The Dancer's Reading List: 8 Books You'll Love

April 12, 2021

There’s nothing like spending a Saturday afternoon curled up with a cup of tea and a good book. And at Dance Spirit, we’re here to put a dance twist on any activity. So, naturally, we’ve put together a list of eight books we think dancers will love.

Whether giving you a glimpse into the lives of your favorite dance celebs of yore or offering a fictionalized account of life in an elite dance school, we think these books will provide major dance-spiration.

1. Misty Copeland, Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina, 2014

Dance autobiography plays a special role in the canon of dance writing. Before the advent of social media, autobiography was one of the few places where a dancer’s voice could be heard. Though Misty Copeland’s Life in Motion was published in 2014, it still offers readers a compelling look into this then-rising star’s reflections on the challenges of her young life, and her arduous climb to American Ballet Theatre.

Life in Motion
came out just before Copeland was promoted to principal at ABT, becoming the first Black ballerina to hold that mantle. In this memoir, co-written with Charisse Jones, Copeland outlines her tumultuous childhood spent in and out of poverty, the custody battle between her mother and her ballet teacher, her struggle with disordered eating, and the racial discrimination she faced along the way.

2. Agnes de Mille, Dance to the Piper, 1951

Agnes de Mille was an original multi-hyphenate. Born into a famous theatrical family in 1905, de Mille was equal parts choreographer and writer. She was also a dancer in her own right, directed her own company, and made big splashes in the worlds of both ballet and Broadway. Though de Mille passed away in 1993, you probably know her best for her classic ballet Rodeo (recently reimagined by Justin Peck), or for choreographing the musicals Oklahoma!, Brigadoon and Carousel.

De Mille went on to publish 10 other books throughout her career, but Dance to the Piper is her first. This memoir of her early life is chock full of wit, which comes through strongly in her observations of life on tour with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, and her cutting character descriptions (she includes full chapters on greats such as Martha Graham and Anna Pavlova). At times snarky and sensitive, by the end of Dance to the Piper de Mille seems like someone you’d want in your corner—the kind of friend who’d crack you up backstage just before your next entrance.

3. Sona Charaipotra and Dhonielle Clayton, Tiny Pretty Things, 2015

Yes, you’ve seen the Netflix show. But before Kylie Jefferson and Barton Cowperwaithe jetéd across the big screen, characters Gigi, Bette and June came to life in Sona Charaipotra and Dhonielle Clayton’s beloved young adult novel. Tiny Pretty Things—and its 2017 sequel, Shiny Broken Pieces—follows a trio of students at a fictionalized Manhattan ballet school. With chapters alternating between the three protagonists’ points of view, the young hopefuls explore the cutting-edge world of ballet, navigating racial discrimination, eating disorders, addictions, broken friendships and dysfunctional families along the way. We promise you’ll find yourself lost in the twists and turns of Tiny Pretty Things.

4. Brian Seibert, What the Eye Hears: A History of Tap Dancing, 2015

Calling all hoofers! Any tap dancer worth her salt should spend some time with New York Times dance critic Brian Seibert’s What the Eye Hears: A History of Tap Dancing. This tome to tap follows the art form’s evolution from its origins as a hybrid of British Isles jig, clog dancing and dances brought from Africa by enslaved people. Seibert then tracks tap’s trajectory on the stage, from blackface minstrelsy to its relationship to jazz music and vaudeville, its role in Broadway and Hollywood, its post–World War II decline and its recent rediscovery. Not only does this history illuminate tap’s long-term relationship to pop culture, but it lays out some of the key performers throughout the years, ranging from Master Juba to Shirley Temple to Gene Kelly to Savion Glover. Don’t be intimidated by this book’s length; you can always explore its contents little by little.

5. Patricia Mears, Ballerina: Fashion’s Modern Muse, 2019

Ballerina: Fashion’s Modern Muse
is one to add to your birthday wish list. This glossy coffee-table book is filled with dazzling photos of dancers dressed in high fashion, and high fashion inspired by dancers. These images lie alongside essays by a number of notable critics and curators outlining ballet’s outsize influence on mid-century fashion, and the equally substantial influence the era’s fashion had on ballet.

Patricia Mears, deputy director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, put together this anthology in conjunction with 2020’s MFIT exhibit of the same name, which closed prematurely due to the pandemic. But the glitz and glamour are still alive between these pages: Lucky readers can learn about the rise of the ballet flat, drool over Dior and Chanel gowns worn by Margot Fonteyn, read about the popularity of the leotard, see costumes worn by Anna Pavlova, and so much more.

6. Gelsey Kirkland, Dancing on My Grave: An Autobiography, 1986

After George Balanchine’s death in 1983, the market was flooded with autobiographies of dancers who’d worked with him. While Allegra Kent’s Once a Dancer… and Suzanne Farrell’s Holding on to the Air are both gripping portrayals of artists coming of age, there is truly nothing quite as searingly honest as Gelsey Kirkland’s Dancing on My Grave.

Be warned: This memoir is not for the faint of heart. Kirkland, along with her co-writer and then-husband Greg Lawrence, lays out a no-holds-barred account of her life while dancing for both New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre in the 1970s, and the drug addiction that haunted her career. Kirkland also dives into her sibling rivalry, plastic surgeries and complex love affairs with dancers, such as Mikhail Baryshnikov. Dancing on My Grave is out of print, but don’t fear—cheap used copies are readily available online.

7. Padma Venkatraman, A Time to Dance, 2014

Dive into the world of bharatanatyam with this acclaimed young-adult novel. Padma Venkatraman’s A Time to Dance tells the story of teenager Veda, a classical-dance prodigy in India who, on her way from a dance competition, suffers an accident that leads to a partial leg amputation. In the face of pain and heartbreak, Veda must relearn how to dance, with a prosthesis. Along the way, she also gains an awareness of the class disparities plaguing her country, and learns to incorporate the spiritual tenets of Hinduism and Buddhism into her dance practice. In A Time to Dance, Venkatraman deftly weaves themes of social justice, competition, jealousy, religion, disability and, of course, dance.

8. Jacques d’Amboise, I Was a Dancer, 2011

Born in 1934, Jacques d’Amboise has truly lived many lives. The former New York City Ballet principal spent more than three decades with the company, working closely with George Balanchine before setting out on his own to found National Dance Institute, a nonprofit that works to bring dance to children around the world.

I Was a Dancer
is a particularly good choice for boys who’ve struggled to defend their passion for dance; d’Amboise outlines his hardscrabble childhood on the streets of Washington Heights in New York City, and the pushback he received once entering the School of American Ballet at age 8. Overflowing with his trademark empathy and humor, d’Amboise also offers a glimpse into the ever-changing worlds of both Broadway and Hollywood.