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Saturday, August 27, 2016

Book Review: Raising the Barre: Big Dreams, False Starts, and My Midlife Quest to Dance the Nutcracker by Lauren Kessler, narrated by Hollis McCarthy (audio)

My friend Sarah once told me a cool story about how her mother danced the lead in the Nutcracker, on pointe, in her 50s, as a part of a troupe of older ballet dancers. I thought that was amazing. I took ballet as a kid, for many many years, despite having no talent, an uncooperative body (falling arches, inflexible, no turnout), and always being a half beat behind the music. But I loved it and it worked for me, until I needed to actually have some skill or talent to continue. In college, I stopped. I was good at one thing--going on pointe. I tried it again last year even though my old pointe shoes didn't fit anymore, and I still could do it, no problem.

I was captivated the minute I saw this book in a bookstore. However, I didn't read the description and I assumed it was something like what Sarah's mother did, and that misunderstanding meant I liked the book a little less, although that's no fault of the book.

Instead, Lauren was like me and took ballet as a child. Unlike me, she had dreams of being a professional that lasted beyond  first grade. But then she quit before I did because, at the time she needed to dramatically increase  her ballet immersion if she were to pursue a professional career as an adult, instead her teacher told her mother that Lauren had no hope of that, mostly due to her body type. Unbeknownst to both of them, Lauren overheard the conversation which hurt her deeply. She quit that day.

But she still loved the ballet. She saw many, but especially the Nutcracker which she saw every year in her hometown of Portland, OR. And one year her husband went off to Paris on a long business trip in December without Lauren, and she decided to splurge and see a half dozen Nutcrackers all around the country. But that wasn't enough. She wanted more. So she spoke to the president of the company that performs Portland's Nutcracker every year and got her to agree that Lauren could dance a role in the next year's performance.

Well that's a little crazy. It's never mentioned but surely she partly agreed for the publicity angle, otherwise there's zero reason to agree to let a stranger, middle-aged, slightly overweight, not in ballet shape, who hasn't danced in about 30 years, do this. But she does. And Lauren then spends the bulk of the book procrastinating, doing exercising she knows is wrong, and pre-pre-pre-preparing for ballet. I have a quibble with how late she finally took adult ballet, considering how much faith the company was putting in her and how remarkable this opportunity was. She then spent a lot of time complaining about her body, especially her arms, while not apparently doing much about them, and while talking about how awful it is when women complain about their bodies. Sigh. But then she got up to when she was rehearsing with the company and I really enjoyed that. She got to know most of the professional dancers and they all had fascinating stories (I wish, in fact, she'd gotten into that more.) I loved the history of The Nutcracker, which is king of kooky (and meant I got a trivia question right later that week!)

Overall, while the book was uneven, I did enjoy it. It's great for any former ballet students who once had aspirations that have since been dashed. It's for the former snowflakes and former soldiers everywhere (yep, those are the roles I had in the junior ballet in my youth.) I wish she was a little less obsessed with "leos" (is that really how people talk about leotards today? It sounded affected.) and partly, the narration might have impacted how I found her to be somewhat self-obsessed and smug. Maybe print would have been better. But I still am glad I read it.

I checked this downloadable eaudiobook out of the library.

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