Many little girls want to learn to dance. Many start out with ballet when they are very young. As they see others dance in recitals and ballets, some yearn to go on and become professional ballerinas. Very few get that far. Still, though, many remain ballerinas in their hearts.
When I was young , my cousins were taking ballet, and I wanted to join them. The teacher was Russian and the classes were half an hour from my home, since my cousins lived in a different city than we did. Like many young girls, I dreamed of being a ballerina. My mother let me take classes to help me develop graceful movements and good posture, but it began to get hard for Mom to keep taking me for classes. We’d miss a few classes and then I would have to start over again each time. I knew I’d never get good enough to perform, and finally I quit. Mom was tired of taking me.
My college roommate had gotten much farther along than I ever did. When we met at UCLA she was no longer dancing. Right after graduation she had foot surgery to correct damage to her feet caused by her earlier toe dancing. She had talent, but her injuries had forced her to quit. The characters in the books I review below, had other hindrances.
In Dancing on the Inside by Glen Strathy, Jenny Spark dreams of being a ballerina. She had never seen a live ballet or met a ballerina in person, but her grandparents had given her a DVD of Swan Lake for Christmas, and she had watched it over and over. She could envision herself as one of the dancers.
Jenny’s parents are concerned because she has no friends. Jenny had been home schooled for the first three grades because the family had lived in an isolated area, and, unlike all the home schoolers I have known, including my own children, she hadn’t had outside activities where she could get to know other children. She gets panic attacks when she is having to relate to people she doesn’t know or do things in front of them. Jenny’s parents want her to make friends by getting into some group with girls who share common interests. Jenny wants to learn ballet, even though her mother is pushing her toward Girl Guides Pathfinders. Jenny vigorously resists this. It doesn’t interest her at all.
We first meet Jenny and her mother, Marilyn Spark, in the car on the way for Jenny’s first ballet lesson. Jenny’s mother reminds her that if Jenny doesn’t want to continue with ballet, she has to drop out after the first lesson. After the second, her mother’s money would not be refunded. Jenny’s family has to watch their pennies. They have already bought Jenny’s shoes and her white leotard and tights. She already has her shoes on, even though it’s a rainy day. In the office of the Kingston Ballet School, Marilyn fills out papers and Jenny and her Mom meet the teacher, Madame Beaufort. She tells Jenny that her leotard and tights are the wrong color and she needs to wear her hair up off her neck. She also should have waited to be inside before changing into her ballet slippers. This made Jenny feel that she’d gotten off to a bad start.
Jenny immediately felt she didn’t belong there. She was about to leave and tell her mother to get the refund when the other girls started to arrive. In the studio where her class for twelve-year-olds was about to start, she looked for a place to hide and found it under the cloth covering the piano in one corner. She could just peek out to see and hear the other students, most of whom were returning from last year. Then Ara, the most awkward girl, but the one appearing to have the most fun, discovered her hiding, pulled the cloth up from over her hiding place, and asked ‘Who are you?’
About this time Madame Beaufort called the class to order and asked the girls to gather round, but Jenny just couldn’t move. She was getting light-headed and a bit dizzy. Madame Beaufort realized something was wrong and gave her permission to just sit on the piano bench and watch. She pays careful attention to everything the class does planning to practice later at home. After making sure she was the first to leave, Jenny goes to the car and when asked how it went tells her mother the class had been fine. That night Jenny quietly went into her father’s office where she could practice everything she had observed in class. Then she moved to the bathroom because it had a mirror where she could watch herself, and her dad walked in as she was standing on the toilet seat trying to use the towel rack as a barre. Her dad talked with her and told her she should probably leave that sort of practice for class. They talk about the class a bit and Jenny’s dad asks if she would like to be a dancer. She affirms it but expresses her doubts about ever being to dance like the others in her class. He dad says if she really wants to dance, she will find a way. She realizes he has faith in her.
Later she overhears a conversation between her mother and father about her. Marilyn expresses her fears that Jenny might convince herself she wants to be a professional dancer someday and not be good enough to make it and they would have wasted their money. Her father replies that they should just let her have fun for a while and make some friends. Jenny remembers how paralyzed with fear she was at the beginning of the class. She wonders if it will keep happening. She is scared to death to let anyone see her dance, and she cannot participate in the class without other people seeing her. All she really wanted to do was to continue to observe, take notes, and practice on her own at home, away from the others, but she knew her mother would consider that a waste of money. Then she had an idea – an idea that made her feel guilty. She put it into practice, and she did make a friend in the class. By the end of the book she and her teachers discovered she had a special talent.
Dancing on the Inside held my attention, even though it’s aimed at upper elementary and middle school students. Although I found the plot unrealistic, few fiction plots for this age group are realistic. The characters were fairly well-developed. The girls in the dance class act just the way I saw my students and my children and their friends act, but the author doesn’t stoop to using language in narration or dialogue that imitates current teen slang the way some authors for this audience have. I appreciate that. I would recommend this for girls interested in ballet, for there is a lot of dance method and talk in it. It might also be good for children who are shy, since they will discover that self-consciousness can fade away when attention is focused on helping others.
Disclosure: I received Dancing on the Inside free and requested to honesty review it. I have done that here. It is available in both eBook and paperback format.
Ribbons by Laurence Yep
I just reread this book by award-winning author Laurence Yep for purposes of this blog because I remembered its ballet theme. It has been years since the first time I read Ribbons, and I enjoyed he second reading as much as the first. Like Dancing on the Inside, it’s about much more than dancing. Ribbons is just as much about the clash between generations in American Chinese families as it is about ballet.
Robin is a talented dancer whom we first meet during a performance of a shortened version of The Nutcracker, where she stars in a solo Morning Butterfly role. She appears to be recognized by the others in the recital and her teacher as the most gifted student. She was the first in toe shoes. But after the performance, as the group is breaking up and the Christmas break approaches, Robin is surprised to hear her teacher, Madame Oblamov say to her, ‘How I shall miss you.’ Robin couldn’t understand what she meant.
Later she found out from her parents that they could no longer afford to pay for her lessons. Instead, the money is having to go to help bring Robin’s maternal grandmother from Hong Kong to their San Francisco home to live with them. Hong Kong was about to be returned to Communist China, and Robin’s mother wanted to get her out before that happened. It was an expensive process and Robin’s parents did not have much money. Robin’s mother had already brought her two younger brothers to live with her, paid for their college educations, and finally they started their own families, and became successful in their own careers. In fact, they were now wealthier than Robin’s family, and their homes were much bigger.
There was no guest room in Robin’s home, so when her grandmother finally came, she had to give her own room to Grandmother and share a room with her five-year-old brother Ian. That was hard for an eleven-year-old girl to swallow, especially when he started defacing her prized dolls and then said Grandmother had given him permission. It was also obvious that Grandmother favored Ian, giving him special treats, and even telling him he could eat the ice cream bar with her name on it she had been saving and looking forward to all day. When she came home that day, it was gone, and she found the wrapper with her name on it in the trash.
She missed her ballet and her ballet friends with whom she practiced. They didn’t understand why Robin couldn’t dance with them, and Robin was not allowed to tell anyone, especially her grandmother, the truth. She felt as though something inside her was dying when she couldn’t dance. She was determined to keep up with her practicing, even though she had to do it on the concrete floor of the garage. Meanwhile, she could not get her parents to commit to when she might be able to start lessons again.
Up until this time, Robin had lived a normal American life. Her mother was Chinese and had come from Hong Kong. Her father was a Caucasian American. Her friends at ballet were from many races. She had not been exposed much to Chinese culture outside the United States. She gradually learned that culture was responsible for the decisions her mother was making. Men were favored in Chinese culture. That’s why her mother did not ask her brothers to assist with Grandmother’s support and made excuses for their lack of help, even though they were in a better financial situation to provide it. Robin and Ian were cut to one small Christmas present each that year, but at the family celebration their cousins were announcing all the expensive presents they had gotten. It just didn’t seem fair to Ian and Robin. Robin’s resentment against Grandmother (and her uncles and cousins) just kept building.
Then one day, she accidentally discovers a secret Grandmother never wanted her to know. The discovery changes how she feels and her life begins to change for the better. You will have to read the book to see what happened to get Robin dancing again.
Although both books are written for the same age group and share the ballet theme, they are very different in style and vocabulary. Dancing on the Inside was a well-told story. It had a message, but one had to suspend one’s knowledge of the real world to accept the plot. The Ribbons plot is consistent with reality. I have spent a great deal of time with Chinese Americans from the first, second, and third generations. I have very close Chinese friends who have discussed their family problems with me. I have seen some of these same themes of inter-generational misunderstanding and conflict as we’ve talked. I’ve met both parents and their children.
Probably the first thing I noticed when I opened Ribbons again after just finishing Dancing on the Inside was the difference in style. Dancing on the Inside is a well-written story. Ribbons is literature. Ribbons has a more extensive vocabulary and more complex characters. It also has a more universal theme. Wannabe ballerinas will probably enjoy both books, but teachers will probably find more discussion topics in Ribbons
Lili at Ballet by Rachel Isadora
Very young children who take ballet or want to know what happens in a beginning ballet class will enjoy Lili at Ballet by Rachel Isadora. It’s picture book story about Lili, who takes ballet lessons four afternoons a week. The story is a loose framework for a visual presentation of ballet positions, steps, and terms. It illustrates everything beginning students do and wear . It’s a great introduction to give a young child who wants to take ballet so she will know what to expect. Both male and female students are shown in the pictures. Note: The cover illustration for this book is more vivid than it looks on the Amazon page, and the tutu shows up much better.