Ballet, Me, and THE OTHER SIDE OF PERFECT by Mariko Turk
Growing up, I loved to dance. I wasn’t nearly good enough to be on the professional track, but I loved it nonetheless, and I vividly remember the moment I found out from my ballet teacher that I would be going on pointe. (Quick pause for context: graduating from soft ballet slippers to pointe shoes that allow you to dance on your toes is a huge deal for young dancers. It can’t happen right away because you need to develop ankle strength and a solid enough technique to do it safely.)So one winter when I was about to turn 12, my dance teacher gave me a Christmas ornament of a ballerina in a sparkling pink tutu. On the back, in gold gel pen, she’d written: “Mariko, you have earned your pointe shoes.” Of all the Christmas gifts I’ve ever received, this was the most magical. I’d seen ballet dancers on pointe, and when they lifted onto their toes, they became sublime, otherworldly creatures—enchanted swans and fairies and firebirds. Now, I thought, it was my turn.
Well, fast forward a few months and pointe was super hard. I pretty much hated it! I have tapered feet and average arches—both things that make pointe work more difficult. Also, I was too busy watching X-Files and VHS recordings of the Tony Awards that my grandma sent to me to practice outside of class. I kept dancing, but I ended up quitting pointe before my senior year of high school. But every Christmas—even to this day, 24 years later—when I turn over that ballerina ornament and read those golden words, I still feel the thrill, the magic I felt when I was 12. Because ballet is still so magical to me, despite all its very real problems.
I became more aware of ballet’s longstanding issues with race—the lack of diversity in professional companies and the racist stereotypes in so many beloved, classical ballets—when I was getting my PhD in English with a focus on children’s literature. A lot of my academic work involved revisiting beloved yet problematic children’s classics, and I became fascinated with how people (myself included) grapple with the ugly parts of the things they love. I began to wonder: If ballet perpetuates racist stereotypes and disadvantages dancers of color, does that mean I shouldn’t love it? And if I do still love and support it, what does that mean about me? My answers to these questions were never clear cut, but I continued to explore them in seminar papers, articles, and my dissertation.
After graduating, I decided that I wanted to take a break from analyzing books for young people and try writing one of my own. And guess what? I found that it was as hard as pointe was all those years ago! But I didn’t want to quit this time. To make sure I stuck with it, I decided I had to tell a story that drew on my own memories, experiences, and passions as much as possible. That way, I’d never run out of inspiration. So I thought about what story I wanted to tell. I thought about dancing—how difficult and rewarding it was. I thought about the joy and camaraderie of performing on stage in my high school musicals. I thought about breaking my leg while doing fouetté turns right after graduating from college and the long recovery that followed. I thought about how grateful I was that the injury happened in my twenties and not my teens, when I would have missed out on so much.
Alongside all these memories, the question that shaped my academic work kept coming up: how do people grapple with the ugly parts of the things they love? I started imagining what would happen if a 16-year-old half-Japanese girl who dreamed of dancing ballet professionally suffered a career-ending injury. What would happen if she had to deal with losing something she loved with all her heart and with questioning whether she ever should have loved it in the first place?
Her story broke my heart and pieced it back together again. Her story is THE OTHER SIDE OF PEFECT, and I hope that you love it as much as I do.
Mariko Turk teaches writing and rhetoric classes and works as a writing tutor at the University of Colorado Boulder. She received her PhD in English from the University of Florida, with a concentration in children’s literature. The Other Side of Perfectis her debut novel.