Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Ballet Shoes Read-Along

Melissa Wiley started a Noel Streatfield read-along and I was eager to reread Ballet Shoes.  I remembered loving this book and others by Streatfield as a child, but little else other than that it was about performing orphans.  I was a bit disappointed on rereading, I'm sorry to admit, because the novel seems to focus more on plot than on representation of interiority or reflectiveness.  That is, I found myself wanting to know more about how the girls felt as their lives changed radically, as they encountered the enormous challenges of becoming child performers, as they developed their distinct identities.  One of Melissa's readers mentioned that Streatfield wrote an adult version of this story first, The Whicharts, and I'd be really interested to read that and compare the two. 

That said, I enjoyed so much about this novel.  Pauline's lesson in humility is an excellent scene.  The description of the girls' daily schedule of lessons and classes at the arts academy is compelling and interestingly unsentimental.  There's no lamenting their lost childhoods but instead a rather British, no-nonsense account of the girls' ability to put their shoulder to the wheel as needed for the family finances, whether they have inborn performing ability or not. 

Ballet Shoes offers rich food for thought on the relationship between talent and work, or between genes and practice.  All three girls, genetically unrelated adopted sisters, have distinct natural abilities and interests: acting for Pauline, engines and mechanical things for Petrova, and ballet for Posy.  Each girl is driven by her natural talent to practice hard; none is ever tempted to rest on her innate ability.  Posy goofs off when forced by circumstance to take a ballet class that is below her ability only because she is so frustrated not to be able to take a more challenging class that will really help her develop; she's bribed to behave and get something out of the easier class by the prospect of tickets to the performance of a major ballet star from whom she is sure she will learn much.  Petrova spends every spare moment reading about cars and airplanes, and she lives for the precious Sundays when she can work in the mechanic's garage owned by one of the family's boarders.   

Petrova doesn't like acting or dancing, but she becomes quite proficient in both (especially ballet, which requires a physical precision that hours of practice provides) nonetheless.  So the book offers an example of becoming technically proficient without any natural talent as a complement to the depictions of talent- and passion-driven achievement.  Posy and Paulina become successful performers because they've worked incredibly hard to develop their talent.  Petrova becomes a proficient chorus actor and corps-de-ballet dancer by dint of hard work without any talent or desire, and she "practices" as hard at her passion -- engines -- as ever Posy does at ballet.  It's the 10,000 hours rule long before Gladwell. 

For a book about dancing girls, I found Ballet Shoes refreshingly free of gender stereotypes.  There's surprisingly little sense that Petrova's love of engines, cars, and planes might be odd or outside the gender norms of the time.  No one frets that she's unladylike in her interests.  In fact I can't imagine her mechanical passion passing with so little notice in our own era of highly polarized pink-or-blue gender norms, for all we think we're superior to the gender politics of earlier times.  The other Fossil sisters downplay their own achievements as mere performers compared to the historical greatness they expect of Petrova.  She's the one who will do something truly important.

Finally, as an academic, I loved the depiction of the two women professors who board at the Fossil house (again, the book makes no comment on how uncommon women with literature and mathematics doctorates were in the 1930s, not to mention two women in some sort of domestic partnership).  My favorite lines in the whole book were clearly written by a woman who knows literary academics well:
"In the dress circle, Doctor Smith and Doctor Jakes enjoyed themselves as true Shakespeareans always enjoy themselves, arguing between each act about the reading of the parts, and the way the lines were said.  Fortunately they found plenty to disapprove of, or they would not have enjoyed themselves at all."  

1 comment:

Melissa Wiley said...

Love your thoughts here, especially the observations about lack of gender stereotyping. That struck me on this read, too--how much a non-issue it was, and how matter-of-factly (there I go with that again) supportive Mr. Simpson and others were of Petrova's interest in mechanics, taking it as the most normal thing ever. Loved it.

And the professors--their methods seemed strikingly Charlotte Mason-ish to me. :)