Dancers: Dennis Cante and Judith Castelan
by ROBYN SASSEN (Johannesburg, South Africa)
Seldom does one come across a debut novel which sings so sublimely from each page that you don’t want it to end. Alice Simpson’s Ballroom is one such whirligig of a read, leaving you heady and happy and weepy, all at the same time.
Modelled fairly conventionally, with the development and fleshing out of several distinct characters, using the motif of a dance hall as a means to give them voice and life, the novel rests on the interface and intercourse between people who regularly come to dance with each other. And they’re mostly there for the magic of the dance than for any social interaction. The novel celebrates the parquet floor and pressed steel ceilinged nostalgia of the traditional ballroom with clarity, as it delves into the complicated reasons why people choose to dance with strangers.
The book is characterised by a beautiful fleshing out of characters and language which grasps at and embraces all the different foibles of the characters. Several are offered in tightly honed detail applying not only to their physical characteristics, but also the narrative of their existence. Others are drawn more sketchily, to create a sense of the dynamic complexities of dance hall politics.
Simpson’s writing is crisp and clear. She views her characters with an overriding godly fondness, embracing the good fortune with the mishaps in the lives of these amateur dancers.
Featuring quotes from nineteenth century guides to the etiquette of ballroom dancing behaviour, the book is clearly a labour of love. The pages have deckled edges; there are splutterings of marbling on the frontispiece, and the whole object is conceived with an eye to the beauty of old-worldliness. Linen bound with a gorgeous watercolour image of a dancing couple by UK artist Philip Bannister on the dust cover, the book teeters between being commercially published novel and artists book, leaning heavily on book nostalgia and a sense of beauty.
Above all else, this is a book about ballroom dancing, and as you skitter and leap and glissand through challenges which face characters like dance teacher Harry, star performer Angel, wannabe babe Sarah and dancer with domestic secrets Gabriel, you get to experience the rhythm of the rumba, you hear the frisson of a foxtrot and you glory in the dance music ethos of a bygone era.
The tale is bittersweet, holding up a mirror to the lonely vanities and foibles of both men and women, but it is told with such buoyancy and smooth delight that lends even the coarsest of characters a lightness and brilliance you won’t forget.
The reader moves onto the floor with great excitement, turning the initial pages of a debut novel, heartbeat slightly accelerated, hopes and expectations heightened. It is a dance: this movement between reader and story. Alice Simpson’s Ballroom takes that connection seriously.
The very structure of the novel mirrors the movements on a dance floor of the ballroom, not in a competitive event in which a couple would remain in each other’s company for the entire event, but a public venue, one in which dancers must shift partners as time passes.
And, so, the focus of the narrative shifts, from partner to partner, from character to character. Readers must step quickly, move from one set of arms to another comfortably. Those readers who would prefer a broader, over-arching narrative arc — a single, devoted narrator/partner — may find these shifts frustrating, but a single voice would not suit a story which is rooted in constant movement. The form is a perfect reflection of the story.
Readers spend only a few pages with one character before the perspective shifts to another character, though the reader’s experiences with each character do intensify as, after being introduced and through repeated encounters, the reader can more completely understand the dance partners, as the everyday details are compounded by history and memories, though relayed with a light touch.
The author’s skill at depicting heavy subject matter with a gentle hand is remarkable. Indeed, one could view ballroom dancing as an art form which presents a distinct impression of decorum and beauty, an impressive veneer obscuring something else entirely which lurks beneath the surface. Partners may exhibit a well-rehearsed impression of passion and connection, even if the only harmonious element between them is their shared desire to dance well. In Ballroom, the characters are presented impeccably, and their steps accomplished and learned, but beneath the surface they embody many contradictions.
The glamour and intensity of dance partners mirrors the idea that every reader has a perfect book awaiting them, every dancer the perfect partner. A scan of the dance floor, might lead one to believe that there are some ideal partnerships gliding across the floor. But the majority of the dancers in Ballroom are as flawed and damaged as the rest of us. They may be more impeccably dressed and coiffed, but they are as often lonely and yearning, hesitant and fearful, as they are connected and thriving, assured and successful.
“She can’t explain or quite understand what it is that is special about dancing with Harry. When he opens his arms to her, he is so sure, the way he holds her, not too hard, not too soft. Like coming home. Where she belongs. The way he moves her. They are a part of the music. Their bodies fit together, move like one person. Perfect. The way a man and a woman must feel, she thinks, when they are in love. He makes her feel beautiful, too, like when he assures her that someday she will be good enough to be a professional dancer. Harry must know, because he is the best dancer, the best teacher, a girl could have, patient and gentle. She is lucky that he believes in her. That is how she feels outside his door.”
Harry has lived four floors above the Rodriguez family since before Maria was born, but when she grew old enough to begin taking dance lessons on Friday evenings, Harry’s dreams about/for her, and Maria’s dreams, too, crystallize and form a pattern like dance steps drawn across a tiled floor.
The characters in Ballroom do crave love, and sometimes romantic love, even though they often (like Maria) cannot clearly articulate what that means, neither to explain it or understand it. But ultimately what they crave is the sense of partnership that is an integral part of ballroom dancing.
The nature of true partnership is a theme which Alice Simpson’s work explores in a variety of situations. Characters in her debut reach out and retract, step forward and back; they may make mis-steps, but they recognize the value of taking a bow with a flourish. Individuals may, like Gabriel, be married, or like Sarah, have been married multiple times, but they do not inhabit the role of partner in these capacities; they step onto the ballroom floor hoping for a true connection there which they lack in their everyday lives.
Stylistically, Alice Simpson frames her work with a series of quotes from classic references on ballroom dancing, but notably the excerpts often apply to the study of relationships as well as they apply to dancing.
The work concludes with a Ballroom Bibliography, but the author is
clearly just as fascinated by the dances between partners off the ballroom floor; she is preoccupied by the footwork of human relationships, and Ballroom will perhaps appeal more to readers who have an interest in human mis-steps than in perfectly executed dance routines.
Ballroom is stylistically deft and structurally impressive, but the reader might be uncomfortable with the reality which lurks beneath the beautiful presentation. Alice Simpson is not inviting the reader to attend a performance and admire from a distance; the reader must take to the floor and might well be as breathless from a broken heart as from an invigorating number.
Original Buried in Print article
“In this era of easy access to ebooks, if you’re going to create a physical book, you should make it special, something worth keeping on your coffee table or on your bookshelf. And that is what we always aspire to do when we publish.” —writes my agent.
We were all in agreement, my literary agents, publisher Harper, and I. We care about beautifully bound books. As some of you know, I also make artist books—paint the dancers—daringly cut around the pages—stitch, glue and bind them, sometimes even stand them on wooden feet. They are works of art, collected by rare book collectors and university special collection. Here’s an example: DIRTY DANCING
My agent’s father had been a bookbinder in Minneapolis and spent summers at his bindery making huge buffalo-hide cases for commemorative books and often crafted covers for favorite books, such as a leather-bound copy of D.H. Lawrence poems.
If you hold BALLROOM in your hand, look at the foredge, the part of a book that faces inward when the book is shelved; the part opposite the spine, you will notice it has a feathered, high-quality “deckle edge” as though the paper was handmade.
The cover of BALLROOM, painted by Phillip Bannister (UK), is an elegant watercolor with lyrical washes of sienna and brown and there is a lovely “S” curve of orange in her dress, which carries into the side of his face. You can almost see the artist’s brush marks— and there’s that small dab of green in her hair-the contrast of green and orange. The cover has the texture of watercolor paper, and you can run your fingers over the embossed text. These are the small details that I was so pleased went into the production of my debut novel.
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