Caridad Ferrer’s All-Too-Timely Ballet Novel


Earlier this week, a friend of mine on Twitter mentioned a link to an essay at about how the ballet critic for the New York Times had been making cracks about ballerinas’ body shapes, and the incredibly lame defense he’d offered for doing so after the initial protests: “If you want to make your appearance irrelevant to criticism,” he wrote, “do not choose ballet as a career.” (Right: It’s not about the moves, it’s about whether you look right making them. Sure.)

As the discussion about the article continued, my friend Caridad Ferrer observed that this controversy provided much of the emotional fuel for her new novel, When the Stars Go Blue, about a recent high school graduate and aspiring ballerina who takes a detour through the drum and bugle corps when an opportunity to play Carmen arises. I figured Caridad had a lot more to say about this than you could fit into a 140-character tweet, so I invited her to write an essay for Beatrice

Alistair Macaulay is an unmitigated jackass.

Okay, had to state that right off the bat. Just get it out there. Sadly, however, he’s an unmitigated jackass to whom I owe something of a debt and believe me when I say, I wish that wasn’t the case.

Right now, you’re probably wondering “Who?” and “Why?”

Alistair Macaulay happens to be the ballet critic for The New York Times. As to why I owe him a debt—well, it’s because his recent critique of the New York City Ballet’s holiday production of The Nutcracker (as choreographed by George Balanchine) provided a timely reinforcement of a plotline from When the Stars Go Blue. My lead character, Soledad Reyes, is a dancer. About to graduate from an elite high school for the arts in Miami, she has aspirations to become a professional—her focus primarily on ballet—even though she knows the odds are stacked against her, even more so than they would be for anyone desiring a career in such a demanding profession. Because, you see, Soledad is what one might consider a non-traditionally sized ballerina.

It begins with her height, which I state as 5’10”, but while that’s something of a limitation, it’s hardly the main issue. The bigger problem, no pun intended, is that she’s built much in the way one might envision a “typical” Latina, albeit one who is at peak physical fitness, as befitting any athlete with professional aspirations. But as far as looking like a “typical” dancer? Well, not so much. And it’s something of which she’s well aware:

“I thought most dancers didn’t eat.”

The sound I made that was somewhere between a choke, a laugh, and a snort made his eyes go wide. “Dude, do I look like most dancers?”

I made myself sit perfectly still as his eyes narrowed and he looked me up and down—leaving me with the distinct feeling he was seeing more of me than he had back in the dressing room. A lot more. Finally he said, “No, you don’t. You don’t have that stick insect look.” He nodded at the nearby table where the dancers still congregated, a single plate of fries sitting in the middle of the table, still half full.

“Yeah, I know and thanks for saying it so politely.”

“What do you mean?”

I began yanking bobby pins from my hair. “Most people just say fat.”

The ketchup bottle hit the table with a thump. “That’s crap.”

“Not in the dance world. It’s problematic.”

“Why? You’re a great dancer. You look so—” He stopped, his gaze looking like it was following the movement of my hands as I pulled pin after pin from my hair. “I don’t know… so alive and real up on the stage.”

Wow. Just… wow. Slower now, I pulled the last few pins from my hair and shook the heavy length of it free from the bun it’d been in for the last eight hours, rolling my head around on my neck. I savored the prickling sensation rippling along my scalp for a few seconds before occupying myself with gathering the pins into a pile and dropping them into a side pocket of my backpack.

“That’s a really nice thing for you to say,” I finally managed. “But in classical dance, especially, they tend to prefer ethereal. Dainty. Kind of tough to accomplish when you’re built like me.” Tall and not an ounce of fat, but I had broad linebacker shoulders, and genuine B-cups instead of mosquito bites on my chest. Although my tías claimed I had no hips (compared to them) they were definitely there, leading into heavy, muscled thighs, the curves offset some by the sheer length of my legs. Overall, the impression I gave on the stage was of power, but light and delicate? Not in this lifetime. And it was okay. I’d made my peace with it a long time ago—mostly.

But couldn’t deny that every time I heard some variation on, “Your dancing is superb, but you’re really not… right for the part,” I’d find myself wondering what more? The dancers who got those roles—I could speculate all I wanted about their ability or experience or their discipline, but the one thing that was always fact was the one thing I couldn’t do a thing about. Those dancers—they were always, always smaller. Something I couldn’t physically do anything about unless I went on the dancer’s diet of surviving on coffee and cigarettes or sticking my finger down my throat. Both options were completely gross, not to mention, I’d seen up close what it did to some of my classmates. No thanks. So all I could do was put my faith in talent and even more hours of practice. And hope that I could somehow defy expectations.

Story of my life.

I won’t lie. I thought long and hard about my characterization of Soledad as an atypically sized ballerina. Sure, I could have taken the easy way out and given her a more conventional dancer’s body. Or had her primary dance discipline be one better suited to her particular body type. After all, there are such things as dainty, petite Latinas and full-figured dancers who aren’t ballerinas. But let’s face it, typical assumptions presume that women of Latin/Hispanic heritage are going to be built a certain way. And in choosing ballet, I was able to showcase the power of dreams and the force and intensity with which they can drive us. How they can make the impossible—possible.

From a more practical writing standpoint, allowing myself to play into that particular stereotype gave me room to play with a different set of conflicts, both internal and external, and characterizations with their bases steeped in different stereotypes. The most important, as far as I was concerned, being the assumption that ballet dancers aren’t allowed to be big. Period. Do not pass Go, do not collect your pointe shoes.

I will admit, however, to finding myself a bit surprised that it wasn’t so much Soledad’s size that raised questions, but rather, the heartlessness and brutality with which I portrayed the world of professional ballet. I was questioned as to whether I was being too “rough” or too “mean” talking about the coffee and cigarettes diet or how, later on, I have Madame Allard, Soledad’s lifelong teacher, trying to discourage her from auditioning for ballet companies because of how a lifetime of immersion in the profession had left her own body ravaged.

Sadly, I know from personal experience, I wasn’t even beginning to scrape the surface. Once upon a time, in another lifetime, I was a competitive figure skater, which, in its own way, can be every bit as brutal and demanding a mistress as dance, but that honestly, allows for a greater range in acceptable body types. However, as part of my off-ice training, I took a variety of dance and movement classes and never before and never since have I experienced body image issues such as those I witnessed in those classes—ballet in particular.

So no, I wasn’t being too rough. If anything, I was only skimming the surface, because to truly illustrate that world would require a whole other story. Right now, Darren Aronofsky seems to have that covered with Black Swan, illustrating not only the physical toll the discipline of professional ballet can take on a body, but the mental toll it can take on a psyche.

Which brings us back to Alistair Macaulay and his Nutcracker review: In it, he said Jenifer Ringer, dancing the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy, “looked as if she’d eaten a sugar plum too many.” Shortly thereafter, the howls of protest (rightly) began and I began receiving emails asking “have you seen this?” Each of those emails included some variation on a theme of “it reminded me so much of Soledad.”

Of course I was curious, so I followed the links first to the review, which I read with a growing sense of disbelief, to the Today show interview with Ms. Ringer, who, based on Macaulay’s description, should have borne a startling resemblance to the Pillsbury Dough Boy. Nope. No dough boy. Just a lovely, yet very typical dancer in terms of appearance. I watched the clip several times, trying to figure out where Macaulay was seeing those sugarplums and found myself at a complete loss. Admittedly, I’m no dance critic, but I have high standards for beauty and art and what I saw in those brief moments was a beautiful dancer who completely sold the iconic role, but as for sugarplums, unless he was using them as a really tacky metaphor for her breasts, I saw no evidence. And neither did anyone else who jumped to Ringer’s defense.

Speaking of defense, Macaulay’s was to try to turn the tables on his critics, calling them sexist because no one pointed out that he had also accused Ringer’s partner, Jared Angle, of appearing overweight. (The charming phrase he used for him was, “seems to have been sampling half the Sweet realm.”) Again, I personally didn’t see any evidence of it, but that’s besides the point, other than to provide proof that Macaulay’s an equal opportunity jackass. For the record, Mr. Macaulay, I noticed. And I thought it was every bit as appalling as what you said about Ringer and maybe even more insidious. Because body image issues aren’t just for young women anymore, yet too few people seem to recognize that.

Again, perhaps a story for another time. Or another book.

Coming back to Macaulay’s review and how it relates to Stars, yeah, in a perverse sort of way it’s a relief to have some measure of validation. To know I was right. Strange as it may sound, though, I’m sorrier than anyone will ever know, that I was so right.

17 December 2010 | guest authors |