Taking the Stage
May 26, 2016 § Leave a comment
This past Sunday, my five year old took the stage for her first ballet recital. She had been on a similar stage in previous years, for the culmination of her creative movement classes, but this was the first time that she was—in her words—“going to look like an actual ballerina.” And she did. Not so much in her tentative leg extensions and arm raises; not so much in the piece of satiny fabric draped around her waist (which looked nothing like the tutu Emily had envisioned her costume would entail); but in her gorgeously perfect posture. I sat three quarters of the way back in the audience, my life’s blood just a pink speck on the stage, but oh my goodness did she stand upright like she had all the confidence in the world: her shoulders down her back, her chest lifted, her chin tilted upwards ever so slightly. It was the posture of someone whose body has never failed her, who has not yet felt the weight of the world on her shoulders, who stands like that simply because she is totally and completely at home in her person. It also happens to be the posture of a ballerina.
Emily believes herself to be a ballerina every time she dons her pink leotard, tights, and ballet shoes. Her leaps may be unrecognizable as such, but in her mind they are the leaps of stardom. When I sneak peeks on her in class, working at the barre, her face is scrunched in concentration. And then I catch her catch sight of herself in the mirror, and I watch as her face breaks into a silly smile. She waves her arms purposefully and tilts her head, all for the sole purpose of delighting in her mirror image.
And yet, for all her age-appropriate moments of self-absorption, Emily is also beginning to identify with the larger world. She is seeking out ways to understand her actions, her personality, her appearance, in relation to those around her. One such world is, of course, that of “actual ballerinas.” Emily has heard her teacher talk about her own dancing; she has thrice been to The Nutcracker. She romanticizes this professional realm of rehearsals and performances, and she is hungry to forge a connection with it.
It is this hunger—this hankering to exist on the periphery of real ballet—that Barbara McClintock so lovingly captures in her new picture book, Emma and Julia Love Ballet (Ages 4-8), which she has both written and illustrated. McClintock gives us a day in the life of Emma, a young red-haired aspiring ballerina, and her professional counterpart, Julia, whom Emma gets to watch perform that evening at a prestigious venue. Every action in Emma’s (presumably weekend) day—waking up, driving to ballet class, learning movements at the barre, eating an early dinner with her family—is mirrored by a similar one in Julia’s life—waking up, taking the bus to the studio, rehearsing, snacking with other dancers before the show.
As I’ve mentioned before, Barbara McClintock is beloved in our house: her jewel-toned, highly detailed India ink watercolors have a sweet, romantic quality that tugs at the heart strings. McClintock is at her best when she features passionate, determined young heroines. One of our favorite picture books is Where’s Mommy?, written by Beverly Donofrio and illustrated by McClintock—the parallel stories of a little girl and a young mouse living under the same roof—whose visual presentation takes a side-by-side approach similar to what we find in Emma and Julia Love Ballet. For young readers, these books present more than an opportunity to compare and contrast: they encourage readers to see themselves as part of a larger whole.
At five years old, Emily is only just beginning to understand that the world does not begin and end with her, that there are literally billions (well, maybe in her mind hundreds) of things happening at any given moment, most of which she cannot see (and might not even be able to imagine). In Emma and Julia Love Ballet, McClintock isn’t simply saying, Hey kids, here’s what professional ballerinas do to get ready for a performance. Rather, she’s saying, Hey kids, look at how what you do in and around ballet class is similar to (and a little different from) what professional dancers do. The leap is not large: after all, my Emily already believes she looks the part.
The book’s text is sparse (McClintock is an illustrator by trade), which means there are ample opportunities for conversation, the likes of which reading specialists often cite as the biggest benefit of sharing picture books aloud with young children. “We stretch like that in my class!” “Look, Mommy, she gets her leg really straight; I’m still working on that.” “I can tell Julia is the star of the show, because she has the fanciest tutu.” None of these things are spelled out in the text; yet all of them factor into the visual narrative. (McClintock, who wrote the story to honor her older sister’s childhood obsession with ballet, sat for hours in studios sketching professional dancers.)
The story peeks when Emma arrives with her parents (and older brother—this detail has not gone unnoticed in our house) at the giant theater, which towers above her with vaulted ceilings and crystal chandeliers. Here, McClintock’s spread is guaranteed to elicit goosebumps from aspiring dancers and theater goers alike.
In the audience, Emma watches as Julia and the other dancers “bend, and swirl, and leap” across the stage. “Emma watches every move. She can feel every lift of the dancers’ arms, every step and pause.”
Naturally, with one ballet recital under her belt, my Emily is now a self-proclaimed expert on all matters of the stage: “When you are waiting in the wings, Mommy, you have to be COMPLETELY SILENT. Then, when you go out on stage, it’s like it’s happening by magic, and the people in the audience are thinking, where did those dancers even come from?”
At the end of the performance, Emma’s parents take her backstage, so that she can meet Julia and get her autograph. “‘Someday,’ Emma tells Julia. ‘I will dance onstage—just like you!’”
My Emily feels the need to point out—every single time we read this story together—that Emma should have brought Julia a bouquet of flowers when she went backstage. Emily was quite thrilled to have received three herself last Sunday. It’s all part of the gig.
Other Favorite Picture Books About Ballet and Dance Performance (fiction and non-fiction):
Tallulah’s Toe Shoes, Tallulah’s Tutu, Tallulah’s Solo, Tallullah’s Nutcracker, Tallulah’s Tap Shoes, by Marilyn Singer & Alexandra Boiger (Ages 4-9; see my post here)
Lili at Ballet and Lili Backstage, by Rachel Isadora (Ages 4-8)
A Dance Like Starlight: One Ballerina’s Dream, by Kristy Dempsey & Floyd Cooper (see my post here; Ages 5-10)
Firebird, by Misty Copeland (Ages 5-10)
Swan: The Life and Dance of Anna Pavlova, by Laurel Snyder and Julie Morstad (Ages 6-10)
Alvin Ailey, by Andrea Davis Pinkney & Brian Pinkney (Ages 6-10)
Ballet for Martha: Making Appalachian Spring, by Jim Greenberg, Sandra Gordan & Brian Floca (Ages 8-12)
Child’s Introduction to Ballet: The Stories, Music, and Magic of Classical Dance, by Laura Lee and Meredith Hamilton (Ages 8-12)
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Review copy courtesy of Scholastic. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links are provided mainly for ease and reference–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!