All of this year, I’ve been eagerly anticipating Dances, the debut novel by Nicole Cuffy. It follows Cece, a young Black woman who has just been promoted to principal within the New York City Ballet. Over the course of a few months, we get a glimpse of the pressure she feels and the passion that ultimately guides her forward.
Special thanks to NetGalley and Random House Publishing Group for providing me with an ARC of this book!
Celine Cordell has been dancing ballet since she was five years old. Now 22, she has just been promoted to principal—the first Black woman to achieve this level in the New York City Ballet. The promotion fills her with joy and trepidation, and she pushes herself ever further to overcome her impostor syndrome. But how she sees herself is not how others see her; how can she be sure of who she really is? And how does her fractured family, and missing older brother, factor into her identity? Over the course of several eventful months—with relationship drama and some potentially life-changing news—Cece will come to terms with her place both within her family and within the world of ballet.
Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve always loved ballet, even though I’ve never gotten to take a single lesson. If I can’t be a ballerina in my own life, I can at least live vicariously through the characters in books. Dances is one such novel that I was especially excited to read, and it fully lived up to (and surpassed) my expectations.
At once, Dances is immersive, submerging readers in Cece’s mind as she dances ballet. Numerous passages, written in a flowing and impressionist style, depict the sequence of moves that she does during a routine. Others get into the characters Cece plays during productions of, for example, Swan Lake. The author’s writing is beautiful to read and puts ballet center stage.
(My familiarity with ballet terms is quite limited, but I had fun looking up different ballet positions and moves on YouTube. This novel’s book club kit is also a helpful resource.)
Much of Dances is about Cece’s identity and how her self-perception never seems to match how others see her. Some of this can be attributed to the competitive and demanding nature of ballet. However, for Cece, much if it also comes from her identity as a Black woman in a world that is overwhelmingly white. Messages, from her mother and from the ballet landscape at large, tell Cece that she is an interloper, that she’ll never have the right body for ballet, that she’ll never be seen as a proper ballerina due to her race. Cece’s newfound fame at being promoted to principal puts her in the public eye like never before, only increasing her disconnect between self-perception and others’ ideas of who she is. Race, “belonging” in ballet, and identity are wonderfully portrayed here.
Another core element of Dances is the depiction of relationships—friendly, romantic, familial, and more. Cece has two close friends: her roommate and fellow ballet dancer Ryn and their former ballet friend Irine. Cece also has a boyfriend, fellow ballet dancer Jasper, and though they’ve been together for four years, they may not be the best fit for the long term. Then there are the mentors, like Kaz, Luca and Galina, and Señora Sandy, who have guided and continue to guide Cece, even as the dynamic of their relationship evolves. All of these relationships have their ups and downs, and all will change over the course of this novel.
Finally, family may be the most important relationship at play here, with particular emphasis on Cece’s somewhat unsupportive (and overly practical) mother and her beloved, missing brother, Paul. A mystery surrounding Paul’s five-year-absence is always near the forefront of Cece’s mind. He was the one who supported her dreams of being a ballerina, both emotionally and financially. What happened to him? Will Cece and Paul ever be reunited?
Dances brings so many themes into play, with a narrative arc that is impossible to guess as you’re reading, yet filled with momentum that keeps you eagerly turning each page. There are some tough issues explored here (see some content warnings below), but it is ultimately a moving and hopeful story.
Dances is a superbly written and nuanced portrayal of a young woman in the throes of change. As her career advances and her relationships evolve, she is learning to accept who she is, what she stands for, and how ballet can change along with her. This is immersive, thoughtful, and a joy to read. I greatly look forward to reading more from Nicole Cuffy. And I may just have to finally try out a ballet class.
Content warnings: Addiction; discussion of eating disorders; unplanned pregnancy; abortion; infidelity; drug use
Get the Book
You can buy Dances here – it’s available as a hardcover, paperback, ebook, and audiobook.
See the Book Club Kit for Dances here.
|Dances by Nicole Cuffy|
|Genre||Literary Fiction; Women’s Fiction|
|Setting||New York City|
|Number of Pages||288|
|Format I Read||ebook (NetGalley)|
|Original Publication Date||May 16, 2023|
A ballerina at the height of her powers becomes consumed with finding her missing brother in this “striking debut” (Oprah Daily).
At twenty-two years old, Cece Cordell reaches the pinnacle of her career as a ballet dancer when she’s promoted to principal at the New York City Ballet. She’s instantly catapulted into celebrity, heralded for her “inspirational” role as the first Black ballerina in the famed company’s history. Even as she celebrates the achievement of a lifelong dream, Cece remains haunted by the feeling that she doesn’t belong. As she waits for some feeling of rightness that doesn’t arrive, she begins to unravel the loose threads of her past—an absent father, a pragmatic mother who dismisses Cece’s ambitions, and a missing older brother who stoked her childhood love of ballet but disappeared to deal with his own demons.
Soon after her promotion, Cece is faced with a choice that has the potential to derail her career and shatter the life she’s cultivated for herself, sending her on a pilgrimage to both find her brother and reclaim the parts of herself lost in the grinding machinery of the traditional ballet world.
Written with spellbinding beauty and ballet’s precise structure, Dances centers around women, art, and power, and how we come to define freedom for ourselves.
About the Author
Credit: Arielle Lewis Studios
Nicole Cuffy is a D.C.-based writer with a BA from Columbia University and an MFA from The New School. She is a lecturer at the University of Maryland and American University. Her work can be found in Mason’s Road, The Master’s Review Volume VI (curated by Roxane Gay), Chautauqua, and Blue Mesa Review, and her chapbook, Atlas of the Body, won the Chautauqua Janus Prize and was a finalist for the Black River Chapbook Competition. When she is not writing, she is reading, and when she is not reading, she is probably dancing.
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