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25 January 2012

Bunheads, by Sophie Flack

Over the weekend, I read one of the books I picked up at BEA last year. A Young Adult book (with a beautiful cover) focusing on ballet dancers at a fictional prestigious New York ballet company, I thought it might tip my personal reading scales for something different than what I normally read. I didn't expect that I would enjoy it as much as I did!

Bunheads is a term for a female ballet dancer, one who constantly wears her hair in a bun, which is the common hairstyle for any woman who performs ballet regularly and most especially, professionally. While the book focuses on Hannah, a nineteen-year-old who is trying to juggle relationships with those outside of the theater, the book is actually quite an insightful look into the life of the extremely disciplined dancers that bring the art of ballet to life. As the author Sophie Flack is a former ballet dancer herself, I did not have a difficult time at all believing in the world Hannah lived. It's clear that this may also be loosely based on the author's life, just from reading her biography. After all, she was a member of the New York City Ballet and performed in over 75 ballets at a young age.

At fourteen, Hannah's gift was astonishingly evident and with permission from her parents, moved alone from Massachusetts to New York on scholarship to attend the Manhattan Ballet Academy full-time. With the School of Arts providing the regular course load of writing, math, etc., Hannah is able to continue her schooling. As all of her classmates are ballet dancers as well, there is no turning back from this new life. It's the hope and dream of each of them that they may be able to graduate to become a member of the Manhattan Ballet and ultimately, to be promoted to principle dancer.

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Hannah's made it to the Manhattan Ballet as a "corps" dancer, a supporting cast dancer who could, with enough commitment, make it to be a star. With close friends who are all ballet dancers, each of their personalities shine through, whether sweet and supportive, or jealous and competitive. But when Hannah meets a young NYU student, Jacob, she begins to feel conflicted for what she thought she always wanted in her life and with what might be outside the theater, the "real" world, as the corps of dancers call it. None of them really know what it's like out there at all, as they live, eat, and breathe ballet, exercise, diet, and commitment to the art of dance. But Hannah begins to feel an urge that fulfillment in life might now be better found outside the walls of the Manhattan Ballet.

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For lack of a better way to phrase it, I was pleasantly surprised by this story. It is extremely well-told, with characters that genuinely bounded off the page with their dedication, discipline, and sometimes, dramatic and gossipy sides that was quite believable for a group of people so closely working together. While there are several ballet terms in the book, you don't need to be an expert in the craft to grasp it. I took ballet as a child (I felt fairly confident that Mikhail Baryshnikov and I were meant to marry one day), but I soon found I wasn't as coordinated as I needed to be and dropped it soon after, so I don't remember anything but the basics (pl├Če, pirouette, etc.) But even if the terms for the movements are confusing, it's not necessary to have the accurate image in your mind, as you can pretty much ascertain that it's a lot of amazingly difficult twists, turns, pirouettes, and leaps. All things aside, it's a lesson to the reader of the complete exhaustion and intense scrutiny of the body that a ballet dancer will go through.

Which is important to point out, of course. Female ballet dancers, like runway models, are expected to have nary an ounce of fat on them, and the puberty that they go through is ultimately delayed because of their intense workouts from an early age. By the time the natural growth of their bodies begins to take womanly shape, it's another battle for them to go through to work out more, diet more, all to ensure that their shape remains lean, and quite frankly, stick-like. It's this excruciating battle that Hannah also fights with that was interesting to read. I felt horribly for them all and wish it were different.

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I relished the glimpses of the logistical elements of the tools professional dancers used, particularly their beautiful pointe shoes and how they wore them in. I had no idea how many pairs of pointe shoes that the dancers go through in a week. Hannah and her friends can go through eight pairs in a week. Eight! It's those little things that shaped the story nicely and was extremely interesting to read. I'm so glad I spent the past weekend with it.

The ultimate finale of this story was surprising and sent an excellent message. I enjoyed every bit of this book. I hope more YA enthusiasts get a chance to read this book and I encourage those who don't normally read YA to give it an honest go. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised.

Others said:
If you have read this book and I've missed your review, let me know so I can link your review here.

Publisher: Little Brown Books Young Readers
Release Date: 10/10/2011
Pages: 304

About the Author
Sophie Flack was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts. At age seven, Sophie began taking ballet lessons at the Boston Ballet School. She accelerated her ballet training, and after seeing a videotape of Patricia McBride dancing Balanchine's Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux, Sophie decided that she wanted to dance with the New York City Ballet. At fifteen, Sophie was accepted into the School of American Ballet on full scholarship, and moved to New York City. At age seventeen, Sophie joined the New York City Ballet as an apprentice and became a member of the corps de ballet the following year. As a member, Sophie performed in over 75 ballets. Bunheads is her first novel.

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  1. That is a gorgeous cover! I've always loved to watch dancers, admired their gorgeous bodies, but it always seems just a little bit unnatural for someone to be THAT THIN. I know they punish their bodies. Not sure I could live like that.

  2. I want to read this book and think I got it for my Kindle. I'll have to look. Parts of the story remind me of a movie that I enjoyed, Center Stage. It is about ballet in New York and I'm not sure how accurate it is, but it was fun to watch.

  3. Ooh this sounds so good! I've always been fascinated by that lifestyle. I know a girl here who moved from MA to FL when she was 14 to dance for the ballet here. I wonder what she would think of this! Have you seen Center Stage? Reminds me of that too which I loved, lol... I need to read this!

  4. I love the cover too! I always wished I could dance, so I'm sure I would enjoy this!

  5. I don't normally read YA, but your review (coupled with all the lovely photos!) has me interested. Plus I did ballet up through high school, so I've got a bit of a soft spot for it.

  6. With the author's background, I bet that's a fascinating peek into the world of ballet.

  7. When I saw the title of this review, I was a little baffled, but when I learned it was about the ballet, it all made perfect sense! After watching The Black Swan last year, I have a tremendous fascination with ballet dancers, and more specifically, the relationships that they have with each other and the horrible abuses that they put their bodies through. This book sounds like it would be terribly interesting to me, so I am going to be looking for it. It would make for a very different kind of read for me. Stellar review today, Natalie! Thanks for your creative and enticing thoughts!

  8. I would love this! I always wanted to be a ballet dancer as a child and my favourite books were the 'Drina Ballerina' series!

    Thanks for the thoughtful review :)

  9. I read a YA novel about ballet students a number of years ago, though the one I read involved the painter, Degas, and his famous dancers. I did relish the details in that book, and this one sounds excellent in that regard as well! Thanks for a wonderful, thorough review, Natalie!

  10. I really like the movie Center Stage, like Kay. Ever since, I find the idea of seeing what goes on behind the scenes of a professional ballet dancer to by kind of intriguing, so it sounds like this might be just the book for me. Thanks for the excellent review!

  11. I really like what you said about the bodies of ballet dancers being so scrutinised. Well, not that it happens obviously, but that the book addresses it. Adding this to my wishlist.

  12. I've always been fascinated by the world of ballet. Ballet dancers endure such torture for their art. This sounds like a good read.

  13. I was curious about this book but wasn't sure if it really included the ballet information into the story, or just said it did. Like a backdrop. I will certainly read this one. 8 pairs of shoes per week! I had no idea. I know they are super expensive as well too.

  14. I LOVE the title! Like many have mentioned above it does bring to mind Center Stage (which I need to see again!) and a book I read, Dancing for Degas. I will have to take a look at this one. I had no idea about the number of pairs of shoes! WOW!

  15. Thanks for featuring this book - I am going to pick it up. The cover is gorgeous and the title is a nice play on words.

    BTW - I like the new design on your blog!

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