5 Books about Dance and Resilience

Dance, like all arts, is about making a connection with others. I was thinking lately about Gelsey Kirkland, a dancer with whom I was fortunate to study when she gave her much beloved classes at Steps in NYC. Kirkland was one of George Balanchine’s star dancers and an American ballerina with a striking style. I will never forget how she told us that when dancing, we should remember that we are holding our beating hearts in our hands. That image solved the problem of dropping the wrist even during the most complicated movements, but it stayed with me even when I changed into street clothes and put my pointe shoes away.

These days I also think about Kirkland’s comment often, whether I dance or write. Making a connection with others is much more difficult in this time of Zoom and social distancing, but being genuine and honest and not being afraid of being vulnerable towards others is still important. My ballet training has influenced my attitude to life and shaped my personality. I admit that not all  such influences have been entirely positive–the relentless push for perfection comes with a price, ballet taught me what resilience means. Reading about other dancers and dance has always inspired me, and I would like to share my list of favorite books with you.

1. Celestial Bodies: How to Look at Ballet by Laura Jacobs

The book by Laura Jacobs, Celestial Bodies: How to Look at Ballet, is one of the best titles on dance. Jacobs gives an excellent introduction to this art form through personal stories and descriptions of famous ballets and explains why dance demands so much dedication. She also conveys her own passion for dance that makes this book such an absorbing read. A great introduction to anyone new to dance.

2. Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet by Jennifer Homans

Another excellent book that doesn’t require any prior knowledge of dance, Apollo’s Angels also contains enough stories and anecdotes to capture the attention of the more experienced ballet lovers. Homans takes to the French court, Russian imperial theaters and backstage of the world-famous companies as she traces the 400-year history of ballet in the Western world.

3. Dancing on My Grave by Gelsey Kirland

Dance is a tough muse, and nobody knows this better than Kirland. She had a turbulent career marked by drug abuse, and yet so strong was her character that she rose above it all in the end. Her book is a tell-all and a reckoning. It can be difficult to read at times. I don’t know how many times I felt like screaming, “Just tell Misha (Baryshnikov) to go to hell,” as Kirkland revealed the details of their dysfunctional relationship. Yet, ballet is not all tulle and satin, and this book is a must-read.

4. Dancing Revelations: Alvin Ailey’s Embodiment of African American Culture by Thomas DeFrantz

“Revelations” is one of the iconic dance pieces by the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, a company founded in 1958 by Alvin Ailey and a group of young Black modern dancers. Situating the history of the troop in the context of the civil rights movement, DeFrantz tells a gripping story about the rise of a company that redefined American dance.

5. Tradition And Creativity In Japanese Dance by Michiyo Hata

Dance is one of the earliest known art forms, and even prehistoric rock paintings capture images of dancing figures. Asian dances have a complexity and beauty that inspired ballet in different ways, and Japanese dance is one of my favorite traditions. This gorgeous book has plenty of photos and explanations, and it will guarantee hours of pleasure and discovery.

Ballet and Perfume

If you are interested in fragrances inspired by ballet, I have mentioned a list of several such creations in my article, Ballet-Inspired Perfumes.

Are you a dance lover? I would like to know what fragrances evoke ballet for you.

Image via Unsplash, some rights reserved.

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23 Comments

  • José Eduardo Saraiva: Hello Victoria
    Good afternoon
    Ballet is a wonderful art, I had the opportunity to be connected to that art for 17 years as a photographer, it was a fantastic time that I remember with a lot of nostalgia and emotion.
    I attended some of the best known classical dances, as well as modern ones, and I also worked outside professional companies as a photographer at the Conservatory where dancers were trained here in Portugal
    Ballet and perfumery, the same sensitivity and beauty.
    Best regards
    José Saraiva
    Portugal. March 1, 2021 at 7:29am Reply

  • Klaas: May I repost a comment that got lost down the bottom in one of your previous threads about dance? If you want to see the incredible Gelsey Kirkland at work, YouTube her name in combination with Theme and Variations (Theme and Variations being an exquisite choreography by George Balanchine). You will find a performance in which Kirkland dances with American Ballet Theatre and is partnered by the legendary dancer Michail Barishnikov. It is one of the most exhilarating dance performances out there, even when the images come to us from the 1970’s! The tempo in the finally is just insane! There’s an interview with her afterwards, just minutes after she took her bow. It is very nice to hear her speak!

    Lovely post again Victoria! I just started rereading Apollo’s Angels last week…..what are the odds?? March 1, 2021 at 9:01am Reply

    • Victoria: What do you think of the book so far?

      The video you’ve mentioned is incredible. The dancing, the expressiveness, the musicality. Gelsey is quite articulate indeed, and I always enjoyed how she explained movements. Also, when she gave combinations, she barely marked them, but even the most delicate movements of her fingers were impossibly beautiful. March 1, 2021 at 1:58pm Reply

  • Julie: Must add Nureyev by Julie Kavanagh to the list. Apollo’s Angels outstanding. March 1, 2021 at 9:09am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you, Julie! I really must read it. March 1, 2021 at 1:58pm Reply

    • Klaas: That book is incredible!! What a life…….. March 2, 2021 at 9:02am Reply

  • Maya: Thank you for this list. I adore dance but have no grounding in its theory or philosophy. I relate to it solely viscerally and aesthetically. I have been meaning to learn more about it so this will serve me well. Prior to the birth of my son I frequently went to performances at Lincoln and City Center as well as Joyce Theater (I’m crazy about Parsons Dance). I was lucky to see Wendy Whelan in her last performance before retirement in her late 40’s! If you haven’t done so already, try to watch the documentary about the time leading to Whelan’s retirement on Netflix or Amazon Prime. It’s called Restless Creature. As always, thank you. March 1, 2021 at 9:27am Reply

    • Victoria: You’re lucky indeed! I saw Wendy Whelan perform, and I enjoyed her elegant style. March 1, 2021 at 1:59pm Reply

  • Elizabeth Rush: Thanks you for an interesting combination – ballet and fragrance. I’d like to add Jacques D’Amboise to the list. He was wonderful dancer and is a warm spirited teacher. His memoir “I was a Dancer” is a very positive insight into the life of a dancer.
    I love love love the movie Ballet Russe by Zeitgeist films. It features Balachine’s early days, the “baby ballerinas” and has wonderful footage, past and present.
    Also the documentary Afternoon of the Faun which profiles dancer Tanaquil le Clercg is lovely and bittersweet. I could go on….but am curious to hear the fragrance recommendations. March 1, 2021 at 6:58pm Reply

  • rickyrebarco: These books look great. I will check out the one on the Alvin Ailey company. March 1, 2021 at 11:51pm Reply

  • Klaas: I like the book very much! I’ve read it before and picked it up again to give it another round. Curfew is great for reading 😉

    Homans is very, very thorough in her researche, and I appreciate the fact that she can relate to the history from a dancers perspective. It gives her writing color and depth I find.

    The musicality of Kirklands interpretation is breathtaking! So spot-on!! Balanchine’s choreography is all about bringing the music to life, and she does it so much justice!! And the flawless technique…..You were lucky to take her class, it must have been quite something! March 2, 2021 at 9:11am Reply

  • Klaas: Dutch writer Arthur Japin wrote a very, very beautiful novel about Vaslav Nijinsky….It is called Vaslav and covers the tragic years after his marriage with Romola de Pulski and his break-up with Diaghilev.

    Japin switches perspectives between Nijinsky’s house keeper, Romola and Diaghilev and stays very true to historic facts. He weaves all these elements into a beautiful novel. It is translated into English and I can highly recommend it.

    Also Peter Kurth’s hefty biography on Isadora Duncan is a fantastic read. She had the most incredible life, making the book a real page turner. One can hardly believe it is all true! March 2, 2021 at 9:25am Reply

    • Bregje: I think i mentioned Vaslav here a few years ago.
      I agree it’s beautiful. i love Japin’s work in general😉 March 3, 2021 at 2:17am Reply

  • Carla: I recommend the Disney Plus documentary On Pointe. The review in my paper of choice, The Wall Street Journal, was negative, but I thought the reviewer was completely wrong. I am familiar with the modern ballet world before the turn of the century. This documentary gave me a glimpse of the ballet world of today. It was positive – it seems, hopefully, there is a healthier approach to the body today for one thing, with nutrition classes offered to the young SAB dancers for example. It was fun to see behind the scenes of the very complicated Nutcracker production. Ballet enriches life so much! March 2, 2021 at 9:47am Reply

  • Bregje: Hi Victoria,

    Lately i’ve been very busy planning a move which is very challenging in a lockdown situation( buying a kitchen from a distance for example). So i haven’t been reading as many of your posts as before.
    But when i saw the title, of course i had to take a peek😉.
    You describe it so beautifully. I love the ‘holding your beating heart in your hands’ quote and i’m glad you also mention that not all the personality traits you learn or cultivate as a dancer are positive.
    Some really work against me in real life( like never knowing when it’s time to stop😉).
    But to my own surprise i realized that i’ve never actually read anything (non-fictional )about dance! I’ve seen documentaries and read fiction .so thank you for giving me something to read in the near future. March 3, 2021 at 2:13am Reply

  • Hilde: Hello Victoria,
    It is really heartwarming that now and then You give some reflections of your personal interests.
    I am not acquainted with the world of ballet, but I truly believe, as you mentioned, that the formation of a ballet dancer is not all tulle and satin.
    When you talked about resilience, I must think about another article you wrote recently about the perfume world. Maybe much more difficult than the physical aspect in the professional ballet world, is the psychological aspect. Many are called but few are chosen.

    That besides, for me classical ballet is an art and I love to watch it. Modern choreography is not my cup of tea.
    Once I would like to see a ballet performance in real on the music of Claude Debussy – Prélude à l’aprés-midi d’un Faune. Therefore, I should say that The Afternoon of a Faun by Etat Libre d’Orange is a fragrance inspired by ballet. I only rely on the name of the perfume because I haven’t smelled any perfume of this brand.
    But when I think of ballet I assimilate it with Russian tradition and therefore, if I should mention another perfume, it is The Different Company de Bachmakov. I love the woody green (even a bit cypre) fragrance of which I recently smelled a sample. March 3, 2021 at 9:27am Reply

  • Nikos: Hello everyone.
    Nice book recommendations. I am a fan of contemporary dance rather than classical ballet. I will have to look at Tradition And Creativity In Japanese Dance. Although not a dancer I used to take part in some butoh seminars.

    Butoh is an avant- garde expressionistic Japanese dance and also the inspiration behind Giacobetti’s Talc. The fragrance is a soft powdery scent, with a prominent rice note and as many have mentioned doesn’t bring anything dark in mind. But it is a misconception to see butoh just as a “dance of darkness”. So I would say it is rather the smell of the rice powdered dancer who like a ghost or a pilar of white ash tries to stay upright. It’s a contemplative scent that I love but I wish iunx fragrances were more easily accessible and with a little more strength in them.

    Hope that the pandemic will be soon over so we can attend theatres and support and applaud our favorite dance companies et all. Stay safe everyone. March 3, 2021 at 9:48am Reply

  • Brigitte: I am a former professional ballet dancer. I studied with Barbara Walczak, who was a soloist with NYC Ballet. But I also took classes at Steps, both the original studio near Columbus Circle and the updated larger studios on Broadway. Small world, Victoria. March 3, 2021 at 1:07pm Reply

    • Brigitte: And if anyone is interested Barbara Walczak wrote a book titled “Balanchine, the Teacher” March 3, 2021 at 2:05pm Reply

  • Brigitte: And I went to high school with Wendy Whalen…gosh I feel old 🙂 March 3, 2021 at 1:09pm Reply

  • Jeanne: I would add Suzanne Farrell’s Holding On To The Air to your great list. I think she was such a beautiful dancer. When I think about resilience in dance or life, I think of her. March 3, 2021 at 11:17pm Reply

  • Potimarron: Thank you for the recommendations. I’ve never done ballet but I’m a ballroom and Latin dancer and your question about fragrances made me wonder.

    The changing rooms at my dancing competitions have a very particular smell- a combination of fake tan, hairspray and old sweat. It isn’t very appealing (in fact, it’s a bit tense-making) but every time, I’m struck by the singularity of it. When getting ready for my competitions, I choose my fragrances carefully.

    For me, the ideal ballroom fragrance is refined- an elegant floral or chypre, where Latin fragrances are louder and blousier. March 4, 2021 at 5:00pm Reply

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