December 2011

Behind the Book: Ballet, My Enemy

Behind the Book by
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Ballet drives me berserk. There. I said it. I have to go lie down now.

I’m back. Ballet drives me berserk because all I truly care about in this life is story, and when you go to a ballet, the story is constantly interrupted by the dancing. Take The Nutcracker for instance. When I see The Nutcracker, I want that rotten brother to get spanked. I want the rats and the nutcracker to duke it out for a good long time. I want the wacky old toymaker to come back and scare the heck out of everyone. But none of that happens. What happens is a bunch of candies dance around while Clara watches them. It is the most boring thing in the world.

When I sat down to write the sixth Ivy and Bean book, I didn’t know that it was going to be about ballet. I thought it was going to be about squid. I had a great squid idea. A fabulous idea! Unfortunately, I called the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute to check my facts and discovered that—get this!—you can’t put a squid in an aquarium, because squids poison the water! This put a real crimp in my story (the moral, by the way, is don’t check your facts), and I had to switch things around. I needed Ivy and Bean to have a new obsession.



Just the thing!

And, at that point, I broke into a sweat. Why? Because if, after four decades of taboo-busting books, there is one dogma left alive in the world of children’s literature, it is this: Ballet Is Great. There are roughly 9,000 kids’ books featuring happy ballet-dancing children. There are zero featuring unhappy ballet-dancing children. There are maybe four featuring children who are unhappy at the beginning of their ballet class, and then learn to love it, but those don’t count.

At first glance, the survival of balletophilia seems odd. Ballet is pink and archaic and promotes a contorted body image. It seems as though feminism would have swept the happy ballerinas away, but it hasn’t, and there is a good reason for that. Ballet rewards perseverance and patience. In ballet, everyone starts out looking dorky, and if they work hard, they become graceful and successful. Also, ballet is pretty and appealing. Parents adore perseverance and patience and process, and they’re wracking their brains to figure out how to inculcate these virtues in their children. Unfortunately, most lessons in perseverance et al. involve an unattractive amount of hoeing, slopping pigs and trudging through the snow (Hello, Honest Abe!), but the appurtenances of ballet are the stuff that girls’ dreams are made on—which is why the shelves of libraries and bookstores continue to groan under happy ballerina books.

This has been going on for years—I myself succumbed to the allure of ballet upon reading The Royal Book of the Ballet. It was the Good Swan that got me. The Good Swan had a tutu made out of swan feathers, and she had the Prince. What a deal. “I want that!” I said to my mom, and before the sun was over the yardarm, I found myself enrolled at the Gladys Melman Luters School of the Dance. (You got that? The Dance.)

It was terrible. Partly it was terrible because of Gladys Melman Luters, who was 105 and despised children. She looked like a pillowcase with a head and she shuffled around the dance floor with a long wooden stick in her shriveled hand. If you pliéd with your bottom out or failed to bend your elbows in second position, she walloped you with the stick. Not hard, but still.

At least Gladys Melman Luters was exciting, in an anxiety-producing way. The rest of ballet was terrible because it was so utterly boring. To me, that is. Other little girls—girls with arches—adored ballet. They simply loved barre work, and they lived for floor work. They’d happily, determinedly arabesque again and again and again, aiming towards perfect and getting a tiny bit better with each lesson. I hated that. Perfect was impossible and incremental was boring. What was the point?

Obviously, I was not cut out for ballet success. I am not, in general, patient enough to like process, and I’ve never cared about perfect. I felt bad about this when I was a kid. All the books I read indicated that heroines loved ballet. Therefore, hating ballet was a sign of a depraved character. Oh dear. It was really kind of worrying. Sometimes I still feel bad about not liking process (artists are supposed to) and not caring about perfection (ditto). I felt bad about it when I was writing Ivy and Bean: Doomed to Dance. Process and patience and perfection are so clearly, palpably good, that as an adult, it was hard for me to allow Ivy and Bean to be unhappy ballerinas.

Then I realized what had happened. It was the same thing that sends me off my nut when I go to see a ballet: the dancing had interrupted the story. The story of Ivy and Bean is the story of two idealists. Neither one of them has much interest in reality. Of course Ivy and Bean would hate ballet—incremental, phooey! They want Giselle and they want it fast! When faced with a failed experiment, Ivy and Bean don’t try to find a way to make their goals a reality—they cut their losses and think of something new. The fun is in the idea, not the laborious attainment of the goal. And best of all, Ivy and Bean aren’t ashamed of what they want. They don’t like ballet—so what? They move on and make a new story.

An author can really learn a lot from a couple of kids like that.


Annie Barrows is the author of The Magic Half and the Ivy and Bean series for children, as well as co-author of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society for adults.

Photo credit: Brook McCormick.


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Ivy and Bean: Doomed to Dance

Ivy and Bean: Doomed to Dance

By Annie Barrows & Sophie Blackall
ISBN 9780811862660

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