Literary Links: A Journey Into Dance

Elaine Stewart, Library Associate

Dance is one activity that evokes an immediate visceral response in people–they either love it or hate it. Yet bodily movement is critical for human health and dance has long been one of most accessible kinds of exercise. Even the most ancient human civilizations engaged in some form of dance, whether for ritualistic, artistic or romantic expression.

Taking the Lead

We Americans don’t consider ourselves to have much of a dance tradition, but in Hoedowns, Reels, and Frolics: Roots and Branches of Southern Appalachian Dance (University of
Illinois Press, 2015) Philip Jamison explores the many, varied forms of dance native to Southern Appalachia. Jamison, an old-time musician and flatfoot dancer, examines the distinctive square dances, step dances and reels of the mountain region and traces their roots back through time. What he finds is a hybrid of dance forms that developed not just from early British settlers, as written history would have us believe, but from other European, African-American and even Native American influences. Black culture, in particular, was strongly influential in shaping these American dances, from the way the steps were developed to the practice of calling out the dance moves, a format still used today in traditional dancing. Jamison’s text is scholarly but highly readable and entertaining, especially to those who have ever participated in a lively evening of square or contra dancing.

The Unexpected Waltz

For the past decade, the television reality show “Dancing With the Stars” has popularized ballroom dancing in America. In Taking the Lead: Lessons from a Life in Motion (Harper Collins Publishers, 2014) the show’s all-time champion professional dancer, Derek Hough, tells his story of surviving childhood bullying and enduring rigorous dance training from the age of 12. While determination, persistence and creative brilliance have made him renowned in the world of dance and endeared him to television fans, Hough makes it clear that his greatest satisfaction is in bringing out the best in others and helping them realize their true potential.

Another book that fans of “Dancing With the Stars” may enjoy is Kim Wright’s novel The Unexpected Waltz (Gallery Books, 2014), the story of a woman who finds her way back from personal loss through ballroom dance. Fifty-two-year-old Kelly is alone and adrift a year after the death of her wealthy husband. On a whim, she signs up for ballroom dance lessons. Paired with an exacting young Russian instructor, Kelly is quickly drawn into the world of dance and the melodrama of the studio. As her confidence on the dance floor grows, she begins to reshape her life and look forward to a new future. Since the author is an amateur ballroom dancer herself, the story undoubtedly draws much from the real world of competitive dancing.

Life in Motion

Ballroom has begun to appeal to the American masses, but for the more highbrow, ballet is the only dance form worthy of interest. Ballet dancers train from a very young age and are among the finest athletes in the world. In Life in Motion:  An Unlikely Ballerina (Simon & Schuster:  2014) Misty Copeland, the first African American woman to be named a principal dancer in the prestigious American Ballet Theatre, recounts her astonishing career. Though nearly all accomplished ballerinas begin their dance training at very young ages, Copeland didn’t touch a ballet barre until the age of thirteen and then only at an after-school community center. Yet, in three months she was dancing on point and within a year she was appearing on the professional stage. Copeland’s instinct for movement and physical giftedness paved the way for her rise to unimaginable heights, but she continually reflects on the precariousness of her journey from a disadvantaged childhood. Throughout the book she reiterates her inspiring mantra:  “This is for the little brown girls.”

Raising the Barre

Author Lauren Kessler knew only too well the exclusivity of ballet. In Raising the Barre: Big Dreams, False Starts, and My Midlife Quest to Dance the Nutcracker (Da Capo Press: 2014) Kessler tells how she trained as a child with a distinguished ballet teacher, only to overhear the man tell her mother that “her shape is wrong.” Decades later, as a midlife challenge, Kessler decides to overcome her lifelong body-angst and dance again—not only to dance, in fact, but to dance “The Nutcracker” with which she had fallen in love as a child. After persuading her hometown’s Eugene Ballet Company to let her carry a small role, Kessler throws herself into yoga, Pilates and boxing to get her body ready for the challenges of ballet. Her account is a fun read, filled with humor and a lot of interesting tidbits about the history of ballet and the day-to-day rigors of the dance.

Literary Links, compiled by library staff, appears monthly in the Ovation section of the Columbia Daily Tribune. Each article contains a short list of books on a timely topic.

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