CM . . .
. Volume XVI Number 2. . . .September 11, 2009
Dynamic Women Dancers. (The Women's Hall of Fame Series).
Toronto, ON: Second Story Press, 2009.
128 pp., pbk., $10.95.
Women dancers-Biography-Juvenile literature.
Grades 4-8 / Ages 9-13.
Review by Julie Chychota.
Despite her success, Pearl began to feel that something was missing. She wondered if her work was authentic. She wanted to "know my own people where they are suffering most." In the summer of 1944, she traveled to the southern states of Georgia, Alabama, and South Carolina. She pretended she was a migrant worker and did the backbreaking work of picking cotton in the fields.
She learned firsthand about the oppression, fear, and degradation that resulted from racial prejudice. In dozens of small churches, she also found rhythms, songs, and movements like those from Africa. She felt she was getting closer to what was real, something that couldn't be learned from books. Pearl wrote down her experiences in diaries and notebooks. The material she gathered became the basis for her pieces Steal Away to Freedom and Slave Market.
When Pearl came back to New York, she continued to choreograph and perform. She debuted on Broadway on October 4, 1944, where she performed solo pieces and choreographed Ague (a work for four men), Slave Market, and Mischievous Interlude. In an interview a few months after she returned from the South, she said: "I see...an Africa of nations, dynasties, cultures, languages, great migrations, powerful movements, slavery...all that makes life itself. This strength, this past, I try to get into my dances." (pp. 42-43)
Anyone under the impression that dancers are mollycoddled prima donnas will revise that opinion upon reading Dynamic Women Dancers. The newest member to join the chorus line of "The Women's Hall of Fame Series" at Second Story Press, Dynamic Women Dancers assembles the biographical profiles of 10 professional dancers from seven different countries around the world. Through their untiring devotion to the art, these women have transformed the way in which dance is performed and perceived. Not only that, they have used their celebrity to champion humanitarian causes besides.
Dynamic Women Dancers gracefully follows the lead of previous "Hall of Fame" titles with respect to form, content, and scope. Its bold cover and graphic flourishes are hallmarks of the series, as are its mini-biographies of like-minded women who have overcome impediments to success. In this case, although the toe shoes on the cover foretell the presence of ballerinas, the book also incorporates dancers in flamenco, Bharatanatyam, and modern traditions. The women hail from Russia, the United States, Spain, Trinidad, Cuba, Canada, and India, the earliest having been born in 1881, the most recent in 1962. With her varied selection, author Anne Dublin evokes an atmosphere that couples the local and the exotic, the historical and the contemporary.
Dublin's warm-up to the primary text is an introduction in which she recounts the wonder of seeing her first ballet as an adolescent, and how that experience fuelled her lifelong fascination with dance. She then launches into the biographies, all of them laid out according to a familiar pattern. That is, a half-page portrait of a dancer heads up each one, framed by a thick inner gray border and a thin outer black line, plain at the top and bottom, but enhanced by scrollwork on the right and left sides. The dancer's name appears above the photograph while the year she was born appears below, as does the year she died, where applicable. Beneath the date(s), a caption synopsizes that dancer's career, such as "Capturing People's Hearts," "Helping Every Body Dance," or "Telling the Stories." The chapters sort the women chronologically by year of birth and run to between 10-12 pages apiece.
Over and above the discipline demanded of them by their profession, these 10 dynamic women variously endured poverty, blindness, depression, racism, injury, and family opposition. Alicia Alonso, for instance, lost much of her sight despite three retinal surgeries; nevertheless, she continued dancing into her seventies, "an unheard-of age for a classical ballerina to be dancing," writes Dublin (p. 57). For Anna Sokolow, whose mother opposed her career choice, pursuing dance meant being turned out of her home at 15, quitting school, working odd jobs, and sharing living quarters with half a dozen people for starters (pp. 17-18). The racism Pearl Primus encountered only sharpened her determination to locate and express authentic African-American experiences in dance. Whether the pressures they faced were physical or emotional, familial or societal, all summoned the willpower to continue forward.
Not only did these women persevere despite difficulties, but they also used their influence and abilities to assist others. For example, Anna Pavlova and Carmen Amaya performed benefits in support of orphans and widows, victims of war, and other charitable causes. The Dancer Transition Resource Centre, over which Karen Kain presides as the president for life, eases retired dancers into new career paths so they can find alternative meaningful ways to contribute to society. Liz Lerman, Judith Marcuse, Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, and Geeta Chandran, respectively, have collaborated on, and participated in, projects that explore and initiate dialogue on social issues, such as teen suicide, bullying, racism, violence, and gender issues. For these women, dance does not exist in isolation on some remote aesthetic plane but also has an obligation to make a difference in the pragmatic dimension.
True to form, Dynamic Women Dancers embraces the main visual conventions at play throughout the series. For example, accompanying the text are 19 photographic reproductions that depict the dancers in motion. In conjunction with the portrait photos that begin the chapter, these images satisfy readers' curiosity about what the dancers look like. They also reveal glimpses of the dynamism referenced in the title and apparent in the women's life stories. In addition and at irregular intervals throughout the text, 19 gray sidebars, ornately circumscribed along the top and bottom edges of their thin black borders, repeat information in the primary text, usually verbatim. Since the sidebars do nothing to develop the narratives, they, like the pairs of tiny dancers that straddle the page numbers, fulfill a strictly decorative purpose. Yet these graphic "intermissions" give younger readers a short respite from what would otherwise be lengthy blocks of text.
Concluding the book is the back matter which, aside from the usual photo credits and acknowledgements pages, contains sections entitled "Forms of Dance," "Glossary," and "Sources and Resources." "Forms of Dance" elaborates on the origins and characteristics of the four forms represented in this particular book. Meanwhile, the glossary is a strange concession: of the 14 entries, at least half are already sufficiently defined in the chapters. It would have been better either to choose in-line explanations for all and forego a glossary, like Nobel's Women of Peace did, or to use boldface or italics on the vocabulary in question and reserve explanation exclusively for the glossary.
As for the "Sources and Resources" that informed the author's writing, they consist of an impressive mix: books, articles, websites, videos, and even personal interviews with four of the dancers. In fact, Dublin lists between six and 12 items for each dancer. A note beneath the heading identifies with an asterisk those sources expressly "for children"—as opposed to the intended "young adult" readership—five out of a total of 77. In a confusing move, at least from the perspective of aiming for continuity within a series, this section organizes the dancers alphabetically by surname whereas, in previous books, "Sources and Resources" listed subjects in the order in which the chapters introduced them. Furthermore, the company of sentence fragments (six at last count) did not dance its way into my heart, yet there have been marked improvements since earlier books in this respect. However, Dublin's use of journals and periodicals make up for the foregoing by generating a heightened academic sensibility around Dynamic Women Dancers, a step that ups the ante for the next title in the series.
While Dynamic Women Dancers may not be as overtly feminist in tone as Extraordinary Women Explorers or Nobel's Women of Peace, it does uphold the strong female characters and humanitarian issues valued by Second Story Press. Especially compelling from a feminist perspective are the stories of Lerman and Zollar, who did not fit into established practices, but who forged their own approaches to dance, approaches to better honour the plurality of human experience. Yet the other dancers are equally as important in their own ways, and the hand of the former teacher-librarian and dance enthusiast is evident in Dublin's even, sensitive treatment of her subjects' personal and professional selves.
The "Women's Hall of Fame Series" seems inherently flexible. Marketed to adolescents, it is suitable for adults, too. Individual books might be worked into a curriculum, or recommended for recreational reading. At a price of $10.95 per book, the series is affordably collectible, and one could easily stash a handful of titles in a tote bag for on the road or at the cottage.
Julie Chychota's lack of coordination long ago dictated that ISOspa ballerina-style slippers would be the closest she'd ever come to wearing toe shoes. She lives in Ottawa, ON, where citizens have ample opportunity to observe politicians dance around issues.
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