Why I Love Dance
Contributor
Written by
Daphne Kalotay
January 2012
Contributor
Written by
Daphne Kalotay
January 2012

When people ask why I chose to write a novel about a ballerina, I give the simplest answer: I love dance. My mother was a dancer, and I grew up taking classes in both ballet and modern dance, attending performances in New York City and reading ballerina memoirs. And yet if I consider this question more thoroughly, I see that my interest originated in a very personal behind-the-scenes experience of dance.

When I was three years old, we moved to a town in New Jersey where my mother had been hired as the dance teacher at a local university. The classes she taught were contemporary ones, the musical accompaniment her own percussive drumming or—since this was in the 1970s—recordings by Rick Wakeman and Kraftwerk and Chick Corea. Each academic year culminated in a public performance, and the weeks leading up to it were a flurry of preparation. I particularly loved that my mother would buy candy for the dancers to snack on backstage, and that my sister and I were allowed a taste; I recall long strands of licorice from a store downtown…. 

But the most magical part was being backstage, a dark and cavernous place of booms and ladders and high ceilings hiding wires, pulleys and lifts; to a kindergartner, it seemed other-worldly. I was with my mother once when she met with the person in charge of campus facilities to explain what sort of transformations the theatre required for an upcoming show. She wanted the entire stage and backdrop to be painted black (which I thought radical), and later there was the lighting to discuss, and the cues for when to start the music. In my memory these backstage images are dark and blurry, but their sensual power—the allure of what goes on behind the curtains, behind the control panels and speaker systems—is, I see now, what drew me to that other backstage world, of the Bolshoi Theatre. Yes, I loved learning the nitty-gritty details of ballerina life, but more mysterious were the unseen, offstage manipulations of a Stalinist Russia where star ballerinas could be treated as possible spies, their husbands arrested and convicted, even as these women received accolades and repeated curtain calls and bouquet after bouquet.

When I had already been working on Russian Winter for a few years, I realized that, though I hadn’t consciously planned it, ballet was a very apt metaphor for the totalitarian world I was describing. For there’s of course something very authoritarian about ballet, with its stringent rules, its emphasis on exactitude, and the complete devotion it requires. I began to see the corps de ballet (all those girls working together so precisely, conforming, suppressing their individuality for the greater good) as an analogy for the situation of Soviet citizenry itself.

So it’s ironic that my interest in dance began in those 1970s dance performances my mother put together. I remember, for instance, an entire show set to Beatles music, where for the song “Lovely Rita” (the one about a meter maid) my mother decided to end with all the dancers converging onstage in a chaos of transport vehicles—a bicycle, a tricycle, a skateboard, a pogo stick, a Hoppety-hop ball. (Remember those?) And for her solo, to “Oh! Darling,” my mother dressed like a 1950’s tomboy, with her jeans rolled up to her shins and little white Keds sneakers, and danced with a wad of chewing gum in her mouth so that at the end she could blow a big bubble. 

Quite the opposite of the pristine, classical beauty of those Bolshoi dancers. But that introduction to the joyous playfulness of dance is what led me to that other, harsher and more dangerous, world in Russian Winter.

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