Ballet novel reviewed & new competition launched plus tips on wearing pointe shoes
Girl in Motion is a fictional novel by Miriam Wenger-Landis, who was a student at the School of American Ballet and a professional ballet dancer with Miami City Ballet. Wenger-Landis wrote this book partly as a way of moving on once she had retired from dancing and partly because she felt a lack of stories about what it really feels to be a young ballet dancer. The story follows Anna Linado, a ballet student who we first meet as she turns 16 and auditions for summer school.
Anna can think of nothing but getting into Ballet New York (BNY), and she becomes the first girl from her ballet school to get into summer school in ten years. Anna’s room-mate, Kristen Green, wants to do nothing more than marry her boyfriend and dance with her local ballet school, but Anna is serious about her career and over the six weeks of summer school – essentially a very long audition for the full academic year to which only a tiny number of students will be accepted. Perhaps five, out of three hundred students will make it into the school, where they undergo another couple of rigorous years of intensive ballet training (plus schoolwork) with no guarantee of ever getting into the company.
Anna knows that she has gone from being the best in her class at local ballet school, to essentially being a body in a class of many other similar bodies, all working towards the same goal. She finds that classes are impersonal; that in fact their personalities fade into the background & that this is encouraged by the school, who want a blank canvas. Even as one homogenous mass, Anna learns that it’s better to be criticized in class – corrections demonstrate potential in this world and it’s taken as a positive thing – no-one wants to be ignored; that’s the hardest thing to take. Much of the time Anna does feel invisible; she also chooses spots in class towards the back of the room – will this hinder her in the long run ?
Anna is invited back for the whole year and finds herself in increasingly competative classes with disappointments to face along the way. She isn’t picked for Nutcracker – a big deal and the only girl in her class not to be picked which she finds very hard to accept. In class her teacher finds fault with the way that she holds her hand, and tells her that she should hold it as though she has a diamond ring on each finger. So she buys a stress ball and uses it every day in class for four months, until one day she notices her reflection in the mirror (in a different class, different teacher & without the ball) and notices that finally she has a beautiful way of carrying her hands and she’d achieved that without even realising the improvement. Every improvement in ballet is incremental.
Anna notes that one girl in her class eats nothing but cereal, and the novel touches on eating disorders and other problems sometimes associated with ballet, which you may have seen exaggerated in the movie Black Swan, and makes it clear that no support or help is offered to the students, who for the most part become expert at hiding their problems. One girl self harms – cutting herself which she says she does to prove she’s not dead. She says that sometimes she feels dead (she gets a job in a ballet company but she still feels a failure because it’s not the once she wanted). Mostly these issues which the dancers face seem to have been brought up simply to highlight that ballet schools/companies outwardly deny any eating disorders exist as they can’t then be liable.
Anna is accepted back into school at the end of her first year, but she is told that she is too short for the company corps and given a very realistic talk about her chances even if she grows (three inches) and gets into the company – she may never get out of the corps. Unsurprisingly, this doesn’t put single-minded Anna off, even though she has studied the company, watched the dancers and has realised from the start that she is too short to get into the company. Nothing affects her course and she vows to work harder than ever to get into the company – no other company is good enough in her eyes.
During the summer the students are not welcome to stay at the school – new students arrive for the six weeks of summer school, ready for a fresh intake of pupils at the start of the next year – and so Anna and two of her friends get into San Francisco summer school and spend the summer improving areas of weakness. Anna has to get stronger on pointe. They try to see the sights and behave like normal teenagers but the fact is that all of them are serious about ballet and it’s on their minds no matter what else they are doing.
In her final year, Anna takes auditions but gets nowhere. She watches her rivals, who have been quite mean to her during her time in class, receive offers and recognises the unfairness of success.
A theme throughout the book is that the students who don’t try hard, either because they are lazy or because they find it easy, seem to be the ones who find success, that by wanting something too much and trying too hard can work against you. Anna even attempts to sleep in her pointe shoes in a futile attempt to make them more bearable – ripping them off in the middle of the night when the pain becomes too much.
Having professional photographs taken for her resume, Anna, looking at herself for the first time as others see her, discovers that she looks younger and more fragile than she’d realised, and the photographs show all the corrections she’s had in class about her sway back & raised shoulders.
One of her close friends, Marie, has a serious fall in class when her dance partner, Jesse, (who later turns out to be gay) pays more attention to himself than to Marie, who ends up in hospital with a rod in her back, career over. She had travelled from France to train; her parents had sold their house so that she might. It’s a bitter blow and their friendship is tested as Marie withdraws from the politics of ballet and Anna fights not to lose touch with her. Anna also has a strained relationship during her second year with Tyler, a great dancer and partner with whom she had grown close during the first year but since then Anna had strugged to understand him, except when they dance together.
But there is good news; Anna find herself cast in a principal role for the workshop – the last chance for company directors to see the students and offer them a job after auditions – and she works hard in two roles over several months. One of her rivals takes over one of her roles and Anna is told (by another of her rivals) that the girls parents donated a huge sum to the school and expressed a desire to see their daughter perform Anna’s role. All of this she takes on the chin; she’s upset and sometimes angry but all the while she keeps her goal in sight, despite feeling the lack of support in school (she boards, a long way from home). She treats most of her emotional relationships as though they are in the way of ballet, which doesn’t help.
Another obstacle comes in the form of a raging fever on the morning of her last workshop performance. At the school illness is regarded in the same way as laziness and so Anna attempts the role but feints in the wings part way through – and one of her rivals is standing in the wings to take her place – and the applause.
I won’t give away the ending! This novel is a work of fiction, but through the author’s knowledge of ballet the emphasis is on the good and the not-so-good aspects of vocational ballet training, seen from the perspective of a young dancer living through it & working it out for herself. I doubt anyone goes into ballet training expecting fluffy tutus and an easy ride, but the book expands on ballet class ettiquette (how territorial dancers are and how important it is to bag your spot at the barre from the beginning of term) and makes it very clear that it helps if you go into vocational training with family support and a grounded attitude. I would like to have seen a sharper edit and for some of the dialogue between characters to be more expansive, but these are picky points and overall I’d say that if you want to know what it feels like to be a dancer in vocational training (from a fictional perspective) then give this one a whirl.
There is a facebook page if you’d like to find out more about the author and the novel.
Your chance to win !
I have one copy of Girl in Motion to give away. To win a copy, I’m looking for the most creative drawing/sketch/painting of a dancer/s in class. The winning entry will be the one chosen by a panel of experts as best representing the future of ballet. Be as creative & fashion-forward as you like but keep it authentic – your dancers must look like ballet dancers in class.
A panel of experts will look at all entries submitted before the closing date of Sunday 20th February 2011 8pm GMT. If you intend to enter the competition, please use the contact form to submit a valid, working email address (a lot of people ask me questions, only for me to reply and find that the mail is returned), and you will be provided with the email address & technical specifications that you’ll need to submit your work. The winning entry will be displayed on Ballet NEWS. Good luck !