“H-5, can you straighten out that right shoulder?” I was 13, and H-5 was the number pinned to my leotard at an audition for New York’s High School of Performing Arts. Was I slouching? Pulling myself up a little taller, I began pirouetting to a waltz from Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake.” Almost immediately, I heard a curt, “Thank you.” The audition was over. They had rejected me for “deviations of the hip and spine.” I was devastated. Was I really malformed? An orthopedist soon confirmed that I had minor scoliosis and legs that turned slightly inward. It meant nothing — unless I wanted a career in ballet. That would never happen. “You could try another form of dance,” the doctor told me. What I heard was, “Just become a different person.”
Decades later, my failed attempt to become a ballerina is still implausibly vivid. I know I’m not the only woman who can recall a difficult early experience of having her body deemed too flawed for ballet. This is a central subject of Alice Robb’s compelling new book, “Don’t Think, Dear: On Loving and Leaving Ballet.”
Like me and countless other adolescent girls, Robb, a journalist who is also the author of “Why We Dream: The Transformative Power of Our Nightly Journey,” had a long-shot dream of ballet stardom into which she invested and achieved more than most. It was most definitely transformative. In 2001, she secured a coveted spot in the School of American Ballet (SAB) and hoped to eventually join the New York City Ballet. But by age 12, she found herself worrying that she wasn’t quite the physical ideal espoused by the school’s late founder, George Balanchine: a half-starved waif. Balanchine died in 1983, but his philosophy on dance and dancers resonated long after. His “insane dieting advice,” Robb says, was “eat nothing”; the title of her book comes from another of his edicts.
Robb delves into the troubling litany of #MeToo abuses in the company’s history — including Balanchine’s penchant for sexually pursuing his much younger employees. “For Balanchine, romance was the natural next step in a good working relationship,” she quips. His successor, Peter Martins, resigned in 2018 amid sexual misconduct allegations by several dancers, which he denied. Other dancers, Robb says, closed ranks around Martins. “For years, they had starved for him and slept with him,” she observes. “Now they would stay silent for him.” Robb recalls how, “when Peter Martins occasionally dropped in on our SAB classes, lowering himself into a plastic chair as though it were a throne and wordlessly staring at us from the front of the room, the atmosphere would shift, darken.”
SAB carried out an “end-of-year culling,” Robb says, and after three years there, she was expelled. In the book, she glissades past this defining moment, which I would have liked to see her hold for a few more counts. Yet “Don’t Think, Dear” is less a memoir than it is a feminist interrogation of the world of ballet as the author experienced it: “How had growing up in a world where our looks were constantly critiqued, where abusive men were in charge, where we learned to talk with our bodies instead of our voices, affected our lives?” she asks. “How did we reconcile our past, and our residual love for ballet, with the feminist consciousness we eventually developed?”
Robb plumbs not only her own experience but also those described in other dancers’ stories, including Gelsey Kirkland’s “Dancing on My Grave” (1986) and “Broadway, Balanchine, and Beyond,” by Bettijane Sills (2019). She looks at psychological studies of masochism and their relation to the art she loves: A 1987 paper Robb cites, “The Dancer as Masochist,” compares the relationship between a dancer and her director to that of masochist and sadist. It concludes that “to an almost unmatched degree, dancers in a ballet company are regulated by other people, by teachers, directors, choreographers, etc., and their arbitrary, capricious judgments.” She talks to former ballet classmates suffering lasting damage, both physical and psychological; one fit 30-year-old describes having trouble leaving the house, because she “can’t stop fixating on her imagined flaws.” We hear of anorexia, bleeding feet, broken bones, a burst appendix onstage and a 104-degree fever mid-performance met with a kindly offer of cocaine.
Lovers of classical ballet who don’t want to see the sausage being made might do well to avoid “Don’t Think, Dear.” But I found myself feeling something like gratitude: For maybe the first time ever, I was glad I had missed out on all ballet had to offer me.
Robb observes hopeful signs that this insular world may be spinning away from what one dancer in the book describes as a “very niche, very beautiful pain cult.” She finds a woman-led ballet company where respect is rule No. 1; a gorgeous “Swan Lake” performance that includes a gender-nonconforming dancer who is cast in both male and female roles; and dancers wearing masks onstage during the height of the coronavirus pandemic, “a radical acknowledgment that there is something — health of the individual, and of the group — more important than aesthetic perfection,” she says.
Still, Robb acknowledges that her complex feelings about ballet may always be with her. “Though you move on you don’t ever completely get over it,” she quotes novelist and former dancer Sigrid Nunez as saying. “That loss is part of your life and who you are forever.”
Kimberly Schaye lives, writes and farms in the Hudson Valley of New York. She is a co-author of “Stronger Than Dirt: How One Urban Couple Grew a Business, a Family, and a New Way of Life From the Ground Up.”
Don’t Think, Dear
On Loving and Leaving Ballet
By Alice Robb
Mariner. 304 pp. $29.99
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