Dancing in the Wings
written by Debbie Allen
illustrated by Kadir Nelson

Cover and inside page from Debbie Allen's 'Dancing in the Wings' (loosely autobiographical)

Debbie Allen's Dancing in the Wings
Illustrated by Kadir Nelson

Book review by Monica Friedman

Ages 5-10

Noted Dancer Tells the Story of a Dedicated Young Ballerina

Tall, slender, big-footed and full of attitude, Sassy lives to dance. "Ever since I was born and could see, Everywhere I looked, I saw dance…. Dance was all around me. Dance was me."

Although her brother teases her about her big feet, her mother assures her, "your big feet will make your legs look longer and prettier in your ballet shoes."

Her body can be an embarrassment at times, but, Sassy concedes, "because of my long legs and big feet, I could jump higher and spin faster than everyone else."

Dancing in the Wings

Standing out at a young age can be especially painful for those whose differences make it impossible for them to hide. She never gets solos or duets at her recitals. She is "too big for the boys to pick up, and too tall to be in line with the other girls," who call her a tyrannosaurus.

She feels as if she sticks "out like a big acne bump on someone's nose," and that, despite her talent, she'll never have a chance to dance at the level she desires.

Sassy's big turning point is the day that she signs up to audition for a summer dance festival in Washington, D.C. Her classmates insist she'll never make it; she stands out too much. However, her Uncle Red, who makes a point of standing out, says, "you gotta look at that as a gift," and considers her fortunate, because, "All you gotta do to make your mark on the world is walk into a room."

Bolstered by his high opinion, Sassy decides to do her best.

In fact, based on his assessment, she determines to stand out even more.

"Everyone was expected to wear black," Sassy says, "but…I picked my own color, bright yellow." Then she stands in the front of the room, and is promptly sent to the back by the old school Russian dance instructor. "Why are you wearing that loud yellow leotard?" he asks. "I'll need to put on sunglasses."

Sassy says, "At least he noticed me."

Dancing in the Wings

What's most important in this story, of course, is that Sassy does her best.

Her best is not perfect-during the adagio, she gets her foot stuck over her head; during the leaps, she leaps too far and doesn't come down on the correct count-but her enthusiasm seems to make up for any overreaching that might affect her ultimate assessment.

Although the teacher has plenty of criticism for her, he wants to help her become a better dancer, leading, ultimately, to Sassy finding the right partner-"Dwight who was five feet ten inches tall"-someone who can help her truly feel like a successful ballerina.

"When Dwight lifted me high in the air, I felt like I was dancing on the Milky Way," she says.

While not every girl who dreams of dancing on stage will find herself as successful as Sassy (or as the author, who danced for stage and screen, and won two Emmys for her work on the TV series Fame), most young people are painfully aware of their differences.

Dancing in the Wings teaches children to embrace the variations that make them special, and to turn perceived weaknesses into highly visible strengths.

More African-American picture books.

More of Monica's reviews.

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