REVIEW: Library Journal

DREAM

 

“BALLROOM” – Alice Simpson

Simpson’s first novel narrates the stories of five characters whose passion for ballroom dance and search for true love brings them together every Sunday night. The fictional New York Ballroom-years past its prime (think the recently closed Roseland Ballroom)-mirrors the dancers’ dreams that have, for most, turned drab and stale. The introduction of each figure in short but well-crafted chapters can be tricky at first. The fast-paced interconnected stories require the reader to associate each character with the matching description. Then the narrative begins to flow as fluidly as the accomplished dancers who “seem caught in a whirlwind.” Unmarried Joseph; three-time divorcee Sarah; 65-year-old Harry, in love with Maria, a woman young enough to be his daughter; handsome Angel, who dreams of opening his own dance studio; and lonely Gabriel, mired in a failing marriage-each is consumed by the quest for a fairy-tale ending. But in Sarah’s concluding story, she gives voice to the complexities and disappointments in life. “As if it was like a dance. This step, that step. Quick-quick-slow, just that simple. Always moving clockwise around the floor. But it isn’t like that. Life has no simple steps you can follow.” VERDICT This touching debut captures the intricacies and the unexpected of personal relationships.

—wrote Jane Leder, Evanston, IL, LIBRARY JOURNAL

REVIEW: Washington Independent Review of Books

An Interview with Alice Simpson

  • Susan Storer Clark
  • February 14, 2015
  • A visual artist describes how her story leapt out of pictures and onto the page.

Alice Simpson’s debut novel, Ballroom, braids together the lives of six people, most of them strangers, who frequent a Manhattan ballroom in the 1990s, just before it closes forever. Twice-divorced Sarah is convinced she will finally find true romance; debonair Gabriel is a dazzling dancer but a troubled human being; elderly dance instructor Harry Korn is obsessed with Maria, the daughter of his building superintendent, who dances with her young partner, Angel Morez; and Joseph is yearning for marriage and children. Here, Simpson discusses her cast of characters and the art of writing.

You are an accomplished visual artist, and this novel began as a visual project. How did that happen? And is the cover art yours?

There’s an enchanting place in Maine, guaranteed to change the lives of those who cross the bridge to Deer Isle. It was the early 1990s when I was first accepted at Haystack Mountain School of Crafts. At residencies in this artists’ paradise over the next 13 years, I would explore untouched places of my creativity, making one-of-a-kind, hand-painted books, writing, and then sculpting in clay — finding new directions in my life.

Before attending Haystack, I had kept my creative nose to the grindstone as a designer and illustrator, pleasing clients and corporations. But as graphic design became more and more computerized, I felt less and less connected with the end product.

In a 1994 artist book workshop with the theme of “Place,” I chose the ballroom, which had become so much a part of my life. I had taken up dancing, studying fox trot, waltz, rumba, swing, and the tango. It seemed the perfect motif for my books. I found inspiration in the songs, dances, and people I observed on the dance floor. With a background in fashion illustration, I was able to incorporate paintings of figures — their movement, gesture, and costume.

Part of this hand-painted artist’s book, “Ballroom,” was five funky, two-page stories about some of the dancers. At the Writer’s Voice in New York, in the years that followed, I worked to more fully develop the characters. Those fictional stories grew and grew and soon the characters had apartments, families, yearnings — lives beyond the ballroom on Sunday night. It came as a surprise that, for someone like myself, relentlessly cheerful, the characters were dark and wounded. “Ballroom,” an artist’s book, became Ballroom, a novel.

The elegant and expressive cover art is by Phillip Bannister (UK).

Your father was a fine dancer and a Vaudeville performer. What was he most known for?

My father, Hal Sherman (1897-1985), hung out at amateur houses and dance places as a youngster in South Boston, where black tap dancers taught him to dance. He began entering amateur talent shows at 13, winning contest after contest and soon decided, much to his Orthodox Jewish parents’ chagrin, to leave home and travel the burlesque circuit.

He went on to international renown as a rubber-legged “eccentric” dancer. In the 1920s and 1930s, he danced for royalty, and he and the Duke of Windsor often spent late hours at Maxim’s in Paris, dining and dancing with burlesque showgirls. He was quite the man in three-piece white linen suits, a gold-tipped cane, two Russian Borzois, and his own touring car. He is remembered for his starring Broadway role in “Hell-za-Poppin’” in the 1940s. I only saw him dance once at one of the last stage shows at the Palace Theater on Broadway.

There are several wonderful passages in your book about the transformative power of ballroom dance. One is from Sarah’s point of view: “When a man opens his arms to her and she steps into them, takes his lead, she feels she belongs, she’s important…Even Tony, paunchy and fat, his stupid toupee pasted on his head, makes her feel all of those things: a part of the dance, of something larger than herself.” Were those passages the easiest for you to write, or the hardest?

Admittedly, those passages were the easiest to write, as they express my own feelings when dancing with an experienced partner. In the balance of form and movement — each partner’s complete concentration on the other — there is perfection — being “one.”

While making art and writing, my “self” vanishes. The process is about vision. Dancing the tango, I am fully present, but without vision. Concentrating is different than thinking. Listening, not as an auditory experience, but as a physical experience. I focus on posture, arms, knees, feet, the length of stride, my core, and the frame formed between partners. Holding my own balance — aware of my center — yet submitting. It is a shared and complex experience.

There are two attempts made to take the magic home from the ballroom to the bedroom. Both end in disappointment. Do you think that is inevitable?

Shaped by their histories, it was inevitable that Sarah and Joseph’s attempt to come together would end in failure. They are programmed for disappointment. To Joseph, who has never known love, Sarah is an invention of his imagination. Sarah will inevitably be disillusioned as she searches for movie star romance. Gabriel, emotionally unavailable, sits upon tremendous hostility, to which only the reader is privy.

One sentence in particular made me think, “Wow! She really nailed this guy’s essential character.” It’s from the point of view of Gabriel, a wealthy man who married an artist he met in Greece, someone he has not allowed to practice her art, and she is now a joyless woman and a heavy drinker. “It seemed to Gabriel that she was ruining his life.” Have you known someone who was so completely self-centered who might have expressed such a thought out loud?

I do know people who blame others for their inability to have the lives they want and lack the ability to take responsibility for their own choices. I was challenged by Gabriel and Myra’s relationship; trying to understand why they stayed together — why she allowed him to dominate her. A psychologist told me that some dysfunctional relationships are like the infinity sign — an endless round-and-round dance in which partners know no other steps and therefore remain together.

What are you working on now? 

The Waiting List, a psychological thriller about legacy set in New York during two periods — the Gilded Age and the present (periods not so dissimilar). It’s somewhat satirical, with wicked characters you will love to hate. “Flo” Ziegfeld, Diamond Jim Brady, the Dolly Sisters, and gorgeous chorus girls make cameo appearances. It’s about greed, obsession, and murder.

Susan Storer Clark is a former broadcast journalist, who wrote and reported for the Voice of America and WRC-TV in Washington, DC, where she won two Emmys for her work. She loves looking for the “sidebar stories” in history, the lives of ordinary people caught up in extraordinary events, and enjoyed the studies for her degrees in history from Rhodes College and from King’s College London. She is at work on her second novel, about an African woman taken as a prize by Francis Drake on his voyage around the world in 1577-78. She and her husband, Rich, recently moved to the Seattle area, where they are renovating an old farmhouse, and where Susan is learning to play the guitar properly.

REVIEW: A minuet of love and misery

unfulfilled-desires

PITTSBURGH POST-GAZETTE
 By Christina Varrasso

If you’re interested in reading a novel filled with likable characters whose intertwining relationships will wrap neatly into a perfect happy ending, BALLROOM …is not for you.

However, if you are open to experiencing a beautifully written novel whose six characters’ piquant voices will invite you to a ballroom to share their passion for dancing and experience their deep seeded dreams and often unfulfilled desires, then put on your dancing shoes and get ready for a great story.

Alice Simpson is an accomplished video artist who taught drawing and design at Fashion Institute of Technology, the School of Visual Arts, the New School and Otis Parsons. She has won international acclaim for a series of handcrafted artist books about dance. She is a sculptor, painter, ballroom dancer, and writer.

In “Ballroom,” her debut novel, Ms. Simpson marries her love of art forms with her passion for dancing to create a story filled with complicated (sometimes unlikeable) characters and spectacular imagery that makes any novelist’s mouth water. Every Sunday night, Ms. Simpson’s six lost characters come together at the Ballroom, a once grand dance club in late 1990s New York City, to dance intimate tangos, salsa and waltzes. They know each other superficially, and it is only through hearing their interconnected stories in alternating chapters do we learn about their troubled lives and hidden desires as their paths cross both on and off the dance floor.

Harry Korn, age 65, lives on his pension and the money he earns giving private dance lessons to women he meets at the Ballroom. He is saving money to take the woman of his dreams, Maria Rodriguez, to Buenos Aires. He looks forward to his weekly dance lesson with her in his top-floor apartment.

When Harry shares a long held secret with her, the outcome is heart wrenching. Maria, a soon-to-be graduate from Barnard, struggles to keep her clandestine dance lessons with Harry from her father and from her dance partner and secret love, Angel Morez. Angel, despite his father’s plans for him, has a huge dream of opening a state-of-the-art dance studio with Maria as his future wife.

But he must answer a nagging question first: where does she insist on going alone every Friday night? Dry Joseph, whose last name he never divulges, is a bachelor and believes marriage to red-haired beauty Sarah Dreyfus will bring him happiness. But Sarah insecure and thrice divorced, wants ladies’ man Gabriel Katz to be husband number four.

But Gabriel is already married and attends the Ballroom to escape his own failing marriage to an alcoholic. But even on the dance floor he chases the ghost of his first dance partner: his deceased, manipulative, and obsessively doting mother.

Through the dances they share, the characters experience sexual tension but most never develop any true emotional intimacy. The Ballroom is a place where they chase hopes and dreams that are rarely fulfilled. We almost get the feeling that although they know what they want, they are too afraid to take the next step, if you will, to make their dreams a reality.

Ms. Simpson is brilliant at creating realistic characters that are flawed and have an effect on the reader. When the novel ends without any true unified ending, we are initially left feeling that the author missed something, that there should have been more, that some characters were left dangling in fictional abyss.

 But I think the author intended this. Life does not wrap up neatly for anyone. We dance through life day by day with hopes and aspirations of our own, some fulfilled, some not. We encounter and cross paths with people whom we never see or think about again. I once read that literature is supposed to speak to us, force us to question humanity and existentialism, to affect us. Alice Simpson accomplished this with “Ballroom.”—writes Christina Varrasso, author of “Running for Yellow.” She lives in Hampton.

 

Original PITTSBURGH POST-GAZETTE article

REVIEW: My View/The Arts at Large

DENNIS CANTE & JUDITH CASTELAN Original copy

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.

Robyn Sassen

REVIEW: Buried in Print

expectation

 

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

REVIEW: Booklist

poignant

 

 

BALLROOM ~ Alice Simpson

Though the glory days of the Ballroom are long gone, some New Yorkers still make time for a trip to the faded dance hall. Young dancers with big dreams brush up on new steps, while others scan the room for ideal dance (and perhaps romantic) partners. The eternally suave Gabriel treats the Ballroom as his own private meat market, while elderly Harry only has eyes for one dancer. As the connections among the regular group of dancers begin to spill over into life outside the Ballroom, the ensemble realizes how sacred their Sunday time and space really is. Simpson has a clear and passionate eye for ballroom dance, peppering the novel with dance terminology and commonly used songs. Each chapter opens with a short passage from some of the earliest ballroom dance handbooks, highlighting the importance of social graces and traditions. Simpson’s lush prose will envelop readers in the sights, sounds, and textures of the dance hall, though the novel isn’t particularly plot-driven. Fans of Jennifer Haigh and those welcoming a many-voiced, richly drawn experience will enjoy the poignant and emotional Ballroom.
— wrote Stephanie Turza, BOOKLIST