AND THEN WE DANCED
A Voyage Into the Groove
By Henry Alford
256 pp. Simon & Schuster. $26.
When dance enters one’s life, it can be a bit surprising. From the casual partygoer discovering that his or her moves aren’t so bad, to the professional dancer waiting in the wings in those final moments before taking the stage to debut a new role, the art of movement, if you’re open to it, can become an ever-present gift that gives far more than you ever thought possible. That’s precisely what happens to the writer, professional hobbyist and acclaimed comic stylist Henry Alford in his new book, “And Then We Danced”: Dance took hold of his spirit at the age of 50 and hasn’t let go.
It all began with a writing assignment for The New York Times on the topic of Zumba, a popular exercise program that infuses Latin dance and music into a calorie-busting routine. Alford was so hooked that he embraced “waking up at 6:30 two days a week so that I could hustle up to 14th Street to shake it shake it shake it like a Polaroid.”
But his personal history with dance actually began in elementary school in Worcester, Mass., in the early 1970s, with square dancing. “You’d think that any break from multiplication tables or the causes of the American Revolution would have been a welcome diversion, but most of us kiddies trudged through these dances in a zombielike state of grim obligation. … But I’m going to guess that there was probably something going on at a deeper, subconscious level, too. This was, after all, our first nonparental, nontelevisual exposure to the war between the sexes.”
In a book that’s equal parts memoir and cultural history, Alford seamlessly interweaves heartwarming and hilarious anecdotes about his deep dive into all things dance — including an exceptionally entertaining story about working alongside the choreographer Twyla Tharp in New York City’s Rockefeller Park in a revival performance of her acclaimed 1970 community dance piece, “The One Hundreds” — with brief yet detailed biographical tributes to some of the most influential artists ever to have graced the stage.
With each chapter, Alford draws important contrasts between the past and the present while examining how dance infiltrates every aspect of our lives — from social entree, to emotion and release, to religion and spirituality, to politics. His captivating portraits of Isadora Duncan, Tharp and Martha Graham not only illustrate these icons’ vast contributions to dance, but also explore how their extraordinary innovation and unapologetic fearlessness led to a new understanding of women’s capabilities as world-class artists.
One of the more gripping chapters speaks to dance’s role in healing and recovery. Alford cites a young Mikhail Baryshnikov, whose intense study of ballet helped him cope with his mother’s suicide, as well as Michaela DePrince, the 23-year-old Sierra Leonean ballerina who has survived war, the death of both her parents and a skin disease that earned her the label “devil child.” Despite being told that “America’s not ready for a black girl ballerina,” DePrince embraced ballet at the age of 4 and has become one of today’s most visible and brilliantly talented young artists.
Not just in this chapter but throughout, Alford is a master of pulling the heartstrings, but in a positive, celebratory way. The book’s final pages find him spending Friday afternoons as a volunteer dancer in a class of senior citizens with Alzheimer’s, an experience that unexpectedly helps him overcome his own social insecurities. “I was initially reluctant, despite all my other dancing, to take anyone’s hand or to encourage someone to get out of her chair if she was being a wallflower. It felt invasive to me, given all the mild dementia in the room,” he recalls. But then, during his fifth class, one senior surprises him by making the first move. “The second that Tony G. grabbed me and pulled me into the circle, I fully expected to feel the group’s eyes bore into me and cause me to stumble. Tony G.’s confidence and verve and good looks — did I mention that he looks like someone who’d play Tony Goldwyn’s father? — dissolved all that. He was driving the car, and it was a beauty.”
How to Look at Ballet
By Laura Jacobs
Illustrated by Jessica Roux 272 pp. Basic Books. $27.
Where Alford pursues the many forms of dance as an eager and curious participant, in her new book, “Celestial Bodies,” the dance critic Laura Jacobs focuses solely on ballet. Although the subject has enjoyed a resurgence in interest in recent years, it largely remains a mystery for many people, even after they attend a performance. Jacobs’s book opens the door, offering a meticulous introduction to the art form and welcoming readers to have a seat and stay a while.
Jacobs makes no assumptions about the reader’s pre-existing knowledge of ballet, but rather starts at the very beginning, much as dancers do each day, with its basic foundations. She provides a study of the five foot positions, narrated alongside a history dating back to the French court in the 1500s and tracing ballet’s centuries-long evolution, without lingering so long on any one era that she loses the reader in academic prose. It’s the perfect balance of historical context and cultural relevance.
Importantly, from the book’s first pages she captures the spirit of ballet as felt by its artists themselves: “Classical dance is grueling to master, and aspiring dancers often feel they are at war with their bodies. But the end result of daily training by endless rote, of technique pushed and perfected year after year, is the appearance of effortlessness, the banishment of strain — energy coherently and peacefully channeled. It is often said, ‘Ballet never becomes easy; it becomes possible.’” Written like a true dancer.
It’s from this insider’s perspective that Jacobs is able to offer an all-encompassing guided tour behind the curtain, then circling back to the auditorium where the balletomane, the occasional fan and the newcomer sit side by side as they interpret the performance according to their individual experiences and beliefs. “It is often one moment, one pattern or one step that opens meaning in a ballet,” she explains. “Go to any single ballet again and again and what you see will change, depending on how your own frame of reference expands through travel, film, books, music, art and life.”
There’s no denying that, when it comes to classical ballet, there is a lot to cover. How does a writer decide what and whom to include without leaving history — or the reader — behind? Jacobs stunningly figures it out, enhancing her many fascinating jewels of insight with those of dancers like Gillian Murphy, Deborah Wingert and Veronika Part, as well as complementary, clarifying illustrations throughout.
In a chapter deservedly devoted to pointe shoes, Jacobs enlightens us as to their subtle allure: “In all the performing arts, there is no memento like the satin pointe shoe, no other artifact so uniquely fitted to the stress of a living hour onstage and at the same time unfit to last much longer than that hour — or two or three hours.”
For novices of this style of dance, Jacobs even goes so far as to dissect the program you’ll receive upon entering the theater, explaining the roles that compose a typical ballet company, from the corps de ballet, the soloists and the principals to the artistic director and choreographer. “Ballet programs fall into that realm of printed memorabilia called ephemera, but they are also handfuls of history that contain the ongoing life of a company.”
Then there is the ever-present discussion — perhaps debate — around just who, exactly, qualifies as a ballerina. Who deserves to be a prima ballerina? Jacobs reflects on this with a passion rarely expressed outside of the gilded walls of ballet. “I suggest you keep an eye out for who is giving more. More charming virtuosity. More delicacy. More musically responsive phrasing. Feet with more feel. Arms and backs that are animated by something more than the textbook. Moves rond de jambe with more volume. … More there-ness. Or more not-there-ness — more being lost in the moment.”
Above all, Jacobs advises anyone who aims to truly appreciate all that dance has to offer — and it is a lesson one surely reaps from Alford’s broader homage to the art as well: “Let it hit you, whatever it is, the difference that catches your eye. Enjoy it.”
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