Friday Fiction: “A Very Young …” by Jill Krementz

(L-R) Book covers: A Very Young Dancer, A Very Young Skater, A Very Gymnast.

This week’s Friday Fiction is a threefer of nonfiction books that follow young kids doing cool things: “A Very Young Dancer,” “A Very Young Skater,” and “A Very Young Gymnast”, all by Jill Krementz. (Krementz had a whole series of “Very Young X” books, of which these were likely the most popular.)

What is it about ballet, ice skating, and gymnastics that is catnip to (certain) little girls? I don’t know, but they enchanted me as a child. When I moved to the US at age 7, one of very few entertainments I had available to me was the public library. I was barely able to read English at the time, so I wandered the aisles aimlessly and somehow stumbled into those books. With their beautiful photographs and minimal text–the books are all “narrated” by their 10-year-old subjects–they were perfect for me. All three follow affluent young white girls growing up in New York City in the late 70s, training for each of those passions.

“A Very Young Dancer” follows Stephanie (last name not given, but easily searchable), a girl training in ballet at the famous School of American Ballet–the one that Balanchine founded and that feeds into the New York City Ballet. She lands the role of Marie/Clara–the star!–in SAB’s Nutcracker. It follows her through the performance and then sees her settle back into the rhythm of regular hard work at SAB, post-Nutcracker.

“A Very Young Skater” follows Katherine Healy, a girl training in figure skating. It ends with Healy doing a figure skating exhibition event.

And “A Very Young Gymnast” follows Torrance York, a girl training and competing in gymnastics. She qualified for the Junior Olympics while the book was in publication.

As a person with an obsessive personality, I realize now that what I loved about these books, in addition to how beautiful these athletes’ movements were, was the obvious amount of dedication and love that these kids were putting into their work. I loved the thought of my job being to do something beautiful over and over until it became even more beautiful.

(“A Very Young Dancer” was also my introduction to ballet, of course. I didn’t get to take lessons until I was in my 30s, but what can I say, the book worked.)

As an adult, I went back and wondered what became of these kids. Google told me.

York probably had the most conventional path in life. After the events of the book, she was invited to train at an Olympic gym. Although that was once her dream, she turned it down on the grounds that she felt satisfied with what she had already accomplished and did not want it to consume her life. Today she is a photographer and has, as far as I can tell, no links to gymnastics.

Athletically speaking, Healy was by far the most successful of the three. She wanted to be a ballet dancer herself. She also entered SAB and danced the Nutcracker lead in 1978 and 1979. (I have not been able to stop wondering: did she and Stephanie ever meet? Stephanie’s book came out in 1976, so I suspect they just missed each other.) I have seen Healy called a child prodigy in both skating and ballet. I don’t know about skating, but I’d agree about ballet–check out these videos of her dancing at age 10 and at age 13. I’ve seen pre-professional students who don’t have her quality of movement. Her command of movement and port de bras makes me want to weep.

Healy won a handful of international ballet competitions and when she was merely 15, joined the English National Ballet as a principal dancer. That’s the kind of thing I’d say was too unrealistic for a story. Today she teaches ballet and I think also skating. I’m honestly a little surprised that she isn’t more famous. Just imagine if she’d been born in the Instagram era.

What about the actual very young dancer? Although her book inspired a generation of girls to take up ballet, Stephanie’s dance career was over just after it began. Despite having danced the lead in Nutcracker, she was, to be blunt, kicked out of SAB just a few years later. It’s not really clear why, and anyone who knew has long since passed. That said, what evidence remains does suggest that she was not progressing as quickly or as well as her teachers would have liked. As one might imagine, it was a shock going from a literal poster child for ballet to being booted from a famous ballet school. Stephanie now lives in Wyoming, in a life as far removed from ballet as possible. (And if you didn’t believe me when I said that this book was popular, well, I hope the fact that a New York Times article focuses on her after-story is convincing. That, and the mention that superstar Wendy Whelan got inspired to dance from the book.)

I went back to the books to see if there was any hint of these outcomes–any seeds of the future–in the children’s own words about themselves. It’s easy to read too much into these things, but one thing I noticed what that York and Healy come across as more serious and, well, professional in their books. Unlike Stephanie, they discuss technique in their narration, which implies a deeper level of understanding and ownership of their work.

That’s probably far too much tea-leaf-reading to apply to the words of 10-year-old kids, but it does align with what I know to be true. If you want to succeed at the highest levels, you pretty much have to be your own coach. Of course it helps to have piles of wealth and privilege and the world’s best teachers behind you (as all three girls did), but even then, they can’t do it for you.

A bigger issue is probably that, at least according to her interview decades later, Stephanie didn’t actually enjoy ballet enough to progress in it as a career. She said that classes were laborious and unpleasant. I’ve heard the same … from professional dancers. You’re going to have shit days. There is no job in the world with no shit days.

None of this is to judge Stephanie in a bad light. Shit days are much harder to deal with when you are 10 than when you are 30, unless you are one of those preternaturally mature children (I have the feeling that York and Healy both were). I am only sad that she didn’t get to discover for herself that ballet was probably not her calling, and that the choice was ripped away from her so abruptly and quasi-publicly. As a child, it must have been enormously difficult to process.

I suppose all that is to say: for all that I idolized these girls, and for all that society loves to fawn over stories of successful children, there are benefits to being a grown-up. Like maturity. Perspective. Context. Fantasies aside, I would never have been able to handle being a professional ballet dancer at 15 or training for the Olympics at 12.

I once heard a successful older woman who runs her own business say that that professional success comes for you when you are truly ready for it. While that flatten a lot of aspects, for me, I find that it has been overwhelmingly true. So I hope that we can all have, and take, the time that we need to get on our own paths, Very Young or not.

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Friday Favorites: “Dancing on my Grave” by Gelsey Kirkland

Today’s Friday Favorite is “Dancing on my Grave,” a memoir by Gelsey Kirkland, one of Balanchine’s baby ballerinas who joined the New York City Ballet at 15. She was also something of a notorious (but reformed) bad girl figure in the ballet world. If you know anything about her it’s probably that she 1) danced with Baryshnikov on TV in “The Nutcracker” (you can watch the whole thing on YouTube) and 2) did a lot of coke on top of starving herself.

If you know anything more, it’s probably that she was a unique, brilliant, expressive dancer. I’m painfully crushed that we didn’t have today’s cameras in the 60s-80s, because I wish I could see her in HD, but even looking at the blurry videos that do exist, you can get an idea of her brilliance. She cultivated an airy, innocent yet knowing, childlike and delicate quality to her movement. And she expressed with every cell in her body.

Kirkland is probably my favorite dancer of all time. Her movement aesthetics are the same as mine, and I really connect with how she discusses ballet. I have often said that what I love about ballet is the shaping of space with your body. In an interview with Dance Magazine, Kirkland expressed it far better:

Many dancers think of performance as the audience… and themselves, that is, two-dimensional. They need to build a three-dimensional world and draw the audience into it. When you radiate épaulement, let’s say in croisé, you are opening up a whole arc of light with your body. You have to open this circle constantly, so that when you move through space you create a state of wonder and the audience discovers this with you.

But the absence of light is darkness. The book is an extremely unvarnished retrospective, penned while she was—as the end of the book describes—getting off coke and Valium. In addition to the drug abuse, she dealt with eating disorders. It really does fall into the “tortured genius” category which really makes me wonder how much better she might have been if she hadn’t hated herself for most of her life. But she also claims, and I see no reason to disbelieve her, that all that hatred meant she focused and obsessed on making her dance better because it was the one area of life where she could control. Obsession leads to practice, and practice approaches perfection. So perhaps if she had been born into a healthier family, Kirkland’s career would have ended young when she decided that Balanchine was an asshole and walked out of the School of American Ballet. No doubt it would have been healthier for her. The paying public admires achievements, but doesn’t like to think about the cost, unless it’s also shown as a performance—a grotesque one, especially.

That aside. The book is a fascinating look for me, as a person who enjoys dancing ballet, into the unbelievable amount of work Kirkland put into her dancing. We’re talking all-night practices. She was a complete perfectionist. The book doesn’t really linger on her studio time, but there are others who were there with a camera. Kurt Froman got his hands on some footage of Kirkland (among other things) practicing the famous Kitri jump for 50 minutes, over and over.

She paid for it financially, too. She found her own coaches, not just in ballet but in kinesiology and mime and other types of dance. She was learning nonstop for her entire career … although I suppose the cocaine didn’t help.

On that note, I can easily see why cocaine was so attractive to her. My understanding (never having tried it) is that coke, aside from the euphoria, makes you feel really confident in yourself. If I hated myself as much as Kirkland describes hating herself, I too would be instantly hooked on being free of that feeling. Speaking as one who drinks alcohol to occasionally stop the noise of a mind that sometimes just won’t shut up, I understand self-medication completely, without necessarily promoting the act. I should also mention that (as described both in and out of this book) plenty of other dancers at the time were doing various drugs for various reasons. The dancer whom Kirkland said introduced her to cocaine died a year after her book came out, probably of an overdose.

For those of you worried about a sad ending, I have good news. Kirkland did get away from drugs and returned to the stage. She discovered teaching while at the Royal Ballet, and today helms the Gelsey Kirkland Academy of Classical Ballet. She gives beautiful, frank interviews and is all about coaching the next generation of dancers. She’s an artist still, and she’s even happy. May we all come to that point, but hopefully with far less trouble.

P.S. Kirkland wrote a second memoir, The Shape of Love, which is also on my to-read list.

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Friday Favorites: “Ribbons” by Laurence Yep

For today’s Friday Favorite, I’m going talk about “Ribbons” by Laurence Yep, a YA book. It’s not SFF, but it is ballet, so we’re still #onbrand!

“Ribbons” follows Robin, an eleven-year-old Chinese-American girl who is a promising and passionate ballet student. But, she has to give up those lessons so that her parents can afford to bring her aging grandmother to the US, which permanently alters the family dynamics as well as economics.

Once her grandmother arrives, Robin wants nothing more than to go back to her beloved ballet lessons, but when her grandmother sees her tying on a pair of pointe shoes with satin ribbons, all hell breaks loose for reasons that nobody will explain to Robin, who is feeling more and more pushed out of the family circle. Resentment, jealousy, and pain build until Robin and her grandmother accidentally come to a better understanding of each other’s inner world and the hurts they both hold.

Reader, this book was the first time that I really and truly saw myself in a story. I remember the utter shock of it: someone wrote a book–for me?

I desperately wanted ballet lessons as a child. I had my first ballet lesson when I was over 30. I did not have a cranky grandmother living with my Chinese-American immigrant family in the US, but I knew that the reason for my deprivation was in part because my parents were desperately saving all the money they could for my future and my younger brother’s future. (I say in part because they eventually did scrape up some money for entirely unwanted piano lessons.)

In hindsight of course I am sure there are many, many Chinese immigrant girls who wanted ballet lessons. But I didn’t know at the time because I didn’t live next to or talk with any of them, because my parents chose to bring us to white suburbia. That had its benefits for sure. Diversity was not one of them. I consumed and even enjoyed volumes upon volumes of white ballet girl books (I love Noel Streatfeild’s “Ballet Shoes” to pieces, so please don’t take this post to be a slam on those stories) but I knew those books weren’t for or about me. The same was broadly true of my reading, whether it was in literature or SFF. I did occasionally land on a book about being a Chinese immigrant, which was inevitably about Pain and Suffering and Abusive Family Dynamics. Thank you, publishers, for reducing my existence to those dimensions!

So it was incredible to read “Ribbons,” which seemed like it had been written just for me. If you looked at the readership of the extremely white town where I lived, from whose library shelves I plucked the volume, that might even have been true.

Although the book is not SFF, it was a fantasy for me: an AsAm girl immigrant who cannot have the ballet lessons that she so desperately wants–and even though she’s talented to boot. (I’m not talented. I did say this was a fantasy.) And as a child who thought she would never get the chance to dance, I made my peace with that and let Robin dance for me. I was a dramatic child, okay.

And then at age 30something, I hauled myself into a ballet studio and paid for my first lesson. I’ll never stop wishing I’d been able to dance as a child, but I am slowly learning that it is just as valid and beautiful to pick it up now as it would have been 25 years ago. Thanks for inspiring me, Laurence Yep.

(On a less self-centered note, I find it extremely regrettable that whole piles of talent and passion and drive in this world are lost. By the end of the book, Robin gets her chance. Many people never do, which is the part where the fantasy breaks down. This is why I donate to my dance studio.)

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to write fanfiction where Robin goes away to SAB and becomes an NYCB soloist.

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2018

2017 was incredibly hectic. You may have noodled that one for yourself from my dramatic decline in posting frequency.

Anyway, three goals for 2018:

  • Get promoted to the next level (Beginner II) at ballet school. Overall goal is to one day be able to attend a NYCB open class at the Kennedy Center! You must be at least intermediate level to join in, and observation is not allowed, so I better do all my exercises today. (I’m ordering a Theraband stat.)
  • Sell another short story. You know they say “it never gets easier, you just get better” and I’ll vouch for #1 but I’m not so sure on #2. For quite a while now I have only been getting better at seeing how my writing sucks. A useful skill to be sure, but best paired with an actual increase in writing ability. They promise me that eventually that curve flips but I think they lied. I’m still writing though. Forgive the tone of this item – nobody ever said that grinding EXP was heartening.
  • Do something original and self-directed at work. But first, I must get good enough at my job that I have the bandwidth to conceive of something original and execute it to completion.

Here’s to a happy, healthy, and heaven willing productive 2018!

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Ballet Shoes

Probably the biggest new happiness multiplier in recent memory: I (re)started taking ballet at local studio. Although I am a complete beginner, I grew up on a steady diet of ballet books at varying qualities. I don’t remember when I first saw the photos but I remember being completely entranced by the unparalleled beauty of the form. Lessons were not possible, so I read books, which is always the next best thing. I read all the Noel Streatfeild books, random teen serials where no book is complete without someone bursting into tears mid-dress rehearsal, and of course I read Jill Krementz’s “A Very Young Dancer” so many times that it’s burned into my mind. I also read all kinds of books about technique, and pored over photographs of classical ballets. Thanks, well-stocked childhood library!

One of the really flattering things that a teacher said at my very first lesson was “I can’t believe you’ve never taken ballet before.” And no matter how failhard I am at every lesson, I definitely laid up that comment to live by whenever I feel discouraged (the adagios in center practice, they slay me). And I do fail pretty hard, even for a beginner. My hips are stiff, I can barely follow simple choreography, and my placement is a mess. But I flatter myself that I have been mentally dancing for a very long time. So even when my feet are not right, I do know exactly what I am supposed to have done, and that sometimes–somehow–just a bit–shines through the mess of bad posture and worse turnout.

The other thing I love about ballet is that … I am a fairly competitive and perfectionist person in most areas of my life, but dancing shuts down that part of my brain. That makes it freeing and meditative–I suspect that ballet is to me as yoga is to a lot of people. If my steps are not perfect, that’s just my version of it and it’s as valid as anyone else’s, and I am shockingly content with that.

Which is the complete opposite of how I feel about writing! I submit my stories for publication, and I love it when people read and hopefully enjoy my stories. Part of me feels that a story is not real until it is shared–that it’s just a hallucination in my brain until someone else confirms that they heard those voices too.

In ballet, I do not feel that way. I am overjoyed just to be in the studio. I could do endless tendus alone save for the accompanying music on my phone. I feel absolutely no need to be on a stage.

I wonder if I would be a better writer, if I also felt that way about my writing?

Anyway, this was a rambling post. If you want to read a serious post about taking ballet as an adult, I wholeheartedly recommend the excellent essay “Swan, Late: The unexpected joys of adult beginner ballet.”

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