In another life, I was a dancer. I’m not sure I’ve mentioned that before, but I was all in—especially in high school. I had class five days a week and I was an assistant teacher another day, so I only had Sundays off from dancing (mostly to catch up on homework). And even though I was not anywhere near professional level, I do understand a little bit about how all-consuming dance can be…especially if you’re a ballerina in a company. You only socialize with other dancers, who are both your friends and your biggest competition, and despite the mental and physical toll it takes on your body—and it’s actually horrible—you love it and couldn’t imagine your life without it. That’s why when I read the synopsis to The Ballerinas by Rachel Kapelke-Dale, I knew I would get sucked into the world—because I would understand it more than most people.
Fourteen years ago, Delphine abandoned her prestigious soloist spot at the Paris Opera Ballet for a new life in St. Petersburg—taking with her a secret that could upend the lives of her best friends, fellow dancers Lindsay and Margaux. Now 36 years old, Delphine has returned to her former home and to the legendary Palais Garnier Opera House, to choreograph the ballet that will kickstart the next phase of her career—and, she hopes, finally make things right with her former friends. But Delphine quickly discovers that things have changed while she’s been away…and some secrets can’t stay buried forever.
Moving between the trio’s adolescent years and the present day, The Ballerinas explores the complexities of female friendship, the dark drive towards physical perfection in the name of artistic expression, the double-edged sword of ambition and passion, and the sublimated rage that so many women hold inside—all culminating in a twist you won’t see coming, with magnetic characters you won’t soon forget.
This book is a very slow burn and it’s quite long, so be in it for the long haul. I was reading it on my e-reader and kept asking how I was only that far along in the story—not in a bad way, necessarily, just in a curious way. It goes back and forth from the past to the present, and you’re trying to figure out a transgression from the past while seeing where the future lies for these dancers, which I was totally on board for. There is a little bit of dance jargon and delving into the world of choreography, which I’m not sure would float everyone’s boat, but which I devoured, almost wanting more. I understood the characters’ motivation for every move, which I can’t say that I’ve read in a long time, and even though the lot of them were not great people, you wanted everything to turn out okay.
I will admit that I was a little underwhelmed by the two events that were meant to be the major plot points (one in the past and one in the present)—for some reason I was expecting them to be a little more extreme or surprising, but for some reason that didn’t mean I didn’t still enjoy what I was going on, which I will attest to Kapelke-Dale’s amazing world-building and character development. All in all, it was a great read that I thoroughly enjoyed…though it didn’t make me miss my dancing days.
People who liked Black Swan with Natalie Portman will definitely find this enjoyable and I highly recommend it to anyone who ever had dance be an important part of their life—they’ll find it familiar and exciting.
“We are all stuck in our own stories. And it is so easy to see someone through only one lens: the role they play in yours.” —Rachel Kapelke-Dale, The Ballerinas
Thank you to NetGalley and St. Martin’s Press for the advanced copy, and to Gaelle Marcel on Unsplash for the featured photo.