While I Danced
Barnes & Noble
Published by: Cambridge Books
Release Date: October 24, 2013
A nerve-wracking audition for a summer ballet workshop reminds fifteen-year-old Cass how much she wishes her mom hadn’t died so young. Her dad isn’t exactly Mr. Encouragement when it comes to her dancing, and he shuts down whenever she asks about her mother. Cass feels as though her life is a puzzle with a giant piece missing. Dancing has become her safe place where she doesn’t have to think about why her father won’t discuss her mother, or why her best friend and boyfriend are acting weird.
But as she moves closer to her dream of career in ballet, Cass uncovers secrets her friends have been keeping. Then, in the midst of an intensely competitive summer dance program and the beginnings of a new romance with a fellow dancer, she makes an even more devastating discovery, a betrayal that leaves her questioning whether she even wants to dance at all.
In a year when everything Cass has ever believed about her life turns out to be false, can she heal and forgive? And can she find her own way to pursue her passion for dance?
“A soaring story that will engage the heart of the reader, whether or not they love ballet. As much a mystery as a young adult romance, Ms. Slaughter tells a haunting story, enhanced by her inside knowledge or the world of dance.”
—Arline Chase, author of Killraven, Ghost Dancer, and the Spirit series, Spirit of Earth, Spirit of Fire, etc.
“While I Danced had me captivated. I felt as if I were in the fascinating world of ballet, and yet at the same time, caught up with real people with real problems. The story held me so much that I felt compelled to finish it and did that within twenty-four hours!”
—Barbara Larkin, novelist, poet, and short story writer
“I started While I Danced in one afternoon and couldn’t stop until I finished it. It is a wonderful story that moves along at a great pace, interspersed with humor, pain, reality, and insight. It is also fun for me because I know the ‘inside’ stuff about dance, but I think that even people who know nothing about dance will enjoy a glimpse into this world.”
—Connie Bergstein Dow, professional dancer and author of Dance, Turn, Hop, Learn!
“A great read for anyone, young or old, dancer or not. Full of real life twists and turns and intriguing mystery. This book reminded me that the power of passion is a strong force not to be ignored or denied and that understanding and following that passion can ignite your whole life.”
—Theresa Mudd-Kelly, Former Chair of Dance, The Youth Performing Arts School
“An exciting story written by an exciting writer and brilliant dancer. Highly imaginative with realistic, likeable characters who evolve and grow into shiny stars of their own stories. Cass is gifted and heart-touchingly brave. The book is filled with authentic dance scenes and enticing mystery. A satisfying ending tops it off!”
—Lynn Swanson, author Summer Dance
From the time I was a young dancer spending my summers on faculty at Interlochen, teens were my favorite age group to work with. Adolescence is such an intense period of life—so much joy, loss, confusion, and thankfully, hope and humor. Also, I continued to read and love young adult novels long after I became an adult.
As for why I wrote this novel in particular, I think I’ve always been fascinated by experiences which change our sense of who we are and what matters to us. This is particularly true during our teenage years when our identity and the way we view those closest to us often undergo some pretty radical changes! And of course, the decision to set the novel in the world of dance grew out of my familiarity with that world and my passion for dance.
I’ve often been asked to what extent While I Danced is based on my own experiences. Certainly, there were bits and pieces of my own life and struggles that found their way into Cass’s life. Like Cass, I was quite musical and expressive as a dancer. I also struggled with a single parent father who was not enthusiastic about my obsession with dance and who preferred to say very little about my absent mother. Unlike Cass, however, I headed for a career in modern dance rather than ballet.
I should also mention that I began working on the novel shortly after I had my first hip replacement and retired from dance. Although all of us who dance or do sports inevitably face the physical inability to continue at some point, it’s still hard. It’s still a loss. I was very determined to invent new dreams and passions for myself. Writing this novel was a huge part of that journey.
Almost time. We huddled beneath the “Welcome to the Boston City Ballet” banner in the crowded lobby. Since parents weren’t allowed to watch the audition, Mrs. Kaufman was off to see the Van Gogh exhibit at the museum. I was so nervous I almost begged her to take me with her. But I didn’t. This was my shot at a spot in one of the premier summer dance workshops in the country. Even the troupe of whirling dervishes inside my stomach wasn’t about to stop me.
When Mrs. K. pulled Rachel into her arms, it was hard to tell where her thick mane of strawberry curls ended, and Rachel’s began. “Break a leg kiddo. I love watching you dance, and I love you,” she said.
I swallowed hard. Rachel didn’t have a clue how lucky she was. Mrs. K. turned to me and gave me a hug too. “You’re a beautiful dancer too, Cass. I wish your dad could have come with us today.”
Yeah right. Like Dad would have wanted to come and cheer me on.
But I didn’t say that. I just hugged her back.
The dressing room was mobbed and reeked of hair spray and deodorant. My stomach was threatening to go into full-fledged Twirl-a-Whirl. After stripping down to the leotard and tights I’d worn under my jeans and sweat-shirt, I grabbed my dance bag and signaled to Rachel I was headed for the bathroom.
She gave me a quick once-over and giggled. “May I say that shade of green makeup you’re wearing looks lovely with your complexion.”
I swatted at her with my dance bag. “Anything to get the judges’ attention. I thought I’d go for the Martian effect.”
Five minutes later, the check-in lady announced that the audition class would start in ten minutes. I took one final glance at myself in the mirror. The blush I’d put on was a definite improvement over the green look, and I’d shellacked my bun with so much hair spray I didn’t think even a wind storm could undo it.
Rachel peeked her head in the door. “Show-time.”
The studio was huge compared to our studio back home, but it smelled just the same, a mixture of sweat and rosin.
“Rachel, Cass,” called a familiar voice. Missy Overton barreled her way over to us. As usual, she was wearing enough makeup for a Seventeen magazine photo shoot. “Isn’t this wild? Everyone who’s ever done a plié must have shown up today. And I’ve seen several girls whose leg extensions are as high as mine.” Her eyes widened as though she’d just discovered one of the wonders of the Western world. “You guys won’t believe the incredible classes I’ve taken. I’m so glad Mom brought me down two days early. I even got to take class with Violette Verdy, who was guesting for the week.” She pressed her hands to her chest. “Well, I know I don’t have to tell you how fabulous she was. She even complimented me after class on how well I was using my feet.”
“Hmmm, great,” I said. In talking to Missy, I’ve found it works best to murmur at the appropriate moments.
She looked at me, as though really seeing me for the first time. “Now Cass, you hardly look green at all. Just try to stay calm, and don’t worry about picking up the combinations. Rachel and I are right here with you, and you can always watch us.”
“Gee, thanks. Gotta go stretch.” At least I felt right at home, with Missy Motor Brain on hand to remind me that I’m no whiz when it comes to picking up combinations.
I found a spot at one of the portable barres and flung my leg up on the barre, sighing as I laid my chest over my leg.
“Hey,” Rachel said, squeezing into the spot in front of me. “Don’t let her get to you. She knows you’re a head-turner, and next to you, she’s the original ice princess. Just between you and me, I don’t think Missy’s nearly as sure of herself as she pretends to be.”
“If she’s not, that is one heck of an acting job. Or you’re hallucinating,” I said with a laugh.
A spindly, older man, wearing what looked like a black mop haphazardly glued to his head, clapped his hands for silence. “Boys and girls, I am Mr. Petrov, and I will be teaching your audition class. Please to take your places at the barre in order of your numbers.”
Rachel and I quickly found our spots. She was 43, and I was right behind her at 44. Missy was way down front at number 9. There must have been at least seventy dancers in the room, mostly girls, but more than a dozen boys too. So many dancers, and they all looked so good! I didn’t want to think about the lousy odds.
Mr. Petrov introduced the accompanist and three stern-looking judges sitting behind a long table at the front of the studio. My heart was pounding, and I wondered if it were possible to go into cardiac arrest at age 15 due to sheer terror.
Once we began the opening pliés at the barre, I calmed down. Mr. Petrov started us off slowly, and I was able to follow his instructions easily. The accompanist was terrific. I felt as if the notes were pouring out of the piano and flowing right into my limbs.
When we paused before turning to repeat the pliés on the other side, Rachel and I made eye contact. I gave her my circling eyeball “Wow” look. She winked back.
As we worked, I concentrated hard on applying the corrections Mrs. Goodman had been giving me. I could almost hear her voice saying, “Shoulders easy, rest your ribs.” A sudden image of a thimble-sized Mrs. G. coaching me through the audition while perched on my shoulder made me smile.
Just then, Mr. Petrov walked by, and I thought I saw a half-smile cross his face. Before he demonstrated the next exercise, he said to the class: “Boys and girls, you are allowed to smile when you dance. An audition—it’s not the same as funeral, yes?” There was scattered laughter, and I could feel the tension in the room easing.
Mr. Petrov gave a long and thorough barre. By the time we finished and moved the portable barres away to start our center work, I was dripping. Rachel, on the other hand, still looked cool and fresh.
After conferring with the judges, Mr. Petrov divided us into four groups for the center work. He put the boys together in the last group. After the first center exercise, Mr. Petrov gave a romantic adagio full of sustained movements and a sense of longing. The accompanist played a lamentful Liszt piece. I felt myself being drawn into that other world where music always takes me. Everything else fell away—the judges, Missy, even Rachel and Mr. Petrov. There was just the music and the movement and the moment.
I was able to hold on to some of that feeling when we got to the waltz combination with pirouettes. I landed several triples cleanly, and even managed to land a quadruple in front of the judges’ table. There is a God.
Or maybe not. Mr. Petrov demonstrated a petit allegro combination full of beats and quick changes of weight and direction. It was so confusing! Please, I prayed silently, don't let him call on my group first.
No such luck. I made it through the first eight counts okay, but then I blanked on which foot ended in back on one of the landings. I had no idea which way the next part went, but I plunged ahead anyhow—and smacked right into the dancer next to me. She gasped and glared at me as the music finished. My face burned. “I'm so sorry,” I murmured, but she gave me another withering look before stalking over to the side.
Let me die right now. My heart hammered in my chest. Mr. Petrov cleared his throat and stared at me. “I can rent action movies if I want to see the crashes. Please pay better attention when I demonstrate combinations. Otherwise, I will have to take out more liability insurance.”
More scattered laughter. I mumbled, “Yes, sir,” and slunk to the back of the studio. Kiss this audition goodbye. All I'd been good for was comic relief.
When the next group began, I spotted Missy. There she was, doing her usual picture-perfect execution of the movement. If I could have felt any worse, I would have. She was nailing the combination I'd just turned into a demolition derby.
I cornered Rachel and said, “Help!” Miracle of miracles, after the fifth try of shadowing her, the sequence clicked in to my motor memory.
When Mr. Petrov called our group out again, I quickly moved to my place and took a few deep breaths. Here goes, I thought. Things started great, and I got so excited that I almost blanked out in the middle and stumbled slightly. But then I clicked back in and finished strong. I couldn't help smiling.
“Ah,” said Mr. Petrov, “I like dancers who fix their mistakes. Good.”
Redeemed! Relief washed over me, and I began to relax. We did a huge grande allegro and I felt as if I were flying as we leapt across the studio to the booming sounds of a Minkus waltz. Then, while the boys did several men's combinations by themselves, we put our pointe shoes on. I got mine on as quickly as possible, so I could watch the guys. We didn't have any boys in our class back home. Wow, could these guys jump! I got excited just watching their raw energy and power as they moved.
After the boys finished, we did some relevés at the barre and then repeated several of the combinations we'd done earlier, going up to full pointe this time. I was glad we didn't have to learn anything new. We'd been dancing for close to three hours, and I was running out of gas.
Finally, the réverence. I felt almost joyful as we bowed to the teacher, the accompanist, and the judges. I'd survived making a big mess of the petit allegro and even gotten a compliment from Mr. Petrov for pulling my act together the second time through. Most important, I'd danced from the heart. But would it be enough?