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.