SEPTEMBER 26, 2012
THE AGE AT WHICH I learned to read coincided with the age at which I learned to dance. Both things would come to define me. I was a dancer. I was a reader. They weren’t choices. They were who I was. I was also a horrific little snob with very strict ideas about what constituted “proper” ballet books. The sort of Tina-The-Ballerina stories and records around in the late ’70’s were not “proper.” Ballet Barbie and the like was for girls whose only interest in dance was tulle and tiaras and the color pink. That wasn’t me. I had standards!
One book that passed muster was Noel Streatfeild’s first novel, Ballet Shoes, published in 1936. The setting is post-war London. Three orphaned girls are rescued by a collector of fossils on his travels, and brought back to live in his ramshackle house in London. The collector’s great-niece, Sylvia, and a servant, Nana, care for the girls. When the collector of fossils disappears on another adventure, Sylvia is left to manage as best she can. Money is scarce, and Sylvia takes in boarders, one of who is a teacher at the Children’s Academy of Dance and Stage Training. The teacher suggests that the little girls – Pauline, Petrova, and Posy – attend the school, so that they might earn their living as stage performers. This was a proper dance book! The dilemmas of the three girls were serious. Pauline needed to get the right dress for her auditions. Posy had to take special instruction from Madame Fidolia. I even approved of Petrova, who hated dancing and wanted to be a mechanic, because Petrova was ambitious. I worried about the girls’ friend Winifred, who was very talented, but not pretty, and often lost out on roles to the lovely Pauline. But this only made the book more “proper” in my eyes. Pretty faces didn’t matter in ballet the way they obviously mattered in West End London Pantos (whatever those were exactly), but pretty feet mattered. Ballet wasn’t Little League. Not everybody got to play. That was sad, but real. Welcome to show biz.
Another favorite from early adolescence was a large book of photographs an uncle gave me for Christmas called Days with Ulanova. Galina Ulanova had been one of the great stars of 20th century ballet, and had reigned at the Bolshoi for thirty years. Published in 1962, the photographs of Galina showed her at the end of her career (she was nearly fifty at the time they were taken). I had photographs of ballerinas taped on my walls: Gelsey Kirkland, Suzanne Farrell, Natalia Markova. These were my stars: sexy, glamorous, fierce, capable of dazzling technique. In contrast, Ulanova seemed almost dowdy, with her baggy leotard and headscarf. Her arms were lovely but the lines of her legs and feet were, by the standards of the current day, far from impressive. And yet. The expression on Galina’s face was so rapt, so private, so transported. The text that accompanied the photographs stressed her work ethic, her incredible artistry, the traditions of Russian ballet that she exemplified. The book included pictures of Bolshoi students. The girls wore leotards with bare legs, little white anklets; their soft ballet slippers were laced with ribbons, like pointe shoes. They too wore expressions of utmost concentration. I flipped through the pages of this book so often that the spine fell apart. What was it that so captivated me? I did not want to “look like” Galina Ulanova in the way I definitely wanted to look like Natalia Markova. No, it was the feeling the photographs gave me that I wanted. I wanted History. I wanted Art. I wanted Greatness. I was eleven. (Still a snob.) But this intense desire for transcendence lies at the heart of most dancers, perhaps most human beings, and is not bound by age.
I left home to train professionally at a boarding school for dancers when I was twelve. I remember how excited we all were for Gelsey Kirkland’s memoir Dancing On My Grave. Two or three copies made the rounds of dorm rooms; I stayed up all night to read it when it was my turn. Gelsey was famous, she was beautiful, and she was damaged. She talked about drugs, and eating disorders, and sadistic teachers. She spilled the dirt on Baryshnikov, Peter Martins, and Balanchine. None of this, by the way, put me off my chosen career. Gelsey was maybe a little bit crazy, but crazy was interesting, crazy was our right. Normal and sane were for ordinary people. (Snobbery well maintained in adolescence.)
A few years later I discovered Toni Bentley’s memoir, Winter Season. With great sensitivity, honesty, and passion she describes a year in the corps of New York City Ballet. This was writing from the back lines, a dancer struggling with her fears, her ambitions, and the limits of her talent. I read it as a teenager, and then several years later, when I was experiencing my own loss of confidence and doubts about my career. The fact that Toni had eventually retired from NYCB, and gone on to become a very successful writer also made a big impression on me. So it was possible to do something other than dance? Interesting.
I thought of these books as I was sorting through ideas for my novel The Cranes Dance. I had anxieties about setting a book in the dance world, not the least of which was that I almost never liked dance novels. Could I write the kind of book that wouldn’t make me turn up my disdainful little nose? Luckily I had been through this sort of nervous hesitation with my first novel. It’s part of the process. Before you begin to write, you think about all the reasons why your idea is bad. Then you write it anyway. Working on the book cured me of a great deal of my “ballet story” snobbery. Getting the details right is good, of course, and ballet is all about the details. But if given the choice now between absolute accuracy, and a cracking good story with interesting characters, I’ll take the latter every time. Dance, we are told, is a universal language. And when it comes to reading, everyone can play.
List of ballet books:
The Cranes Dance – Meg Howrey
Ballet Shoes – Noel Streatfeild
Ballerina – Edward Stewart
Bunheads – Sophie Flack
Rose Sees Red – Cecil Castellucci
Girl In Motion and Breaking Pointe – Miriam Wenger-Landis
Various Positions – Martha Schabas
First Love – Adrienne Sharp
Dancing on My Grave – Gelsey Kirkland
Days with Ulanova – Albert Kahn
Editor’s note: See also YALSA’s list of YA Ballet Books, here.