CM . . .
. Volume XXI Number 41. . . .June 26, 2015
Shimmy. (Orca Limelights).
Victoria, BC: Orca, 2015.
133 pp., trade pbk., pdf & epub, $9.95 (pbk.).
ISBN 978-1-4598-0764-8 (pbk.), ISBN 978-1-4598-0765-5 (pdf), ISBN 978-1-4598-0766-2 (epub).
Grades 6-9 / Ages 11-14.
Review by Kris Rothstein.
Thank goodness for headphones. Goodbye, Joni Mitchell. The thing about headphones is that you can listen to music without anyone else knowing. If Mom knew I was listening to the song Amala's class is dancing to, she would have questions.
Ever since I saw Amala yesterday I've been thinking about her studio and how much I love it there. Walking into that room made me remember how much I used to love dancing. Used to. I didn't even realize I wasn't loving it anymore until I was in there with her, and then I remembered how much fun we had. When did dance stop being fun? Is it supposed to be fun? Can it be fun and still get me where I want to go?
That's the basic question. Can dance be fun and still get me where I want to go?
The music soars into my headphones, and without me even thinking, my body dances. I shimmy and twirl and undulate as I dust, until the song is over.
Why do I have to make this choice? Everyone thinks I should stay with Dana. Even Amala. Even Mom. But does Dana? And do I want to?
Lila lives to belly dance and wants to be a professional one day. At least that's what the 15-year-old thought before she was picked to join a prestigious dance studio. Her new teacher, Dana Sajala, is the best in Victoria, and Lila is already learning so much. But she is also neglecting her schoolwork and her friends. She's doubting herself for the first time, and she's a little worried that she might be forgetting why she started to dance in the first place. She misses her first instructor, Amala, and the girls from her former troupe. With her first dance festival approaching, Lila is starting to get sick with anxiety. When she confides her troubles to her best friend Angela, who still dances with Amala, she's surprised to find that Angela doesn't think it's that serious a problem. Angela enjoys dance as a hobby and is happy just having fun. Angela has a new boyfriend, though, a boy that another friend of theirs has a crush on. Lila disapproves, and a rift is growing between the formerly inseparable friends. After learning to see the dangers of competition and single-mindedness, Lila rediscovers her love of dance and decides to rejoin her original dance teacher.
Shimmy is part of the Orca “Limelights” series, a fantastic concept which combines stories about kids involved in creative and performing arts with simple storytelling perfect for reluctant readers. The books are short, straightforward and easy to read. They have relatable heroes and problems and can be enjoyed by readers of many levels. These qualities are all assets, but some stories can be rather too thin and simplistic. This is my one complaint with Shimmy. Lila has no other interests outside dance and no other issues or problems in her life. She is sweet and genuine, but she is also very one-dimensional. There is a lot of writing here - many expositional or repetitive scenes, lots of explanation - to get at just a few issues. There are lots of really good scenes describing dancing; probably one of the great strengths of the book is that Lila's passion for dance is sincerely conveyed. While I wish there were less throwaway scenes which are solely description or merely advance the plot, I do think Shimmy has a good story to tell and good values to share.
A number of elements of the novel may be one-dimensional, but one area that has many layers of depth is the idea of teen girls being able to make tough decisions for themselves. Lila struggles with one thing throughout most of the book, and she consults friends and family and her own conscience before making a mature, serious decision. It is also a strength of the book that Lila is allowed to naturally progress through her changing situation and her thoughts about it. She begins by being extremely nervous, then is energized by her new knowledge and commitment. The doubts begin quite logically as Lila starts to feel she is being unfairly chastised. Then she notices that the same thing is happening to Bea, a nice girl she really likes. Bea quits the troupe for Amala's studio. Lila also notices that Eve, the perfectionist dancer whom she really looks up to, is quite cold and judgmental. Does she want to be like Eve? Is there another way to be a serious dancer? By the end of the story, Lila has considered her options and grown up a lot.
The central themes of this novel are fantastic and not often explored seriously in teen fiction. How important is it for creative teens to be completely wedded to their art form? Will a total focus on dance or music or acting help them achieve success, or will it stunt their social and intellectual growth? It is not surprising that author Kari Jones comes out in favour of a balanced life. Lila will have plenty of time to learn, work and study dance as she gets older, readers are led to understand, and the moral of this novel is that total devotion might be bad for Lila's personal development. What is the point of being a beautiful dancer if you are an ugly person? Jones also asks why we value art and creativity and why it is considered an important avenue of expression for teens. Yes, Lila is learning more technique with Dana. She is also learning more discipline. But crucially, she is learning less about cooperation and about empathy and friendship. In Shimmy, the scales come out in favour of these latter values. It is lovely and refreshing to see teamwork touted as an important virtue in this age of The Self. The idea that personal excellence at all costs is not a valuable goal is a great lesson, and Shimmy shows readers the worth in building a community and supporting your peers.
Kris Rothstein is a children’s book agent and reviewer in Vancouver, BC.
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