On Pointe: Reading on Ballet

It wasn’t until I was in my twenties that my parents admitted I was a decidedly terrible five-year-old ballerina. It was no great blow to learn I sucked at something I hadn’t attempted in two decades; as I grew older, I was burned by athletic endeavors generally and found my confidence in books and academic success instead. But if my loving parents observed my lack of grace onstage, that meant my teacher, my classmates, and the entire audience at our ballet recital definitely noticed, and that stung a bit.

There’s something enticing about the rigorous structure of the ballet world, the gamble of hard work paying off. With ballet, you have an identity, inside jokes, long hours, and people who get you — camaraderie. I craved that sense of belonging, from the first day of kindergarten through my failed sorority rushes in college. It’s the seduction of security, of always having someone to sit with, always having someplace to be. I wanted to rest in the knowledge that I was accepted and validated, especially by talented women.

These days, I love absorbing ballet via pop culture and the occasional live performance. I obsessed over Dance Academy on Netflix, and Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild is one of my all-time favorite books. If I could pick one magic power, forget flight or invisibility — I’d choose dance.

1. “The Afterlife of a Ballerina.” (Alice Robb, Elle, October 2016)

Alice Robb’s profile of Alexandra Ansanelli chronicles her meteoric rise onstage and offers a fascinating inside look at how her personality and psyche were shaped by her rigorous and often isolating training. From online dating to her day job, Ansanelli shares how she struggled to assimilate into civilian life after retiring from ballet at age 28.

2. “Talent Isn’t Enough When You’re a Fat Ballerina.” (Olivia Campbell, Catapult, May 2018)

I know how tough it is to live with regret, how easy it is to get sucked into the “what if” depression spiral. Olivia Campbell’s “what ifs” swirl around her past as a “semi-professional dancer” and which bodies are deemed acceptable and beautiful in ballet. Hers wasn’t.

3. “The Ballerina Who Accused Her Instructor of Sexual Assault.” (Jessica Luther, BuzzFeed News, December 2016)

Over a year before #MeToo permeated the international conversation, journalist Jessica Luther reported on ballerina Lissa Curtis’ exceedingly brave decision to hold her rapist — her former ballet instructor — accountable in court. I was moved by Curtis’ openness in discussing her PTSD and her healing process, especially her changing relationship to dance.

4. “Raising a Ballerina Will Cost You $100,000.” (Abby Abrams, FiveThirtyEight, August 2015)

Whew, the pointe shoes ALONE. $29,000?!

This assumes the student starts wearing pointe shoes in sixth grade — around the time that most ballet schools allow students to try them out — and buys shoes priced at about $80 per pair.4 My estimate assumes that a sixth-grader goes through a pair of shoes every three months. By seventh grade, she needs a new pair of pointe shoes after one month; by ninth grade that need increases to one each week; and by the time she is in 10th grade, I’ve accounted for her buying two pairs per week. That might sound like a lot of shoes, but dancers have assured me that these high numbers are about right.

On a more hopeful note, this piece offers insight into programs like Dance Theatre of Harlem and Project Plié make ballet more accessible to students from diverse backgrounds.

5. “Body on Fire.” (Amy Jo Burns, Tin House, November 2017)

As I read “Rust Belt ballerina” Amy Jo Burns’ essay, I felt the tug of something familiar. I wracked my brain, then I remembered: I’d encountered her writing in Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture, an anthology edited by Roxane Gay. Though I read several pieces from Not That Bad during a quiet half-hour at work, Burns’ stuck with me especially; I’d like to write like her one day. I admired her clear-eyed, unsparing observations of how her attacker received few consequences and how her fellow survivors were vilified by their small town. In “Body on Fire,” Burns intersperses her own relationship to ballet with a powerful meditation on the life, art, and sexist biographing of Emma Livry, a young French ballerina who died after suffering burns from the stage’s gaslights.