Ballet originated in Europe in the 15th century. A type of performance dance, it took shape in places like Italy, France, Russia, and England during the Renaissance. Ballet dancers used to entertain audiences between opera scenes. As their popularity grew, ballet grew in importance. Now ballet has its own technical language, schools, and is popular around the globe.
Three common styles of ballet are Classical, Neoclassical, and Contemporary. Classical ballet is the most methodical and traditional style; it is heavily focused on technique. Neoclassical is a bit more modern; it uses the traditional ballet structure but is more uptempo and varied. A famous example of a Neoclassical ballet company is the New York City Ballet. Contemporary ballet combines classical ballet with modern dance. Contemporary ballet stars include George Balanchine, Twyla Tharp, Robert Joffrey, and Mikhail Baryshnikov.
Even if someone is not familiar with ballet they will often recognize the music -- some of it over a hundred years old -- such as Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker, Swan Lake, and Sleeping Beauty. Other ballets with familiar tunes include A Midsummer's Night Dream, Cinderella, Romeo and Juliet, Giselle, and The Firebird.
Whether you know a child who has been dancing for years or one who is simply curious the books below can help spark the imagination. Browse through the titles and those from previous years for some selections to share your family or students.
For more information about the history of ballet visit:
Contributor: Emily Griffin
Joan Elizabeth Goodman
This how-to book about ballet includes precise illustrations with simple and brief descriptions of the beginning essentials of the dance. The illustrations first show bunnies (with arms and legs) at the studio getting ready for their ballet class. Every piece of their outfits is labeled next to the picture. Warm-up exercises are next, followed by ballet positions. Then more advanced ballet positions (for bigger bunnies) are shown and explained in detail. The bunnies do ballet exercises with the official names such as tendu and arabesque at the barre before they go on to "hop, skip, twirl, and wiggle." Big leaps are followed by a curtsy or bow to thank the teacher and end the dance. A glossary gives brief definitions of these words and additional terms. This book is a visually sweet presentation of information that should interest young readers and dancers. 2008, Marshall Cavendish, $14.99. Ages 4 to 9. Reviewer: Vicki Foote (Children's Literature).
Karen Marie Graves
Dance is an appealing topic for pre- and early teens. Who doesn't want to make those fabulous moves? This set of "Snap" books explores six forms of movement popular with kids (modern dance being conspicuously absent). In four or five chapters and conversational prose, each volume tells a bit about the genre's history, shows vital steps and moves, and spotlights a successful performer (in this case, corps dancer Misty Copeland of the American Ballet Theatre). Heavy on recommending individuality and confidence, the authors also stress taking classes and lots of practice. Ballet, of course, cannot be learned from a book. The oldest and most disciplined of all the forms, ballet must be started early and pursued with diligence and dedication. To her credit, Graves focuses on classroom work, showing turnout, the basic foot and arm positions, the arabesque, and traditional steps like the pirouette and the grand jeté. Except for a few partners, though, boys and men are not pictured; readers might get the mistaken impression that men do not actually dance. Girls are encouraged to "be determined, stay focused, and of course, keep practicing," with the goal of being accepted into a ballet company and perhaps becoming a ballerina (a rare occurrence). Color photographs include a Kitri leaping in a production of Don Quixote (not attributed) and a scene from some company's Nutcracker. A friendly format, lots of color, and encouraging words will attract middle readers--just so they do not forget the endless practice and grueling work behind the dreams. 2008, Capstone, $25.26. Ages 9 to 14. Reviewer: Barbara L. Talcroft (Children's Literature).
Ballet for Martha: Making Appalachian Spring
Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan
Illustrated by Brian Floca
Some people think that three is a magical number—in this case they are absolutely correct. Originally Appalachian Spring, the ballet, was written, choreographed, and the set designed by three talented people: Martha Graham, Aaron Copland, and Isamu Noguchi; here we have the inspiration, development, and production of the ballet as told by three very talented people: Greenberg, Jordan, and Floca. The entire book reflects Graham's sparse, angular dance style. In its text and illustrations every element is essential and tells "the truth" about the scene—an ideal that Graham, herself, espoused in every step she perfected. "Movement doesn't lie." Floca has given flowing life to the illustrations that depict the intense rehearsals and the beauty and grace of the final culmination of everyone's work in the first performance of the ballet at The Library of Congress, in Washington, DC. His ability to reflect the dancers' moves is balanced with his ability to depict emotions on people's faces with just a tilt of an eyebrow or a down-turned mouth. Because Graham's style was so radically new and different many people did not immediately appreciate her talent; but Appalachian Spring was recognized for the superb creation that it was and became immensely popular—and it has remained so to this day. The authors were meticulous in their research and included biographies of Graham, Copland, and Noguchi as well as detailed notes and sources. Reading the final acknowledgements reveals the number of people who were consulted as this book was being researched and developed. Fine collaboration created the ballet and fine collaboration gave us this treasure of a book to share with and inspire future generations of dancers, musicians, and artists. 2010, Roaring Brook Press/Holtzbrinck, Ages 8 up, $17.99. Reviewer: Sheilah Egan (Children's Literature)
Ballet Sisters: The Newest Dancer
A little girl gets the chance to walk in her sister's shoes. Ballet shoes, that is. After watching her big sister at dance class, Sylvie decides that she would like to try ballet classes, too. For her birthday their mother gets Sylvie all that she needs, and the reader follows her through her very first dance lesson. This is a simple picture book/early-reader for any little girl who loves dance, introducing some very simple dance vocabulary and concepts, such as pointing toes and bending knees. The illustrations are simple, charming, watercolor sketches that complement the sweet and very simple story. There is no underlying moral or lesson to be learned, just a story of sisters who like to dance. The sentences are short, with only a few per page, making it a useful tool for the beginning reader with an interest in dance. It could be used in the classroom or at home as a reading resource for the ballet lover. 2008, Scholastic, $5.99. Ages 4 to 8. Reviewer: Carly Reagan (Children's Literature).
Photographs by Susan Kuklin
"Beautiful ballerina, you are the dance." This refrain weaves its way through poet Nelson's tribute to the young ballet students of Dance Theatre of Harlem's Community and Pre-professional programs. Award-winning poet laureate of Connecticut, Nelson focuses her lyric poem on special contributions African-American dancers can make to their art: "you bring a tiny hint of Africanness,/ juju and beautiful joy danced in your every move." Stressing dedication and technique as well, this ode to ballet and its "ballerinas," reminds students that "Self-discipline, self-criticism,/ self-control, focus,/ and imagination give you your skill./ Beautiful ballerina, you are the dance." Four girls from the school perform for Kuklin's color photographs--small Doris, who looks about four; Jalen, perhaps ten and already in the Pre-professional program; Raven M. and Raven B., teen dancers from the Pre-professional classes--all dancing through the lines and pages of the poem in photos placed against flat backgrounds using colors like lavender, lime green, teal, and apricot. Most advanced is lovely Raven B. in her lilac practice tutu showing off her athleticism, openness, and expansiveness. Final pages offer information about Arthur Mitchell, founder of Dance Theatre of Harlem; Endalyn Taylor, present director of the company; and the company's purpose and mission. A perfect complement to this book would be Valerie Gladstone's A Young Dancer: The Life of an Ailey Student, with striking photos by José Ivey (Holt, 2009). 2009, Scholastic, $17.99. Ages 4 up. Reviewer: Barbara L. Talcroft (Children's Literature).
Betsy B. Little
Illustrated by Jacqueline Rogers
Betsy is an ungainly and overly tall giraffe. In fact she is so tall that she looks down on the treetops. Her fondest desire is to be a dancer. Undaunted, she arrives at the Skoffington School of Ballet where her jetés and pirouettes send everyone reeling. With her very long neck drooping, a dispirited Betsy heads for home; but Betsy is not a quitter and now she dances outdoors in the park, and with the sky as her ceiling she has "headroom to spare." Anyone who has ever dared to dream big will be heartened by Betsy's story. The simple tale told in rhyme, that for the most part scans well, is accented with watercolors with thick black outlines. This lesson that a handicap need not deter one from one's dreams is wrapped in a nice package. 2009, HarperCollins, $17.99. Ages 4 to 7. Reviewer: Beverley Fahey (Children's Literature).
Montanari's tale, narrated by a young ballerina, is inspired by the Impressionist paintings of ballet dancers by Edgar Degas in the 1870's. At the last rehearsal before her recital, our young dancer is distressed to find that the painter has taken her bag with her new tutu by mistake. She rushes off to find him in time for the performance. In her search she encounters the painters Caillebotte, Monet, and Renoir. She pursues Degas to the paint store of Père Tanguy, who sends her to Mary Cassatt's studio. But Degas has already left there. She finally catches him in time to get her tutu and give him his bag, so he can paint the performance, and she can be "the star of the show." On the jacket/cover our ballerina swirls down a cobbled street with paint tubes flying from Degas's bag, setting the emotional stage as well as the geographic setting. On her quest she not only runs into now-famous painters, but she finds each of them in the context of one of their paintings. There is liveliness in the double-page pastel scenes, undergirding the impressionistic style as well as our young dancer's energetic enthusiasm. On the final pages are reproductions of the original paintings that inspired the story, complete with factual information and background on the Impressionists. 2009, Abrams Books for Young Readers, $16.95. Ages 4 to 9. Reviewer: Ken Marantz and Sylvia Marantz (Children's Literature).
Dancing to Freedom: The True Story of Mao's Last Dancer
Illustrated by Anne Spudvilas
Li Cunxin tells his own inspiring life story, beginning with his youth in a small Chinese village, always hungry but hoping for a better life. When, at age eleven, he is one of the few chosen to be trained as a dancer, he must leave home for the Dance Academy in the big city of Beijing. He is lonely, but is helped by his friend and teacher through the difficult training. One day, a visiting ballet master invites him to study in America. By the time he is twenty-one, he is traveling all over as a star. He still misses his parents, however, and is thrilled when they come to see him dance. He has fulfilled his dream of long ago. The visual story is told mostly in double-page scenes, using traditional Chinese ink and watercolors for the time in China and oil paints on canvas for later life abroad. Spuvilas's sensitivity to the cultural differences contributes effectively to the emotional content, contrasting the more spiritual aspirations of the young dancer with the substantive career of the mature performer. Spudvilas visited the locations she has illustrated; her images of both the characters and the settings are convincing. A note adds information on the political background of the story. 2008 (orig. 2007), Walker Publishing Company/Macmillan, $16.95. Ages 5 to 8. Reviewer: Ken Marantz and Sylvia Marantz (Children's Literature).
Dogs Don't Do Ballet
Illustrated by Sara Ogilvie
Our young narrator describes how her dog Biff differs from other dogs. He thinks he's a ballet dancer like his mistress. The repeated refrain here is, "Dogs don't do ballet!" When the determined Biff follows her to ballet class, Miss Polly repeats that, as does Dad when she asks if Biff can come see the Royal Ballet with them. Depressed, Biff follows them to the performance. During the excitement of the dancing, the prima ballerina trips and falls. Biff appears on stage in a tutu and, despite what "dogs don't do," gives an outstanding performance, proving that dogs DO do ballet after all. Drawings with casually applied color emphasize the light-hearted humor and behavior. There's just enough scenery and props to provide background for the fun as Biff sneaks his way to the Ballet, while his mistress has "a funny feeling." The ballet itself is dramatically shown on double pages. There are gasps as Biff then dances his way in ballet positions across the next double page. That this pudgy, cartoon-y canine is of course far from the usual dancer just adds to the fun. He is a happy fellow in the end. 2010, Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers/Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing Division, Ages 4 to 8 , $15.99. Reviewers: Ken Marantz and Sylvia Marantz (Children's Literature)
Ella Bella Ballerina and the Sleeping Beauty
Author James Mayhew embeds the well-known fairytale of Sleeping Beauty within the story of a young girl taking ballet lessons. The little ballerinas listen as their teacher regales them with the tale of Sleeping Beauty while her magical music box plays. Because of time limitations, the teacher cannot finish the story, but Ella Bella is determined to hear the ending. She goes back into the dance studio alone and opens the music box for the rest of the story. A fairy magically appears to take Ella Bella to Princess Aurora's birthday party. The young girl follows the fairy and watches the fairy tale unfold before her eyes. She and the fairy help the prince find Princess Aurora so that he can put an end to the sleeping spell. Ella Bella watches the happily ever after. As the song from the music box ends, she finds herself back in the dancing school. She goes home, bubbling with anticipation for the next class. She knows it will mean the playing of a new music box tune to take the girls on yet another magical adventure. Vivid illustrations intermingled with the soft, flowing background colors help bring the story to life, allowing young readers to follow along on this magical journey. 2007, Orchard Books/Scholastic, $14.99. Ages 4 to 8. Reviewer: Aglaia Kargiatlis (Children's Literature).
Fiona Finkelstein, Big-time Ballerina!
Shawn K. Stout
It would seem that Fiona's dream of being a real ballerina is about to come true when her ballet class is invited to audition for the Maryland Ballet Company's production of The Nutcracker. However, she must overcome a major stumbling block: stage fright. Fiona has managed to miss all recitals since the time she threw up on Benevolence Castle onstage. Everyone seems eager to give advice on how to overcome stage fright, but each attempt Fiona makes only gets her in trouble with her teachers and even her meteorologist dad's boss. Her mother seems too busy with her soap opera acting career to listen to Fiona when she phones. Fiona earns a role as one of the angels but the closer to the time of the performance, the more nervous she is. Ultimately, the extraordinary combination of a major snow storm and her father's new weather show give Fiona the confidence she needs in a most surprising way. Young readers, especially budding ballerinas, will be delighted by Fiona's humorous first-person narrative. 2009, Aladdin/Simon & Schuster, $14.99. Ages 6 to 9. Reviewer: Shirley Nelson (Children's Literature).
If the Shoe Fits
Illustrated by Craig Smith
More than anything, Cassie wants to be a dancer and perform in a troupe. She takes classes in ballet, tap, and jazz but for some reason does not seem to make friends with her classmates. Cassie is shy and nervous about performing in public; even in class, she stays in the back, hoping not to be noticed. She watches her classmate Jake, who seems full of confidence and acts like a bit of a show-off. He always goes right to the front of the class. When the class prepares for the dance they will perform in front of an audience on Parents' Day, Cassie thinks about feigning illness so she can stay home, but knows she can never fool her mom with that ploy. So, Cassie then points out that her dance shoes are too tight. This is true, but the dance instructor keeps a supply of secondhand shoes available and Cassie winds up with a pair of shoes once used by a famous dancer. With the "star" shoes and the encouragement of Jake (who has problems of his own), Cassie finds that performing is fun. This book is sure to resonate with kids, most of whom share Cassie's fears and nervousness about performing in public. 2008, Charlesbridge, $14.95. Ages 6 to 9. Reviewer: Carolyn Mott Ford (Children's Literature).
Ivy and Bean Doomed to Dance
Illustrated by Sophie Blackall
This delightful series, for more independent readers, shows how best friends learn to work together, solve problems, and have loads of surprising fun. Full of expressive black line illustrations, Book 6 has Ivy and Bean launching into ballet lessons thinking they have it made--or they are in over their heads? Will their friendship survive multiple disappointments? As the title implies and several chapters indicate, such as "Dip, Dip, Crash!" and "Bad News Beneath the Sea," unpleasant circumstances turn Ivy and Bean into master schemers. They are intent on finding a way to escape tremendous humiliation when ballet teacher Madame Joy casts them as Two Friendly Squids in her original production. As they stumble through practice sessions, they cannot believe they had begged for lessons. "We have made a terrible mistake." However, Ivy and Bean are definitely not quitters, except when it came to playing softball which was an entirely different situation. Performing "Wedding Beneath the Sea" on a real stage in a real theater as part of The World of Dance would be awesome. These best friends have incentive to remain true to their own creative devices. As plans for an aquarium field trip are announced, the girls decide to run away. An aquarium would be a quiet, safe place to lay low for awhile, and their ticket out of the ballet for good. Areas like Coastal Zones, the Kelp Forest, and where penguins, alligators, and sharks are located certainly offer possibilities. But when they come to "Life without Light: Creatures of the Deep Sea," they find the best, temporary hideaway. Or did they? Chapters called "Ocean Life Gone Bad" and "In Hot Water" tell about discovering a real squid that is quite frightening, but "oh, so interesting." Lastly, "Squidarinas" concludes the book with the girls deciding they have some authority to educate others about real squids. The once dreaded ballet production becomes exciting. It can be an artful scientific lesson that everyone will enjoy. Once again life is good, ballet is actually pretty fun. Ivy and Bean have brought readers another splendid adventure. Part of the "Ivy and Bean" series. 2009, Chronicle Books, $14.99. Ages 6 to 9. Reviewer: Susan Treadway, M.Ed. (Children's Literature).
Meet the Dancers
This absorbing book will appeal to all kids who love dance, especially those who are taking classes and considering dance as a career. Nathan interviews sixteen successful dancers, who share their unique experiences and insights with aspiring performers. Each tells about discovering dance and starting lessons, struggles with technique, discipline necessary for improvement, and choices to be made in a professional career. From the world of ballet, Nathan talks with Gillian Murphy of ABT, Lauren Anderson from Houston Ballet, Teresa Reichlen and Amar Rascar of New York City Ballet, and Aesha Ash of Morphoses, among others. Modern dance is represented by Clifton Brown from Alvin Ailey, Lauren Grant and David Leventhal of Mark Morris, and Jamal Story, who started with modern and ended up on Broadway, as did Nancy Lemenager, Broadway star. Judiciously placed sidebars shed light on issues like warming up, accepting corrections, finessing auditions, coming to terms with your own body and style, working in a professional company, and life after dance. From schedules of each dancer's typical day, readers will discover that dancing is a demanding, full-time job that often means sacrificing other interests, but brings much joy along with personal and artistic fulfillment. Abundant photos show the dancers in action, including each as a child or teen; another fun feature is "Sugar Plum Sightings," revealing that all but four appeared at least once in some production of the ubiquitous Nutcracker. Well researched and neatly produced, this survey makes irresistible reading for dance-lovers of any age. 2008, Holt, $22.95. Ages 10 up. Reviewer: Barbara L. Talcroft (Children's Literature).
Miss Tutu's Star
Illustrated by Carey Armstrong-Ellis
Eyes captured by the brilliantly sparkling tutu on the cover may miss the mouse and cat entwined about the ballerina's feet. Selena's great love of dancing is presented in rhymed couplets from her young years through her first recital. Having been enrolled in Miss Tutu's Dance Academy with enthusiasm and passion as her only talents, Selena learns grace and perfects the ballet steps. Miss Tutu's instructions are delivered with understanding, compassion, and concrete encouragement "You're doing well." Along the way readers are realizing that several layers of story-line are occurring simultaneously. The tiny kitten in the first dance studio scene grows (and sometimes participates) while watching the dancers grow in confidence and strength. Selena's classmates (including two boys) are sometimes bowled over (literally!) by Selena's intense efforts. The illustrations are a delightful match and extension of the text. The humor portrayed in the faces of the humans and the animals would suffice to populate a wordless book; combined with the text here they create a fabulous way to create a demand for repeated readings. There is something new to observe with each pass through the story: watching for the background characters' expressions, hunting for the mouse, anticipating the cat's entrance from stage left while the mouse enters from stage right while Selena is center stage can be re-enjoyed countless times. The grand finale reveals that Selena has adhered to the directive to keep dancing no matter what happens. The antics of the cat and mouse careening across the stage has left everyone else collapsed amidst fallen scenery or entwined in their own limbs, while the mouse ends up perched on Selena's gracefully extended right arm and the cat is held back by her left. Sprinkled with ballet terms (artfully demonstrated), Selena's story will capture the hearts of aspiring dancers and bring chuckles to those who just enjoy a story that engages the reader in the action. 2010, Abrams Books for Young Readers, Ages 3 to 8, $16.95. Reviewer: Sheilah Egan (Children's Literature)
The Scarlet Stockings: The Enchanted Riddle
A touch of "The Phantom of the Opera," a taste of "Harry Potter" and a sprinkling of "Cinderella" describe this first offering from Kandel. It is marvelous, engaging and full of surprises. The setting begins in London, continues in Paris and then returns to London in the 1920s, a fabulous era for ballet and theater. Daphne is a resident at St. Jude's orphanage dreaming of the day she will be a prima ballerina. One day a package arrives for her--from Rome, no less, comprised of a how-to book on ballet and a pair of scarlet stockings. Not just any stockings: enchanted stockings and a riddle to be solved are included in the how-to book, but there is no return address or mention of whom it came from. Herein lies Daphne's destiny, and she must follow it if her dreams are to come true. Through an astonishing and dramatic series of events, Daphne is adopted by a performing arts family who understands her, finds herself a personal assistant to England's most beautiful and famous musical comedy star, finally dancing on the same stage as the prima ballerina assoluta, Ova Andova. Along the way we meet many significant characters in Daphne's young life--all of whom are well developed throughout the work--from a young theater callboy, to glamorous stars and just about everything in between. Will the magic last? Yes and no. Daphne discovers her past, the reason the scarlet stockings were sent to her, and never loses her passion, though she does lose her ability to dance for a time. The book is one of dreams fulfilled and broken; resolution and separation; friendships and betrayals. Isn't that the way life is? A well-written escape and hopefully just the beginning from Ms. Kandel. 2007, Dutton's Children's Books, $16.99. Ages 9 to Adult. Reviewer: Elizabeth Young (Children's Literature).
Tutus Aren't My Style
Illustrated by Anne Wilsdorf
Emma started her day with catching frogs, roping the cat, and digging for pirate treasure. Then the mailman brought her a box from Uncle Leo. The box was full of something pink, and, when she reached inside, she felt soft, silky stuff: no pirate hat, no lizard. Emma was dismayed to pull out a ballerina outfit. She did not know how to be a ballerina. The mailman offered some suggestions: float like a fairy and flutter like a butterfly. Emma floated into the petunia patch and fluttered into the garden gnome. Mrs. Gurkin stopped with the poodles she was walking to give Emma more advice. She explained that ballerinas moved with elegance and grace. Emma took off her red boots and replaced them with the dainty dancing slippers, but standing on her toes caused her to flop and topple. When her brother told her she needed music, Emma played her kazoo. After she exchanged the tutu and slippers for her shorts and cowboy boots, Emma had a good time tapping her feet and cartwheeling. Uncle Leo loved her performance and then asked her how she liked the jungle outfit he had sent. The costume company had made a mistake in the shipment. The cartoonlike illustrations featuring the colorful characters and important props on white backgrounds add to the humor. It is a fun read aloud with an important theme. 2010, Dial Books for Young Readers/Penguin, $16.99. Ages 6 to 9. Reviewer: Phyllis Kennemer, Ph.D. (Children's Literature).
A Young Dancer: The Life of an Ailey Student
Photographs by José Ivey
Iman Bright is an attractive, leggy, thirteen year old who studies dance at the Ailey School in New York, attends a private school in the Bronx, and takes violin lessons on Saturday. This is her story. Iman loves to dance; at the Ailey school she studies ballet as well as jazz, West African, and the modern styles of Lester Horton and José Limón. She likes to hang out with her friends, swim, and practice her violin. As Iman and classmates in Level 5 warm up, stretch, and go to class in their distinctive burgundy leotards, Ivey's lush color photos let aspiring dancers and musicians follow her schedule. Readers can also catch glimpses of famed Ailey dancer Judith Jamison, who now heads the school, two of Iman's dance teachers, and her violin teacher. Classmates at the academic Riverdale School seem in a different world, but Iman says she is comfortable and happy in both. The year in level 5 will end with a performance of a Limón dance about a Jewish wedding with the students as happy guests. Blossoming in long, colorful skirts of orange, red, and hot pink, the girls rehearse and get used to being lifted by their partners, while Ivey's striking photos follow the preparations for going onstage and the exhilaration of performance. Iman loves it: she looks forward to Level 6 and more hard work. Dance lovers will pore over the pictured details, warmed by Iman's glowing smile, and learn more about the Ailey School from an informative "Author's Note." 2009, Christy Ottaviano/Holt, $18.95. Ages 10 up. Reviewer: Barbara L. Talcroft (Children's Literature).
For Ballet book reviews from a previous year, click here.
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