The Nymph Who Couldn’t Dance

“Nyads and Dryads” by Walter T. Crane (1845-1915). Image courtesy of wikimedia commons.

A broad clearing lay in the heart of a lush forest -– and there, under white moonbeams, graceful wood nymphs and rugged satyrs frolicked. Nymph to satyr they paired themselves; satyr with nymph they danced. The satyrs clapped their hands and click-clacked their hooves, while the nymphs twirled and nearly floated. 

There was one unfortunate nymph, though, who couldn’t dance at all. She tried to imitate the other nymphs, but her feet always seemed to slip under her partner’s hooves, or her twirling arm would smack a fuzzy face. She felt clumsy, awkward, and unnatural. Eventually, the nymph who couldn’t dance grew weary of bruised feet and angry curses. She began to avoid the clearing and would instead slink off on her own.

One night, this nymph huddled down by the roots of a sturdy walnut tree. The faint strains of music from the glade made her feel more lonely and unnatural than ever. Tears dribbled out of her blue-grey eyes as she began to quietly burble. 

“Why so sad, streamlet?” asked an alto voice from the branches above. The startled nymph glanced up. In the rising moonlight she saw an angular dryad lounging on a sturdy branch, her short hair the shade of bark. The dryad slid down from her tree, landing in a crouch. She gently touched her fingertips to the other nymph’s wet cheek. 

“I can’t dance,” the gloomy naiad whispered. Then in a gush, out flooded the story of all her dancing misadventures, along with a fresh flow of tears.

The dryad sighed. “Oh, streamlet!” she said, “Perhaps you’re just not a dancer. If so, you’re lovely all the same. But then again, perhaps you’ve been trying to dance with the wrong partners.”

“I don’t think I can stand to have my feet stomped on by one more satyr,” groaned the water nymph.

“I wasn’t talking about satyrs,” the tree sprite firmly replied. Then she grabbed the other nymph’s hands and pulled her up. The dryad spun the two around, then let go with one hand, whirling out and back. As for the nymph who couldn’t dance – for the first time ever, she felt like she fit with her partner. She responded instinctively, improvising new moves based on the dryad’s motions. Suddenly, though, she froze – every muscle tense. “Streamlet?” the dryad murmured.

“It’s just . . . just . . . we’re both nymphs,” the naiad stuttered. “Walnut, nymphs don’t dance with other nymphs! Nymphs only dance with satyrs.”

“But streamlet, how does it feel?” the dryad asked.

The confused naiad closed her eyes. As she formulated her answer, the tension drained from her body. “Natural,” she replied.

From that night on, the pair found private places to dance where they could still faintly hear the glade’s music. Over time, though, they became bolder, drifting ever closer to the clearing. As they did, they discovered that they were not alone, for there were other pairs of nymphs dancing with nymphs or satyrs dancing with satyrs out in the forest. 

Eventually, the dryad and naiad slipped right onto the edge of the clearing. Each night, more and more pairs followed them, as they slowly ventured toward the clearing’s heart – until, at last, they could dance together freely in the presence of their people.

[Gabriel Ertsgaard has served on the English faculties of Caldwell University and Wenzhou-Kean University. He earned his D.Litt. from Drew University with a dissertation on environmental themes in an Irish legend.]