CM . . .
. Volume XXIII Number 12. . . .November 25, 2016
The day before, John McCaffrey dropped off his younger sister, Jen, at her weekly art class at the local community centre. Wandering the halls to kill time, he hears drumbeats and chanting and follows the sound to a gymnasium where a dance class is underway. But, this isn’t tap, hip hop, or ballet. It’s a traditional aboriginal dance class, and the girls in this dance group are wearing traditional regalia, “twirling and whirling madly, like mini dervishes. Their feet were a blur of motion as they stomped softly across the floor, tapping and weaving their way around the room.” (p. 10) John watches them from behind a curtain on the gymnasium’s stage. However, when he tries to sneak out to get back to his sister’s art class, the instructor sees him and invites him to join the class. John demurs –, he plays soccer, hockey and lacrosse, and face it, athletes don’t dance. Santee, the class instructor, isn’t easily put off. She hands John a DVD of a men’s dance competition, and, when John finishes watching it, he “wanted to be that fierce-looking man,” (p. 15) described in the above pull-quote.
It’s one thing to dream about being a dancer and quite another to go back to Santee’s class, where not only is he the oldest student but also the only guy. He’s no Billy Elliott, and hugely self-conscious, he crashes to the floor when he tries to execute a simple spin. But, talented as they are, the little girls in this class aren’t prima donnas, either. When John finally gets his steps together and is on a roll, he crashes into a cart full of basketballs. Immediately, the girls “ran over, hovering and cooing over me like miniature mother hens.” (p. 24) And John finds a special dance mentor in a spunky little girl named Taylor who assures him that, next week, he’ll be trying a jump. Perhaps because the girls are such good dancers, or because he’s so much older, he tells Santee that he’d like to be in a class with boys. That would require a drive to the city, and borrowing the car for the drive would involve an explanation to his parents, an explanation for which he is not quite ready.
That crash into the basketball cart really messes up his performance at the next day’s soccer game, and when John is late for practice because he was at Santee’s class, he catches plenty of heat from his soccer coach. Soccer, or dance? Tough choice. That weekend, he attends a pow wow where Taylor and her classmates are dancing. Seeing the pride shining on the faces of all the dancers, he feels a bit ashamed at having concealed the truth about his dance classes. The pow wow ends with an electrifying performance by a male dancer named Sam, a friend of Santee’s. Sam meets John after the show, and after they talk, John summons his courage, and tells his parents about his plans. His mother, of Cree background, is thrilled that John hears the drum, “the heartbeat of Mother Earth . . . the heartbeat of our people.” (p. 57) His dad, whose Irish background has given John a head of flame-red hair, offers the use of his car, and that Saturday, John heads for his first dance class at the Native Cultural Centre.
When he walks into the room, John is acutely aware of everyone’s scrutiny. With his red hair, John is a carbon copy of his dad, and the bullying begins: “Who the hell let the white kid in here?” (p. 61) Not only that, the guys at the dance class have skills which totally outclass John’s. When he tells his parents about the abuse dished out by the guys at the Cultural Centre, John is shocked to learn that, as a kid, his father faced taunts because of his red hair, and his sister Jen, who looks like their mother, tells of the racist comments she’s faced at school.
John decides that it’s just easier to go back to Santee’s classes, but Santee needs to know why John is back. When he explains, she makes it clear that he has to go back to Sam’s dance group, and continue to hone his technique if he wants to be in the Grand Entry of a pow wow and perhaps enter competitions some day. Another missed soccer practice leads to yet another tongue lashing from his coach, but John is no longer certain that his heart’s in that game. Returning to the community centre, Santee surprises John with a complete outfit of regalia. Once dressed, John experiences the most amazing dance of his life. “Somehow, with my new regalia on, I could twirl faster, jump higher and hear the music in ways I never had before. I didn’t just fly – I soared.” (p. 91) John feels like a warrior, and he will need the courage a warrior summons up.
While John was dancing, one his soccer teammates was lurking behind the stage curtains and filmed John, and then he sent the video to the rest of the soccer team. Of course, it goes viral, John goes ballistic, and he heads for the locker-room where he and his teammate fight it out. Both are sent home, and John tries to explain it all to his parents. Parents can sometimes surprise their teenage children, and, after hearing the story, John’s dad provides an unexpected perspective: John kept his dancing a secret from everyone, as if it were something of which he should be ashamed. It’s clear that John loves dancing, that it is part of his Aboriginal heritage, and he should be proud of it. As for John, he is amazed “at how cool my parents actually were.” (p. 101)
John finds the courage to apologize to his teammates for the fight with Tanner, for not having given his all when he was with the team, and for admitting just how hard it is to say “sorry”. At the practice which follows, for the first time in ages, John is really in the game, and afterwards, his coach tells him that “a lot of professional athletes take dance classes.” (p. 108) It helps with co-ordination, agility, and strength. With new confidence, John is ready to go back to the class at the Cultural Centre, and when he does, he returns with his mother, father, and sister. He dances with pride and grace and strength, and at the end of his dance, he knows that he “had shown everyone that [he] belonged there.” (p. 137)
For many adolescents, the performing arts offer a chance to discover a side of themselves they never knew existed. In He Who Dreams, John McCaffrey finds a true connection with his Aboriginal roots through dance. John has always been aware of his dual heritage, but his experiences at Sam’s dance class offer him (and the reader) an unexpected awareness of the difficulties faced by someone who identifies with his Aboriginal background but doesn’t look Aboriginal. High school jock culture is tough for any guy who wants to be both an athlete and an artist, and Melanie Florence really has a sense of just how cruel that culture can be to someone who wants to dance and to play soccer and to be accepted by both “teams”. Whether on the soccer field or at the dance classes, the dialogue is absolutely spot-on, and John’s authentic delight and wonder as he connects with his Aboriginal identity, through dance, offers the reader a real sense of the richness of that culture. Although the “Limelights” series appears to be targeted at an audience of age levels 11-14, I think this one would probably appeal to an older reader. Because John is old enough to drive, we can assume that he’s in the upper grades of high school, and he has insights and a maturity which aren’t likely for someone under the age of 15. At times, I found John’s parents just a bit too perfect, and I thought it unlikely that the guys at Sam’s dance class would actually use the term “cultural appropriation” when they hassle John about his non-Aboriginal appearance. However, these are small criticisms in an otherwise excellent novel about a young man who dreams of dancing and lives his dream.
A retired teacher-librarian, Joanne Peters lives in Winnipeg, MB.
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