For the Dancers

July 29, 2014 § 3 Comments

"Deer Dancer" by Mary Lyn Ray & Lauren StringerOne of our greatest rewards as parents is watching our children experience joy. For me, I get to see that look of joy upon my daughter’s face each time I peek through the fogged glass into the studio where she takes her weekly dance class. It’s a look that’s markedly different from the furrowed brow of concentration she often wears when observing something new; or the aghast expression of betrayal when her brother knocks over her tower of blocks; or her silly mischievous grin while tearing across the park with friends. When she dances, she is lost in the moment; she is happy; she is free. It’s no wonder that she asks me almost every single day, “When’s my next dance class?”

In a world in which our girls are dying to get their hands on pink tutus, ballet slippers, and all the glitter that seems to equate ballerinas with princesses, I love that Emily’s class is very deliberately titled Creative Movement. True ballet, with its discipline and choreography, doesn’t start until age five at this studio. In the meantime, the emphasis is on movement, on body awareness, on feeling the music. The girls and boys imitate animals, hop through hula-hoops, and roll across the big open floor.

Where children’s books are concerned, there are many charming, full-of-heart stories featuring the indoor world of ballet (my favorites are mentioned in the lengthy list at the end of this post). Still, I find it especially refreshing that, in their new picture book, Deer Dancer (Ages 3-6), author Mary Lyn Ray and illustrator Lauren Stringer have taken dance out of the mirrored studio and into nature, where the trees make their own music, and where movement is at its freest and purest form. To put it another way, Deer Dancer is as green as it is pink.

The dark-haired, rosy-cheeked girl in the book, with her mix-matched ensemble of tees and leggings, worn under a pink sheer skirt, has “a place I go that’s/ green and grass./ a place I thought that no one knew—until the day a deer came” (by the way, I love the loose, sing-songy prose, perfect for a book about movement). Whether by coincidence or not, during dance class the next day, the teacher tells the students to “hold your head as if you’re wearing antlers,” to “listen with your cheekbones,” and to “look with the eyes in your shoulders.” Frustrated at not being able to master these things in the studio, the girl heads back to her grassy clearing in the woods to practice. When the buck again appears, she watches him closely to learn his movements, then partners with him in an improvised dance of leaping and turning and moving in circles around the grass. I love the way in which Stringer has painted the deer and the girl, as they first approach and bow to one another. I love her closed eyes and swept back head on the opposite page—as if, in the first few seconds of the dance, she is already transported.


From the decade I spent at summer camp in Vermont, one of my dearest memories is of heading down to the archery field by myself after dinner, taking off my shoes, and racing back and forth across the vast stretch of flat grass. In the descending sun, the grass glowed jade, much the way it does in Stringer’s vibrant acrylic paintings. Eventually, I’d collapse on my back, panting as I took in the magnificent mountains rising in the distance. For those few quiet moments, my body felt completely free of whatever (dramatic) tween and teen angst I’d been holding inside.

Today, apart from places like sleep-away camp, it is becoming increasingly harder for our children to develop intimate, independent relationships with nature. And yet, as Deer Dancer reminds us, we cannot give up on this dream for them. There is nothing quite like letting our natural surroundings inspire us to leap; to feel the music in the wind; to hold our antlers high. I hope that mine and yours will always find freedom in movement.

Other Favorite Picture Book Stories (& Biographies) About Dance:
Bea at Ballet, by Rachel Isadora (Ages 1-4)
Miss Lina’s Ballerinas; Miss Lina’s Ballerinas and the Prince; Miss Lina’s Ballerinas and the Wicked Wish, by Grace Maccarone & Christine Davenier
Dogs Don’t Do Ballet, by Anna Kemp
Brontorina, by James Howe & Randy Cecil
Flora and the Flamingo, by Molly Idle
Tallulah’s Tutu; Tallulah’s Solo; Tallulah’s Toe Shoes; Tallulah’s Nutcracker, by Marilyn Singer
Lili at Ballet, by Rachel Isadora (Ages 4-8)
Ballet for Martha: Making Appalachian Spring, by Jan Greenberg & Sandra Jordan (Ages 7-12)
Jose! Born to Dance: The Story of Jose Limon, by Susanna Reich & Raul Colon

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