Next on Your Reading List: “The Turning Pointe”

February 17, 2022

Looking for a gripping read between competition rehearsals? If you like family drama, fierce competition and out-of-the-box characters (as in, the stereotypical cutthroat ballet master is actually the main character’s father…yikes!), you may want to pick up debut author Vanessa Torres’ The Turning Pointe, which hits bookshelves February 22.

Not to be confused with Turning Pointe (Chloe Angyal’s critique of the ballet world today) or The Turning Point (a 1977 melodrama starring Mikhail Baryshnikov), The Turning Pointe transports readers to Minneapolis in the height of the 1980s, when jazz funk and street dance ruled, Prince was king, and Doc Marten boots were cool the first time around. (Disclaimer: This young-adult novel does contain details and situations that may not be appropriate for readers under 13.)

The story follows 16-year-old Latinx ballet dancer Rosa Dominguez, who seems destined to become the star principal dancer of her studio, Minnesota Dance Company. But Rosa would much rather be dancing one floor above her ballet class, where Minneapolis-born-and-raised pop legend Prince is rehearsing for an upcoming concert. After Rosa’s father, MDC’s  infamous ballet master, announces that a few select dancers will get to perform with Prince, Rosa’s dream of sharing the stage with the pop icon leads her to become the dancer, daughter and friend she’s truly meant to be.

Torres took a moment to chat with Dance Spirit about her inspiration behind The Turning Pointe and what she hopes readers will take away from Rosa’s journey.

Dance Spirit: Why did you choose to set The Turning Pointe in 1983 in Minneapolis, MN?

Vanessa Torres: Growing up in Prince’s hometown of Minneapolis, it was impossible not to be aware of him. The story is heavily inspired by my own time there as a student at the real-life Minnesota Dance Theatre, where Prince actually rehearsed for his movie Purple Rain. I remember I used to sneak up to the studio and watch him practice. If I didn’t get kicked out, I’d get to stay and watch him.

DS: What themes in the story can other dancers relate to?

VT: Rosa’s conflicting views about dance really stem from her family life, which I think other dancers can relate to. She wants her dance trajectory to be her decision, and it never really has been. She struggles with living up to so many other people’s obligations. There are also body image issues that I think dancers can identify with, including myself. As a young dancer I was constantly comparing myself to others. Luckily, we’re in a much better place now than in the ’80s, in terms of onstage representation of different body types and people of color. I also had to acknowledge that in the ’80s, the AIDS epidemic was very prevalent, especially in the dance world. I witnessed a lot of our male dancers getting sick when I was a kid, and not really understanding what was going on. So Rosa’s love interest, Nikki, is an important part of the story. He’s not afraid to be himself—he likes to wear girls’ clothes and wants to dance on pointe—so their relationship was an interesting one to write about.

DS: What do you hope readers take away from this story?

VT: I would like readers to feel hopeful at the end, and see a little bit of themselves in the story. And even if they don’t, I hope they’ll develop a little bit of understanding for the people who do.

DS: If The Turning Pointe were turned into a movie, who would you want to play the characters?

VT: I would want whoever it would be to encompass everything about Rosa, not just her dancing. Definitely someone who is Latina, who has some curves, like Rosa does. I can’t narrow it down to any one person, but I love watching footage of Karina González, and old reels of Evelyn Cisneros. Both incredible dancers. Both finding their place as firsts—Hispanic principal dancers.

Check out the first chapter of The Turning Pointe below, ahead of the book’s official release on February 22!

Star in Studio 6A

Charcoal. No, sulfur—the familiar stench of my arm hair singeing. I correct my posture. One more second and I’ll leave class with an ugly blister, my punishment for having droopy arms and being late—again. My father, Master Geno, pockets his lighter and moves on. I let my elbow drop again, while the Master’s threat terrifies the rest of the swans into perfectly lifted ballerina form. None of the dancers have actually witnessed him burning anyone for real. I’m the only girl with enough balls to test that rumor, even though I like my skin the way it is, the chestnut Mexican in me unscarred by Geno’s infamous red cigarette lighter.

“Rosa, croisé devant,” he barks, stomping his steel-toed cowboy boot way too close to my straying pointe shoe. “Late to class and poor position. Unacceptable.”

Again, I adjust myself, though I know my way is better. Effacé devant would present the dancer. Like, “Hello! You’re about to see something totally rad.”

I swear Geno’s pointy ears twitch, cold ashy eyes piercing through my skull as if he hears my thoughts. I switch it up, and he chills.

The setting sun floods my space and I unravel, losing myself in its midsummer intensity. This ancient ballet studio with its cracked mirrors and peeling paint doesn’t exist. It’s no longer 1983. Gone are the black-and-white photos that line the brittle plaster walls. Dancers past, my mother among them—and my older sister—freeze-framed in moments of graceful elegance. I’m far away from here, adrift in a time when my arms could do whatever they damn well pleased. The piano adagio morphs into a funky keyboard that pulsates my fingertips. My head rolls a full circle as if my long curls are down.

I bourrée out of the sunbeam. The funk disappears and I’m back in the present, just in time to see the side-eye Geno’s giving my midsection.

“Suck it in, Rosa darling. I shudder to think how big your lunch was.” He messes with the collar of his leather motorcycle jacket, then smooths his feathered gray hair.

I do as he demands because he’s a junk-food bloodhound and a sniff away from sussing out the Pudding Pop I’d scarfed earlier. I can smell the chalky chocolate on my upper lip.

Introducing my stomach to my backbone, I roll up to a relevé en pointe, groaning through the shooting pain in my toes. I’d skipped padding them with lamb’s wool. The inside of my shoe is warm and slippery with blood, and I’m pretty sure my big toenail has finally deserted me. Another pair of stained ballerina-pink tights. Geno will be proud.

I’m not even in the company yet, but well aware my skills have become the best in my level. This is according to the whispers in the dressing room and my best friend, Kat, whose sweaty reflection is sticking out its tongue at me—the Master’s daughter, the girl who needs a sunbeam to remember a second of her life before her first pair of pointe shoes.

He nods at my fluid arabesque, and for a quick feathery scale on the piano, it’s as if we’re the only ones in the studio. It doesn’t last. But his rare show of approval pushes me to point my toes until my arches cramp. He leaves my mirror space to torment another sorry swan, and I contort my pissed-off foot into an ugly sickle—so unlike the principal I’m supposed to become.

Principals are the elite, the company’s top dancers, Geno reminds me to exhaustion. Every. Single. Day. On the outside, I have all the pieces. Paris Opera Ballet feet, flexible back, complete one-eighty turnout, and strong tireless extensions. Stuff my genetics get all the credit for. If only I had the heart. I was born with one. I know this because I feel it speeding up as Geno circles back around to me. But only a tiny part of it belongs to ballet. The rest . . . well, this is the reason I’m here. Because she can’t be. The Dominguez-principal legacy rests in my God-given high arches now.

“Save the purple eye shadow for your school dances. It’s garish and distracting.” Geno flips his hand in my face and I wobble, rolling off pointe. His boots clack over to Miss Stick-up-her-tutu Stacy. He stands behind her, cupping her face.

“Ladies, if you’re going to wear makeup to class, this is the proper way to do it.” He glances at me and I’m sorry I hadn’t rainbowed the shit out of my eyes like Cyndi Lauper.

Stacy bats her baby-pink eyelids. But everyone knows I am the baby, the lone sixteen-year-old in a class flitting with eighteen-and-then-somes. I glance around the stuffy studio at the dancers I see more than my own family—the girl with the perfect ballet body, but horrible turnout. The intense scowly chick next to her, the one whose parents let her drop out of high school after she got one callback for the TV show Fame. And the twins no one can tell apart. They even sweat the same, I swear.

Geno homes in on Kat, and I want to dive in front of her, take the bullet. She flicks her eyes at me, crossing them. He pokes a sharp finger beneath her chin, adjusting her head, like, a millimeter.

He’s on a roll today. No one escapes Geno’s wrath. He’s a tough, Harley-riding genius choreographer with his tight ass shrink-wrapped in torn Levi’s. He smells like smoke and gasoline and looks like a piece of bacon with eyes. And he’s brutal with a capital B. All those years of perfect pirouettes beaten into him and now he’s finally found a reason to pass the slap. Maybe this is why he’s so unforgiving. But I swear right here and now, banish me to hades if I ever become like him when I get old—feared, prancing around in shredded jeans, abusing starving stomachs and looking like some kind of ancient David Lee Roth.

He smacks my stomach and I pooch it out more. MDC worships him because he’s the best. And the best are toughest on each other. He spins around on his heels like he’s going to leave me alone, then snaps back, jabbing my middle with a sharp finger.

I let out a defiant grunt and pull in my center like I should’ve the first time.

Stretching my arm overhead, I arch back into a deep cambré derrière. If only I had Superman’s laser-beam eyes, I’d zap through the ceiling and flee to the studio above. Because while I’m sweating through another of Geno’s impossible adagio combinations, a private dance class is happening, the kind with the rhythm that lives in my soul. I’ve tried, and failed, to crash it—four times this week, a decision that’ll cost me fifty extra jumps at the end of the hour, maybe even a closed-door lecture from Geno.

Totally worth it. Because for one perfect evanescent moment, mid-sashay, the dancer in studio 6A noticed me when I’d peeked inside—my weepy brown eyes fusing with his smoldering dark irises. And Jesus-Christ-on-a-stick my withered heart surged to life, proving resurrection doesn’t only happen on Easter. Of course, an enormous bodyguard wasted no time shutting me out. But the man behind the giant will remember me, Rosa Dominguez in the rose-colored leotard. And no one, not even dream-killer Master Geno, can smother the scent of lavender lingering in my nose.

Sweat trickles down the deep ravine between my shoulder blades, my face flushing hot like the flame from Geno’s lighter. I turn a perfectly lifted promenade, but inside my head I’m releasing my center to gyrate my hips. My daydreaming dulls the ache in my feet and I risk a glance at the cracked ceiling, every hair wound in my godforsaken bun desperate to escape and show floor six what I can do when freed of these pointe shoes.

Born legacy isn’t the only reason I torture myself at the Minnesota Dance Company. Master Geno isn’t the only genius parading around in high-heeled boots.

Studio 6A—Prince, the Purple One, is in the house.