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.