Dances by Nicole Cuffy
Published by One World
Publication date: May 16, 2023
Genres: Debut, Fiction, Contemporary, Vacation Reading
CeCe Cordell is a 22-year-old ballerina who becomes the first Black principal dancer at the NYC Ballet. It should be a happy time for her, but in addition to pride and excitement CeCe feels lonely and unable to shake the feeling she’s an imposter. Her father left their family when she was little, she hasn’t seen her older brother in years, and her mother has never supported her love of dance. Dances is a debut novel about one young woman’s battle with identity and self-love in the peculiar space of achieving all one’s dreams and all that that entails.
Beyond her innate talent, the person most responsible for CeCe’s career is her brother Paul. He’s an artist 10 years older than her, who from the time she was tiny, enrolled her in dance classes, paid for them, and got her to her lessons. All this despite their mother’s vocal opposition and refusal to help. As a single parent working to stay afloat, she had no patience for what she saw as a frivolous hobby. Paul encouraged CeCe and believed in her but when she was 17 he disappeared from her life. In the churn of training, performing, and striving to get ahead CeCe only intermittently tried to find him. Now, she is desperate to find the one person who saw her potential and supported her.
Dances is filled with intimate details of the classical ballet world from the technical minutia of choreography to the pain required to perform on an elite level. Author Nicole Cuffy does an excellent job providing the kind of insider detail anyone with a love of ballet will appreciate. What is harder to cope with in the novel (and which is probably accurate as well) is the insidious obsession with one’s body and always in a negative fashion. It didn’t matter how much praise CeCe got. She always felt fat, ungainly, too muscular, too Black. Ballet is a world based solely on a very specific type of physicality: willowy but not too tall, incredibly slender but still strong, and white. It’s one more pressure imposed on CeCe that the dancers around her don’t encounter. She is becoming famous for dancing white characters in white worlds and not just in the classical ballets themselves, but in the representation she sees every day.
All of this came together in a unique reading experience for me. A quarter of the way through, my interest in the story was fading. There were all the familiar issues—the competitive nature of the job, a boyfriend who may love you or just be using you for his own career, the loneliness of celebrity—the superficial aspects of new adulthood. Then at 30% in the novel, there’s a precipitating event formulaic enough that even finishing the book came into question. Instead, Cuffy grapples with the real implications and outcomes of the situation. From that point onward, instead of dancing on the surface of deeper issues, the novel segues into something with more depth. She explores family, identity, and the pressures of being a role model when you don’t even have your own life figured out. In this way, it felt as if Cuffy’s writing was maturing at the same time as CeCe was. Dances is a strong first act from a writer I hope to hear more from at some point.
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*I received a free copy of this book from One World Books in exchange for an honest review.*