CM . . . . Volume XVIII Number 12 . . . . November 18, 2011
In Dancing on the Inside, Glen C. Strathy’s debut Y.A. novel, he sets the stage for a classic conflict between 12-year-old Jenny Spark and her mother, and a more unusual conflict in Jenny, herself.
Jenny is painfully shy. So shy it’s difficult for her to meet people and even more difficult to make friends. Unlike thousands of girls who dream of becoming dancers and see themselves twirling and leaping across a stage and bowing to thunderous applause, she has never envisioned herself performing on a stage or bowing in front of anyone. In fact, Jenny would never have considered taking a ballet class at all if, while she was unpacking from her family’s recent move, she had not re-discovered a DVD of a Russian performance of Swan Lake her grandparents sent her two years ago, and she finally watched it. The first time she watched it, it took her breath away. She had never seen anything more beautiful. The more she watched it, the more she longed to become a part of that beautiful world, and so she asked her mother to let her enroll in a ballet class.
Her mother reluctantly agreed but is far from convinced it’s the right thing to do. She is concerned about the cost of dancing, and she knows all about Jenny’s problem; she’s that way herself. She also knows that, out of thousands of girls who sign up for classes, only a handful ever succeed in dance. Surely, she thinks, there’s something more practical Jenny could do.
But there’s nothing Jenny has ever wanted more than to be involved in ballet, and when her mother tries to dissuade her for the umpteenth time by telling her she can still change her mind, and that “Girl Guides…would be a good way to meet girls and make friends,” Jenny parries her attempts and finally growls her annoyance. “I’m too old for Guides. It’s called Pathfinders once you’re twelve. And besides, I don’t want to do it.”
As determined as she is though, for Jenny, problems at the ballet school start the minute she walks through the door. First, a woman who introduces herself as Jenny’s teacher criticizes the ballet clothes Jenny so carefully picked out, as well as Jenny’s hair and overall appearance. If that isn’t enough to put Jenny off, when her mother asks about the class Jenny will be in, Madame Beaufort relays a disturbing fact neither Jenny nor her mother had known.
From there, Jenny’s first day continues to go downhill.
On her way to the studio, Jenny sees photos of dancers on the walls of the hall. Once inside the studio space, she begins to think: “Those dancers looked happy and confident.” She knows she’s not like them. She doesn’t belong. The girls in her class “would stare at her wrong-coloured leotard and her long hair and know she was not a dancer.” She’ll leave before class begins, but then she hears others coming and knows they must be the students in her class. Panicked, she ducks beside the piano to hide. But shortly after they arrive, one of the girls spies her, exposes her and tries to convince her to come out. Panic turns to paralysis when Madame Beaufort enters and tells the girls to “gather round,” and all but Jenny do.
With vivid detail, Strathy takes readers inside Jenny’s skin. “But Jenny just hugged her legs even tighter. She felt light-headed and dizzy. There was a high-pitched buzzing in her ears.” And when Madame approaches and asks Jenny what’s wrong, all Jenny “knew was she couldn’t budge from her spot—and that she wished she could make herself disappear.”
The only bright spot comes when Jenny convinces Madame to let her stay where she is and watch. Left to herself, Jenny observes the class carefully and makes mental notes. Readers begin to learn Jenny has talents even she doesn’t yet know she has. But she does not get up and dance, and, at the end of the day, she is left with the problem of what to tell her parents. If they learn she could not even participate, they will definitely not let her keep coming to class. And now, more than ever, she knows ballet is what she wants to do.
On the way home after class, Jenny tells her mother it was wonderful. She thinks all she needs is time, and she devises a plan to give herself time. Next class, she lies to Madame Beaufort about why she can’t dance, and then she finds herself caught in a quagmire of lies as she continues to deceive both her parents and Madame to keep her dream alive.
Although most of us experience shyness of some kind at some time in our lives, few of us know what it’s like to be pathologically shy and what it takes to overcome that handicap and function in society, never mind to excel. But through Jenny’s eyes, Strathy gives readers a close-up look at the angst, anger, heartbreak and courage involved in one 12-year-old’s struggle with it. He also gives us some insight into the parents’ side, and how teachers can hinder, or help.
In the ballet class, itself, Strathy sets Jenny up against two foils: polished, ambitious Veronique, who has an edge on actually becoming the prima ballerina she wants to be because her mother owns the school, and Ara, a free-spirit who’s ambitions as a dancer rival Veronique’s, but who is not polished, and to make matters worse, Ara’s family is having a hard time dealing with the expense dance lessons entail. Not surprisingly, Jenny becomes friends with Ara, an underdog with different problems from her own, but an underdog all the same. What is surprising is how the friendship unfolds, and how the girls cope with their difficulties.
While some of the characters are fairly stereotypical, such as Madame and Veronique, and parts of the end-game may seem over-the-top, such as Ara’s stunt during a performance on stage and Jenny’s response, Jenny is alive and real. The journey Strathy takes readers on as Jenny finds friendship, along with her real talent, and learns how to make her own dreams come true, is emotionally gripping, and the ballet world the author takes readers into is authentic and exciting enough to make even more girls decide that, perhaps, some form of dance is for them.
Jocelyn Reekie is a writer, editor and publisher in Campbell River, BC.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.