Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Not Just For Dancers: Bunheads by Sophie Flack

When I was in early elementary school, I wanted to be a ballerina.  It did not make a difference to me that I did not take serious ballet lessons or that I was not very interested in anything that involved serious athletic effort or ability.  I briefly took beginner dance classes, wore a pink tutu around the house, and redecorated my bedroom in baby pink with a ballet slipper pattern border (a fact I regretted for the next decade).  Although my ballet career never took off, my fascination and love for this form of dance continues.  The intense and demanding backstage world of professional ballet has always been especially interesting to me so when I heard buzz about a new novel called Bunheads, I was immediately intrigued.

Hannah Ward is not a ballerina.  Ballerinas are the big stars--the soloists in the spotlight.  Moreover, the word calls to mind fluffy pink tutus and porcelein figurines the twirl on top of music boxes. Hannah is a dancer in the corps de ballet in the famous Manhattan Ballet and her life is not pink or fluffy.   It's hours upon hours of hard physical work in sweaty leotards, practicing until her whole body aches.  Dancing has been always Hannah's only focus in life.  She's never had time for an outside social life--or a date.  When she meet sweet musician and NYU student Jacob, Hannah begins to discover the world beyond the stage.  But competition within the company is getting more and more intense and Hannah begins to realize that she's going to have to make a choice between her passion for dance and her longing for a normal, more diverse life. 

Bunheads does more that give readers a peek into the very separate world of professional ballet; it paints a complex and realistically conflicted picture of that world from the viewpoint of an involved insider.  The author Sophie Flack is recently retired dancer whose own path in the ballet world clearly parallels that of her protagonist. She danced with the company for nine years, including both national and international tours.  Thanks greatly to Sophie Flack's breadth of experience in this world,  the piece manages to portray with equal clarity both the wonder and beauty passionate dancers feel about their choosen art and career and the almost superhuman emotional, physical, and mental pressures dancers work under within a professional company.  Flack works to dispell certain myths about ballet dancers (about ubiquity of eating disorders or the belovedness of The Nutcracker) while also acknowledging the harsh truths behind some of them, such as the very real strict body shape and weight requirements in most professional companies and the potential serious medical consequences for dancers who do not maintain healthy eating and exercise habits while trying to meet them. 

Hannah is a great narrator, determined and passionate about her career as a dancer but also vulnerable and concerned that her sacrifices may not be leading her to the future she might want as an adult.  Her love for and her doubts about her career as a ballet dancer come through in her narration and her coming of age story is one that both dancers and 'pedestrians' (her friends' term for non-dancers) will be able to understand.  Although the novel is filled with ballet and dance terminology, it remains completely accessible for non-dancer readers and the descriptions and explanation are integrated well into the action of the plot.  An interesting and enjoyable debut!  This one flew off the display at my library almost immediately and I've already got a waiting list, especially among our population of young ballet dancers!


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