Early in her new memoir, Dancing Through It, when Jenifer Ringer writes, “It would take a while for us to realize that the world we were entering might well prove impossible to survive in,” she sounds as though she’s crossing into a combat zone or embarking on an expedition to Everest. But it’s the ballet world and the unseen hazards it holds for her younger self and fellow students that she characterizes so grimly. As the book progresses, Ringer—recently retired from her position as an acclaimed principal dancer with the New York City Ballet—becomes so fixated on her art form that she loses the ability to enjoy it. The ballet realm itself, so orderly and pristine, where she experiences both spectacular success and crippling pressure, morphs into a kind of “monster.” It “warped and twisted my spirit until I was almost destroyed,” Ringer recalls.
Ballet is, of course, an uncommon vocation—an extreme career that often inspires extreme behavior. Performers who push themselves (sometimes right over the edge) with unusual intensity are standard in the dance world, and Ringer, as Dancing Through It makes clear, was no exception. In her case, “the ballet-centric lens” through which she perceived her life led to problems that forced her to step back, take stock and grow outside of the studio. The core of her story lies in her personal metamorphosis—a slow, often difficult transformation from an eager-to-please, up-and-coming dancer into a secure and confident artist.
It’s a quality her narrative shares with another upcoming ballet-related memoir, Life in Motion by Misty Copeland (on sale March 4). As the only black woman at American Ballet Theatre, an 80-member troupe that’s one of the nation’s best, Copeland has spent her professional years defying the status quo. Her background and upbringing differ dramatically from Ringer’s, but the two have much in common. As adolescents, they devoted their lives to dance (neither started dating until she reached her early 20s) and were sidelined by injuries. Both have grappled with eating disorders and refer to themselves as perfectionists. Both have struggled to find ways to practice their craft without being undone by it. And both make it clear that the physical demands of their career are severe but not impossible to manage. The dancing is indeed doable. It’s the psychological stuff that’s the real killer.
Ballerinas Misty Copeland (left) and Jenifer Ringer
A LATECOMER TAKES HER PLACE AT THE BARRE
“Ballet has long been the province of the white and wealthy,” Copeland writes in Life in Motion. Indeed, women of color are rare in America’s most prominent ballet companies. When American Ballet Theater (ABT) promoted Copeland from corps member to soloist in 2007, she was the first African-American woman in two decades to achieve that rank in the company. Prior to her promotion, in its 76 years of existence, ABT had only two black female soloists.
In her engaging autobiography, Copeland, now 31, traces the complex chronology of her unusual personal life and her remarkable rise as a performer. She’s a poised, intelligent writer whose temperament—disciplined, determined, driven—gives the book a special spark.
Along with her five siblings, Copeland grows up poor and—for the most part—fatherless in San Pedro, California. Her childhood is rocky thanks to her half-Italian, half-black mother, an exotic beauty whose succession of husbands results in frequent upheaval for the family. At one point, they relocate to a grubby motel where the kids are forced to bed down on the floor.
Despite the instability at home, Copeland develops into an overachiever, channeling her anxiety and energy into excelling at school. She applies the same drive to ballet. At the age of 13, she takes her first class at the Boys and Girls Clubs of America and proves to be a prodigiously gifted mover with the ability to mimic any step or gesture she sees. Although she’s a latecomer to ballet, she quickly blossoms.
Copeland is able to prepare for a professional ballet career through scholarships and the aid of sympathetic patrons. She trains with typical tenacity and focus—until she’s blindsided by family friction. The custody conflict that arises between her mother and her dance teacher, Cindy Bradley, is one of the most extraordinary occurrences in her very eventful life. The incident results in a media circus, landing Copeland on national TV at the age of 16.
When she’s in her late teens, Copeland’s hard work pays off, and she’s invited to dance with ABT. She’s thrilled to become a corps member but disappointed to discover the prejudice that lurks in the big-time ballet world—a place where conformity counts. Copeland learns the hard way about those “who believed there was no place in ballet for a black swan.” She writes openly about her outsider status at ABT and the ways in which it eroded her confidence and made her question the future. Would certain coveted classical roles always be off-limits because of her skin color? And would she ever have the chance to dance principal parts like Juliet and Odette?
These are questions that remain unanswered. After 13 years at ABT, Copeland is a celebrated ballerina who’s still climbing the ranks, hoping to be promoted to principal dancer. Yet she’s arrived at a place of acceptance. In Life in Motion, she looks back on the past without bitterness or anger, only gratitude. Hers is an out-of-the-ordinary story about defying stereotypes, and she shares it in an inspiring narrative that’s enlivened by her own grace and generous spirit.
FINDING BALANCE IN THE PURSUIT OF PERFECTION
Compared to Copeland’s against-all-odds autobiography, Jenifer Ringer’s Dancing Through It reads like a fairy tale at times. As she recalls in this smoothly recounted chronicle of her rise from the small studios of the South to the hallowed ranks of New York City Ballet (NYCB), Ringer was blessed with advantages Copeland lacked, including a secure family life and money to pay for training, which she started at the age of five.
Yet Ringer encountered obstacles of a different kind, and because they were, for the most part, deeply personal and interior, hers is a darker story.
A North Carolina native, Ringer is raised by supportive parents who encourage her to dance. She joins NYCB, one of the country’s top companies, at the age of 16 and a mere three years later is being cast in plum roles and praised in the press. The quintessential ballerina, she spends her days in the studio and her nights on the stage of the New York State Theatre. Her very first kiss occurs during a performance of Romeo and Juliet.
Despite her early and overwhelming success, though, Ringer is miserable. She’s plagued by self-doubt and frequently exhausted by the pressures that come with life as a performer. But—despite the stress—she’s determined to maintain a “perfect” exterior.
Ringer’s façade cracks when, after a few years at NYCB, she develops an eating disorder. She writes with unsparing honesty about the loneliness and shame that accompany her condition. “I could make myself feel better with food,” she says. “Or I could just somehow not feel with food.” When Ringer gains weight and loses her job at NYCB, she’s despondent. But out in the “nondancing world,” she grows in new ways, finishing her college degree and achieving a sense of normalcy that allows her to overcome her disorder. She also finds comfort in the Christian faith.
After a year’s absence, Ringer returns to NYCB in full force and as a new person—an adult comfortable in her own skin. In 2010, when her curvy physique is criticized in the New York Times, she bravely faces the media blitz that follows and appears on "Oprah" to discuss body-image issues.
Ringer is a more reserved and measured narrator than Copeland. But the survey of her 23-year-career that she presents in Dancing Through It has immediacy and an emotional rawness, and in its focus on the dangers that often attend the pursuit of perfection, it’s just as compelling as Life in Motion. Despite her past difficulties, Ringer isn’t a whiner. She’s a modest, likeable figure with the ability to laugh at herself, and her book contains many funny moments (she doesn’t shy from sharing memories of mid-performance falls and other unglamorous, on-stage occurrences). Now married to NYCB alumnus James Fayette and a mother of two, Ringer danced her final ballet with the NYCB on February 9. She has clearly found her balance.
Her memoir, like Copeland’s, illuminates the ballet world in a distinctive way, providing fascinating access to an environment that can seem mysterious to outsiders. Both books demonstrate that a ballerina’s achievement of radical grace is a battle of the mind as well as the body—one that involves more grit than glamour. There’s a strange kind of necessity in the struggle. Ringer isn’t exaggerating when she says of Serenade, one of her favorite ballets, “If I were not allowed to dance these steps to this music, something would always be missing from my life.” On the page, as on the stage, both ballerinas earn ovations.