6.11.09

Ballet Books

Back when I was a lass, there were two kinds of books about the real world: horsey books and ballet books. (Oh yes, I suppose there were school stories too - the Abbey books, Malory Towers and so forth, but I wasn't a massive fan. Someone else will have to write about those.) I had no hope of ever owning a pony, but ballet was in my blood. My grandmother was a ballet teacher, my aunt was a ballerina, and I started ballet lessons when I was four and continued them even in the wilds of New Guinea. Maybe... just maybe... I might become a ballerina one day?

The Alien Onions have just given us a lovely post about horsey books, but they have balked at tackling ballet books. So here is my own (by no means exhaustive) list of favourites in that genre.

1. Ballet Shoes, by Noel Streatfeild

The grandmother of them all. Pauline, Petrova and Posy Fossil are all brought home as adopted babies by the eccentric Gum who promptly disappears, leaving not much money behind for his niece Sylvia to bring up the children. Sylvia converts their great big house into lodgings and the sisters end up training to earn their living as dancers and actresses at Madame Fidolia's school.
I read this until the pages nearly fell out (they were certainly very thoroughly nibbled), and despite the fairy-tale ending, the subliminal message of the girls creating their own family and destiny ('No-one can say it's because of our grandfathers') still stands the test of time.

Needless to say there are loads of other Noel Streatfeild books dealing with similar themes, about children entering the world of the stage or ice-skating or films or tennis. The refreshing thing about them now is that the emphasis is not on being 'discovered', and instant celebrity, but on the need for endless practice and hard work as well as raw talent. Streatfeild also had a gift for writing well-rounded adult characters with their own psychological agendas, which makes for thoroughly enjoyable adult re-reading. Ballet Shoes For Anna, about some Turkish orphans (!) shipped to the UK, is particularly poignant.

2. The Sadler's Wells books, by Lorna Hill

I think I actually started these with Veronica at the Wells which is the second book in the series. There are heaps and I must admit I haven't read most of them. Though there is a ballet background, these are really romances, tracing the tangled relationships between Veronica (another orphan!), her horrible relations and the moody, temperamental Sebastian. Veronica has to choose between Sebastian's love and dancing - or can she have it all? Set in the 50s, the assumptions seem quite dated at first, but perhaps the world hasn't changed that much after all...

3. Ballet for Laura, and Laura's Summer Ballet, by Linda Blake

I nearly cried when I found this cover. I remember Laura's Summer Ballet so vividly - the ballet school temporarily relocates to the seaside, and as part of their end-of-year assessment, they have to prepare their own ballet. The pupils base it on a mysterious painting which looks just like Laura... This was my first introduction to the word and the concept of "choreography," which I found completely fascinating; I loved the idea that you didn't have to be a dancer, you could create dances for others to perform... (Shades of things to come, perhaps.) I also identified strongly with the shy, modest Laura (yet another bloody orphan, by the way!)

4. Ballerina, by Nada Curcija-Prodanovic

Okay, this one is pretty obscure, in fact I had to do some serious internet searching before I tracked it down. The basic story of the ballet school, and the feuds and friendships within it, was familiar territory by this stage, but this book had the distinction of being set in Yugoslavia, where vowels were apparently outlawed and no-one's name was remotely pronounceable. Perhaps this is why it's left less of an impression than the others on this list. Still, I'd love to read it again!

Having compiled this admittedly brief list, it becomes blatantly obvious why my ballet career never took off. With two parents very much alive, my hopes were blighted before I ever laced on a satin shoe.

Any faves I've missed? Any other ballet girls out there?

6 comments:

  1. Not sure if this is a fave, but it survived the numerous book culls that I've had each time I've moved house since I was a kid, so that has to count for something:
    'Just Like Jenny' by Sandy Asher is, yeah, about jealousy:
    'I've always wanted to be just like you, Jenny...Never scared, never worried, never sad. Perfect.'
    It ends with: 'But whatever happens, I'm still one of the lucky ones. I'm still me - and I'm still a dancer.'

    Once a dancer, always a dancer...

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  2. Very interesting. The orphan thing is weird. Kids don't seem to be orphaned nearly as much in contemporary fiction. One parent dead, yes, but both is more unusual, don't you think? They seem much more likely to be metaphorically absent than literally absent.

    I don't know how I missed this genre, the Streatfeild ones in particular. I think I'll add them to my list to keep an eye out for in 2nd-hand bookstores.

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  3. Thanks, thaliak, I'll look out for that one!

    Yes, Onions, the orphan thing is strange. Maybe it's symbolic of the utter dedication and single-mindedness necessary to make it in the world of ballet?? You really must read some Streatfeild, Onion S. Right up your alley, I venture to suggest, if you can overlook the obvious datedness of her world.

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  4. Rumer Godden wrote ballet books too, Thursday’s Children, Listen to the Nightingale, A Candle for St. Jude.

    I loved books about serious girls who were terribly gifted but poor, or overlooked, or otherwise tragic.

    There was a ballet book I read as a child that I have never rediscovered, and I think it must be NS or RG. It is about a girl who is Discovered dancing in the street (to a polka), with requisite foreign woman who cries 'she must dance'. Her grandmother or old nurse takes her to the dancing lessons. And one of the other children falls in love with a little dog and ends up walking it for a kindly old rich man and paying for (Polly's?) lessons. I know there is a shortish scene where they all go to the seaside and 'have a bathe' and Polly dances in the sea. Any idea what it is?

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  5. Doesn't ring a bell for me, it must be RG as I think I've read every word NS ever wrote. I love the sound of it, though!

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  6. I have to admit that I loved the Enid Blyton boarding school books -- just had an enthusement session with my friends about them this weekend. I haven't read any of the ballet books you mention but I did read the 'Drina' books: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mabel_Esther_Allan

    Drina was an orphan: the daughter of two ballet stars, no less. She kept her lineage quiet at school even though a rather annoying, less talented girl (called Queenie, I think) kept rabbiting on about how her mother was a (not very) famous dancer. I only ever read a few of them, though, and would like to read the rest.

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