Category Archives: The Writing Life

Chronicling the adventures of my twenty-year journey as a creative writer.

Crazy Rich Africans

Seems there’s a perennial hunger to explore the personal lives of the globally wealthy, evidenced by the recent blockbuster success of the novel-turned-movie, Crazy Rich Asians. Even as a returned Peace Corps Volunteer, I admit it, I’m not immune. I realized how much that was the case, sixteen years ago, when I started writing The Africa Novel.  (My regular readers have heard all about this. If you’re new, go HERE and HERE.) The writing stalled; it seemed bland, more earnest than exciting, until a character and a situation sprang to mind. How about, I mused, instead the stereotyped altruistic, liberal-minded, upper-middle-class American girl helping those less privileged, I’d make her humbler. Bumbling. And the main African character, Christophe, would be a wealthy, privileged, pampered African, far more cosmopolitan and privileged than narrator Fiona. It’s not that big of a stretch, either. Every country has its elite, and trust me, this includes African countries. Building on this, I made Fiona a cloistered Midwesterner girl from a good family, but a modest, middle-class one. A ballet dancer, at that, more “save the pointe shoes” than “save the world.” The main reason she joined the Peace Corps was to get far away from her sister’s bitter betrayal. Running from conflict, she landed with a thud in Gabon, Central Africa, where her encounters with the wealthy, charismatic (did we mention sexy and good looking?) Christophe leaves no doubt that conflict will continue in her life. Fiona, over the course of the next two years, is in for an education. Then again, so is Christophe.

Mind you, A Dancer’s Guide to Africa has more depth than “impressionable Midwesterner falls under the spell of wealthy, sexy African man.” Alongside Fiona’s desperate infatuation is the struggle to acclimate in this world so wildly different from the one she grew up in. Her American precepts of being a “fun” English teacher, and being an outspoken, assertive female, land her into trouble, time and time again. In a country where family is everything and children are wealth, the single, unattached Fiona is considered poor beyond measure. And then there’s Christophe, his family’s fortune, their mansion, their ocean-front, palm-fringed vacation villa. While he and his family are purely fabrications of my imagination, I’m certain they represent a segment of Gabon’s population. Gabon enjoys a per capita income four times that of most sub-Saharan African nations. (Think: oil, the fifth largest oil producer in Africa. And manganese and lumber and other natural resources.) But there is a high income inequality, and a large proportion of the population remains poor. And the rich—well, many of them are crazy rich.

I’ve been asked, in interviews, what I’d like readers to take away from A Dancer’s Guide to Africa. There’s the obvious: I want readers to enjoy a good yarn, with dance but not too much; with romance and conflict, but not too much. But beyond that, I wrote this story to share with armchair adventurers, incorporating the grit of Africa, the unforeseen challenges, the bafflement and reverence, in the hopes that they come to “see” the Africa I saw. In some ways I wrote this as a love letter to Africa, one that I want to share with the world. The more all people can relate to or simply learn about foreign cultures, understand them at the personal level, the better this world will be. There are rich Africans, here and abroad. There are poor, under-served, struggling communities right here in the U.S. Values can vary wildly between cultures. Life isn’t fair, for so many people. There’s so much suffering in one part of the world, so much entitlement in another part. Fortunately, the hunger to connect, find affiliation and love, seems to define us all. I hope we take that similarity, that yearning for connection, and instead of saving the world, maybe just save each other.

You can find A Dancer’s Guide to Africa HERE or through Bookshop Santa Cruz.

A DANCER’S GUIDE TO AFRICA is born!

Classical Girl Press is proud to announce the release of A Dancer’s Guide to Africa — recently named a quarter-finalist for the 2018 BookLife Prize! You can find it in print and electronic formats HERE or distributed through Ingram Book Company and Bookshop Santa Cruz. As a special in conjunction with World Dance Day 2018, enjoy A Dancer’s Guide to Africa at the discount price of $2.99 all month long!  After that it returns to its regular price of $4.99.

WHAT IT’S ABOUT

Fiona Garvey, ballet dancer and new college graduate, is desperate to escape her sister’s betrayal and a failed relationship. Vowing to restart as far from home as possible, she accepts a two-year teaching position with the Peace Corps in Africa. It’s a role she’s sure she can perform. But in no time, Fiona realizes she’s traded her problems in Omaha for bigger ones in Gabon, a country as beautiful as it is filled with contradictions. 

Emotionally derailed by Christophe, a charismatic and privileged Gabonese man who can teach her to let go of her inhibitions but can’t commit to anything more, threatened by an overly familiar student with a menacing fixation on her, and drawn into the compelling but potentially dangerous local dance ceremonies, Fiona finds herself at increasing risk. And when matters come to a shocking head, she must reach inside herself, find her dancer’s power, and fight back.

Blending humor and pathos, A DANCER’S GUIDE TO AFRICA takes the reader along on a suspense-laden, sensual journey through Africa’s complex beauty, mystery and mysticism.

I wrote a bit about the story’s inception HERE.

HERE’S WHAT PEOPLE ARE SAYING…

“Vivid prose and rapt evocations of the African surroundings make the story come alive.”
Kirkus Reviews

“Hilarious and poignant, with a frank, observant narrator who seems forever on the outside looking in, and all the more lovable and relatable for that.”
— Sarah Bird, bestselling author of The Yokota Officers Club and Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen

“Terez Mertes Rose knows dancing. She can make us feel its soulful allure. And in A Dancer’s Guide To Africa she captures the wonder, the culture divide, the longing and loneliness of being an outsider in the nation of Gabon. Better still, she delivers a cast of characters and a story that holds our attention from beginning to end. With this novel, Terez Mertes Rose, a savvy, insightful and entertaining writer, has come into her own.”
— John Dalton, award-winning author of Heaven Lake

“Rich with the smells, sounds, sights and culture of Africa, this novel takes us on an exquisite journey, through the eyes of a ballet dancer turned Peace Corps volunteer. A Dancer’s Guide to Africa is at once funny and dark, and superbly nuanced.”
— Marika Brussel, choreographer and former dancer

“A textured, sensuous, coming-of-age story that had me turning pages until the very end. I could almost hear the drums and see the firelight as I followed these believably drawn characters through their cultural and romantic escapades in this wonderful novel.”
— Anne Clermont, author of Learning to Fall

“Terez Mertes Rose has drawn on her considerable passions—dance, music, and storytelling—to take readers on a sometimes mystical and often suspenseful journey. The spiritual, visceral, and sensory-laden beauty of Gabon was a believable and riveting backdrop for this touching story of a women discovering her truth and power. A Dancer’s Guide to Africacommanded my attention from the first page to the last sentence.”
-– Jennifer Haupt, author of In the Shadow of 10,000 Hills and curator of the Psychology Today blog, One True Thing

Join me on my blog tour this week, hosted by Sage’s Blog Tours! Here are my stops:

October 2nd Corinne Rodrigues ~ BOOK SPOTLIGHT
October 4th Viviana MacKade ~ AUTHOR INTERVIEW
October 6th Reecaspieces ~ AUTHOR INTERVIEW
October 7th Jessica Rachow ~ BOOK REVIEW
​October 8th  The Book Adventures of Emily ~ BOOK REVIEW

A Ballet Dancer’s Guide to Africa

 

Back in the 1980’s, I was a ballet dancer who went off to Africa. I could have used a guide. But I was young and didn’t even give the concept — ballet dancer + Africa = not — much thought. For the previous five years, ballet had been my world, even as I concurrently earned my college degree and worked. English teacher in the Peace Corps seemed to be a fun role to audition for. So I tried out, got cast, moved to Central Africa for two years. During which time I came to realize that classical ballet and provincial Africa don’t particularly mix and that I was a fish out of water.

Cut to present day, where I just recently completed my rewrite of “that Africa novel,” now in its third incarnation. If you’re one of my earlier readers, you might remember reading this post, and you’ll know the original 2002 novel was titled Black Ivory Soul. During the past six months as I rewrote, the working title became The Art of Foreign Relations. Last week, however, I pitched titles to a group of writer buddies, and they pointed out potential flaws to my shortlist (favored by me was A Ballet Dancer’s Guide to African Survival, which even I knew was too damned long). The trimmed title that resulted from the group brainstorm is A Dancer’s Guide to Africa, and does just what it’s supposed to do. Because, invariably, my elevator pitch for the project starts off with, “So, it’s about this ballet dancer who runs off to Africa to escape her problems…” No, the novel is not autobiographical. Well. Maybe a teensy bit. 

But I digress. That guide I could have used? While it doesn’t seem to exist, here are a few of my personal impressions. And bear in mind the impressions date back thirty years. Also, I’m not counting South Africa here. It does have its dance companies, choreographers, ballet dancers. I am thinking of Central and West Africa. If you have more recent information to share, or information about other parts of Africa, my readers and I would LOVE it if you added what you know below, in comments.

Tips for the ballet dancer heading to Africa…

  • Reconsider bringing your pointe shoes. They just go mushy fast in the humid, warm climate. Give your poor feet a well-deserved rest.
  • Don’t make any assumptions about the availability of a studio, a class, a space to do ballet.
  • Giving yourself a barre twice weekly in your home IS something you can do. Yes, for two years. Don’t think you have to give up ballet completely just because there might not be a single ballet community outside the capital city. (Or even there.)
  • Expect kids to hear your music and come running, and watch whenever possible. This classical ballet stuff is fascinating for them.
  • Ballet means something different in French-speaking Africa.  The French word for what I call “ballet” is la danse classique. On the other hand, Les Ballets Africains is a dance company based in Conakry, Guinea, one that promotes traditional dance and culture of Africa.
  • Dance is something so innate in the African culture, it’s a difficult concept for Africans to consider, the way Westerners compartmentalize dance, into something a young girl might do once a week, in a studio, paying for lessons, and no more. It baffles them to consider that some people prefer not to dance at all.

In A Dancer’s Guide to Africa, my character, Fiona, muses about dance and its place in Africa. Here’s an excerpt, where she’s talking with Christophe, her Gabonese friend (and so much more, but let’s not get into that angle here). And lest you feel annoyed with Fiona for clinging to her “I only do ballet” attitude toward dance in Africa, know that her metamorphosis from “ballet only” to embracing African dance is part of the story. A big part.

               

                                                                           ***

I waded out into the Atlantic, diving through the breakers. The undertow tugged at me as I sliced through the warm water, stretching my muscles, freeing my body. It felt glorious – the closest thing to dance I’d found in a long time. I swam back and forth for twenty minutes, releasing the surplus dancer energy I’d carried for weeks. Months. Finally I made my way back to shore and the chairs, dripping, chest still heaving.
“That was quite a workout,” Christophe said as I collapsed in the seat next to him.
“I needed it. Bad.”
“Are you dancing these days?”
I shook my head. “Got my ballet shoe stolen, remember?”
“We both know you could have obtained a replacement. In fact, give me the size and maker and I’ll order you a pair. A gift.”
I ignored the offer. “What would be the point, anyway?”
“Because you’re a dancer.”
“Ballet doesn’t work here.”
“Ballet is not the only form of dance.”
“It’s what I excel at. I’m not comfortable doing the other styles.” I watched the ocean thunder onto the beach and whisper its retreat.
“Have you tried?” he asked.
“Of course I have. It would be hard to avoid.”
Dance, I’d come to see, was everywhere here. The Gabonese danced at clubs, bars, parties. They danced in church; they danced in rituals; they danced to honor the arrivals of politicians and luminaries. They danced any time someone put on the right music, which meant, any music with a drum beat. Or any beat. One thing they didn’t dance to was classical music. I hadn’t heard a whisper of anything classical, aside from my cassettes—stolen in theft number six—since my arrival in Africa.
“And how was it?” Christophe prodded.
“I can’t dance African.”
“Can’t, or won’t?”
“Why are you pushing this issue? You’ve seen me dance. I’m classical. I’m Caucasian. I cannot move like an African.”
And I didn’t need Christophe to inform me why, that something in me was too rigid and had to loosen, not just physically but psychologically. I knew this. I’d watch the Gabonese move with a freedom within their bodies that I couldn’t even imagine. Relaxed energy flowed from all parts of their body: the legs, the torso, the arms. Sometimes the movement would be so small, just this gentle, rhythmic shifting from one foot to another. There was an innate flexibility in their hips. When I saw toddlers learning to dance in tandem with learning to walk, I understood the source of the intuitive movement. Even before that, actually. Babies were tucked on their mother’s backs, tied in place with a spare pagne. Every movement the mother made, and she went right along with her business, the child felt. Jiggling, swerving, dancing, striding, straining, from a child’s earliest kinetic memory. I thought of my own Omaha upbringing and my first exposure to dance at age eight, with Miss Claireen’s class. And even then, it had been once a week, only in later years three and four times weekly. Less than six hours a week, through my adolescence. Ballet alone. Which I loved fiercely. No ballet available here? Fine. No dance, I told myself.
Christophe studied my stubborn expression. He shook his head and, to my irritation, began to chuckle.

                                                                       ***

Got questions related to Africa and/or trying to maintain a private dance practice there? Drop me a line! And be on the lookout, in October 2018, for A Dancer’s Guide to Africa. It’s a great yarn, with plenty of humor and heart. And heaps of Africa.

Want to see some great African dance? This is a YouTube of Umoja, a 2011 collaboration that brought together three artist groups in the West African tradition – Voice of Culture, Duniya Drum and Dance, and Oyin Dance. The event was held at Caponi Art Park in Eagan, MN. I love that there’s a Caucasian dancer in the mix. She rocks. It makes me think of my character, Fiona, once she’s evolved.

Introducing OUTSIDE THE LIMELIGHT

Breaking news! Outside the Limelight has been named a Kirkus Indie Books of the Month Selection for January 2017!

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Classical Girl Press is proud to announce the release of Outside the Limelight, Book 2 of the Ballet Theatre Chronicles! You can find it in print and electronic formats HERE or distributed  through Ingram Book Company and Bookshop Santa Cruz.

WHAT THE NOVEL’S ABOUT…

Rising ballet star Dena Lindgren’s dream career is knocked off its axis when a puzzling onstage fall results in a crushing diagnosis: an acoustic neuroma, a benign brain tumor. Looming surgery and its long recovery period prompt the company’s artistic director, Anders Gunst, to shift his attention to an overshadowed company dancer: Dena’s older sister, Rebecca, with whom Anders once shared a special relationship.

Under the heady glow of Anders’ attention, Rebecca thrives, even as her recuperating sister, hobbled and unnoticed, languishes on the sidelines of a world that demands beauty and perfection. Rebecca ultimately faces a painful choice: play by the artistic director’s rules and profit, or take shocking action to help her sister.

Exposing the glamorous onstage world of professional ballet, as well as its shadowed wings and dark underbelly, Outside the Limelight examines loyalty, beauty, artistic passion, and asks what might be worth losing in order to help the ones you love.

WHAT PEOPLE ARE SAYING…

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“A lovely and engaging tale of sibling rivalry in the high-stakes dance world.”
— Kirkus Review (Starred review; read in its entirety HERE)

“Balanchine said dance is music made visible; Terez Mertes Rose’s Outside the Limelight is dance made readable. She reveals both the beauty of ballet and its pain in a compelling, deftly written novel that unfolds like a series of perfectly executed chaîné turns. Not to be missed!”
— Tasha Alexander, NYT bestselling author of A Terrible Beauty

Outside the Limelight sweeps us backstage, through the wings, past the dressing rooms, and into the lives of its dancers, where we see them up close, flawed and beautiful.”
— Adrienne Sharp, bestselling author of The True Memoirs of Little K and White Swan, Black Swan: Stories

“From the theater’s spotlights and shadows comes a nuanced drama of pain and beauty without one false note. I didn’t want it to end!”
— Kathryn Craft, award-winning author of The Art of Falling and The Far End of Happy

Outside the Limelight pulls readers into the lives of two sisters, both professional ballerinas. Through their challenges, obstacles and triumphs we are reminded that life is a complicated yet wondrous journey, and that love–artistic, romantic and familial–is one of the strongest forces of all.”
— Zippora Karz, former soloist, New York City Ballet, author of The Sugarless Plum and Ballerina Dreams

“Readers will relish this fresh, enlightened insider’s look at two talented dancer sisters beset by professional rivalry & bound by love. This glowing novel is full of heart. Enchanting.”
–Sari Wilson, author of Girl Through Glass

“In Outside the Limelight, Terez Mertes Rose once again manages to perfectly capture the ethereal beauty of the ballet.  It’s a story as rich, heartbreaking and uplifting as any ballet masterwork, with characters who stay with you long after the final act.”
— Lauren E. Rico, author of Reverie and Rhapsody

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WHERE THE STORY CAME FROM…

A decade ago, in the spring of 2006, my sister was diagnosed with an acoustic neuroma and two months later underwent a craniotomy and translab procedure to have it removed. I hadn’t started writing my Ballet Theatre Chronicles series yet, immersed as I was in a different, “sure thing” second novel. We were both to be disappointed by our respective end results. While the craniotomy and tumor removal was deemed a success, resulting facial paralysis on one side, brain fog, single-sided deafness and worsening tinnitus became my sister’s fate. My own “sure to be a winner” novel went over like a lead balloon with my agent. The silver lining: her belief in my writing and suggestion that I try my hand at something ballet-based, a subject I’d touched on in my first, unpublished novel. So as my sister struggled with the aftereffects of her acoustic neuroma, immersing herself in therapies and surgeries and strategies, I set to work on a new novel. But it would only be in February of 2011, after the first ballet novel didn’t sell, and my fourth novel didn’t sell, and my agent and I were once again musing about ballet in fiction for adults, its absence in the current marketplace, that I said to her, “what do you think about a ballet novel featuring two sisters, dancers in the same elite company, and one of them, the younger, more talented one, gets felled by an acoustic neuroma diagnosis and a host of post-op problems? Do you think something like that would interest readers?”

Black Swan had just come out. Something in the air seemed to be whispering ballet to the world at large. “I do,” she said without hesitation, and so Outside the Limelight was born.

At first things seemed great. The words flowed onto paper, and my sister’s warrior, can-do attitude toward her difficult recovery continued, through more surgeries, more therapies. But life can get the best of us and our best intentions. A month away from completion, my novel hit a snag. A competing ballet novel—about sisters, dancers in the same elite company, the younger, more talented one gets sidelined with injury (seriously, how was this possible for two books so similar to be produced in the same year after decades of nothing?)—came out, to strong acclaim. I was screwed. And so was my sister. Surgery after surgery had not eradicated her facial paralysis. Nor had her brain fog or tinnitus dissipated. Depression and anxiety swept over her like a tsunami, drowning her. My novel, hastily revised so it didn’t seem quite so copycat, stagnated in the hinterlands of the Big 5 Publishing world as my agent shopped it that fall and through the next twelve months. It was a year of staggering disappointment and discouragement, for both myself and my sister. And still life went on. Because it always does.

My sister couldn’t fight back, but I could. Time for Plan B. In May 2015, as an independent publisher (Classical Girl Press), I published my first ballet novel, Off Balance. A twelve-week revision of Book 2 turned into twelve months. As a result of everything, this 2016 revision is both the same story and a very different one. They say adversity reshapes you, and I concur. My own reshaping stuff aside, I watched my sister continue to struggle with her load. Nothing went away for her—not the brain fog, the shrill scream of permanent tinnitus, the facial paralysis, the resulting depression and anxiety. While I could do little to help my sister’s plight, I could pour my concern and love for her into my story. Powered by this, and a long year of backtracking, slowing down, rerouting and re-re-revising, the story has emerged all the stronger for it.

This is Outside the Limelight. This story is dedicated to my sister Maureen, with love, from all her sisters (below, L to R, clockwise: Orange Classical Girl, Annette, Kathleen, Laura, MarySue, with Maureen in the middle.) It’s a story dedicated to sisters everywhere. And to acoustic neuroma survivors. And to professional ballet dancer survivors. You are all warriors. Never forget it.

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PS: I want to publicly thank the Acoustic Neuroma Association and its wonderful discussion forum, a source of great comfort, peer information and support for my sister, and a community I quietly followed on the sidelines as I worked on my novel. Ten percent of the profits of Outside the Limelight will be donated to the Acoustic Neuroma Association. If you know of anyone who has suffered from an acoustic neuroma or just been diagnosed with one, direct them to the association and discussion forum HERE. And please allow me to gift them a copy of Outside the Limelight. It would be an honor, a privilege, and a chance to pay it forward. This goes for loved ones of an acoustic neuroma patient/survivor as well. Sometimes sitting on the sidelines, watching a loved one struggle, feels just as hard.

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10 ballet novels [for adults] you’ll love

My latest novel, A Dancer’s Guide to Africa, has released! To help celebrate the new arrival, enjoy my other novels, Off Balance  and the award-winning Outside the Limelight for 99 cents and $2.99 respectively. Just click on their titles!

photo by Jordan Matter

photo by Jordan Matter

For a long time, “ballet fiction” meant the books that catered to young girls, slim tomes with pink, appealing covers. Noel Streatfeild’s more substantial and highly popular Ballet Shoes comprised my ballet fiction-reading youth. I adored the book. I compensated for its lack of competition by reading it over and over, annually, through my youth and adolescence, until the trashy romantic fiction genre caught my eye and stole my attention for {{winces}} well over a decade. What can I say? I love the ballet world’s theatricality and glamour, its dangerous, seductive glitter, and ballet fiction for adults just didn’t exist. Fast forward two dozen years. The movie Black Swan happened. The equally compelling documentaries, First Position and Ballerina happened. And suddenly I wasn’t the only adult wanting to read ballet fiction.

I should clarify something about this Top 10 list. While I’m calling it ballet fiction, it doesn’t mean it has to take place in a ballet studio or theater (or necessarily be classical ballet, for that matter). In Outside the Limelight, one ballet dancer narrator spends nearly the whole story offstage, in doctors’ offices, out in the “real” world with new non-dancer friends and ideas. The Art of Falling uses flashback to reference the narrator’s actual performing days, and chronicles instead her slow, treacherous journey to finding wholeness beyond her lifelong relationship with dance, its dark hold, the mix of slavish love and despair its presence conjured. Likewise, Girl Through Glass features one narrator (of two) who is a dance historian and professor, steering clear of the dance performance world in a way of avoiding her own dark past within it. The thing connecting these ten books is that all the narrators are dancers at their core. The craft, and the scars the lifetime commitment has yielded, have made these characters who they are. And who they are runs very, very deep.

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Without further ado, here are The Classical Girl’s favorite and recommended ballet novels (and one short story collection), in no particular order:

  1. Girl Through Glass, Sari Wilson
  2. The True Memoirs of Little K: A Novel, Adrienne Sharp
  3. The Art of Falling, Kathryn Craft
  4. The Cranes Dance, Meg Howrey
  5. Astonish Me, Maggie Shipstead
  6. White Swan, Black Swan: Stories, Adrienne Sharp
  7. The Painted Girls, Cathy Marie Buchanan
  8. Ballerina, Edward Stewart
  9. First Love (also released as The Sleeping Beauty), Adrienne Sharp
  10. Off Balance, Terez Mertes Rose

You’ll find each novel’s description further down. In the meantime, here’s a nifty chart. I don’t know about you, but when I hear about a new ballet fiction book, I want to know, is it dark and dramatic or breezy/funny? (Or, as in The Cranes Dance, both.) Is it a literary voice (Girl Through Glass, First Love) or does it have more of an old fashion storytelling voice, the kind of book that you can sink into and lusciously inhabit another world for the afternoon (Astonish Me, Ballerina)? Is it deeply immersed in the ballet world (Ballerina, First Love) or is the dance world somewhat peripheral to the story at hand (The Art of Falling and half of Girl Through Glass)? Do issues relevant to women and relationships—self-acceptance, the power of healing and/or the power of friendship—come up? (The Art of Falling, Off Balance, Girl Through Glass) So, here you go. All nicely spliced up to help you pick out that next favorite ballet read. I hope it’s okay with you that I included my own ballet novel, Off Balance. And I’ve also included, in the chart below, its follow-up, Outside the Limelight, forthcoming in October, so that you can see what category it will fall into.

Historical fiction
The True Memoirs of Little K: A Novel
The Painted Girls

Balanchine era, ‘70’s New York (“Historical-ish” Fiction)
Girl Through Glass (half the story)
Ballerina
First Love
Astonish Me (First section)
White Swan, Black Swan (select stories)

Edgy
Girl Through Glass
White Swan, Black Swan: Stories
The Cranes Dance
The Art of Falling
First Love (warning: gets dark & rather depressing)

Fun, beach read
Astonish Me
Ballerina (warning: grows a bit over-the-top dramatic and a little annoying. Published in 1979.)
Off Balance

Literary
White Swan, Black Swan
Girl Through Glass
The Art of Falling
The Painted Girls
First Love

Humorous slant
The Cranes Dance
Off Balance 

Women’s fiction (themes of self-query, acceptance of the past, healing)
Girl Through Glass
The Art of Falling
Outside the Limelight
The Cranes Dance
Off Balance

Sisters
The Cranes Dance
The Painted Girls
Outside the Limelight 

Powerfully drawn characters you will never, never forget
The Art of Falling
The Cranes Dance
Girl Through Glass

Friendship
Ballerina
Off Balance
The Art of Falling

Sexy (or erotic-tinged) scenes
First Love
Ballerina
Off Balance

Set mostly in the ballet world
Ballerina
The Cranes Dance
White Swan, Black Swan: Stories
First Love

Uses the dance world as the launch pad for a broader story and theme
Girl Through Glass (half the story)
The Art of Falling
Off Balance
Outside the Limelight
The Painted Girls

This Top 10 list does not take into account the quality young adult ballet novels out there, which seem to be increasing in number with each passing year. Yay! Maybe some day I will create a “10 Best YA Ballet Fiction” list. In the meantime, if you’re a crossover reader into YA, or if you have daughters/nieces who love ballet stories, it’s worth checking out works by the following authors: Sophie Flack (Bunheads), Miriam Wenger Landis (Girl in Motion and Breaking Pointe), Grier Cooper (Hope and Wish) and Nancy Lorenz (The Strength of Ballerinas and American Ballerina).

The following book descriptions are courtesy of Amazon. I just about blew a mental gasket trying to come up with ten summaries of my own, and halfway through, I gave up and dumped all fifteen pages out all by the cyber-roadside. I’d rather talk for pages about how a book makes me feel versus trying to summarize it in two neat paragraphs. I’d rather have oral surgery than attempt it ten times. Click on the book’s title to go to its Amazon page and read an excerpt.

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Girl Through Glass, Sari Wilson
In the roiling summer of 1977, eleven-year-old Mira is an aspiring ballerina in the romantic, highly competitive world of New York City ballet. Enduring the mess of her parent’s divorce, she finds escape in dance—the rigorous hours of practice, the exquisite beauty, the precision of movement, the obsessive perfectionism. Ballet offers her control, power, and the promise of glory. It also introduces her to forty-seven-year-old Maurice DuPont, a reclusive, charismatic balletomane who becomes her mentor. As she ascends higher in the ballet world, her relationship with Maurice intensifies, touching dark places within herself and sparking unexpected desires that will upend both their lives.

In the present day, Kate, a professor of dance at a Midwestern college, embarks on a risky affair with a student that threatens to obliterate her career and capsizes the new life she has painstakingly created for her reinvented self. When she receives a letter from a man she’s long thought dead, Kate is hurled back into the dramas of a past she thought she had left behind.

Told in interweaving narratives that move between past and present, Girl Through Glass illuminates the costs of ambition, secrets, and the desire for beauty, and reveals how the sacrifices we make for an ideal can destroy—or save—us.

The True Memoirs of Little K: A Novel, Adrienne Sharp
From Publisher’s Weekly: Sharp impressively conjures the grand life of Mathilde Kschessinka, Russian prima ballerina and mistress of Czar Nicholas II, in her sweeping third novel (after The Sleeping Beauty). Narrated by Mathilde–“Little K” as she was affectionately known–the story follows her early life under her well-placed father’s tutelage, and on through her determination, at 17, to catch Niki’s eye, their affair, his breaking it off so he can marry his Alexandra, Little K’s affairs with two grand dukes, Niki’s return to father her son, the removal of his family from power, and her escape before the imperial family’s slaughter. Sharp, a trained ballet dancer, gives the backstage escapades a lively spark and writes movingly of Russian dance. Though Mathilde is a bit narrow in terms of her icy ambition, her story is an unrelenting thrill ride and chockfull of the stuff that historical fiction buffs adore: larger than life characters, epic change, grand settings, and lusty plotting. © Reed Business Information

The Art of Falling, Kathryn Craft
All Penny has ever wanted to do is dance—and when that chance is taken from her, it pushes her to the brink of despair, from which she might never return. When she wakes up after a traumatic fall, bruised and battered but miraculously alive, Penny must confront the memories that have haunted her for years, using her love of movement to pick up the pieces of her shattered life. Kathryn Craft’s lyrical debut novel is a masterful portrayal of a young woman trying to come to terms with her body and the artistic world that has repeatedly rejected her. The Art of Falling expresses the beauty of movement, the stasis of despair, and the unlimited possibilities that come with a new beginning.

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White Swan, Black Swan: Stories, Adrienne Sharp
The world’s most famous choreographer becomes infatuated with a coltish young dancer who proves both siren and muse. A rising star plunges into an affair with a principal but finds that ecstasy on the stage can’t be surpassed in the bed. A dying legend reflects on the evanescent beauty of a life of gesture, lost to everything but memory. Each bittersweet story plants the reader amid a cast of dancers and choreographers who struggle—valiantly, playfully, fiercely—to find in the rigorous discipline and animating beauty of ballet a counterbalance to the chaos of unscripted life.

The Cranes Dance, Meg Howrey
Kate Crane is a soloist in a celebrated New York City ballet company who is struggling to keep her place in a very demanding world. At every turn she is haunted by her close relationship with her younger sister, Gwen, a fellow company dancer whose career quickly surpassed Kate’s, but who has recently suffered a breakdown and returned home. Alone for the first time in her life, Kate is anxious and full of guilt about the role she may have played in her sister’s collapse. As we follow her on an insider tour of rehearsals, performances, and partners onstage and off, she confronts the tangle of love, jealousy, pride, and obsession that are beginning to fracture her own sanity. Funny, dark, intimate, and unflinchingly honest, The Cranes Dance is a book that pulls back the curtains to reveal the private lives of dancers and explores the complicated bond between sisters.

Astonish Me, Maggie Shipstead
Joan is a young American dancer who helps a Soviet ballet star, the great Arslan Rusakov, defect in 1975. A flash of fame and a passionate love affair follow, but Joan knows that, onstage and off, she is destined to remain in the background. She will never possess Arslan, and she will never be a prima ballerina. She will rise no higher than the corps, one dancer among many.

After her relationship with Arslan sours, Joan plots to make a new life for herself. She quits ballet, marries a good man, and settles in California with him and their son, Harry. But as the years pass, Joan comes to understand that ballet isn’t finished with her yet, for there is no mistaking that Harry is a prodigy. Through Harry, Joan is pulled back into a world she thought she’d left behind—back into dangerous secrets, and back, inevitably, to Arslan.

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The Painted Girls, Cathy Marie Buchanan
1878 Paris. Following their father’s sudden death, the van Goethem sisters find their lives upended. Without his wages, and with the small amount their laundress mother earns disappearing into the absinthe bottle, eviction from their lodgings seems imminent. With few options for work, Marie is dispatched to the Paris Opéra, where for a scant seventeen francs a week, she will be trained to enter the famous ballet. Her older sister, Antoinette, finds work as an extra in a stage adaptation of Émile Zola’s naturalist masterpiece L’Assommoir.

Marie throws herself into dance and is soon modeling in the studio of Edgar Degas, where her image will forever be immortalized as Little Dancer Aged Fourteen. There she meets a wealthy male patron of the ballet, but might the assistance he offers come with strings attached? Meanwhile Antoinette, derailed by her love for the dangerous Émile Abadie, must choose between honest labor and the more profitable avenues open to a young woman of the Parisian demimonde.

Set at a moment of profound artistic, cultural, and societal change, The Painted Girls is a tale of two remarkable sisters rendered uniquely vulnerable to the darker impulses of “civilized society.” In the end, each will come to realize that her salvation, if not survival, lies with the other.

Off Balance, Terez Mertes Rose
Alice thinks she’s accepted the loss of her ballet career, injury having forced her to trade in pointe shoes onstage for spreadsheets upstairs. That is, until the day Alice’s boss asks her to befriend Lana, a pretty new company member he’s got his eye on. Lana represents all Alice has lost, not just as a ballet dancer, but as a motherless daughter. It’s pain she’s kept hidden, even from herself, as every good ballet dancer knows to do. Lana, lonely and unmoored, desperately needs some help, and her mother, back home, vows eternal support. But when Lana begins to profit from Alice’s advice and help, her mother’s constant attention curdles into something more sinister. Together, both women must embark on a journey of painful rediscoveries, not just about career opportunities won and lost, but the mothers they thought they knew.

Ballerina, Edward Stewart
[Note: first published in 1979.] Stephanie Lang and Christine Avery meet in ballet school. Although they share the same dream—to become great dancers—they could not be more different. Ballet is in Stephanie’s blood; her mother, Anna, is a former dancer who lives to see her daughter achieve the fame she herself never attained. Christine has lived a sheltered life, secure in the love of her family. But her privileged upbringing conceals a devastating secret.

Two teen dancers, one chance to make it. From the thrill and terror of auditions through years of meticulous training to landing a coveted spot in a professional company, Stephanie and Christine relentlessly pursue their ambitions. As they give their all to dance, they become inseparable—until they are torn apart by their passion for the same man, a brilliant Russian dancer whose seductive, mercurial temperament will have unforeseen consequences for them all.

First Love (also released as The Sleeping Beauty), Adrienne Sharp
Adam and Sandra are ballet dancers, friends since they were fifteen, and now lovers. Sandra is a dancer in the corps of the New York City Ballet who has just caught George Balanchine’s eye. Adam is an explosively gifted new star who has defected to the rival company, the American Ballet Theatre. They are in love, passionate and ambitious, but ill-prepared to handle the demands, seductions, and expectations that are visited on them as they come within reach of their dreams. The novel proceeds from a true premise: Since the beginning of his career, Balanchine sought to create an opulent ballet from the fairy tale Sleeping Beauty, but never had the means and the muse come together at the same time. In First Love, Adrienne Sharp conjures in Sandra a last muse for the ailing ballet master. Balanchine promises to make Sleeping Beauty for her, and that it will be his final and greatest ballet. But Balanchine’s favor comes at a price, and Sandra is forced to decide which of her loves comes first.

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Outside the Limelight, Terez Mertes Rose    *A Kirkus Indie Books of the Month Selection*
Rising ballet star Dena Lindgren’s dream career is knocked off its axis when a puzzling onstage fall results in a crushing diagnosis: a brain tumor. Looming surgery and its long recovery period prompt the company’s artistic director, Anders Gunst, to shift his attention to an overshadowed company dancer: Dena’s older sister, Rebecca, with whom Anders once shared a special relationship.

Under the heady glow of Anders’ attention, Rebecca thrives, even as her slowly recuperating sister languishes on the sidelines of a professional world that demands beauty and perfection. Rebecca ultimately faces a painful choice: play by the artistic director’s rules and profit, or take shocking action to help the sister she came close to losing.

Exposing the glamorous onstage world of professional ballet, as well as its shadowed wings and dark underbelly, OUTSIDE THE LIMELIGHT examines loyalty, beauty, artistic passion, and asks what might be worth losing in order to help the ones you love.

And new released in 2018 (“ballet meets African dance” fiction)

A Dancer’s Guide to Africa, Terez Mertes Rose

Fiona Garvey, ballet dancer and new college graduate, is desperate to escape her sister’s betrayal and a failed relationship. Vowing to restart as far from home as possible, she accepts a two-year teaching position with the Peace Corps in Africa. It’s a role she’s sure she can perform. But in no time, Fiona realizes she’s traded her problems in Omaha for bigger ones in Gabon, a country as beautiful as it is filled with contradictions.  

Emotionally derailed by Christophe, a charismatic and privileged Gabonese man who can teach her to let go of her inhibitions but can’t commit to anything more, threatened by an overly familiar student with a menacing fixation on her, and drawn into the compelling but potentially dangerous local dance ceremonies, Fiona finds herself at increasing risk. And when matters come to a shocking head, she must reach inside herself, find her dancer’s power, and fight back.

Blending humor and pathos, A DANCER’S GUIDE TO AFRICA takes the reader along on a suspense-laden, sensual journey through Africa’s complex beauty, mystery and mysticism.