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In 'Dances,' a Black ballerina's big break brings immense pressure

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Nicole Cuffy loves to dance and the art of ballet. She also loves a nightly bath, where sometimes ideas come to her, like in May of 2015.

NICOLE CUFFY: I just had this craving to immerse myself in the world of dance.

SUMMERS: Cuffy decided to turn that craving into a novel about the first Black woman promoted to principal dancer at the American Ballet Theater - an idea that quickly proved prescient.

CUFFY: I kind of thought to myself at the time, well, what about Misty Copeland, you know? But I was like, I don't think they're going to promote her anytime soon. And then, in August of that same year, Misty Copeland was promoted as the first Black female principal at the American Ballet Theater.

SUMMERS: So Nicole Cuffy switched gears and placed her protagonist, 22-year-old Cece Cordell, at another company.

CUFFY: There is a lot of sort of contending with the fact of Misty Copeland in this book because I did not think that I could write fiction about a Black ballerina without acknowledging the reality. I thought that would be too big and a suspension of disbelief.

SUMMERS: Between the very real Misty Copeland and the fictional dancer Cece Cordell, Nicole Cuffy had a lot of space to explore tensions in the dance world - the lack of diversity, the push and pull of creative freedom, the preferred aesthetics for dancers' bodies.

CUFFY: As a young girl, I took ballet classes, and there just weren't a lot of other young Black girls at the time who were taking ballet and being taken seriously in ballet. And as a lifelong lover of dance, you know, I've been to the ballet several, several times. It's frankly very rare, even to this day, to see someone who looks like me centered on the stage in a principal role or in a role that positions that dancer as beautiful and worth saving.

So I was always very acutely aware of these issues in the ballet world. But when Misty Copeland was promoted, those conversations were sort of accelerated. So people started talking a lot more about how we weren't seeing women of color really being valued in the classical and neoclassical ballet worlds, and that's something that I think Cece is definitely in conversation with a lot as well. How does she sort of deal with being the first one to be centered in the ballet world in this specific company? And how does she sort of enter into this conversation when, really, for her, it's all about the dance? It's all about the movement, and it's all about the music. But it can't be just that for her because she is a Black dancer.

SUMMERS: I mean, throughout the story, we see Cece working so hard all the time to prove other people wrong. It's almost as if she's working twice as hard as everyone else around her, and I think that's a sentiment that most people of color can relate to. But what do you think that does to Cece as a dancer?

CUFFY: Well, I think that dancers tend to have to be very hyperaware of their own bodies. But in a dancer like Cece, who has all of this other weight piled on her role, she's even more so. So there's a scene where she's dancing in the studio with the other dancers in the company. And she's very aware of her body in the mirror and how different it looks from her coworkers and how she's sweating more than everybody else that she can see and how she is shaped differently than everybody in the room and how she might be moving differently than everybody else in the room. So there's just this very almost neurotic hyperawareness of her own body in relation to that of the white dancers around her.

SUMMERS: This book is about ballet, but there's also this mystery woven throughout it involving Cece's brother, Paul, who struggles with addiction and ultimately disappears. Can you tell us a bit about that part of your book?

CUFFY: Yeah. So with Paul and Cece, we have the story of two artists. And what I'm really exploring there is how being consumed by your passion or consumed by your art is really sort of this knife's edge, where you can kind of fall one way, which is the way of success and recognition as an artist, or you can fall in the other direction, which is you are completely consumed to the point that it becomes self-destructive. And with Cece, we see somebody who has fallen the first way. She's fallen in a way that's brought her a lot of success and that's brought her recognition as an artist. But with her brother, Paul, we see that he's fallen on the other side of that knife's edge, and he's really kind of been consumed in a way that has led to a path of self-destruction.

And I think that, you know, Cece and Paul are both very, very aware of that balancing act. And so their interplay together is very much characterized by that. They're kind of mutually inspiring to each other. Cece often appears in Paul's artwork, and Paul is really the one who is inspiring her to dance in the first place and then supports her early career. And so we have this sort of beautiful brother-sister relationship that is also a relationship between two different types of artists.

SUMMERS: The other relationship that I found really interesting in this book is the relationship between Cece and her mother, where you have this daughter who all she wants is to dance and a mother who very clearly and explicitly tells her that she wants her to follow a more practical route. You know, dancing - she doesn't see it as a serious career.

CUFFY: Yeah, I think Cece's mother - when I think of her character and her motivation, mostly what I think about is fear for one's child. Cece's mother is very Black-identified and very intentionally culturally Black, and so she is probably more aware than maybe even Cece herself of how hostile white spaces can be to Black people. And she sees her daughter entering into a predominantly - a famously predominantly white space, and I think it terrifies her. So she pushes her towards this practical path because she's scared for her daughter and her mental health, entering into this kind of hostile and very exclusionary space.

SUMMERS: There's a section from the opening chapter of your book that stuck with me. And you wrote - I'm quoting it here...

(Reading) Ballet has always been about the body - the white body specifically. So they watched my Black body, waited for it to confirm their prejudices, grew ever more anxious as it failed to do so again and again.

And this is really one of the main themes of the novel - is Cece trying to find her way as a Black dancer in this overwhelmingly white world. What were you trying to say to the dance world with this novel and this character's journey?

CUFFY: Keep having the conversation and have it more frankly and more openly and more forcefully. I'm glad that we're talking about these things. I'm glad to see that we're being a lot more thoughtful about people of color in the classical and neoclassical communities. But I do think that progress has been very tentative, and there's been this sort of resistance in the form of adherence to what people call tradition. And you see that a lot, particularly in classical ballet. There's this fidelity to tradition. And when I hear people talk about tradition in the classical ballet world, all I hear is a fidelity to whiteness. So we want to see white people centered on the stage. We want to hear about white stories. We want to hear about European folk tales in the form of story ballets. We don't want to see anybody else coming in and disrupting that white space. And I think it's really fear-based more than anything else. So I think what Cece does is she has to learn, over the course of this novel, to let go of some of her fear. And I think that's what the ballet world needs to do as well. It needs to let go of some of its fear.

SUMMERS: We've been speaking with Nicole Cuffy. Her debut novel is "Dances." Nicole, thank you so much.

CUFFY: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN'S "FUR ELISE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Juana Summers
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
Linah Mohammad
Prior to joining NPR in 2022, Mohammad was a producer on The Washington Post's daily flagship podcast Post Reports, where her work was recognized by multiple awards. She was honored with a Peabody award for her work on an episode on the life of George Floyd.
Sarah Handel
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