The BallerinasThe Ballerinas by Rachel Kapelke-Dale
My rating: 4/5 cats
One StarOne StarOne StarOne Star


if you’re reading reviews of this book because your interest has been piqued by the publisher’s Dare Me meets Black Swan and Luckiest Girl Alive hook, allow me to walk you through the valley of truth on those comps because although this is an excellent debut, those “matches” are misleading and set up false expectations that are bound to disappoint some readers.

i myself was seduced by those “if you likes” because i’m a fan of all three, and, extrapolating their core whatness into a logical point of intersection (as one does…), i anticipated this would be a psychological suspense thriller about competition taken too far; calculated sabotage, self-destruction, single-minded ambition, and the unladylike underbelly of the ostensibly classy world of ballet.

and it’s some of that, but it’s not a thriller. at all.

it’s a very deep (swan) dive into the world of women in ballet, far more literary than genre in its treatment of the theme. there are some dark shadows behind the fluffy tutus, but despite the cruelty, sexism, and manipulation, the tone is quiet and ruminative; concerning itself with character growth and sympathies and the complex dynamics of female relationships.

(in other words, nothing like the fizzy and frothy Luckiest Girl Alive, which i (lovingly) described as “kind of like if the lifetime channel exploded, causing lifetime confetti to go everywhere.”)

it’s also in no way similar to the increasingly manic presentation of Black Swan. sure, they are both about ballet, but you can’t just consider nouns when you’re bookmatching. Crime and Punishment, American Psycho, and The Silence of the Lambs are all about murderers, but they don’t have much else in common.

Black Swan is frenetic in its exploration of the themes of obsession, competition, and the mad quest for perfection, but The Ballerinas is no fever-dream; it’s grounded in the real world—leisurely-paced and thoughtful.

the megan abbott-match is solid—both this one and Dare Me are intimate looks into insular worlds (cheerleading, ballet), whose facade of female prettiness belies the athleticism and drive required to succeed; challenging the stereotypes of cheerleaders as perky and ditzy, and ballerinas as delicate and dreamy, revealing the fierce badassery at their cores.

in both, the pursuit takes place in a bubble of exclusivity that nonetheless acts as a microcosm of the female experience in the larger world (…you start out as perfect and you become something else/You start out as whole and then you break.); invoking themes of control, selfishness, drive, ambition, sacrifice, legacy, power, sex, manipulation, deceptive appearances, taking charge of one’s destiny, and living with one’s choices.

The Ballerinas lacks the ominous tone for which abbott is known—that omnipresent sense of menace simmering, about to explode—and it’s ultimately more kind, but the way both authors fixate on female bodies is extremely similar—especially comparing The Ballerinas to abbott’s ballet-focused book The Turnout—both authors spend time detailing how ballet breaks the body to achieve the perfection and beauty that dance demands—the strength and suffering required to deliver the illusion of a pretty delicate thing flitting on the stage, compliant and pliable and tossed about like a little pink blossom. and no one knows more about that process than a dancer-turned-choreographer:

I’d never actually say it, but the part I love most about being a choreographer is pushing the dancers to their limits. Being the one with power for once.

Only dancers really know what it’s like to lift, to float, to grind through the infinite combinations of the same positions, day after day, underneath the ticking, appraising eyes of a choreographer or ballet mistress or artistic director.

Every time i work, I watch their pink satin feet and I know. Underneath those shoes, the flesh is exposed, has been rubbed down into multilayered wounds.

Beneath the glossy pink tights, they ache to the marrow of their bones.

Below the crowns and the tutus and the perfection, they’re all just quivering messes.

And it’s all for me.

Until, of course, they step onto the stage—becoming my agents, my brushstrokes, my tools. Then it’s all for the audience. It’s all for you.

“Don’t they realize,” I’d hissed to Margaux during a curtain call after a particularly grisly performance of Swan Lake fifteen years ago, “that we’re all covered in the most disgusting sores under our shoes?”

She’d plastered her pink grin wide, grabbing my hand as the curtain went up, exposing us once more.

“Of course they know,” she said between her teeth. “That’s why they like to watch.”

And that was what I liked. To hide the suffering with my own brand of perfection.

abbott, in any of her books, goes deeper and darker than The Ballerinas, but this one takes a longer view to consider how aging affects women in these fields of brief viability; the frustration of their overextended bodies failing, the judgment and dismissal they experience in favor of younger dancers, the rage and regret of almost making it, the devotion to a brutal discipline that goes against the most basic biological imperatives:

A ballerina is a perfect woman. Thin. Beautiful. Invisibly strong.

There are no evolutionary reasons we should look the way we do. If what you want is a good procreator, look anywhere but a ballet company, where you’re unlikely to find a period that comes more regularly than one month out of three. What you want is someone round, with wide hips and pendulous breasts; someone ready to take a few months of war or famine in stride and still guarantee the future of the human race. Arms ready to plow a field, knead some bread, comfort a child. Good peasant stock.

Yet somehow, delicate and breakable, we have become the height of feminine perfection.

all of that to say, if you’re not expecting a thriller, you’ll be in a better position to appreciate this slightly dark book about the inner lives of women navigating a very specific world that is built upon presentation, performance, where Being presentable when you go outside is a public service.

it’s ALSO a reminder that you gotta be careful about advertising a reading experience that a book isn’t going to deliver, which is why people with RA training (like ME: a lady with extremely strong readers’ advisory skills who is DESPERATE FOR WORK IN THAT FIELD PLEASE AND THANK YOU) should be in such high demand that they don’t need to beg for work on the internet. but here i am, driven to gaucheness, ready to serve.

as an aside (this whole review is basically an aside), ballet has been a hot topic in books this year: Center Center: A Funny, Sexy, Sad Almost-Memoir of a Boy in Ballet, Being a Ballerina: The Power and Perfection of a Dancing Life, Turning Pointe: How a New Generation of Dancers Is Saving Ballet from Itself, My Daddy Can Fly!,Balanchine’s Apprentice: From Hollywood to New York and Back, Swan Dive: The Making of a Rogue Ballerina, Dance Theatre of Harlem: A History, a Movement, a Celebration, The Ballerina Mindset: How to Protect Your Mental Health While Striving for Excellence, Black Ballerinas: My Journey to Our Legacy, Dance or Die: From Stateless Refugee to International Ballet Star, and of course, megan abbott’s The Turnout (which is, oddly enough, not a better match to The Ballerinas than Dare Me, despite the more targeted subject matter because its florid, claustrophobic, erotic, and neo-gothic tone is a whole different vibe.)

despite the sudden wealth of ballet-books, they’re mostly nonfiction, and naturally, i had a woman come in who was looking for a novel about ballet that was more realistic than sensationalized/romanticized; that wasn’t focused on dancers who were emotionally damaged or hyper-sexualized (i.e., she did NOT want The Turnout). although it features flawed characters (like any book worth reading), i mentioned this one to her, even though it was months away from pubbing, and i hope she didn’t lose that little scrap of paper because i think she’d really dig this book.

oh no i sat on this review for too long and now it’s pub day and i have FAILED my ONE JOB!

i’ll write it tomorrow. i am terrible.


i received a free ARC from macmillan in exchange for an honest review and i will be reading this SOON.

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