Looking at the dancer in the mirror through Alice Robb’s book about ballerina culture

There’s a scene in the American writer Alice Robb’s upcoming book, Don’t Think, Dear: On Loving and Leaving Ballet—set for publication Feb. 28, 2023—that gets to the core of two divergent spirituality systems.

The author, age 10 at the time, was at her grandfather’s shiva. A ballet dancer accustomed to looking in the mirror whenever possible, the shiva, with its covered mirrors, offered a respite: “I would go to the bathroom and be surprised, and then relieved, to see a dark cloth instead of my own imperfect face.”

In this telling, ballet is an all-consuming presence not unlike a religion. Robb, whose previous book was Why We Dream, is interested in how dancers and former dancers become transfixed by the ballet world, and find themselves unable to turn off the mannerisms, judgments, and attitudes of a ballet dancer.

It’s a nuanced portrait of ballet, not a verdict for or against. Dance can be an escape—from an abusive household, or just a boring school day. It can also be a prison, a world where everything from your meals to your relationship status is monitored. Because of the nature of dance as a visual art form, dancers are judged on their looks, to a degree beyond that of regular girls and women, or even ones in other performance-oriented professions.

Part of what makes the book compelling is the way it focuses, unexpectedly, not on professional dancers, but on the far more typical story of dancers who tried and, somewhere along the way, failed or gave up.

In her own story and others, Robb describes the relief at finding new, more lenient avenues for creativity and athleticism. (Everything, even gymnastics, is apparently more low-key.) Relief, though, paired with a sense that life no longer has its organizing principle. Like the formerly pious, the formerly balletic never lose their old impulses.

While reading Don’t Think, Dear, I found myself wondering if it would mention Ballerina Farm, a much-dissected Instagram influencer account where a former professional dancer showcases her new life as the homesteading mother of numerous blonde children. The former dancer retains some dance world cachet.

Ballet, as Robb describes it, is an extreme version of female socialization. The expectation of obedience and passivity, the rule-following, the not-talking. Ballerinas, even older ones, retain a girlish quality, as if preserved at the age before such troublesome additions as childbearing hips (or actual childbearing). She tells the story of various dancers whose relationships with men—dance greats like George Balanchine, but also random dudes—bear the mark of balletic submission.

And yet, she writes, ballet offered women an athletic path in eras when women’s sports were near as nonexistent. That, and, she explains, an opportunity to be ambitious without sacrificing femininity. It’s not a very now thing to admit, but plenty of girls do want to be, well, girly.

She writes about the tricky gender dynamics within the ballet world, where male scarcity means that men have an easier time getting jobs, and where the apparently few heterosexual men have an absurdly easy time getting dates. And while a sea of young girls aspire to be dancers, the higher-ups, leading dance companies or working as choreographers, are more often men. It’s a dynamic I’ve also experienced, in a rather different setting: French graduate school, where the doctoral students were almost all women, and the senior professors, almost all men. Same vibe.

All of this is making it sound like this is a book with a simple thesis, that ballet is sexist and problematic, body-shaming and racist. That’s not always accurate, though, and doesn’t do the book justice. Robb introduces the reader to a wide range of dancers and dance students—some Canadian!—who find meaning through ballet, and basically can’t imagine life without it.

I came to the book a ballet skeptic, with memories of classmates whose childhoods were dominated by the need to have their hair in tight buns and their calorie counts low. It seemed not all that different from fashion modelling, a world where a select few girls and young women compete over who can have their body critiqued in the most exclusive sphere. Why sign yourself up for that?

In some ways, Don’t Think, Dear reinforced that sense and added to it. I felt relieved to have been demonstrably terrible at ballet when we did this in elementary school. We had one of those teachers of the old school who absolutely commented on bodies, and who I remember expressing disappointment that, although I was a skinny six-year-old or whatever, I simply could not dance. An anticlimactic inversion of the thing where a gifted dancer is taken to task for not having a so-called dancer’s physique.

The book made me question whether signing my daughter up for ballet classes would be a nice extracurricular to add to the mix, or would send her down some horrible path. (It is possible I’m overthinking the local dance classes for four-year-olds.)

But in others? It’s… well, it’s art. Art and sport, in one. Talent and discipline. It is, as Robb points out, getting off the couch, something Americans (and this American in Canada) could stand to do more often. Being in touch with your body, and finding the motivation to push yourself, are these necessarily terrible?

Not necessarily, but to a point.

For all its association with the pink and frilly, ballet poses ethical questions similar to those of football: It’s a world where very young people—children—risk serious injury for a performance. And it’s also a world where it can be enabling, alas, to be a fan.