How Writing Dance Changed How I Wrote Relationships
This blog's become terribly neglected now that I've been using my newsletter for all of the important stuff, like book updates and honest talk about writing life, etc. So if you want more regular updates, I suggest that you sign up! It's free, I give away books, I give you sneak peeks at my books, etc.
But I figured I'd throw an update up here, and then dive into how writing dance changed the way I wrote relationships in all my books.
First, an update!
In case you missed it, The Spy with the Red Balloon has a cover!
Woo-hoo! I LOVE this cover and I'm SUPER excited to share it with you. I'm revealing my pre-order campaign in June, but until then, you should absolutely a) pre-order (links over here on Spy's page) and b) PLEASE add to Goodreads! Goodreads adds really do help raise the visibility of a book and it's super easy/free.
All I can say about the pre-order campaign is--enamel pins, my friends. And they are gorgeous.
I'm also in an anthology that comes out in September called UNBROKEN: 13 Stories about Disabled Teens. I wrote a story called PER ASPERA AD ASTRA which is basically the only Latin phrase I know (okay, I also know "quid pro quo" and "post hoc ergo propter hoc" both because of West Wing). It means through struggle to the stars. Or to the stars through struggle. It's the story of Lizzie Abernathy, the daughter of a high level government official on a planet in a distant universe, who is extremely talented and helped code the city's protective shield. But war comes to her planet, the shield is damaged, and Lizzie may be the only one who can fix it. Only problem? She hasn't left her house in months and suffers from anxiety and panic disorder.
I'm going to save all of my Feelings about writing this story for an upcoming newsletter, but needless to say, this story is really close to my heart and it's something I've wanted to write for awhile. UNBROKEN is full of stories about different types of disability written by authors with those disabilities. It's vital, it's important, and I hope you'll consider pre-ordering it too and adding it on Goodreads.
And now that the book updates are out of the way, here's what I've been thinking about.
As you may or may not know, a few years ago I wrote three romance books about the same couple, two ballet dancers before and after a car accident changed the trajectory of their careers and their relationship. Prior to writing these books, I didn't know a lot about ballet. I immersed myself completely in the research and I worked very hard to become as fluent as I could.
I had no idea that writing dance would change the way I wrote forever.
Take a look at this short clip from World Ballet Day 2014. The story they tell with their bodies is so incredibly clear (Federico is one of the dancers I used as inspiration for Zed in my ballet series, and I think fans of the series will see why!). That is is, after all, their job, right? But more than that, we can see shifts in their relationship, in the way they touch and bounce off of each other.
In this brilliant, joyful, playful pas de deux, we see a different dynamic, a sharing of gender roles and space.
Does how you watch that change if you know that Cendrillon is a ballet reimagining Cinderella?
What about this version of Swan Lake, with choreography by Matthew Bourne, where the swans are played by men?
Now let's look at an ice-dancing pair who have been skating together for 20+ years.
And then an ice-dancing pair who are brother and sister, a very different dynamic than most pairs skaters.
When I write characters now, and their relationships, I almost always think about the choreography in my head. What kind of music would I shape their movements, both physical and visible, and the metaphorical and emotional shifts happening contextually and invisibly? How do they bounce off each other? What does their dance look like? How do they share space on their stage? Who leads--or do they both lead and share the time being led? Who catches when someone falls? And if someone messed up in a dance, what would their partner's reaction be?
I like to feel their dance in my head. I like to think of the whole book as an extended ballet or free dance, told on the page. Dance has a narrative too, especially when it's a pas de deux (on or off the ice), so I'm reaching for that--how do they fall and push and pull away? What do their movements feel like? Choppy and angsty, like the first ballet video? Sensual and moody like the above Swan Lake retelling? Playful and flirtatious like the retelling of Cinderella? Like longing and hope in the first ice dance couple? Or like banter between siblings like the last ice dance couple?
I want my prose to reflect that, even as their relationship may move between all of that. I want it to glide, or stop hard (toe pick!), or skip beats as someone's in the air, and coming down. I want it to feel like a dance too.
Here's an excerpt from Finding Center, as an example:
When she straightens, she lets go of that last edge of restraint. Even dressed in white tights and a navy leotard, she dances like she’s dripping in the red of the costumes. She’s fire and glitter, a star exploding, a girl you want to touch even though you’re pretty sure she’ll sign your death certificate. She’s both Persephone and Artemis, innocent and on the hunt. A few years ago, she spun apart at her edges, fraying in a public meltdown that made even mainstream papers. I’ve seen her dance a hundred times since then, and this is the first time I can see the way her feet, wrapped and bleeding inside satin shoes, stitch her wild manic mind back together.
She slides up to me, her smile sharp, and laces our fingers together. She rises on pointe, swiveling her hips a bit.
It’s hard not to smile in return. Not like I try very hard. “I know.”
She tilts her chin up, her mouth by my ear, and whispers, “Do you remember this part? Where the music gets saucy and I do all those pique turns?”
Her body brushes against mine. My eyes follow the line of her leotard, skimming over her heart. Over the slight shadow between her breasts. I want to touch her. “Yes.”
“Dance it with me,” she says, tugging at my hand. I knew she’d ask.
“Aly.” Standing here, in the room with her dancing a ballet I love, seems unusually arduous tonight. Not arduous, I correct myself. Tempting.
“Zed,” she mimics my warning tone. “I know you can do it.”
“Can, and want to,” I whisper, turning so my mouth is against her hair. She smells like hair spray and the resin she rubs onto her shoes. It’s a combination only a former dancer could love. “Please, Aly.”
I don’t know what I mean by that. I narrow my eyes as she drops my hand and slides back across the floor. The tension hums like an electric current as she tucks stray strands of hair into her bun, her eyes trained on mine. Even without music, when she dances this time, it’s like the spotlight hits just the two of us, the rest of the world evaporating into darkness. The sound of her pointe shoes striking the floor is hardly noticeable over the sound of all the blood in my body rushing south. Whatever resistance I had evaporates into the air, mingling with her sweat and the sound of the air leaving my lungs. The flush climbs up her chest, over her throat. She dances closer, her hips leading her body.
“Tell me, Zed,” she says, her fingers trailing over my chest as she turns a circle around me. “Could I? What if here, in front of the mirrors, is where I want you?”
And from The Spy with the Red Balloon, a different type of romance, still choreographed in my mind as a dance, though maybe more Broadway queer 1940's romance musical than ballet. (Necessary disclaimer: this is from an uncorrected proof and subject to change.)
Polly sighed, pulling me out of my own head. I looked at her shoes that she’d somehow kept clean of mud. “You could go dance. You don’t have to stand here with me.”
“I want to stand here with you,” she said simply.
My eyes darted to her again. “Polly.”
She looked down at her feet. “Ilse.”
Say something, I ordered myself. But my throat was dry, despite the punch. It was just a theory. I didn’t need to test every theory. We could still be friends. Just friends.
“Girls!” cried a familiar voice, and then Lola burst from the crowd and into view, flopping against the wall on my other side, breathless and red-faced. A soldier wandered out from the crowd, flushed and his hands shoved his pockets. He had eyes only for Lola, who snatched the punch from my hand and downed it in a single gulp.
“Oh, that was good,” she said, bubbling with giddiness. “What a dreamboat he is.”
I looked at him and thought that he was a perfectly mediocre example of a man. I almost told Lola that I thought he was quite the dish but remembered Polly’s words about my face being an open book. I bit back the lie and asked, “But can he dance?”
“I’m only interested in one kind of dancing, Ilse Klein, and it’s more horizontal than I’ll let him get. At least tonight,” Lola said airily. “I’ll warn you if and when he’s coming home.”
“Lola!” Polly exclaimed, scandalized.
Lola grinned, winking at both of us. “Did he hear that?”
Oh, how I missed Stella and her dry wit. I looked over Lola’s shoulder at the wide-eyed boy and the Adam’s apple bobbing in his throat. “Yes, definitely.”
“Perfect!” she exclaimed and pushed the empty punch cup back into my hand. “Toodles, girls!”
“Toodles,” Polly and I echoed, amused.
“That poor boy,” Polly murmured.
“I think he knows what he’s getting into,” I said. “How could you not?”
Polly cast me a sidelong look. “Very few people know what they’re getting into until they’re already in it.”
“You can always get out,” I argued.
Polly looked away again. “Sometimes someone doesn’t want to, even if it wasn’t what they were expecting.”
I had a feeling we weren’t talking about Lola anymore.
I still watch a great deal of dance on Youtube and a ton of interviews, even when I'm not writing a book explicitly about dance. I think it's incredibly helpful for me to think about characters and relationships.
And when I watch this, I see Wolf and Ilse from SPY all the way. Siblings are siblings, wherever they are.
I hope this was interesting or helpful to you!