Renée Nicholson Examines “Fierce and Delicate” Place of Ballerinas in the Literary World

Renée Nicholson admits as a ballerina, she “was never going to be a dancer of note,” but she believes that makes her new memoir about dance, Fierce and Delicate, more approachable for nondancers. “Sometimes, when you have a particular lens, it gives you an entrée into exploring those themes that are important to us in our lives,” she says. Her book takes a turn when she reveals she stopped dancing following a rheumatoid arthritis diagnosis, but she resists being labeled as an inspiration. Below, she talks about the complexity of dance, the complications that come with being labeled as a patient, and the role of women and girls in literature.

How does the opening essay, “When I Was A Mouse,” set the tone of the book?

Any of us that have gone through dance have probably intersected with The Nutcracker. It’s such a ubiquitous feature in our popular culture; it made it an easy entrée in to talk about that first role. I really did love being a mouse, and I had that in my head. But it brought up things that set the tone. Dance is a competitive world, and I felt that acutely, but there are moments of real grace and connection, and it did prompt me to think about where I was in the future. A lot of the things I would end up exploring in the book get explored in the small space of that essay.

Many of the themes of the essays seem specific to dance on the first reading, but they can also be universal. What are the benefits of that appeal?

It was important to me that the book has to speak to the dancers, because I know that audience, but it also has to speak to nondancers, or my audience would be very tiny. Many people are going to be in high-pressure, high-stakes situations. People can love something, and in my case, it was dance, but it could be a host of things. It can be sports, it can be art, it can be music. A lot of people are able to connect when you love something, maybe they have something that they’ve loved, too. When I look at dancing, I feel like dancing helps me appreciate my life after dancing, and my life after dancing gives me a new way of looking at my life as a dancer. I explore it in ways I wouldn’t have in any other context. It’s a story of finding oneself later. We change and grow through time. For me, it was specific, but we all do it. And sometimes, you find the thing you thought you wanted to be doing has changed, and that would be similar to the journey I took.

You write, “But when I looked in the mirror, I hated myself. And mirrors were everywhere. I couldn’t stop looking if I wanted to.” How does the perfection of body image in ballet foreshadow the illness essays?

The mirrors in the dance world are hung everywhere, but there are so many mirrors in our lives. It’s an apt metaphor on a gendered level. Women tend to see ourselves reflected in the culture certain ways, and our view of ourselves can be skewed because of that. I think that can be heightened in the ballet context, but it can also be pervasive in our culture. I learned to look at myself in a kinder way as part of understanding my changing self. For as much as I learned physical grace as a dancer, the challenge of most of my adult life is finding other kinds of grace-how to be gracious with myself and the body that I inhabit, and to find those things that, in this new incarnation of myself, allow me to escape into those moments of beauty. For me, that’s through language. That’s the gift that finding writing has been for me. Even when I can’t articulate the moves of dance in my body, my mind still remembers them, and my challenge is to render them in words. Having that language to talk about illness and to probe its depths and to make peace with that. I think that’s definitely happening in those essays.

Every dancer has her own brand of bitch she uses to protect herself.” How do these coping mechanisms carry over to offstage life?

Maybe I should tape that one on my computer console when I have to go to faculty meetings! Academia can create some of those things, too. It’s easy to fall into the trap that one is the hero of one’s own story. We are all flawed, and part of surviving is knowing when to put on the protective armor, and what’s more protective for a woman than being bitchy? To acknowledge it for what it was, but also to understand there is a certain power in that. To know that you have to protect yourself, even if it’s not your most gracious or kind self, is a kind of power. Some of the bitchiness I gave and received was aggressive, and a lot was very passive-aggressive. Some of it was something to hide behind when you couldn’t always feel vulnerable, and when disappointment was not something you wanted to wear on your sleeve. Those were things that were true of that world, but they’re true of our larger world. We’ve all been disappointed, and there have always been times when we want that poker face.

You write, “Here was my acting: I danced as if I knew what I was doing, which was seducing (the male dancers in The Nutcracker.)” How does the relationship to one’s sexuality affect dancers off the stage?

I think that’s an important question. Dance is an art form that has come up with the same kind of male gaze that we see in other art forms. Lots of people talk about male gaze in film. The interesting thing about a dancer is that you’re often treated like a child, and sometimes, you are a child. If you’re in your late teens in dancing, you’re still a child as much as you are an adult. But these roles can be charged. As you’re just starting to understand your own sexuality, that can be super-confusing. There’s so much about stepping into a role. You’re not always who you are in life when you’re on the stage. This is true for lots of performing arts, and definitely for dance. How do you bring to a role something you’re just starting to understand and experience as a person? Any teenage girl might have a Cosmo, and there was a definite understanding of one’s sexuality to looking at the pages of Cosmo, Glamour, any of those magazines. That’s what makes it universal. It’s reflecting it back on the stage that became really particular to dancing.

What is it about jumps and leaps that makes you forget to think?

It’s freeing. It’s that momentary release from gravity. Maybe it opens up something in your brain as well. It would be interesting if the neuroscientists could help us understand. It’s instantaneous, and yet it’s suspended in my own imagination as being completely untethered; almost carefree. It’s the closest thing I’ve ever experienced to really soaring. It was physical, but it was also on an emotional level, and to some extent, an intellectual level. I could turn off, because I’m soaring here for a moment. And then of course, you land.

You write, “Pretty girls are always getting locked up for the mere offense of being attractive.” In what ways is this true in modern life as well?

I wish I could say no, we’ve changed; we’re past that. In fairy tales, it’s the beautiful maiden, but in life, it’s all maidens, and it’s beauty both internal and external. In fairy tales and in dance, the trappings of traditional beauty are in peril, sleeping, almost like a grave. I look at these ballets — Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Swan Lake — there are some really interesting messages that we’re telling young people when we give them these images. What does it mean to be imprisoned by something? I think about women who are known for their outward beauty, but it doesn’t always follow that the other things that they’re good at are celebrated. She’s celebrated for her beauty. She may also be very intelligent. She may also be artistically talented. She may also be kind and generous.

You “hid nothing but didn’t talk about (your rheumatoid arthritis).” What changed that attitude and led you to writing?

It started in a graduate writing workshop. I had started to write about rheumatoid arthritis instead of dance, and some of the feedback I got started to make me angry. I was told, ‘You haven’t built up the dread.’ And I said, ‘There wasn’t enough time for dread. It manifested; it started to happen.’ And I realized people were trying to tell me the story they wanted to hear, instead of the way it actually happened. I was also confronted with people telling me, ‘I don’t think of you as a disabled person.’ That concerned me, because I was getting around a very mountainous campus with the aid of a cane. It was impossible to hide it. What is it you’re really trying to tell me? Something changed, and I had to grapple with articulating the experience of illness in the same ways I was about dancing. This is one person’s experience, and I’m going to try to tell it as truthfully as I can. It was that first writing workshop when I realized the story I was telling and the story I was living weren’t measuring up to the expectations [of readers without disabilities]. Had any of my peers ever read something about somebody who had gone through illness or dealt with the world in a different way?

Your physical therapist told you, “The people who tend to have it the worst complain the least. Don’t ever let this get the better of you.” What do you think of that advice?

It’s complicated advice, because I think it was meant kindly. But it’s not wholly accurate. It speaks to a narrative of, ‘Pull yourself up by your bootstraps. Grit your teeth and bear it.’ On the one hand, I can admire resilience. On the other hand, it’s a little cruel to yourself. It’s a fundamental misunderstanding of the situation. It’s never been something that I knew what to do with. There’s a certain pluckiness we admire, almost to the exclusion of other characteristics. Your lived experience of illness doesn’t have to be somebody else’s inspiration. It can just be your lived experience of illness. I don’t know if that is always apparent to people. How could it be if you haven’t experienced it?

You write that your diagnosis “makes people pay attention to [your] story.” Why do you think that is?

I wasn’t a famous dancer. I was kind of bumping along in a very competitive field. I was never going to be Misty Copeland. I think people started to pay attention to my story because I had gone from dancer to nondancer in this way that allowed them to bring their own ideas to the story. It either has to be this story of courage and resilience, or it’s, ‘Oh, you poor thing,’ and these stories are always more complex than that.

How does directly addressing the reader, and any potential voyeurism, benefit the narrative?

This question makes me think about the essay “In Sickness.” I’d sent this story out, and I’d gotten a couple of rejections. A prominent literary journal wrote back and said, ‘This one was close.’ Then, the editor tells me to stop apologizing for my illness. I looked at that essay again, and I thought, ‘Am I really apologizing for my illness?’ I wondered if that was because that essay directly addresses voyeurism. Voyeurism was something I was keenly aware of at the time. It was really interesting to me that even in a direct address, people would read it the way they wanted to read it. The voyeuristic tendency sometimes comes out of a genuine wanting to know. But it can quickly go awry.

What have you found in answer to your question, “Could you (readers) also love me in health?”

Love is a complicated thing. Sometimes love is unconditional, and there are readers who will love me in sickness and in health. But there are always going to be conditional readers, just like sometimes, the way love manifests in our lives is conditional. I like to think part of what health is for me is less about whether or not I’m having a good day or a bad day, but the health of me, the person. Some people are going to honor that, and some people aren’t. I think I could write a whole book on that question and still not have the answers.

You write, “To say that everything happens for a reason takes away my agency.” Why do you think the sentiment endures?

When we say something happens for a reason, it allows us to decouple from the event. Most things happen despite reason. The world can actually be quite unreasonable. Some people don’t want to enter into having agency, because with agency comes responsibility, comes consequence. When something happens that isn’t what you expected, there’s that comfort of saying, ‘Everything happens for a reason.’ Implicit in that is, ‘Something good will come of this,’ instead of giving you the opportunity to make something of whatever is next. For some people, that passivity may bring comfort. For me, it took away my ability to chart my own way. Even the language ‘I want you to be okay,’ speaks to me directly, where, ‘Everything happens for a reason’ is just out in the ether. You don’t have to connect to it on a personal level.

“The verbalizing of dance is a landscape that remains quite unexplored.” What are your favorite works that exist, and what do you hope Fierce and Delicate adds to the genre?

Body of a Dancer, by Renee D’Aoust. She is so good at the details of dance. There is a part in one of her essays where she’s talking about getting splinters in her feet. In modern dance, you do a lot of dancing barefoot. She talks about the bloodiness of the feet, and the pulpy mess that becomes of them. I remember reading that essay early in starting to write about dance, and feeling freed to really talk about it. She gave me a lot of license to remember all those little details in the best way I could. Something in Fierce and Delicate that I can trace exactly back to Renee D’Aoust is talking about the tulle in the tutu, because it’s really stiff and unforgiving and scratchy. And it looks so beautiful. She was honest about all these little details, and it opened a gateway for me. Another book was Toni Bentley’s Winter Season. She was honest and raw. It’s this thin, little book that rocked my world when I was 18 years old when I found it. The willingness to put it out there in a vulnerable, honest way. They gave me a map. These are books I return to all the time, especially when I’m writing about dance. I wish there were more of them. And they weren’t overtly famous dancers, and that freed me up. I didn’t have to have been a big star in order to say something about this world. Those women made that possible. They opened my imagination in ways that I am still grateful for.

Nicholson may not have broken into major stardom in dance, but her writing promises to propel her to the front of the literary stage.

Fierce and Delicate
By Renée Nicholson
West Virginia University Press
Published May 31, 2021