Choreographer and dancer Twyla Tharp once said, “Dance has never been a particularly easy life, and everybody knows that.
Her statement is so true.
To be a dancer is to give up everything. Loved ones, who do not understand what it takes to become a professional dancer, often feel cheated, mislead or left out.
When one is really married to “dance,” divorce is never an option…except for those dancers who refuse to close their eyes, bodies, emotions and thoughts to the outside world.
This is what basically happens to “Hannah Ward,” the main character in “Bunheads: A Novel.” Ward, in reality, is author Sophie Flack, former professional ballerina with the New York City Ballet.
As with so many girls who have big dreams, hopes, desires and obsessions to become professional dancers, Flack, too, developed a fascination with this performing art at age seven when she began training for ballet at the Boston Ballet School.
Although Flack has written a novel, much of her book is an honest, power-packed portrayal of her life as a dancer. In vivid, frank and sometimes sorrowful words, she shows others, perhaps not quite as familiar with a dancer’s lifestyle, how easy it was for dance to rule her world.
Anyone who does or has taken dance seriously understands the pain, or, in Flack’s case, her pain. To be a dancer is to put one’s body through torture and into a torture chamber. Flack writes of hours and hours of rehearsals, practicing and performing many shows the same nights for an audience who only sees the beauty, grace, individual style, technique and poise of the dancer or the dance troupe on stage.
Pain comes in all forms, but, largely, there are two types: the good hurts and the unbearably opposite, which can consist of the worst muscle and joint pain imaginable, bleeding feet, spasms or cramps, torn ligaments, blisters, bunions, fractures (or any bone damage), unnatural body positions and an endless wiring of frazzled nerves. For many dancers, the show must go on in spite of injuries and wounds that are concealed from the audience who only see a dancer’s smiling face or slight grimace when in character on stage. And that’s just the body.
Flack and certain members of the ballet company developed extreme mental and emotional disconnections: a dancer is viewed as “not normal” or “normal,” particularly in social situations in which dancers can have difficulty making friends who are labeled “non-dancers” or “only pedestrians.” Either way to look at it, the latter group and the dancers are “outsiders.” Flack understood this right from the start. When one is a dancer, one talks of dance and practically nothing else because she or he becomes ‘the dance.’
On the brighter side Flack demonstrates the love, her love, of the dance. She is worshiped near and far. Children and adults look up to Flack and the entire corps de ballet. Little girls have fantasies of their favorite ballerinas and freely imitate that special dancer, observing her posture, walk and talk, all with an eagerness to please their adult star-dancer who is immortalized as a fairy-tale queen or princess.
It is nice to be recognized as a great dancer.Many children, though innocent, only see the glamour, sophistication and grace. They do not foresee the future, their future, of what it means to dance, to train and devote themselves totally to dance with little time left for living.
All of these factors add up to a short statement made by Suzanne Farrell, who in 1961, had joined the New York Ballet and had been one of George Balanchine’s most prized pupils: “I liked to read,” Farrell commented, “but, being a dancer, I didn’t have a lot of time to read.”
Of course, readers can make up their own minds as to whether ballet, modern, jazz or ethnic truly represent ‘dance.’ People, dancers and non-dancers, agree or disagree all of the time regarding the natural state of dance.
When reading Flack’s book, readers can take sides, well, sort of.
Modern dancer and choreographer Isadora Duncan frowned upon ballet. To her, ballet was unnatural:
“The real American type can never be a ballet dancer,” Duncan remarked. “The legs are too long, the body too supple and the spirit too free for this school of affected grace and toe walking.”
But,of course, Duncan was very bold and outspoken. She was a woman eons ahead of her time and supported her role as free spirit everywhere, not just in dancing.
Flack, too, must decide if she wants to dance for as long as she can, to center herself only around other dancers and, by doing so, part company with those she meets and who just might turn out to be good, ‘non-dancer’ friends.
She struggles in relationships with men. Men are impressed with her skills, her beauty and her performances, but, they do not understand how important it is to be a dancer, to be disciplined almost to perfection.
Without giving away too much here in this review, readers will acknowledge the choices Flack makes and why she did make those choices.The conclusion could be considered sad in some respects, but Flack does eventually find her balance.
Just as dance is sensual, with a language all its own, Flack also is sensual as both a dancer and writer. “Bunheads” is her debut novel. It is compassionate, entertaining and beautifully-written.
Flack opens the reader’s eyes, hearts and minds to the world of dance, its joys, its pains, its splendor and its imagery. After dancing with the company for nine years, performing in more than 70 ballets and touring internationally, Flack retired from dance in 2009. Currently she is studying English at Columbia University.
Carol Wright is a freelance writer and resides in Winfield