Rachel Kapelke-Dale tackles everything from abortion to sexual abuse in The Ballerinas, an unflinching, unapologetically feminist glimpse into the world of professional ballet.
The daughter of a famous ballerina, Delphine studied ballet intensively for most of her life at the famous Paris Opera Ballet. Along with her friends Lindsay and Margaux, she was poised to become a star—until she suddenly left France for Russia and gave up performing in favor of choreography.
Now Delphine is 36 and has returned to Paris to stage a ballet of her own creation with Lindsay as its star. Delphine feels she and Margaux wronged Lindsay somehow, and flashbacks to their teenage years reveal how these three young women were stretched to the breaking point by a demand for perfection from their teachers, peers and, in Delphine’s case, her mother.
Kapelke-Dale, who studied ballet herself, grants readers rare insight into a grueling world that, despite being largely female, is still dominated by men. Male teachers, choreographers and dancers hold power over their female counterparts, and gendered violence is embedded in the culture. Ballet is portrayed as an institution that fails the women it supposedly celebrates. For example, Delphine is betrayed at one point by a fellow dancer in a particularly horrific way, and he is immediately protected by the institution.
The patriarchal structure of ballet prizes youth and beauty, which affects Delphine, Lindsay and Margaux in new ways in their mid-30s. Lindsay is nearing an age at which she will have to retire from performing to make way for the teenagers coming onto the scene. Kapelke-Dale shows how these women’s bodies are breaking down due to years of demanding dance training, making the pressure to appear thin, glowing and youthful feel even more cruelly ironic.
Despite all of this, The Ballerinas is not a bleak novel. Delphine, Lindsay and Margaux begin to push back against the system that has oppressed them, coming to terms with their past and moving forward into a world in which they have agency over their bodies and careers. It is to Kapelke-Dale’s credit that this empowering ending feels earned, rather than naively optimistic.