Grace and Grit: Books for Ballet Lovers

An art form that originated during the Italian Renaissance, ballet continues to fascinate many of us. This highly technical dance form has been hugely influential in popular culture, fashion and art. Ubiquitous performances of The Nutcracker, a ballet from 1892, every December speaks to its continued popularity.

Ballet also has a dark underside including the exacting standards imposed on dancers and the glaring lack of diversity. For those captivated by ballet and ballet dancers, we have some fiction and nonfiction suggestions for you. 

In Don't Think, Dear Alice Robb, who entered the prestigious School of American Ballet at the age of nine, recounts how she has trouble unlearning the values of ballet - stoicism, discipline, submission and near starvation - and the impact on her and other dancers' lives. This part personal account, part journalistic exploration of ballet, offers a glimmer of hope, noting ways that contemporary ballet companies are transforming for the better. 

"Don't Think, Dear. Just do," was an edict of the famed ballet choreographer George Balanchine. In Mr. B, Jennifer Homans, the author of the definitive history of ballet Apollo's Angels, gives us a biography of this titan of dance known as the "father of American ballet."

Check out the new book by Misty Copeland, who was appointed the first African American principal ballerina in the prestigious American Ballet Theater in 2015. In The Wind at My Back, Copeland celebrates the life of mentor Raven Wilkinson, a pioneering Black ballerina, and recounts both dancers' experiences with racism in ballet. For a fuller account of Copeland's exceptional life, check out her autobiography Life in Motion.

If you prefer fiction, Nicole Cuffy, a dancer herself, brings the professional world of ballet to life in her graceful and poignant debut Dances. Cece, a gifted dancer, who becomes the first principal Black ballerina in the New York City Ballet, soars professionally while contending with a troubled past and personal relationships.

Another novel we recommend where ballet features prominently is They're Going to Love You by Meg Howrey, a former dancer with the Joffrey Ballet. Carlisle Martin is a professional choreographer living in Los Angeles when her estranged father's partner, James, gets in touch to inform her that her father is dying. As she heads to New York City to be with him, Caslisle jumps between the present and her past growing up in a family immersed in ballet. While she lived with her mother in Ohio, she spent summers with her father and his partner in Greenwich Village, fostering a dream to be a dancer herself, until an incident, kept secret for most of the book, leads to a 19-year estrangement in this heart-wrenching family drama.

Want more? Check out our lists nonfiction for ballet fans and ballet fiction.