Have you ever read a book that you could dance along to, as if it were a song? Nicole Cuffy’s engaging novel, Dances, is one of those books. The author (and her 22-year-old protagonist, Celine “Cece” Cordell) loves terms like grand plié, grand battement, dégagé, double saut de basque, entrechat six and chassé développé. If you’ve been to the ballet, you’ve seen these avian, gravity-defying moves, even if you don’t know what they’re called. Perfectly executed, they take your breath away.
Here’s the rub: The human body wasn’t meant to move like this, at least not regularly. Ballet dancers know this, and some seem to revel in the pain their art causes them. According to author and former ballerina Alice Robb, for some dancers that first bleeding toenail caused by their pointe shoe is a rite of passage. And to keep a tortured body fighting fit, you can’t even eat like a normal human being.
One thing we learn about Cece is that she doesn’t valorize pain, whether physical or emotional. She’ll accept the former to become the first Black female principal dancer of the New York City Ballet. She grew up with the latter thanks to her fractured family: her withholding mother, her neglectful father and, most of all, her brother, Paul. Indeed, Paul is the source of her greatest pain. A talented artist who introduced her to ballet and paid for her lessons when her mother wouldn’t or couldn’t, Paul vanished into drugs and despair as Cece rose to the heights.
While Cuffy captures the inevitable politics of the ballet world, they affect Cece lightly. Blessed with a snarky sense of humor, she’s smart, humble and kindhearted. Most people wish Cece well, and more than a few love her, including her Russian-born mentor, Kazimir Volkov. Cece is sort of the Suzanne Farrell to his George Balanchine. Kaz’s wife dislikes Cece, but only because she thinks they’re having an affair. (They’re not.)
Cece has fans, companies want her endorsement, and glossy magazines want to interview her. Besides her mother’s, the only voices of doubt in Cece’s life are the ones she hears in her own head. It’s true that most ballerinas don’t look like her, and the art form wasn’t created for bodies as curvy and powerful as hers. But in the end, her thoughts always return to Paul. When she forces her body to perform and ignores the pain, she does it for him, wherever he is. And when she dances, we want to dance with her. There’s no higher praise for a book like Dances.