“ . . . we are delighted to be able to offer you a place in Year 11 at the State Dance Centre . . .” (Prior, West End Shuffle, p3)
I've had a long interest in ballet school stories. I've been reading them since I was about seven years old. Over the years I have read about a number of different dancers and schools, often becoming very involved in the stories. I would have given anything to attend the San Fransisco Ballet Academy with Leah Stephenson or to learn alongside the students of the Redwood School. Of all Girls' Fiction genres, this one is probably my favourite.
You don't learn ballet seriously in Queensland without knowing about the Queensland Dance School of Excellence (QDSE) – a ballet school for grade 11 and 12 students, closely aligned with the Queensland Ballet. Therefore, it was with great interest I picked up West End Shuffle by Natalie Jane Prior. Here was a new ballet school book, loosely based on QDSE – what could be better?
This book was unlike any ballet school book I have ever read before. And the more I read it, the more questions it raised. First and foremost – is this the future for ballet school stories? Will they continue to differ from the more traditional stories? And is this a good or bad thing?
Heroines and Villians
“When I'd done up my hair with a clip and lots of gel, I struck a pose in front of the mirror, like Madonna. Fantastic. Twenty, probably, or maybe even older. Eighteen at the very least.” (Prior, West End Shuffle, p6)
Fifteen year old, Carmen Morton is our heroine. Carmen is a talented dancer from a 'bogan'* suburb, south of Brisbane who wins a place at the prestigious State Dance Centre. When the travel from the outer suburbs to inner Brisbane gets too hard, she moves closer to the Centre, sharing an apartment with her friend Ella, and the 'hunky' dancer, Matthew. It is at this point that things really start going wrong.
Unlike a lot of ballet school heroines, Carmen is not an 'innocent'. Where Leah Stephenson is shy around boys:
“As Andrei had said, they were friends, just friends, Leah repeated inwardly, wishing her cheeks weren't so hot.” (Bernard, Changing Partners, p55)
Carmen is busy strutting around to seduce them.
“After three weeks of wearing my skimpiest leotards to rehearsals, smiling at him during every break, and making sure I bumped into him at every opportunity, I'd finally got Michael to speak to me.” (Prior, West End Shuffle, p17)
Carmen sees this as an experiment, as a way to have sex. She also drinks – heavily at times, and shows little respect to her teachers. As far as she's concerned, she's all grown up, ready to go out and face the world.
Most ballet school heroines have a fault or two. Pauline Fossil is overly proud, her sister Posy is stubborn. Drina Adams has a nasty temper when provoked. But there faults don't overwhelm the goodness in the characters, the things that make them loveable.
It would take a lot to make Carmen lovable. She's completely self-centred – all her actions are planned to please herself. She feels only slight guilt at taking money from her grandmother, as long as she doesn't have to tell her mother what she's up to. She also expects her sister to hand over her belongings, without any real reason:
“Remembering the black and white portable and the horrid prospect of Baywatch without colour, it had seemed entirely reasonable that I should borrow her portable colour set for a couple of months.” (Prior, West End Shuffle, p52-3)
The worst aspect of Carmen's self centredness is the way she lies without pause or consideration. She's not lying to protect herself the way Leah protects James, or Drina protects Yolande, but rather to get exactly what she wants:
“'They're rehearsals for the end-of-term concert,' I lied. Extra practices were my excuse for getting out on week nights with Ella.” (Prior, West End Shuffle, p41)
Carmen lies to go out at night, she lies about her new living arrangements, she lies about her grades, and she lies about money given to her for piano lessons. But despite the amount of lying Carmen does, and the ease with which she does it, Carmen has a very hard time dealing with people who lie to her. People like Ella . . .
“I just wanted to tell you,” said Ella, with a warmth in her voice that was part anger, part sympathy, “that I was listening to what those bitches were saying to you. I want you to know that I think it's absolutely disgusting. What that girl said about where you come from – that was unforgivable. If I were you, Carmen, I wouldn't have anything to do with them. I'd get back at them for that at the soonest opportunity.” (Prior, West End Shuffle, p28)
Mean girls aren't new in ballet school stories. Neither are girls who befriend the heroine only to turn bad at a crucial moment. Pamela Hunter befriends Leah Stephenson in the first book of the Satin Slippers series, only to show her true colours in a horrifying way:
“'I don't believe it!' she cried in a tremulous voice. She ran across the room elbowing the other girls out of the way . . .'That's my variation!' she cried, her voice rising. 'She can't really be doing this. She just can't!'” (Bernard, To Be A Dancer, p123-4)
Ella takes 'turning bad' to a new level, jealously removing Carmen from all her friends before absolutely destroying Carmen's chances at the school:
“'I'm sorry for messing up the performance, I truly am. But Ella told me my father was dying . . .'”
Ella never faces any form of punishment for her misdeeds – the school doesn't expel her since she's almost finished anyway. Her friends coddle and protect her. And Carmen doesn't even tell her off for the lies. Their excuse is that Ella is mentally unstable, and therefore she doesn't deserve any punishment for her crimes.
A World of Dance or The Real World
“It was hard work, and what with ordinary schoolwork, my social life and all the travel, I was usually exhausted when I got home.” (Prior, West End Shuffle, p41)
“' . . . to persue a career in dance you'll have to give up a lot: the fun of high school life, the dances, the parties, time with your friends . . .'” (Bernard, To Be a Dancer, p34)
Traditionally dance school books emphasised the high level of dedication needed to succeed. The dance world is difficult – there's always another ten or twenty girls wanting the part you want. Therefore it was very important to traditional heroines that they spent a lot of time and effort on their dancing.
“It was my own fault: I'd been slack and hadn't done any work, but even I had been shocked when my marks came through.” (Prior, West End Shuffle, p79)
Carmen likes dancing, especially tap and jazz, but she's completely unprepared to give things up for it. As far as she's concerned, it's much more interesting to go out at night, to be an independent spirit, to pretend she's an adult. When the principal of the dance school shows concern for Carmen's poor marks, and draws up a homework schedule, Carmen is horrified. Her interests just don't match with those that the dance school demands.
“'At both your audition and your interview I saw a girl who was a talented dancer but whose net was spread too wide; someone whose interests and relationships took priority over her dancing.'” (Prior, West End Shuffle, p185)
The emphasis of the real world over the dance world is evident in the entire book – not just in Carmen's life. Long chapters are dedicated to parties and outings and romantic conquests, while there's almost nothing written about time in the dance studio. This is a Young Adult book, and significant time is spent on 'issues' like suicide and peer pressure, distracting the reader from the dancing part of the book.
Ballet or Other Styles of Dance?
“'I saw Fonteyn dance [Princess Aurora] one time in New York. I was so little I hadn't even graduated to my first pair of toe shoes. But that's when I knew I wanted to be a ballerina someday.” (Bernard, Stars in her Eyes, p 77)
Most girls in ballet school books dream of being a ballerina, dancing the classics in the traditional costumes. There are exceptions of course. Satin Slipper's Kay prefers choreographing contemporary works. Becky, of the Ballet School books and Ruth from the Moth Graham books, both turn to tap dancing when it is introduced. And Hilary Lennox longs to become on of Mrs Wintle's Wonders, rather than following her sister's dream of a proper ballet school.
Carmen joins these girls in her dislike of classical ballet. She finds the classical ballet lessons dull, boring and hard. Instead she devotes her dancing energies to the tap and jazz lessons (or more correctly, musical theatre classes). She openly states that she doesn't want to be a ballerina, and that her dream is to appear in a West End musical. Her attitude alienates her from the other girls and teachers at the State Dance Centre, especially when Carmen insists they are caught up in 'silly ballerina dreams'.
By the end of the book Carmen has left the dance centre, auditioning for a role in a new musical. This is where she feels most comfortable, and where, ultimately she is most successful.
Dance School books of the Future?
As I put West End Shuffle down I wondered if this was the future of dance school books. Are there going to be more books with laughable over-the-top characters? Are there going to be more books where real life was more important than the dancing? Is ballet going to be seen as stiff and boring; inferior to other styles of dancing?
In real life, the last question is usually answered in the positive. At my own dancing school, jazz and tap classes are seen as much more exciting than ballet. And despite the ballet dancers at Eurovision, most popular music videos are accompanied by modern dancing.
The increase in Young Adult books could also decrease the amount of dancing in ballet school books. Young Adult books tend to deal with issues – and these come to the forefront over everyday things like ballet lessons.
Are these possible changes a good thing? I have my concerns about this – but I am a ballet traditionalist, and I hate the suggestion that other forms of dancing are 'better'. And as far as I'm concerned, characters as unappealing as Carmen shouldn't become the norm – Carmen's behaviour in this book and the sequel means that I probably won't read other books by this author.
But what do you think? Should characters in ballet school books hit the extremes more? Should there be more of a debate between the ballet world and the real world? And are books about ballet as interesting today as they used to be?
Discuss and debate!
Bogan* Think 'suburban redneck' or 'white trash'. See Wikipedia - Bogan or Bogan.com
Ballet School Books used in writing this article:
West End Shuffle: Natalie Jane Prior
Ballet Shoes: Noel Streatfield
Dancing Shoes (Wintle's Wonders): Noel Streatfield
The Drina Books: Jean Estoril
The Satin Slipper Books: Elizabeth Bernard
Ballerinas: Harriet Castor
Ballet School: Mal Lewis Jones
The Moth Graham Books: Jean Richardson