the chance to finally teach a subject she adored. If no one else attended, so be it. More of a tutorial, she reasoned.

…..Her spirits brightened at the thought of having more freedom to explore her passion. Tutorial, indeed.

…..So when Declan showed up as the only student for his first class, in white pajamas no less, mimicking the gi worn by ‘sensei’ and the jiu-jitsuka he saw in magazine articles and in the ads on the backs of comic books, Mrs. Brookfield didn’t bat an eye. And it stayed like that for the next eight weeks, Declan dressed in his pj’s, learning his new self-defense moves to the sound of Jerome Kern, Rodgers and Hammerstein and others.

…..Afternoons he would race home to practice in his room with the scratchy albums his parents kept by the hi-fi. On his old man’s side of the stereo was jazz: Al Hirt’s Java, Herb Alpert’s Taste of Honey, things like that. His old lady’s side was mostly musicals, show tunes like Oklahoma and West Side Story. Alone in the enclosed back porch that was converted to his bedroom, Declan tried his best to match the music that Mrs. Brookfield played in their seminar, and if that meant a scratchy “Grazing In the Grass,” so be it.

…..The beat of the music will help you internalize your rhythm, Mrs. Brookfield told him, and your moves will come more naturally.

…..The more she said things like this, the more she sounds just like a female Kwai Chang Caine, Declan thought. I know exactly what she means. That the moves he was learning were new to him, and that he had never seen any of them before on the TV shows, was justified by Declan because of their advanced level. You just can’t show secret stuff like this on TV, he reasoned. Not to just anyone, for cryin’ out loud.

…..Why, even Mrs. Brookfield herself would remind him each class meeting that he was receiving an unparalleled education — a private seminar she called it — and needed to appreciate it. His motivation to learn kept him practicing at home for the remainder of each Saturday, until his ma yelled for him to put a lid on it before the old man gets home.

…..The day of reckoning for Declan’s tormentors came soon enough. In the brick school gymnasium that held lunch tables and chairs, and was the site of midday food fights as well as Friday night skirmishes with visiting fans, Declan grew used to the little confrontations that added up to his embattled life. Now, however, he had the self-confidence, and the skills, to stand up for himself.

…..One of the new guys, Leroy, began innocently enough, asking Declan and the others at the table if the Bulls won last night, and how many did Michael put up?

…..It wasn’t until Declan heard the refrain, that’s what I’m talking ‘bout, little man, delivered good-naturedly as a response from Leroy to one of underclassmen at the table, that Declan, thinking this bullying had to be stopped, jumped to his feet. He had had enough. This was the moment that would change his life. These new kids were bigger and quicker and not as easy for him to be around as his old friends, and this was Declan’s chance to set the record straight. He wasn’t going to be the little man, the one who got laughed at and ignored while the others got up to play ball.

…..Before Leroy could react, Declan was in his face.

…..Declan knew the power of his moves, and from reading about Bruce Lee and Caine and other martial artists, he also knew he had an obligation to his opponent. This is not an art that can be kept secret, he thought. At some point my hands will need to become registered as weapons. I need to honor my dojo and come clean with Leroy. I’ve had a seminar.

…..Declan told Leroy to step back. That he had the power to disable him, and to cause him permanent injuries.

…..Leroy stared at Declan, and slowly tilted his head to get a better understanding of what this kid was all about.

…..With the words, this is just a taste of what I can do, Declan began a very ambitious yet poorly executed rendition of Riff doing the ‘cool’ dance from West Side Story, which segued into a Ramsey Lewis-inspired kick-ball-change-step, all in the narrow aisle between the tables.

…..When Leroy –head now tilted in the opposite angle- and the others simply stared in disbelief, Declan thought he had them in the palm of his hand, right where he wanted them, and would scare them to kingdom come with another little shimmy courtesy of “Anything Goes” from one Mr. Cole Porter.

…..Knowing that a strategic ending to this fearsome demo would be enough to put their asses back in their chairs and stop this intimidation once-and-for-all, Declan chose to offer a few shuffled feet and a twirling battement- soutenu combination to the rhythm of his inner John Cage and punctuated it with a mid air heel click. Declan was done.

…..In the days ahead, Declan might be seen outside a crowded Altar and Rosary Society meeting offering Officer Delaney a simple move that might save his life, or giving a demonstration that brought smiles to his ma and her ‘bridge club’ while they sat on the front porch with their deck of poker cards, drinking whiskey from porcelain tea cups (why give the neighbors anything to gab about? Rosie would say).

…..But now, as he revealed his secret for the first time, Declan was at his finest. This was His Moment.

…..All eyes in the cafeteria were on him. The silence was so overwhelming that it seemed like a special effect, like some invisible power was preventing the others from talking. Even the slow-motion perception he had of everyone staring at him seemed like a scene from a late night sci-fi movie.

…..The long beat of this otherworldliness ended when a table that Declan nudged sent a can of pop rolling to the edge and teetered, seeming to ask permission before dropping to the floor, the sound breaking the spell that all the kids had fallen under while watching Declan.

…..Leroy, his head now returned to its upright position, was the first to react.

…..A broad toothy smile came to his face.

…..Man, you all right.

…..At that, everyone began to laugh. Someone in the back let out a two-fingered whistle. Some of the girls even came up to ask him to do this move or that move again. The boys mostly shook their heads.

…..But Declan sat in peace, allowing his legend to grow, steadily, like theater seats being filled by a matinee audience.







Kevin Barry Howe is a writer who lives with his family in Cork, Ireland. He was born on the Southside of Chicago, where he attended grammar school (St Sabina) and high school (St. Rita) in the Englewood neighborhood. Following service in the USMC he attended the City College of Chicago (Richard J. Daley Campus) and later the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, where he received degrees in Economics and English. Following a career with the Directors Guild of America he has returned to writing fiction, mainly in short story format.









Share this:

4 comments on ““Gotta Dance” — a short story by Kevin Barry Howe”

  1. Fantastic story! Howe puts you in a specific time and place where every character is real. As with all great fiction, the short story is the hardest. The best are like small gifts. Thank you, Kevin Howe!

  2. That was wonderful! The whole story just came to life and pulled me right in. I can’t wait for the next one!!!

Comment on this article:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

In This Issue

"Nina" by Marsha Hammel
A Collection of Jazz Poetry — Winter, 2024 Edition...One-third of the Winter, 2024 collection of jazz poetry is made up of poets who have only come to my attention since the publication of the Summer, 2023 collection. What this says about jazz music and jazz poetry – and this community – is that the connection between the two art forms is inspirational and enduring, and that poets are finding a place for their voice within the pages of this website. (Featuring the art of Marsha Hammel)

The Sunday Poem

photo via RawPixel
"23 Poets remember their father…"

This space on Sunday is generally reserved for a single poet to read one of their works, but this week’s issue -Father’s Day – features 23 poets who weigh in on the complexity of their relationship with their father, revealing love, warmth, regret, sorrow – and in many cases a strong connection to a common love of music.

Click here to read previous editions of The Sunday Poem


Proceeding From Behind: A collection of poems grounded in the rhythmic, relating to the remarkable, by Terrance Underwood...A relaxed, familiar comfort emerges from the poet Terrance Underwood’s language of intellectual acuity, wit, and space – a feeling similar to one gets while listening to Monk, or Jamal, or Miles. I have long wanted to share his gifts as a poet on an expanded platform, and this 33-poem collection – woven among his audio readings, music he considers significant to his story, and brief personal comments – fulfills my desire to do so.


The Marvelettes/via Wikimedia Commons
Interview with Laura Flam and Emily Sieu Liebowitz, authors of But Will You Love Me Tomorrow?: An Oral History of the 60’s Girl Groups...Little is known of the lives and challenges many of the young Black women who made up the Girl Groups of the ‘60’s faced while performing during an era rife with racism, sexism, and music industry corruption. The authors discuss their book’s mission to provide the artists an opportunity to voice their experiences so crucial to the evolution of popular music.

Book Excerpt

An excerpt from Emily Jon Tobias’ MONARCH: Stories, and a reflection on our friendship


photo of Archie Shepp by Giovanni Piesco
The Photographs of Giovanni Piesco: Archie Shepp...photos of the legendary saxophonist (and his rhythm section for the evening), taken at Amsterdam's Bimhuis on May 13, 2001.


The cover to Joni Mitchell's 1976 album Hejira [Asylum]; photo by Norman Seeff
“Fort Macleod, Alberta, Canada” – a poem (for Joni Mitchell) by Juan Mobili

Click here to read more poetry published in Jerry Jazz Musician

Calling All Poets!

News about a Jerry Jazz Musician printed jazz poetry anthology, and information about submitting your poetry for consideration

Short Fiction

Short Fiction Contest-winning story #65 — “Ballad” by Lúcia Leão...The author’s award-winning story is about the power of connections – between father and child, music and art, and the past, present and future.

Click here to read more short fiction published on Jerry Jazz Musician


photo of Louis Jordan by William Gottlieb/Library of Congress
Interview with Tad Richards, author of Jazz With a Beat: Small Group Swing, 1940 – 1960...Richards makes the case that small group swing players like Illinois Jacquet, Louis Jordan (pictured) and Big Jay McNeely played a legitimate jazz that was a more pleasing listening experience to the Black community than the bebop of Parker, Dizzy, and Monk. It is a fascinating era, filled with major figures and events, and centered on a rigorous debate that continues to this day – is small group swing “real jazz?”


Sonny Rollins' 1957 pianoless trio recording "Way Out West"
“The Pianoless Tradition in Modern Jazz” – a playlist by Bob Hecht...an extensive playlist built around examples of prominent pianoless modern jazz.


Excerpts from David Rife’s Jazz Fiction: Take Two – (Vol. 1)...A substantial number of novels and stories with jazz music as a component of the story have been published over the years, and the scholar David J. Rife has written short essay/reviews of them.  In this initial edition featuring his story essays/reviews, Rife writes about three novels that explore challenges of the mother/daughter relationship.

Trading Fours with Douglas Cole

The cover of Wayne Shorter's 2018 Blue Note album "Emanon"
Trading Fours, with Douglas Cole, No. 20: “Notes on Genius...This edition of the writer’s poetic interpretations of jazz recordings and film is written in response to the music of Wayne Shorter.

Click here to read previous editions of Trading Fours with Douglas Cole

In Memoriam

Hans Bernhard (Schnobby), CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
“Remembering Joe Pass: Versatile Jazz Guitar Virtuoso” – by Kenneth Parsons...On the 30th anniversary of the guitarist Joe Pass’ death, Kenneth Parsons reminds readers of his brilliant career

Book Excerpt

Book excerpt from Jazz with a Beat: Small Group Swing 1940 – 1960, by Tad Richards

Click here to read more book excerpts published on Jerry Jazz Musician


painting by Vaino Kunnas
Jazz…in eight poems...A myriad of styles and experiences displayed in eight thoughtful, provocative poems…

Jazz History Quiz #172

photo of Teddy Wilson by William Gottlieb
Teddy Wilson once said this about a fellow jazz pianist:

“That man had the most phenomenal musical gifts I’ve ever heard. He was miraculous. It’s like someone hitting a home run every time he picks up a bat. We became such fast friends that I was allowed to interrupt him anytime he was playing at the house parties in Toledo we used to make every night. When I asked him, he would stop and replay a passage very slowly, showing me the fingering on some of those runs of his. You just couldn’t figure them out by ear at the tempo he played them.”

Who is the pianist he is describing?


photo via Picryl.com
.“Community Bookshelf, #2"...a twice-yearly space where writers who have been published on Jerry Jazz Musician can share news about their recently authored books. This edition includes information about books published within the last six months or so…

Contributing Writers

Click the image to view the writers, poets and artists whose work has been published on Jerry Jazz Musician, and find links to their work

Coming Soon

A new collection of jazz poetry; a collection of jazz haiku; a new Jazz History Quiz; short fiction; poetry; photography; interviews; playlists; and lots more in the works...

Interview Archive

Eubie Blake
Click to view the complete 22 year archive of Jerry Jazz Musician interviews, including those recently published with Richard Carlin and Ken Bloom on Eubie Blake (pictured); Richard Brent Turner on jazz and Islam; Alyn Shipton on the art of jazz; Shawn Levy on the original queens of standup comedy; Travis Atria on the expatriate trumpeter Arthur Briggs; Kitt Shapiro on her life with her mother, Eartha Kitt; Will Friedwald on Nat King Cole; Wayne Enstice on the drummer Dottie Dodgion; the drummer Joe La Barbera on Bill Evans; Philip Clark on Dave Brubeck; Nicholas Buccola on James Baldwin and William F. Buckley; Ricky Riccardi on Louis Armstrong; Dan Morgenstern and Christian Sands on Erroll Garner; Maria Golia on Ornette Coleman.

Site Archive