Ballet Books for Maria Tallchief May 25, 2013Posted by ccbooks in Book Reviews.
It seems incredible that I have not written about ballet books yet on this blog. Along with dolls and mice, ballet was a major theme of my favorite reads as a kid (until I became a teen and turned to magic, swords and mythology). When I heard that ballerina Maria Tallchief had passed away, it seemed like a good moment to pay tribute by remembering some of the books where I first encountered her as one of my dance heroes, as well as other titles that fueled my dreams of becoming a ballerina.
To Dance, To Dream by Maxine Drury
I have no idea where I got this book; probably a yard sale or one of the Arlington library book sales. For at least a year around age 9, I kept it in my ballet bag to read in the car on the way to my classes as a motivation. I loved reading about the different dancers in different centuries and countries, including such luminaries as Marie Taglioni and Margot Fonteyn, as well as lesser-known figures such as Marie Salle, Ted Shawn and La Argentina. The format of each chapter, with a short imagined dialogue between characters at the beginning and then the biography of the dancer is engaging, with just enough detail to keep it exciting but not overwhelming. The only big weakness is that the historical time periods often blend together and the discussions between characters in the 1700’s don’t sound terribly different from those in the 1900’s, making it easy to forget the huge differences in the lives between dancers. This, however is a quibble. I would recommend this book to any ballet-obsessed elementary age kid.
Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild
This book has come up in conversations between me and Ana on the blog already. Our mother introduced us to Streatfeild’s work early and my favorite book was always this first title, with the three sisters who have very different ambitions on and off the stage. Pauline, Petrova and Posy are orphans, and when their guardian disappears, leaving them without much money, they are sent to an Academy of Dancing to learn to earn a living. The descriptions of backstage life for child performers in the 20’s are fascinating and all three girls are determined, strong heroines who make their own decisions and take control of their lives as they grow up. This is still a great choice for any reader interested in historical fiction or the performing arts.
Magic Slippers by Gilda Berger
My parents gave me this when I first started dancing and it brought to life the many classical and romantic ballets that I had never (and still haven’t) seen live. From the dreamy tales of the nineteenth century like La Sylphide to later twentieth century works such as Cinderella or Romeo and Juliet each is told in a simple style with plenty of dialogue. The pictures help flesh out the characters, although they are of the characters, rather than dancers. While this title is out of print, there are other collections available that cover many of the same ballets. The sad, romantic stories gave me many ideas for my own games as a child and helped me understand references in other ballet books as well.
Samantha on Stage by Susan Clement Farrar
While I read Ballet Shoes to experience a life entirely unlike my own, Samantha from this story easily could have been me or one of my friends. Set in a small Connecticut town near New York, Samantha is one of the best dancers in her ballet class. When a new girl arrives from Russia with much stronger skills, she has to learn to cope with feelings of jealousy as well as understand what it means to really be dedicated to your art. One of the things I love about this book is that the heroine has to deal with failure. So many ballet stories have the protagonist succeeding without experiencing struggle. I also love that what could have been a mean girl/snobbery story is instead a tale of friendship growing along with dancing skill. While the lack of technology and a few other references date this slightly, it still reads as relevant and fun for dancers today.
Listen to the Nightingale by Rumer Godden
Samantha is a character I could relate to directly as a kid. Lottie Tew, on the other hand, had a life that was completely exotic and alien to me. One of two books by Godden set at the Queen’s Chase Ballet School (the other is the slightly more obscure Thursday’s Child) Listen to the Nightingale follows Lottie from the small theater Holbeins to the grand and elegant world of Queen’s Chase. Along the way she has cope with her poverty, false friends, annoying boys and her love for a small dog named Prince. In some ways this title is closer to a boarding school story than a dance story, with more details about midnight feasts and uniforms than dancing steps. However, Lottie’s final triumph in a brand-new ballet is everything a stage-struck reader could wish for.