“A dancer dances” – but do they also read? Let’s be clear: dancers need to know things (it’s not all rhinestones and tulle). From historical context to codified movement vocabulary to principles for moving forward in a highly competitive field, there’s a lot out there for dancers to learn. Reading books can be a rewarding and enjoyable way to do just that – and all that it really takes is a library card. Let’s look at some reasons for dancers to regularly read, as well as five must-read books for dancers!
Why should dancers read more books?
Indeed, there’s a lot out there for dancers to learn – knowledge that can help them become stronger artists, as well as step forward as dance world professionals. Not all of it is covered in traditional dance education. Articles (on websites such as this one) and podcasts can be accessible, worthwhile avenues towards such learning. Yet there’s nothing quite like getting absorbed in a book, where an author has the space to build an argument or larger idea – and the reader can take the time (even if over the course of months) to take it all in.
In a time when many of us spend hours a day on screens, that might be more valuable now than ever. The focus and persistence that it takes to get through a truly rewarding book is the same sort that we need to create an evening-length work, master challenging choreography (so we can really dance it, not just recite it), or even get to the place we really want to be in our creative lives. That’s quite a reason to read more books, this writer would say!
Ergo, strengthening the skills that we need to turn our full attention towards a book – in this age of reels, likes, and constant notification pings – can help us become stronger artists (not to mention what we learn through reading!). And after a long dance day, what a wonderful feeling to rest your body as you curl up with a book.
So power down your phone and get cozy with this recommended reading – or any other reading that calls you. Whether you’re planning ahead for something to read over spring break or on the beach in the summer, or currently want something to read by a winter fire, there’s a great dance book out there for you!
Chloe Angyal’s Turning Pointe: How a New Generation is Saving Ballet from Itself (2021)
Angyal is not afraid to explore the hard truths about ballet as we know it: from the anatomically unnatural nature of pointe shoes, to cost barriers in dance education and training creating equity issues, to reinforcement of antiquated gender binaries. What she lays out is not just her opinion; in-depth research, as well as the voices of everyone from dance students to professional dancers and dance medicine specialists, make her arguments vivid and profoundly human.
The text doesn’t leave us in a hopeless place, however. Angyal describes solutions to these issues, and tells the story of innovators who are pushing them forward. The New York City-based dance collective Ballez opens space for dancers of all gender identities and orientations, defying classical ballet’s gender tropes and constraints, for example. Gaynor Minden sells a pointe shoe that can help keep dancers safer and dancing longer, the result of simple design changes. It’s only attachment to tradition that’s preventing that safer, more sustainable design from becoming the norm.
Overall, Angyal’s writing is thought-provoking, bracing, and inspiring. Get ready to feel fired up to help build a new ballet field – one that’s more inclusive, healthier for dancers, and which more closely reflects the world around it.
Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way (1992)
You may have already read this one – it’s become well-known as a must-read book for creative types. Even if you have, it merits a re-read! The key to Cameron’s creative method is “morning pages”: three pages written first thing in the morning (before coffee, before food, and certainly before checking your phone). Don’t censor yourself in any way, Cameron urges. Forget about proper grammar, punctuation, structure – even about making rational sense. Whatever comes, let it come.
This method helps to unearth the abstract, unique jewels of creativity from within the subconscious, Cameron asserts. Those can be available to us, to some extent, when first waking: before to-dos, uncertainties, and anxieties cloud our mental space. Have you ever experienced art (dance or otherwise) and wondered “wow, how did they come up with that – where in the world did it come from?” Most likely, that artist was able to tap into something deep within them, and then shape it into something that became their art. That’s what Cameron seeks to guide artists towards with this text.
Morning pages might be the most well-known aspect of Cameron’s method, but there’s a lot more there; also in the book are affirmations, inspirational quotes, and various other exercises (such as writing yourself a “thank you” letter). Cameron’s main audience seems to be individuals who seem blocked in their creative flow, yet anyone can benefit: prolific artists, those with creative blocks that won’t seem to budge, readers who’d like to be creative but don’t think they are (perhaps yet). In The Artist’s Way, Cameron conveys a belief that anyone and everyone can create – sometimes it just takes a bit of elbow grease to get there.
Mindy Aloff’s Why Dance Matters (2023)
If we’re looking at the public at large, modern life has us dancing at weddings, school dances, and maybe alone in our rooms. Is that it, does that have to be it? In this text, Aloff offers a memorable argument for why dancing is a much more intrinsically human, and importantly human, act than we might realize: for healing, for social connection, for ritual, and much more. Across the centuries, across cultures, across faith systems, dance is a common denominator – a common language that requires no words to move us (figuratively and literally).
For dedicated dancers, skilled in formal techniques, this book could bring some fundamental reminders. For one, that dance doesn’t have to be tremendously athletic or challenging to be powerful. In fact, pedestrian movement can be even more accessible and meaningful than the highest leap or most impressive consecutive turn ever could be.
For two, Aloff’s research and perspective can inspire advocacy for dance – for it to reach deeper into our communities and its unique magic to touch more people. The text can even offer information and tools to make that advocacy smoother and more effective. We dance to quench a creative, kinetic fire in ourselves, but also to share the joy we find in it with others. Why Dance Matters can guide us to even more clearly see why that sharing matters, and to do it with even more purpose and passion.
Misty Copeland’s Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina (2014)
Misty Copeland: the ballerina, the woman, the legend…indeed, she’s arguably become more of an idea than a real person with her own story. As the one and only Black principal dancer at a top US ballet company, she’s been an important inspiration for many dancers (and even people, more broadly) of color. In this book, she tells the tale of how she got there: honestly, compassionately, and with wisdom.
Through body pressures, a harrowing custody experience, and much more, a pure love for dance stayed clear and motivating for her. Nothing could keep her down, though a lot happened that could have. It’s all an important reminder that the big dance stars whom we look up to are simply people – talented, driven, and intelligent people, yes, but still people just like us. They’ve had triumphs and “failures” just like we have.
Copeland’s story also underscores that we can’t change the limitations we face in our dance journeys: when we started dancing, how nicely our feet point, the training opportunities we did or didn’t have – but we can determine how we decide to move forward despite those challenges.
Her candid retelling also demonstrates that whatever injustices we encounter (injustices which we absolutely should, as a field, work together to address), those injustices don’t have to define us or our stories – as artists or as people. If we sometimes get stuck or fall backwards, if we sometimes don’t know where or how to step forward, that doesn’t have to define us either. As Copeland herself affirms, “you can start late, look different, be uncertain, and still succeed.”
Eric Franklin’s Dynamic Alignment Through Imagery (2012)
You know those “a ha!” moments in your dance training, those exciting moments of embodied understanding? They’re often connected to imagery of some sort: of something in everyday life, or of seeing something in your anatomy within the mind’s eye. Franklin’s text takes that sort of process – of learning about movement or dance technique through an image – to a whole other level of knowledge, nuance, and action.
In fact, Franklin advises readers to incorporate the exercises in the book into daily movement practice. The immensity of what the book offers could make that kind of conscious movement practice a lifestyle of its own. Through such a practice, there could always be more to investigate and to discover (just like with dance!).
Dynamic Alignment Through Imagery also provides an immensity of anatomical information: joints, ligaments, tendons, nerves, and much more. Most importantly, framing this information is the kinesthetic perspective: how these structures work together to help one accomplish a certain movement task. Imagery, in turn, frames how movers can accomplish those physical tasks with more ease, integration, and support. With moving in these ways, more consistently, we can live a more sustainable, more fruitful, more supported life in movement.