I got bit by the ballet bug when I was 14. My friend was dancing in the Nutcracker, and I thought it was the most magical and beautiful thing I’d ever seen and I wanted SO badly to be a part of it. I bought a CD of the Nutcracker and convinced my parents to let me join a ballet studio the next month. I never got to play the part of a party girl (though I did end up doing a last-minute substitution as a party parent when they were a couple of people short), but got to dance the snowflake, harlequin doll, head soldier, Russian, Chinese, and lady-in-waiting parts. Three years later, I left ballet to go to college, and here I am, free of pointe (my feet never quite forgave me for putting them through that torture) but full of nostalgia for the fun, beauty, energy, and drama of a good ballet story. I still get excited about going to the ballet or watching movies/reading books about ballet, and I have super fond memories of my time binge-reading all the books under the Junior Nonfiction ballet section (792s…) of the Orem Library. And now, without further ado, the list of books/movies I would gladly binge on in my ballet bug phase, or even now, because once a ballet-bug-bitten victim, always a ballet-bug-bitten victim:
Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina by Misty Copeland: If you aren’t obsessed with Misty Copeland already, get yourself over to YouTube right now and watch this and this and this just for fun. Then read the biographical account of her unlikely and groundbreaking journey to becoming the only African-American soloist with the prestigious American Ballet Theatre, and while you’re at it, read her gorgeous children’s book Firebird, about a young dancer who questions herself and doubts her ability to reach Misty’s heights.
Dancing in the Wings by Debbie Allen: Rachel Isadora was a professional dancer before she quit due to an injury, but she went on to become a very impressive artist. One thing I was obsessed with in addition to my ballet obsession was doodling pictures of ballerinas all over my school notebooks, and I absolutely love Isadora’s style. The drawings of ballet dancers and poses in her books are strikingly beautiful and delightfully airy. You should read everything she illustrates but start with this one, the story of a girl with too-large feet and too-long legs who does her best to get the attention of a famous director visiting her ballet class.
Center Stage: There are a lot of ballet movies in our collection, but this is the one that I feel more than any other ought to be watched in the obsession phase, because this film embraces the beauty that is cliche teenage ballet drama to its core. It does not get distracted by any other weird or complex psychological/horror goings-on (looking at you, Black Swan) or try to delve into some sort of deeper character life stories and struggles outside of ballet (dramatically pointing at you, White Nights). This is that perfect teenage ballet soap opera that you will laugh at, love, crave, and watch while you eat junk food. It has the amazingly snarky and so-good-at-ballet-I-want-to-hate-her-but-can’t Zoe Saldana, the brother who’s the “You” in While You Were Sleeping as the snobby and entitled director, an adorable Eion Bailey as a sweet persistent cute boyfriend you would totally have ditched ballet class for, and MORE THAN ONE stupid love triangle. Need I say more?
Pointe by Brandy Colbert: Of all the books I read in my teen ballet obsession phase, this is the one that I would like most to re-read, just to see if it still has as deep an impression on me now as I remember it having then. It’s about a girl named Theo (a ballet dancer, obvs.) whose oldest friend, Donovan, suddenly returns home after having spent four years with the man who kidnapped him. The story is told from Theo’s point of view and her narration is very truthful and even gritty at times. I loved being caught up in a story with so many questions and deep, personal anxieties about things ranging from eating disorders to ballet to Stockholm syndrome and how to talk about taboo topics.
Ellie and the Bunheads by Sally Warner: This is pretty much a classic bunhead book – all the ballet puzzle pieces in play, including a thirteen-year-old girl who loves to dance but wishes she could relax and have friends and eat junk food too. If you’re older than 13, you might find it a bit childish, but still worth it for the ballet exposure.
First Position: Fine, okay. One more movie. I decided to watch this on a whim when it popped up on Netflix one time and five minutes later I had put everything on hold until I could find out what happened to each of these dancers. The film follows six young dancers as they prepare to and compete in the Youth American Grand Prix. It’s got lots of real-time ballet practice and performance footage (is it just me, or do any other dancers think it’s way more interesting to watch footage of ballet dancers practicing than performing?) and lots of “underdog hoping for a happy ending” drama.
Footnotes: Dancing the World’s Best-loved Ballets: This is, without a doubt, the book I checked out the MOST while I was reciting all the parts that I wanted to play over and over again in the Nutcracker (party girl, soldier, snowflake, lady-in-waiting, Chinese, Russian, in case you were wondering). It tells the stories behind the most well known ballets, but it also tells the story of the creation of the ballets and gives you behind the scenes details about how they have been approached by dancers and ballet companies over time. I loved reading all the details about how hard it is to do all those dang fouettes in Swan Lake or everyone’s least favorite costume to get into on The Nutcracker, yada yada (Mother Ginger, right? I mean, it’s gotta be Mother Ginger). And there are a lot of gorgeous colorful photos too that I remember adoring and trying to draw.
Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild: I resisted reading this for a long time because it was so pink and girly looking and had tutus on the cover and BARF. But then I read it, and it’s actually a rather sweet story about three orphan girls who are all interested in different things (ballet, acting, and cars/aeroplanes) and who get the chance to try doing what they love. I also recommend the movie, starring Emma Watson who is adorable and so sincere and serious that it makes what could be an overly sugary sappy tale quite appealing and sweet.
Up to this Pointe by Jennifer Longo: I’m still reading this one, because it came out just last year, but you guys, ohmygosh, it’s so good. You would totally love it. It’s about a 17-year-old girl whose dreams of being a professional ballerina fall through and she ends up taking a job as a research assistant at a U.S. science station in Antarctica. Also, look at that cover. You can’t not want to read it.
Don Quixote: This is my absolute favorite version of my absolute favorite ballet. I’ve seen other versions and though they are each fabulous and magnificent in their own ways, this one will always be the best to me. That score! It’s so beautiful and catchy and performed at a quicker tempo than some versions I’ve seen, which makes it energetic and dramatic as well. I’ve listened to it so much I sometimes catch myself humming it while doing chores. Then there’s the choreography. So many character-driven dances and bits that have real story weight and emotion behind them. I even enjoy watching the dream sequence because of the gorgeous and often extremely difficult movements (there is nothing quite so satisfying to a dancer as seeing a dance move being performed excellently), and I usually can barely tolerate dream sequences in ballets because ZZZZZ. Then there are so many interesting characters and story components to play with – it’s Don Quixote, sure, but he’s a small part of the trouble going on between Kitri and Basilio, who are in love but can’t marry because Basilio is a poor barber and Kitri’s father refuses to grant his permission. There’s also a tall, dashing toreador who causes trouble. Finally, there’s a reason why if you asked anyone in the world to name a ballet dancer, their answer would mostly likely be Mikhail Baryshnikov. My favorite part of the whole ballet is probably when he and the leader of the toreadors have a dance-off battle of sorts because NO ONE dominates a dance floor like Baryshnikov. I am also blown away by Cynthia Harvey’s speed and timing, not to mention attitude and sass, which makes Kitri such a fun character to watch. If you haven’t seen any ballets other than the Nutcracker, and you only see one in your life, see this one. I ballet-bug-beg you.