For much of the last century, ballet class has been a rite of passage for millions of little girls in the United States. Some of these students have gone on to professional careers as dancers, but many more take class for a few years—or many years—before moving on to other pursuits. But the sheer prevalence of the experience has created an educated and appreciative audience that supports dance companies and dance training. It has also created a whole subset of “girl culture”: ballet books and films, pink tutus and sparkly tiaras, an inundation of princesses and swans.
In Ballet Class: An American History
(Oxford University Press, 2020), Melissa R. Klapper
explores how this phenomenon developed. From the misperception that boys never take ballet class to the racist assumption that members of a corps de ballet need to resemble one another physically, ballet has mirrored the larger society in negative respects as well as positive ones, and it has evolved together with the culture as a whole. For this and many other reasons that Klapper lays out through rich and complex analysis delivered in lively, compelling prose, the history of ballet class really does open a window onto the development of American culture between World War I and the present.
C. P. Lesley, a historian and amateur dancer, hosts New Books in Historical Fiction. Under this pen name, she also writes historical novels. Her latest book, Song of the Shaman, appeared in 2020. Find out more about her at http://www.cplesley.com.