BookTalk: Two illustrated biographies of dancers

by Sharon Kane

I can’t dance. I don’t dance. But I appreciate dance, and am inspired and intrigued by dance. And I have a special fondness for books about dance. I’d like to discuss two illustrated biographies of dancers that were published during the last year, because I think they work beautifully together.

swanSwan: The Life and Dance of Anna Pavlova, by Laurel Snyder (Chronicle Books, 2015) begins on the day the very young Anna was taken to a ballet performance by her mother—the day that literally changed Anna’s life. The text is sparse, encouraging the reader to use the words combined with Julie Morstad’s pastel illustrations to follow Anna’s journey to dance school and to the stage. “Anna is a bird in flight, a whim of wind and weather. Quiet feathers in a big, loud world. Anna is the swan” (unpaged).

We see Anna teaching children how to dance. Two pages later, we see her bedridden, and then turn the page to see only swan feathers falling on a stage, accompanied by the words, “Every day must end in night. Every bird must fold its wings” (unpaged). The author adds a two page note that gives biographical information along with her comments. Anna was born to a laundress in 1881. And, since the poor generally stayed poor in Czarist Russia, “Anna’s life should have been dismal” (unpaged). Her mother allowed her to go away to a boarding school at the age of ten. There she overcame obstacles, including a weak back and arches in her feet that made aspects of ballet difficult. After her success, she traveled the world in order to bring dance to those who would otherwise not have experienced it. In 1931, she took ill, missed a performance, and died the same night. Laurel Snyder’s final words struck me: “I think of all of us—millions of us, all over the world (me too!)—pulling on our ballet shoes, working at the barre… All of us laboring in the smells of sweat and crushed rosin; all of us reaching for beauty. And indebted to Anna, who led the way” (unpaged).

mystorymydanceI remembered those words when I read Lesa Cline-Ransome’s My Story, My Dance: Robert Battle’s Journey to Alvin Ailey (Simon & Schuster, 2015). I wondered if Robert Battle, born almost a century after Anna Pavlova, in another hemisphere, would consider himself one of the millions indebted to her. Like Anna’s, his childhood circumstances presented obstacles to his dream. He wore heavy metal leg braces for years and he was bullied on the streets. He began lessons at a much older age than is common for successful dancers.

Also like Anna, Robert’s dream was fostered by a performance he attended. He saw the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater perform Revelations. In the Foreword, Battle tells us, “At the tip of my tongue was always the question, ‘Who am I?’…. After seeing the Alvin Ailey performers onstage who looked like me and my family, I began to be able to answer the question of who I was and where I fit in” (unpaged). The book takes us through his schooling at Juilliard, and his career that ultimately led to becoming the artistic director of Alvin Ailey in 2011.

In the Author’s Note, Cline-Ransome admits, “While I have always enjoyed dance, it’s been from a viewer’s perspective” (unpaged). That made me feel in good company. She tells about getting to know Robert Battle and hearing stories of his childhood over lunch; some of which were included in the book. In the Illustrator’s Note, James E. Ransome explains:

Two of my favorite artists, Edgar Degas and Robert Heindel, were well known for their pastel drawings of ballet dancers. Inspired by that tradition, I, too, chose pastels to capture the color, movement, and fluidity of the Alvin Ailey dancers. When I had the opportunity to attend rehearsals and performances, I was further inspired by the hard work, tireless repletion, creativity, and collaboration among dancers and choreographer. (unpaged)

As I experienced these two books back to back, I was struck over and over again with the notion of connectivity. I somehow feel connected to the authors, the illustrators, all the people from the past and present mentioned in the texts, other readers, and future students with whom I can share these books. Dance connects people, and books connect people. So, let’s dance on, and read on, and connect.


Appropriate for intermediate, middle and high school grades

Art, dance, history, ELA