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Books to Awaken Your Inner Ballerina

Even if you’ve never been en pointe, these books will keep you on your toes.

By Charley Burlock
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So many of us have dreamed of one day becoming a dancer—or at least getting to wear a tutu on a daily basis. Channel your inner Misty Copeland with these five books that range from a steamy page-turner to a raw memoir to a searing investigation.

1

Don’t Think, Dear, by Alice Robb

<i>Don’t Think, Dear,</i> by Alice Robb
1

Don’t Think, Dear, by Alice Robb

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Part memoir, part journalistic investigation, this book offers a startling view behind ballet’s velvet curtain. Like many little girls, Alice Robb dreamed of becoming a famous ballerina. But unlike many little girls, she actually made serious headway on this fantasy, attending the highly competitive School of American Ballet from the ages of nine to 15. Although she left her tutus behind as a teenager, the lessons of ballet remained with her into adulthood. In the wake of #Metoo, she began to wonder about how the girls she grew up dancing with had fared. Had they also internalized the submission and perfectionism of the sport? More broadly, “How do we reconcile our past and our residual love for ballet with the feminist consciousness we eventually developed?” If you grew up dancing, you will find a startling mirror in these pages. If you have never tied a ballet slipper (do they even have laces?) you will find a spotlight illuminating all the places where the principles of ballet lurk in our cultural shadows: from the rise NXIVM cult to the resonance of Fleabag to the pattern of successful women settling for domineering men. Expertly choreographed and long overdue, this is the nuanced reckoning ballet needs, ballerinas deserve, and all feminists should note.

2

The Wind at My Back, by Misty Copeland

<i>The Wind at My Back,</i> by Misty Copeland
2

The Wind at My Back, by Misty Copeland

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When Misty Copeland became the first Black principal ballerina in the American Ballet Theatre’s history, she opened a door for countless others to chassé in behind her. In her latest memoir, Copeland introduces us to the woman in whose satin footsteps she followed: Raven Wilkinson. In 1955, Wilkinson became the first Black woman to sign with a major ballet company. But only in 2010 does Copeland stumble across a short interview with her, slipped into a documentary like an “interesting footnote.” The younger dancer had never heard Wilkinson’s name; Wilkinson didn’t have so much as a Wikipedia entry. Eventually, Copeland tracked down this trailblazer, and the two formed a decades-long mentorship relationship that transformed both of their lives and the history of the art form. With startling humility and intense tenderness, Copeland pushes back on the myth of individual achievement in a culture of mass discrimination: “Because there are so many barriers left to break, we are completely dependent on one another and the person on whose shoulders we stand owns our ‘firsts’ as much as we do.”

3

Astonish Meby Maggie Shipstead

<i>Astonish Me</i>by Maggie Shipstead
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Astonish Meby Maggie Shipstead

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No ballet book list would be complete without this 2014 tour de force novel from the beloved bestselling author of Seating Arrangements and Great Circle. January 1975, Toronto. Joan Joyce, a lackluster member of the corps de ballet, sits in the getaway car, one hand poised to turn the key in the ignition, the other ready to switch on the headlights. After a fling in Paris with the world's most famous ballet dancer, Arslan Rusakov, she has been chosen—by Arslan himself—to help him defect from the Soviet Union. He exits through the stage door, bolts for the car in full costume, and climbs into the backseat, and Joan smuggles him across the border, to New York City. Arslan epitomizes the physicality and star power Joan will never have, which makes her desire for him all the more potent, and poignant. Their ensuing relationship changes her "sensation of being alive" but doesn't alter her career trajectory. Taking inspiration from the real-life pas de deux between choreographer Mikhail Baryshnikov and American socialite Christina Berlin, this book is as tightly structured and emotionally resonant as any live performance.

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4

Dances, by Nicole Cuffy

<i>Dances,</i> by Nicole Cuffy
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Dances, by Nicole Cuffy

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There’s a certain trope that haunts many ballet stories: the overworked and underfed prima dancer sucking on a cigarette and bleeding through her pointe shoes. She’s cutthroat and obsessive. She’s probably white. In this mesmerizing debut novel, Cuffy (a dancer herself) shatters the brittle tropes of the genre, offering a refreshingly nuanced and deeply human glimpse into a world she clearly knows intimately. Even in an art defined by spectatorship, Cece Cordell has always stood out: “The only Black face in a sea of white and tan; I could not be anything but visible.” But when, at the age of 22, she becomes the first Black principal dancer for New York City Ballet (not to be confused with the American Ballet Theatre, where the real Misty Copeland made history), that spotlight becomes blinding. With the whole world’s eyes on her and a generation of younger Black dancers seeing their future in her shadow, Cece’s eyes are on the past: on her mother who could never understand her balletic ambitions, on her absent father, and most especially on her fiercely loyal older brother, an artist struggling with addiction, who has been missing for five years. With stakes higher than a ballerina’s arches, this book asks questions about sacrifice, loyalty, and the limits of the body that extend far beyond the stage.

5

First Position, by Melanie Hamrick

<i>First Position,</i> by Melanie Hamrick
5

First Position, by Melanie Hamrick

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If you thought Black Swan was steamy, you better hold on to your leg warmers: This sensually detailed debut novel is Fifty Shades of Grey en pointe. On the first page of her diary, Sylvie Carter wrote out a series of rules for herself: “Be good. be very good. be beyond reproach”; “drink rarely… Do no drugs”; “Do not have sex with anyone.” Five years into her career at the North American Ballet, she discovers the old rules and says, “Jesus. I’ve broken every single one.” Sylvie spent the first 18 years of her life in dogged pursuit of ballet’s rigid perfection, attending all the right schools, eating all the right foods, and abstaining from all sensual pleasures. Five years later, her closest friend is now her fiercest rival, and…let’s just say Sylvie has learned to use her body for more than just pirouettes. In technicolor flashes between the past and the present, we piece together the scandal that, as a friend inelegantly describes it, “ruin[ed] your career and damn[ed] you for all time.” But this is just the beginning of Sylvie’s story, and she’s determined to be in control of its ending—until a new dancer joins her company and, once again, her rigid discipline is overcome by her own visceral desire. Is this the start of a further fall from grace or the first crack in an artistic and sexual breakthrough?

Lettermark
Charley Burlock
Associate Books Editor

Charley is a Books Editor at Oprah Daily where she writes about authors, writing, and reading. She is also a freelance writer and audio journalist whose work has been featured in the Atlantic, the Los Angeles Review, Agni, and on the Apple News Today podcast. She is currently completing an MFA in creative nonfiction at NYU and working on an essay collection about the intersection of grief, landscape, and urban design. 

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