Several months ago, I went on an Amazon book downloading spree. That’s when I discovered Alice Robb’s book, Don’t Think, Dear: On Loving and Leaving Ballet, published on February 28, 2023. I purchased my downloaded copy on March 11th, and just now finished reading Robb’s fascinating book about the world of ballet.
I started reading Don’t Think, Dear last month, as we were coming home from our trip up north. I remember being delighted as I dove into the new book, which instantly captured my attention. Robb writes this book from the heart, as she was, herself, a serious dancer when she was growing up. For a time, she even studied at the School of American Ballet, which was co-founded by famed Russian born, but ethnically Georgian choreographer, George Balanchine. Mr. Balanchine is considered the “father of American Ballet”. He also founded the New York City Ballet, and was its artistic director for over 35 years.
Don’t Think, Dear, is a look at American ballet, particularly at the School of American Ballet and the New York City Ballet. Robb writes about the many hardships ballet dancers endure so that they can be on stage, looking incredibly graceful, athletic, and powerful. She profiles some legendary dancers like Gelsey Kirkland, Alicia Alonso, Suzanne Farrell, Misty Copeland, and Margot Fonteyn. But, Robb also writes about less famous dancers… ones who spent their entire youths working toward a goal of being employed as professional dancers. Only a few achieve that elusive goal, and many are left with permanent injuries, physical scars, and emotional problems at the end of their quests.
George Balanchine was famously picky about how his dancers were to look. He liked the women very thin and leggy. While today, artistic directors and choreographers are less blunt when they tell a dancer she needs to “lengthen” (lose weight), Balanchine would actually bark at them to “eat nothing”. If a previously anointed dancer fell out of favor with him, he would ignore her completely. As Robb points out, some of the women– like Gelsey Kirkland– would go on to develop severe eating disorders and addictions. Balanchine was also very jealous of his dancers’ attentions. They weren’t really allowed to date, unless they were dating him. If they did, Robb claims their careers suffered for it. Balanchine married and divorced four times before his death in 1983, and he had many other love affairs– all with his dancers.
In between “vignettes” of famous and not so famous dancers, Robb writes about related subjects. For instance, she includes a very interesting passage about pointe shoes, and what it takes to break them in properly. Pointe shoes aren’t cheap, but new ones have to be beaten into submission before they’re any good, and that means doing everything from shaving them to putting them in boiling water. And even after that, they are extremely uncomfortable and leave dancers with bunions, broken toenails, and bleeding cuts on their feet. Someone did come up with a more comfortable shoe, but apparently dancers who use them are seen as wimps. Or, at least that’s what Robb implies. If you aren’t wearing your painful Capezios, you aren’t a serious contender.
A couple of criticisms…
By her own admission, Alice Robb was a somewhat mediocre dancer herself. Yes, she got into the School of American Ballet, which was in and of itself an achievement. But she didn’t stand out from the crowd, and mostly just got small parts in the annual Nutcracker production. She does not possess the rare qualities that make someone a contender for a career as a ballet dancer. I’m not sure if that reality colored her view of ballet as a whole. I did get the sense, however, that Robb sort of has an ambivalent opinion of ballet.
Yes, there are some very admiring portraits of great dancers and their stories. Some of the benefits of studying ballet are discussed in Robb’s book. She writes about the feeling of flying when a dancer has a strong partner, and the thrill of being able to do more pirouettes with help from a male dancer. However, she also includes a lot of negatives about studying ballet.
Robb implies that dancers are basically conditioned to be extremely compliant by their very strict teachers. I came away with the idea that dancers are often prey to abusive, predatory men, or are basically beaten into submission by teachers who tell them not to “think”, but to “do”. Robb writes a lot about dancers who had to quit dancing due to injuries, as well as dancers who simply couldn’t cut it because of things they couldn’t help, like the ability to “turn out” properly or “bad feet”. And yet, in spite of all of that, Robb still dances “casually”. Obviously, there were some positives for her.
But overall, I liked it…
I enjoyed reading Don’t Think, Dear. I’m definitely not a dancer, so nothing Robb wrote was a threat or insult to me. I appreciated that her writing was good and mostly engaging. She includes a lot of sources for additional reading; I even ordered one of the books she referenced, even though it’s out of print. She also includes quotes from books I’ve already read, like Gelsey Kirkland’s Dancing on My Grave and Hilde Bruch’s The Golden Cage. The book is clearly well-researched, both by other written accounts and observations, as well as Robb’s personal experiences with ballet. I don’t regret falling down the rabbit hole of ballet through Robb’s pen, even though I thought it might be more of a personal memoir than what it is– basically a look at the world of American ballet.
So why did I read this book?
No, I’ve never taken a single ballet class myself, but I was exposed to ballet from an early age on account of my eldest sister, Betsy. Betsy is 13 years older than I am, and when I was very young, she was a pretty serious ballet dancer. We lived in England, which gave her the opportunity to audition for the Royal Ballet School. She was accepted, and finished high school by correspondence. Then, while we were still in England, Betsy moved home to Virginia and started college… all on her own.
Betsy kept dancing for awhile after her year in London. I remember meeting her exotic dance friends and attending their performances with my parents. I was enchanted by the music and colorful costumes, although it probably took awhile before I appreciated watching the dancing itself. I did once try on Betsy’s pointe shoes… and I don’t know how anyone could stand to wear them for more than a minute, let alone dance in them.
Years later, I ended up studying voice at the Eastern Virginia School of Performing Arts, which was primarily a ballet school run by a husband and wife. My teacher, Ron Boucher, is a dancer, but he was also a professional singer in New York. His wife, is Sandra Balestracci, and she has trained many wonderful dancers. She is also the mother of one. But before Sandra taught ballet, she was a great dancer herself. She even appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show.
I loved taking lessons with Ron, and watching the beautiful young dancers in their studio. I envied their discipline, grace, and youth, even though I was still in my 20s at the time, myself. So, you could say I’m a “fan” of ballet. I admire it, even if I can’t do it. 😉 Kind of like I’m a fan of women’s gymnastics, even though I’ve never so much as turned a decent cartwheel. Sigh… I miss performing arts.
I liked Don’t Think, Dear by Alice Robb, although I see it kind of gets mixed reviews on Amazon. Some people found the book too “wandering” and “rambling”. I suspect some of the people who read the book were looking for more of a personal story, rather than a general look at stories about ballet dancers. But, as someone who is just a ballet fan, I think the book is interesting and insightful. I would recommend it to those who are intrigued by it. I certainly have more respect for ballet dancers now that I’ve read Alice Robb’s expose.
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