Ballet Class: An American History
By: Melissa R. Klapper
Listen to Melissa discuss her monograph with Janet Golden on the SHCY Podcast. Janet Golden is a Professor in the Department of History at Rutgers University-Camden. You can listen to other episodes of the SHCY podcast by visiting the podcast website, or you can subscribe on Google Play and iTunes.
This review appeared in the Journal of Dance Education (2020).
Ballet Class: An American History, Melissa R. Klapper
Oxford University Press, 2020. 403 pages; $29.95 (hardcover).
What a difference a century makes. Ballet Class: An American History opens with Willa Cather opining in McClure’s Magazine in 1913 that “few American girls were interested in taking ballet class” (xi). But one hundred years later, ballet is everywhere. Ballet can be found on television, in movies, books, and toys for children. A simple Google search for ballet classes in my hometown netted at least a dozen dance studios. How did ballet become so popular?
The book “explores the twentieth-century growth of ballet class as a central part of American childhood” (xiv). It draws from a wide variety of materials including books, memoirs, pedagogy manuals, dance periodicals, archival collections, and oral histories to “explore children’s experiences while also contextualizing ballet as a critical field for socializing young people” (xiv). The book is in two parts. Part I, “First Movements,” gives a broad history of ballet from its introduction in the U.S. to the present. Part II, “Theme and Variations,” delves into how ballet class shapes ideas of race, class, and gender. Most books about ballet focus on the art form or on the accomplishments of its greatest artists; it is refreshing that this book is concerned with the far greater number of recreational dancers’ experiences.
What I most enjoyed about Ballet Class were the moments of insight I gained about my dance experiences as a Black girl: (a) how Ford Foundation grants in the midcentury created a dance boom, so wherever we moved, my mother could find a ballet class for my sister and me, (b) how ballet is problematic for its lack of diversity and its exceptionalism of Black dancers, and (c) how ballet’s limiting ideas about femininity and beauty encouraged my contortions to fit those ideas.
However, many Black family members (including my mother) saw ballet as “a path toward respectability ... [and] a way to demonstrate their status” (131–132).
I recommend anyone who teaches dance and dance history to read this book. Mark Twain is reputed to have said, “History doesn’t repeat, but it often rhymes.” The questions ballet teachers were asking about pedagogy and best practices 100 years ago are the same questions we ask today. Ballet adapted to accommodate capitalism in the U.S.—and it flourished. I’m curious to see how ballet will adapt to 21st century challenges.
About Melissa R. Klapper
Dr. Melissa R. Klapper is Professor of History and Director of Women's & Gender Studies at Rowan University in Glassboro, NJ. She is the author of Jewish Girls Coming of Age in America, 1860-1920 (NYU Press, 2005); Small Strangers: The Experiences of Immigrant Children in the United States, 1880-1925 (Ivan R. Dee, 2007); and Ballots, Babies, and Banners of Peace: American Jewish Women's Activism, 1890-1940 (NYU Press, 2013), which won the National Jewish Book Award in Women's Studies. Her newest book is Ballet Class: An American History; it was just released by Oxford University Press in 2020 and is available for purchase, here. As a graduate student she was present at the creation of SHCY at a Washington, D.C., conference in 2000 and has been a proud member ever since.
This post is part of the SHCY Featured Books series, in which SHCY members provide written contributions on various academic topics pertaining to the history of childhood and youth.